Comms Chatter: Ian Frazier on Star Wars: Squadrons
After playing Squadrons during a recent hands-on event, we had the chance to talk with the game's creative director.
Last week I got to play just over three hours of Star Wars: Squadrons, the promising new space shooter set in the iconic sci-fi universe. Following that hands-on demo, I was invited to join the game's creative director, Ian Frazier, for a chat on Zoom to discuss the game's various aspects. In the interview, we discussed the game's story and working with Lucasfilm, the challenges of making the ship interiors feel authentic while also remaining practical, and the extent to which players can tweak and adjust the experience to suit their personal tastes.
If you haven't already read last week's preview, that should give you all the context you need to know about Squadrons before jumping into the extensive interview with Frazier, which you can read in full below.
Gamereactor: You've got a narrative experience that sits on both sides of the Imperial divide - how much creative license did you have when coming up with the story?
Ian Frazier: Quite a bit actually. We worked really closely with Lucasfilm. We meet at least once a week; our production team meets once a week, the art team meets once a week. And especially early on when we were creating the story, we met with the story group several times, the group within Lucasfilm that handles story between all the different properties, so whether it's games or books or comics, or what have you.
So it wasn't just a matter of we write it and they say "yes/no" - we worked directly with them to make sure that what we were creating fit Star Wars, feels right, feels authentic, and connects to everything. There are a lot of small, little links in the game to other things happening in our time period in Star Wars. But as far as what the story is fundamentally, we had a pretty significant amount of license to make something new and something that we're really happy with.
How has the story evolved over that time to suit the action that you wanted to include from a gameplay perspective?
The very high level of the story, the backbone of what the characters are doing, what are the stakes and why do you care? - those things have been around since the earliest incarnations. It takes a few rounds before you solidify it, but the first ink-on-paper version of the story had those elements. A lot of the details though, like what do you do in the mission, how does mission six contribute to the broader story? - that stuff took much longer of our time because as we were working on the story and working on the mission designs, and you build your early prototypes of them and sometimes you build the prototype and we're like, "this is great, love it, let's do this." Other times it's a disaster and you have to completely redesign the mission. Because at the end of the day it's a game, it's not a movie, so you need to make sure each mission is fun in its own right, that it's varied from the missions around it, that it's helping you learn the game because as I'm sure you saw playing, there are a lot of moving parts in this game. So we needed to make sure that over the course of that single-player story you have a chance to be the bomber and learn how dropping bombs works, that you have a chance to be in a support ship and see why support ships are cool. Don't get me wrong, the game isn't a tutorial - there are tutorial elements scattered around it - but we did want to make sure that it was a nice world tour of the things that we want you to know about.
Ian Frazier: "At the end of the day it's a game, it's not a movie, so you need to make sure each mission is fun in its own right."
What have you done to give the campaign replayability for those who prefer solo play?
The two main things... let's say three. The three main things in no particular order. One, there are difficulty modes. When you start off, unless you've got a lot of time in flight games, you're not going to want to play on the hardest difficulty. So part of it's that: "So I've beat it, can I beat it again on a harder difficulty?"
Part of it is we have medals. So the prologue, the single-player bit that you played [during the hands-on demo] doesn't have medals, it's set aside from the rest of the story, but every other single-player mission has medals you can earn for accomplishing certain mission-specific things, for beating it in a certain amount of time, for doing it without dying and so on. Each of those medals is offered in four different materials based on the difficulty that you beat it on. So in order to truly say that, "I did it all and completed the game" - you're going to need to earn every medal on every mission at the highest difficulty. So there's something of a longer ramp there.
The other element, which you didn't see in the prologue, in the later parts of the story you go to the flagship in-between missions for your briefings and to re-equip your ship and so on, and in those downbeats between missions you have opportunities to interact with characters. There's a little bit of world or character interaction and exploration you can do there, which maybe on the first time through you're like, "I'm gonna hop in the cockpit and do the next mission". The second time through, maybe you explore more of those things.
How adjustable is the practice mode and what exactly can players do in that part of the game?
So the practice range, has, as you saw, an options menu with different kinds of things you can spit out. So if you want to try practising against capital ships, or capital ships with buddies helping you, or you want to try different combinations of fighters, you can do that. And of course, it also scales by difficulty. So if you want to practise on the easier modes or if you wanna go, "alright, if I just wanted to fight just a group of Tie-Fighters, that's all, just a group of Tie-Fighters on the hardest difficulty, what's that gonna feel like?" - it's a really easy way for players to do that.
There's an obstacle course in there to practise your manoeuvrability. The thing that I think gives that legs is that it's tied into the customisation system so you can easily try, not just different ships but different builds. Like, I go in the hangar and I'm gonna make an A-Wing that has this hull, this shield, this laser, blah blah blah; hop into the practice range to see how that handles. Like, "OK, if I had to fight a flagship with this ship, how does that feel?" And then you can try some different build and try it again, and be able to experiment with those different builds in a safe environment.
There's a lot going on in the cockpit. Was it a help or a hindrance having to use Star Wars-inspired interiors?
