Gameology | Game Development Analytical Media | Conversation with Linnea Harrison (World-Builder)
How cool would it be to know the process of world-building of those amazing maps in Battlefield series? To know the answer, here we have an expert, the amazing, talented and awesome Linnea Harrison from DICE. In this podcast we talk about world-building, environment design, Battlefield 1, Battlefield 4, Mirror’s Edge and lots of other cool stuff.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Thank you so much for having this podcast with me, this means a lot.
Linnea Harrison: Of course. It’s really fun.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I really love your work and I follow your speeches and I’ve learned a lot from you and my favorite company of all the time DICE. So it’s really nice to speak with you.
Linnea Harrison: Thank you so much.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Now let me tell you a story to show you why DICE is so important for me. When I started working in the game industry as a game designer, I was hired by this company in Iran which was working on a sequel for this big budget FPS game called Fighting in Aden Gulf and the sequel was completely an online multiplayer game. Before that I had absolutely no experience in making games and all I knew from multiplayer games were from Battlefield series, so I was like, yeah battlefield veteran here, trust me with your game.
So imagine me in a room panicked cause I was slowly realizing the trouble I got myself into. Then… I started to do something about it, I said to myself, “All right, listen up man, you know how to do it, you’ve been playing Battlefield all your life, you just have to analyze good things about it and try to kind of do the same thing” so after that I designed the game and I designed a multiplayer map, and I was like, this is awesome! DICE…you better heads up.
So the other day I showed the map to the team and our lead programmer came to me and tapped me on shoulder and said: “you do realize that we’re not working with Frostbite, and this is not a Battlefield game and I’m sure as hell that here is not DICE” that reality punched me in the face, the map I designed was huge terrain with no boundaries and full of buildings. After that I realized it’s not only the vastness of the world in Battlefield that makes it so interesting, more importantly, it’s about environment design, it’s about how you can make a balance and fun map with minimum amount of tools. …. Then I started to work like a sane man and we released the game and it was awesome! So thank you DICE for saving my ass.
Linnea Harrison: (Laught) Awesome! Very great story! I had a look at the trailer of that game or some of the gameplay that you sent and it looked really interesting. I didn’t realize that Battlefield was so big where you live.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah! It’s really, really big here and people really love it.
Linnea Harrison: Thanks!
Hamidreza Nikoofar: OK. Enough about me. I really want to know about your background from the very first day you were born until like last 30 minutes. Please tell us.
Linnea Harrison: Oh god! OK. Well, I was born and raised in America but I have a Swedish mother and an Australian father, so very international. And we always played a lot of board games and I had computers a lot around, my parents were very computer techy! So early on I started exploring DOS and Tetris and bunch of other computer games and eventually I started getting into programming, so my parents wouldn’t let me play video games when I was very young so I decided that I would make my own video game and that would be a loophole. So I decided to program my first video game and that and I did that in Loglan which is a scripting language and it was basically everything I’ve seen from trailers and I heard from my friends. It had pirates fighting with ships and there was like swimming underwater section and then you had to find a map to find the treasure, point & click.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Awesome!
Linnea Harrison: So it was a mess but I loved it. Eventually I started to play more video games as I got older and I really loved playing games where I was on a team. So I played Bad Company as my first Battlefield game and I loved it.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Awesome game!
Linnea Harrison: Yeah, exactly! Just having a squad there, you and your friends, you what you doing, you could make a huge difference and it felt really awesome.
So as I started studying games because you know I just loved working with computers and I liked art work and I liked scripting so it seemed natural to work on the games.
I also fell in love with Mirror’s Edge when it came out in 2008. Such an iconic art style and so beautiful, so that inspired me to become an artist because up until that point I was doing more design and scripting but Mirror’s Edge really pushed it and said if you can make something this beautiful, you have to. So I got really inspired and I started applying for internships and I got my first internship at Treyarch working on Call of Duty: Black Ops and that was really fun working on the Wii version of the game and also working on Zombies which was of course super fun and after that I went to work at Raven and I worked on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, working on multiplayer there which was really cool. Then after that I went to Danger Close which is now DICE LA and we were working on Medal of Honor: Warfighter and then after that I moved here, worked on Battlefield 4 and Battlefield: Hardline and then Mirror’s Edge and now Star Wars: Battlefront. So I worked on all the big FPS games. I worked on Call of Duty, Medal of Honor and Battlefield so it feels pretty cool.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: This is awesome. Have you worked on Battlefield 1?
