With Star Wars: Squadrons, Electronic Arts is making a very bold promise to its most critical fans. Promotional materials call this game the “definitive” Star Wars space combat experience, and that’s a powerful claim to make in 2020.
It’s been several generations since the classics — Star Wars: X-Wing and Star Wars: TIE Fighter — broke onto the scene. The shadow of these games still looms large over the entire flight simulation genre as examples of what the gold standard should be. Pile on slightly more modern classics like Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, and even current generation titles like Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen, and suddenly the space combat genre becomes a very competitive place.
After the bungled launch of Star Wars Battlefront 2, the pressure is on EA to follow through on its promise. Since talking with creative director Ian Frazier, I think that his team just might be able to pull it off.
Star Wars: Squadrons is currently in development for consoles and Windows PC. The space combat simulation puts players into the cockpit of eight iconic starfighters and support vessels from the Star Wars cinematic universe. It gives them all the tools they need to do battle, including a five-on-five multiplayer PvP mode. It also lets them experience the entire game — start to finish, including a single-player campaign — in virtual reality, if they have the means.
The game is scheduled to launch on Oct. 2 for $39.99 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC via Steam, Origin, and the Epic Games Store. It will also be compatible with PlayStation VR and PC VR systems, and includes cross-play support across all platforms.
I spoke to Frazier for over a half an hour. Our conversation covers topics such as the intricacies of the game’s flight model, how its narrative fits into the wider Star Wars timeline, and how the in-game systems themselves all work. We also touch on control inputs, and the seemingly strange features — like the continuous beam laser coming out of a TIE Bomber — that don’t seem to belong in a galaxy far, far away.
Here’s the full transcript of my interview with Frazier, lightly edited for clarity.
Polygon: Tell me about your team.
Ian Frazier: Our team, it’s a mix of people in terms of their origin stories. We have folks that are coming from Bioware. We have folks coming from the original Motive team that was on Battlefront 2, the single player campaign. And, of course, new people that we’ve hired along the way.
As it seems to come together, we have, as you’d expect, a lot of Star Wars fans. A lot of people that came to the company specifically because they wanted to work on Star Wars. And one of the things that’s been fun about this project is that, well, I’ll put it this way. One of the questions people have been asking a lot lately is, “Hey, what were your inspirations? Is this game coming from, you know, X-Wing or from Rogue Squadron or whatever?” And the answer is kind of, “Yes?” Because depending on the person and, in some cases, just the age of the person we have different inspirations across the team. You’ve got people that are coming to it and they remember Rogue Squadron and love it dearly, and what’s inspiring to them. I’m an old fart, so I remember X-Wing and TIE Fighter, they’re a big inspiration for me. And you get a lot of these different kind of threads of Star Wars fan juice coming from different angles.
When I am flying one of these fighters what film am I in? Am I in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story? Am I in Solo? Where did you ground the experience in the cockpit within the Star Wars fictional universe?
When we started, we actually looked at more than just Star Wars as a comparison point. So we looked at the original films, first and foremost. The classic trilogy. We looked a lot at Rogue One, because it’s just an excellent film. It does some amazing things with space battles that we thought were just great reference. It does something that we try to do even with the game, which is that if you take a freeze frame of A New Hope and you put it next to Rogue One, they don’t actually look the same. Rogue One has more technical quality to it. It’s better produced because it’s been decades, but they managed to hit the style and the flavor spot on. So it really very, very much feels like original.
I think that’s similar to what we’re trying to do. We don’t want the game to feel old. We want it to feel appropriate to 2020. But, at the same time, when we look at those films we want to make sure we are evoking the feelings of the original. If you kind of move your head forward in VR and really look closely at the displays in our cockpits, you’ll notice that we’ve we’ve constructed them in a way that looks like how ILM would have built a prop in 1977. It’s fake, obviously. We’re making everything inside a video game, but we’re trying to build it based off the physical realities of how these props were made in the late 70s.