Yes, it was a help and a hindrance. As you work on it, the downside, of course, is that they made the props for movies, and the movies didn't have to worry about usability at all. So if a particular ship has a layout of buttons that's just awkward or the shape of the viewport is not ideal in whatever way, well, it's Star Wars so too bad, you need to work with that.
The upside, of course, is that it's Star Wars, so a huge percentage of the fun of the game comes from, like, you're really in an <insert ship here>, right? We threw in that A-Wing and it feels like an A-Wing. If you're in a Tie-Fighter, it feels like you're in a Tie-Fighter. You can look up and see through the glass slats in the hatch on the top and see bits of space whiz by.
So I think the constraints that we get have definitely been challenging in some cases to work around, to make sure that you're having a great cockpit experience, regardless of what the prop in the film might have looked like and trying to feel like it. But at the same time, the win that we get of immersion and feeling like this really is a Tie-Fighter, this really is an X-Wing, I feel that more than makes up for it.
Ian Frazier: "If you're in a Tie-Fighter, it feels like you're in a Tie-Fighter."
What's the thing about the cockpit experience that you enjoy the most?
Once you're comfortable with the game, you don't need as much UI to help you understand and learn things, so I like to play in instruments-only mode, where you turn off almost all of the non-critical UI. So you've got your cockpit, and you have very minor stuff for critical stuff, which you can turn off if you really want to, I just don't. Because with that mode... I'm a dork, I like to play the game and pretend that I'm a real spaceship pilot, right? So being able to go in there, especially in VR, even more so, you can get lost in the moment. You can forget for a few seconds here and there that it's a video game and you really feel like the pilot of an X-Wing (or another ship) and there's nothing else quite like that. There's a child-like glee that that experience offers that you just don't get from other kinds of games. For me, that's the really fun part.
Can you give us an idea about the scaleability of the experience, from arcade action to more sim-like gameplay, and how players can adjust the experience with peripheral support?
Let's say that you're someone who's maybe new to flight games, you're like, "I'm not so sure about this, it sounds interesting but I don't know if I want to do that." I think the single-player story and doing that on the 'story mode', that's the easiest difficulty mode, is by far the best on-ramp. It's a lot more forgiving in terms of overall mechanics; the manoeuvrability of your ships is increased in that mode, you have significant aim assist in that mode. So if you want to feel like an ace pilot and get to know these ships and get to know the experience, but you're not super comfortable with it off the bat, that's a great way to ramp into the game. And as you get further into it and you're like, "Hey, I think I can do more," you can turn the difficulty up at any time and it starts to have more of a challenge level at that point. The more casual and accessible end of the spectrum, I think you're probably playing on story mode, using a controller, which is by far the most common input for the game.
If you want the more enthusiast end of the spectrum, as I mentioned you can turn off most if you really want to, or even all of the UI. You can be, on the PC at least, we're still investigating for the console, but on the PC you can use HOTAS (hands-on throttle and stick) controls. You can actually use a physical throttle and a stick. You can be wearing a VR headset, both PC and PS4 fully support VR, not just for the story but for all of it, so multiplayer, single-player; the whole nine yards.
You can turn power management... power management by default is like, you press a single button, it's 123 if you're playing on a mouse and keyboard, or D-pad on a controller, and it just sends all power to engines, or all power to shields, or whatever. But if you want to change that to advanced power management, which some of our more advanced players will do, now all of a sudden it's like I'm individually moving pips of power between different systems and I can really optimise my exact power management to any given moment. There's stuff like that. Another example, for shields, for a new user we have a simple little radial menu that lets you put your shields to the front or back, it's pretty accessible but it's not as fast as another control option that we have for the advanced player where it's the number of taps that you do to distribute your shields front, back or centre - it's not super accessible but if you want the more hardcore experience and you're willing to put in the time, there's a lot of little knobs and dials like that that you can play with to make it a more simmy experience.
There are two multiplayer modes right now, are you planning on having more game types at launch?
What we're planning for launch is exactly what you see. It's the Dogfights and the Fleet Battles. I don't think we had it at the [hands-on] event but the Fleet Battles, you can also play them by yourself offline or cooperatively with friends against AI. And if you play in those ways it's unranked, if you play against other humans, then it's the competitive ranked mode. There are no additional modes planned for launch, we're trying to stay very focused on those two, and making sure that your matchmaking times are very low - the more modes you add the more that becomes a problem. We wanna make sure that players' first experience with the game is really positive in terms of both matchmaking and modes.
Ian Frazier: "We wanna make sure that players' first experience with the game is really positive."
If the game is a big success at launch on October 2, are there plans to support it after that with more modes and maps further down the line?
So our approach to the game has always been that it's a self-contained experience. We want you to feel like you paid your 40 dollars on day one, you got a complete game and you feel good about that. We want to make sure that the value is clearly there. Of course, we'll support the game in terms of fixing and balancing and so on after launch. In terms of new content after launch, there's nothing new to announce at this time, again, we're trying to focus on the complete package. That said, to your note, if a gazillion people pick up the game and have a great time with it, certainly anything is possible in the future.
As alluded to in that last question, Star Wars: Squadrons is heading to PC, PS4, and Xbox One on October 2. Stay tuned to Gamereactor for more on the game in due course.