Linnea Harrison: Yeah. I did a little bit of work on it. I did few months during pre-production, like three and a half months there but then opportunity came on to work on Mirror’s Edge and I had to jump on that of course
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Do you ever miss working on third person games?
Linnea Harrison: Do I miss them?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah! You have worked on all the awesome FPS games.
Linnea Harrison: True, true! That’s a good point. Yeah, sometimes I wonder what it feels like to work on a different style of a game but I did some student projects when I was younger and I did some board game stuff and I still get to play lots of games, so I wouldn’t say I miss working on a different style of game but I really love playing other types of games as well.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: This is great! So, you’re a world builder at DICE, what exactly is that? What you do day to day?
Linnea Harrison: OK! Well, world builder is kind of like combination role between a level artist and level designer, so a world builder is someone who is kind of …They’re kind of a hybrid role, like they do some design, they do some arts and they’re supposed to be good at both but not supposed to be best at them. So we have experts in each area but we also have people who are kind of take on lots of different roles.
So world builders…We called it that because we created the world for the multiplayer maps so this was someone who would design the map and they would make it beautiful, so they create that world so that’s kind of what we do, so there is not many world builders left at DICE, it’s kind of moving towards having more level artist and level designers and I think that’s fine too as long as you work well together and we tried to seat next to each other and talk very often to make sure that really happens.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: What is the start point of your job, what do you think about before starting to build a world?
Linnea Harrison: Usually a lot of our games start with a story. We have our writers and our creative directors, design directors. They are seating together and they’re coming up with what is a compelling story. Looking at literature, film, other games, everything that they read in the news. What is compelling, what is interesting. So it’s not necessarily looking at a setting first, it’s looking at story. I think that’s one of the… I mean I don’t know for sure but I think that’s one of the reasons they chose World War I for Battlefield I, because they’re really focusing on how global it was and…you know even though it put so many against each other in a war setting, it also brought a lot of countries together and it just catalyzed all this technology which wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t work together towards a common goal. You know preferably that goal would have been something else but it did happen so we want to kind of highlight the other side of that I think and I thought that’s a really cool story of many countries coming together and I think that’s one of the things that compels us to create maps as well, so for instance in Battlefield 4 we were focusing a lot on Chinese front and that’s a very…or it was a very compelling area then because a lot of our markets, European western didn’t know a lot about the depth behind China and so we really took the opportunity to look into how vast and varied that world could be, so you’re seeing a lot of different types environments, you see these tropical islands and you see these dense forests, radio dishes and all kinds of stuff that you probably wouldn’t think of if someone said, you know, picture China, that wouldn’t be the first thing that you picture so I think that was one of the goals there.
So of course we start with…when we creating a map for instance maps in Battlefield 4, we actually ask the entire studio, every single person in studio to send their ideas, what would make a cool map? Here is the setting, here is the story but pick ideas for a map, so everyone could send one in, janitors, QA, level artists, the creator directors, everyone is sending ideas.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Really!? Even janitors?
Linnea Harrison: Yes! Really! So we actually boiled it down to … we got like over 200 missions or something for map ideas and it had to be like presentation with some images and reference and like idea, like a pitch. Eventually we boiled it down and we got the maps that we have today. So it was a really cool way of making sure that everyone is contributing and everyone can feel a part of it and also get a lot of really diverse ideas. You’re not just pulling from ideas of designer or level artist, you’re also get ideas from everyone else, because of course everybody is playing these game, it’s not just going to be designers and level artists playing the game, it’s going to be every single person, so we want to make sure that those ideas are represented in games.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: WOW! Unbelievable! Where do you get inspiration from, when you are building a world?
Linnea Harrison: Me personally or…
Hamidreza Nikoofar: No, no, no, yourself.
Linnea Harrison: For me a lot of it has to do with… I watch a lot of travel blogs, like travel documentaries, So I get a lot of inspiration from there, I also read a lot of fiction and non-fiction, like biographies and so a lot of the inspiration that I try to take with me is the feeling of a place, not just what type of tree is there or what type of terrain but like how does it feel when you’re in that space, does it feel oppressive, does it feel open, does it feel explorative, exciting, is it dull. So that’s one of the things that I focus on when I want to get inspired for a new map.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: You know there are times when you want to build a real location, like a city or a town but you can’t go there and you don’t have access to a lot of pictures and resources. Like what you guys did with Battlefield 3, I don’t know if you had people in Iran taking photos or something, but the question is how can you recreate a real existing location when you don’t have access to it?