Another thing we did early on is that we looked at a lot of different franchises. We looked at Star Trek and we looked at [the reboot of] Battlestar Galactica. We looked at other sources to say, “How are they different? What is uniquely Star Wars?” And there’s a lot of different things that are uniquely Star Wars. With certain exceptions, it’s not as much about battles of attrition. It’s more about these quick, zippy dogfights.
First and foremost, it’s inspired by World War II aerial combat footage. You see that in the original films, even down to the fact that the TIEs have green lasers and the Rebels have red lasers. That’s because those are the colors of the tracer fire in World War II for the Axis and Allies. There’s that heritage you see there, and so we’re trying to keep that same kind of theme.
When you look at our flight model, your ships don’t move like a ship would actually move in space because ships in Star Wars don’t move like ships would move in space. They move like ships move in Star Wars. There isn’t any real one moment in the cinematic history, to really go back to your question. There’s no one specific moment. We’re really looking at the classic trilogy, elements of Rogue One, and kind of puttin’ them in the stew, and then the game emerges.
I play a lot of space combat games. I was in Elite: Dangerous last night. I’m gonna be in Star Citizen tomorrow. I really am excited to get into In The Black [previously Starfighter Inc.]. But all three of those games handle completely differently. Except for In The Black, which is like flying an Apollo capsule. That’s not as fun as it could be in my opinion, but you get into Elite and, to some extent, Star Citizen, and those ships fly more like terrestrial airplanes.
Talk to me about how your flight model is unique, and how it’s Star Wars, and how it differentiates itself.
I think where we started from is we went back to a lot of the classic games. I looked at Star Wars: X-Wing and Star Wars: X-Wing Versus TIE Fighter — that whole series — because they’re first-person like us. What was unique about their flight model 20 years ago, versus looking at, say, Starfighter Assault [mode from Star Wars Battlefront 2].
We tried to start with something that felt, again, like that World War II simulation kind of basis, in terms of how the ships actually handle, how they move. It is, as in your example, more terrestrial. Then, once we started layering on things like power management, we went, “Okay, how do we use things like power management to take that World War II sort of base, but then amp it? What does the accelerated version of that look like?”
For instance, we went as a team and we saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and the opening scene where you know, Poe is boosting and he goes under the shields, and he’s doing his crazy kind of reckless maneuvers. We loved how that looked, we loved how that felt, and we went “Okay, well, within our context, how can we get something of that flavor and some of the feel?”
You see him do that kind of spin out move by one of the turrets. Can we can we achieve that mechanically? Can we hit something that that feels right for Star Wars and does that. And we did, actually.
We’ve got a drift maneuver implemented in the game. This is just an example — but if you put your power to engines: First, putting your power to engines makes your ship faster, and it makes it turn better. In addition, where you sit on the throttle also determines your turn speed. So that combination of things is a way to be better at dogfighting in and of itself.
Another reason to max power to engines — not just put a few pips in it, but max it — is that when it’s maxed it builds like a boost charge, and that is a finite amount of crazy superspeed. And you can’t turn very well when you’re doing that. You can a little, but it’s really meant for forward blasting. Every dogfighting game has the problem of the death loop. You get stuck in the loop. They’re chasing you, you’re chasing them, and you can never escape. So part of why we have this boost is to resolve that problem — in addition to getting my throttle dead center, and having power to engines helps me turn.
On top of that, if you boost you can then cut off the boost kind of mid-stream. That shuts off your engines completely, so you have a brief moment of drift where you can whip around in a 180 and shoot at them. Or do whatever you want! Change course and hit boost again, if you have more juice left. So there’s stuff like that we’ve tried to do to take it beyond just the core World War II feeling, but to give it something a little special on top.
What about gunnery? I don’t see a reticle in your trailer.
There is an aiming reticle, but not a leading reticle. That might just be turned off for trailer capture purposes, but normally there is a reticle in the game.
You need to lead them properly as well. It does change color to let you know that you’re going to hit him, but it doesn’t actually show a leading reticle.