Linnea Harrison: That’s a good question. I would say that there are places that we don’t have access to, I did that when I was building a map for Mogadishu in Modern Warfare 3, because of course that’s a war-torn area and we couldn’t send anybody there to gather reference. There are lots of reference images on the web but they’re usually from like, news reports and they are not very holistic, right? They only show one side of the picture not the entire environment, so generally what we do there is looking for similar areas, so with Mogadishu there is a lot of cities and towns in north and south of there, which are very similar in terms of infrastructure because their using a lot of the same resources and the same things in terms of like cultural imprint on it and of course Mogadishu is more war-torn and is a bigger conflict point but you can imply a lot of the same stuff when it comes to how you building the roads and how people are getting electricity into their buildings or how a room is laid out.
So there is a lot of similarities that you can draw from either sister cultures like in a country nearby or from like geographical locations that are very similar. So generally that’s how we go about it if we don’t have a lot of reference from the actual place.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: This is crazy! Cause I have the same experience. I wanted to build maps based on Somalia and I couldn’t go there, so I watched a lot of Black Hawk Down and also I contacted a guy from Somalia which at the time was living in Morocco I think.
Linnea Harrison: Yeah…we did the same thing actually. (Laugh)
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I sent him some photos of our maps and asked him if it was close to the reality or not, and he helped me a lot. So I think we can rely on the help of local people too.
Linnea Harrison: Yeah exactly…I was able to talk to a friend of mine, her mother was from that area so I was able to ask her questions, so I think that’s a really great point, reach out throughout you network you probably know someone who’s either been there for a short time or some point in their life. That’s an extremely good resource.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: How do you balance the pace of a map? In Battlefield series there is this amazing dynamic for each map, it’s a unscripted gameplay but I can feel the speed and the feel of the game changes because of the changes in the map, it’s indoor, it’s outdoor, it’s high ground, low ground, it’s close, it’s wide open, these have huge effects in the way dynamic of the gameplay changes. How do you control the way a game is being played by designing a map?
Linnea Harrison: Well, a lot of that feeling comes from the structure around the map, because the core gameplay is so sand-boxy our maps have to be quiet open and quite dynamic in order to respond to that. But what we tried to do is we tried to create mechanics that’s fun to play with, like a toy, that’s fun to play with. So for instance if you look at water gameplay in Battlefield 4 there is no way to control how the waves are moving, we just know that there will be waves, it’s a systemic event. So we need to make sure that it’s systemically fun, so it’s like a fun toy to play around with this like big waves chasing someone, you’re ducking under trying to control the boat, so it’s a lot about understanding the individual elements that compose the systems and the same is with like destruction and audio…audio is a really big thing that kind of create this pacing, because a lot of that is tied in to the ticket system so as the game starting to get closer to the game the audio changes and becomes more dynamic and more impactful and that tends to help to raise this feeling of tenseness and excitement and speed that you were talking about there.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I think when you have more advanced technologies, your job is harder and one amazing feature in Battlefield series is the destruction, how does it affect your work, how do you make sure the game is still good while the initial form of it changes constantly?
Linnea Harrison: That’s a good question and it is really tough especially as we go through each new version where we keep adding more and more destruction, like with Battlefield 1 for instance they have this really huge terrain destruction as well now, so it’s just not the buildings that fall apart but you can like blow up holes in the ground as well, so it’s really hard to work with that but I think it’s important to remind yourself of the destroyed states, so what we tend to do when we’re creating these maps… you know…you put in cover, you put in buildings and landmarks and you have to make sure that the game is fun and playable when everything is destroyed and that has to do with how you design the destruction, so these days we have much more systemic destruction and it’s much more dynamic and we don’t have to… you know in Battlefield 4 you had to animate the building as it was collapsing and now it’s all systemic, it’s all dynamics so the player has all of the control which makes the designing around it a little bit harder but it’s still possible right? So what we’re doing is making sure that if a building get destroyed for instance, there is a basement section and there is still ruins of wall pieces or debris that’s large enough to cover and also we have this terrain destruction that makes these holes and if something is blowing up the building it also can destroy the ground so you’ll be able to create this more dynamic height in the ground in that area so you’ll be able to take cover.
So it’s a little bit, you know, it is difficult to design around and it is tough especially when we have like schedules to keep to, to like remember to go back and check if the gameplay works well when it’s destroyed but it is something that we definitely try to focus on and I think that’s the best way to do it really, is to play the game both, when it isn’t destroyed and when everything is destroyed and make sure that it’s still fun and playable.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: That’s why I love Battlefield. (Laugh)
Linnea Harrison: (Laugh)
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Congratulations on Mirror’s Edge! I recently got the game and it’s amazing.
Linnea Harrison: Oh thank you!
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I remember I wrote an article about Mirror’s Edge about how the environment was built to make the game fun and understandable while being fast paced and smooth. How do you do that? What’s the process of building the City of Glass?
Linnea Harrison: (Laugh), that was a really, really, really long process. The city, the actual ground of the city was initially based on an actual infrastructure of an actual city, not a real world city but we built up like an understanding of here is the main freeway and here is the off-roads, here is the industrial district and here is the financial district and here is the residential district and how do people move around that, how the buildings composed. So everything was kind of built on a realistic foundation in terms of the structure and what we did from there was…we started running in the city, that’s what did, we had play test where you just run from point A to point B. From there we started sort of carving these routes out and saying “This is a neat passage but there is a weird section here we need to smooth that out” and same came to designing our missions. We said, well this mission really want a lot of climbing or a lot of jumping, it want some sort of rhythm when you’re running, sliding and jumping and getting that sort of over under fluidity. So we started to designing spaces after the type of rhythm that you wanted to have when you were running which is really cool because you know, everyone always says the music is really cool in the City of Glass but we really found that when you’re running you’re kind of your own tempo and that’s why it was really cool that music kind of followed that.
So once we got this sort of foundation for the city, like there was fun to get from point A to point B and we started the feeling that it was reaching a holistic level, we decided to pointing out landmarks like pulling up buildings and composing a scene in a very interesting way like using alleys to drive the player forward and then after we’ve done that, we started to add color that Mirror’s Edge is so well-known for so that was actually one of the last steps, was to add in color and use that as a way of communicating to the player both, in terms of where you are, what district you are in or what building is lying ahead or where you suppose to go. Of course certain companies in certain factions in the game have color associations but we also wanted districts and specific mission types to have color associations as well, so you start to run out of colors pretty fast but I think it helped a lot in terms of readability.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Yeah, and it helps to navigate the player, to go through the right path.
Linnea Harrison: Exactly.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Do you play games often? What was the last inspiring game you’ve played?
Linnea Harrison: Oh yes! Inspiring game!…Oh…let’s see, well I’m really enjoying Overwatch right now, it’s an incredibly fun game but before that I would say I really enjoyed Uncharted 4.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Amazing game!
Linnea Harrison: Yeah, and I heard there was a darker version of the game and I’m kind of curious to see what that was…
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Really?
Linnea Harrison: Yeah, the writer, she originally had written a much darker version for Uncharted 4 like it supposed to be the ending of Uncharted series of course but they decided to go with a more light-hearted approach. I’m really curious to see what this darker version is, because The Last of Us was quite dark at times and I’m curious to see how would they do that with Uncharted.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I think Uncharted…especially The Uncharted 4 was good, it didn’t need to be darker, it’s like Indiana Jones, but Last of Us obviously… The last great game I played was Inside and it was absolutely masterpiece
Linnea Harrison: Yeah!?
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Very, very dark and very, very philosophical game.
Linnea Harrison: I’ve been thinking about picking it up but I don’t think I’m in a right mood yet, you know? (Laugh)
Hamidreza Nikoofar: It’s great! It’s like two hours, give it a try. It’s amazing.
Linnea Harrison: It’s good! All right.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: And today I got Deus Ex, so …goodbye social life!
Linnea Harrison: Very nice…very nice. And soon the Battlefield 1 beta is coming out, so there goes my life. (Laugh)
Hamidreza Nikoofar: (Laugh) any last words for the people who want to be a world builder like you?
Linnea Harrison: I would say just pick up an engine and give it a try, you don’t even need to do it in videogames, you can do it in board games as well, so whatever your medium is that inspires you, go ahead and get started doing it, you don’t have to wait for any magical moment. Just get started, start building worlds and have fun.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: I remember I was making maps in Google Sketch-Up, didn’t have any engine, so…just do it, just do it.
Linnea Harrison: Yeah, exactly.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Thank you so much. Your awesome, and your games are awesome. On my behalf, tell the guys at DICE that their awesome.
Linnea Harrison: Oh I will. Thank you so much for having me.
Hamidreza Nikoofar: Thank you so much and goodbye.
Linnea Harrison: Goodbye!