It’s not like my guns are all gimbaled [a type of assisted aim common in space combat games] and aiming for me.
The guns are not all gimbaled. There is convergence to them, like in X-Wing. The lasers are converging at a certain point in space, and depending on where you’re shooting, and you’re going to kind of have to move forward and backward relative to your target to try to hit that ship. There’s a couple weapons that are [gimbaled], but mostly things are fixed and then they’re changing their aimpoints based on where the emitters are.
There’s no leading reticle because, really, we wanted you to look into the world. We wanted you to look at the ships and stay in the environment, and we felt like the moment we added a leading radical it started to become more of the UI game and less the Star Wars pilot game. It’s a subtle thing, but just, for us, it was a bridge too far.
You talk about what I get by putting all my power to engines. What do I get when I put all my power to weapons and shields? Or is there another category that I don’t know about?
Those are the three core categories, assuming that you have a ship that has shields. Not all of them do.
Putting points in lasers period makes the lasers recharge faster. So you can shoot more regardless of which specific kind of laser you have equipped on your ship. And, similarly, putting power in shields makes your shields regen faster, regardless of specifics. But, if you max either of those systems? In the case of lasers, it’ll overcharge the lasers. Overcharging an engine is building that boost capacity which will, the moment you stop maxing engines, you’ll slowly bleed that off. It decays back, and you don’t go to zero but you lose you afterburner fuel. With full power in lasers, once they’re fully charged they’ll keep charging so you get it up to a double bar, and all of that double bar is doing extra damage.
So that’s my 20 millimeter cannons, basically, to put it in terms of World War II again.
More or less. And, once you burn that off, it’s normal functionality. But, you’re always able to do that extra charge.
Similarly, shields get a double layer of shields. If your shields are balanced, then it’s an extra layer of protection around. If you divert your shields — like focus them for the front or the back — then it’s extra, extra protection on that side, and you still get to hold on to a little on the other side.
Shield have [adjustable] front-to-back orientation and — something else we really like — is that not every ship has shields. We thought having just a hull for the other ships felt not great. So, we wanted to give them some kind of equivalent but different ability. The ships that don’t have shields have a quick power conversion ability, using some of the same buttons and inputs. You can rapidly reroute power from engine to lasers or vice versa.
Basically, it seriously debuffs the other system when you do that. If I fully pull all the juice out of my engines and dump it into my lasers, I can get instantaneous supercharged lasers, which is great. But my ships like put-put-put for those few seconds once I’ve done that. Similarly, I can’t shoot at all for a few seconds if I go the other way. But it can really help those ships, like TIE fighters that don’t have shields, they can kind of do things you don’t expect and get out of a jam when they need to.
Playing something like Elite’s CQC mode gets really old after a while. Playing Star Citizen’s Arena mode gets really old after a while. That’s because there’s lots of different ships, but they all kinda do the same thing.
Then you go to something like Fantasy Flight’s tabletop games, and you’ve got all of these different ships with different techniques, and different loadouts, and different pilots. I’m looking at your list of ship components. Tell me where all of these things come from. Where did you pull from all the variety of stuff within the Star Wars lore?
There’s a lot of different sources. We’re trying to stick to canon sources, or invent new things and work with Lucasfilm to bring those to life.
I think from a conceptual standpoint, the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniature Game is absolutely an inspiration to us. A bunch of us on the team love that game. As far as the specifics, we’re not like, “I want this one countermeasure from the X-Wing mini’s game.” Most of them wouldn’t really translate to video game form anyway. But we are looking toward films, to the shows.
As an example, if you look closely at our reveal trailer — and some folks have noticed this — there’s a point you see a TIE Bomber using a channeled laser, like a constant beam. “TIE Bombers don’t do that!” Well, by default, you’re right. They don’t. But we let players modify their ships in the game pretty heavily. And one of the weapons we allow, and this one is actually allowed on both factions, is a composite beam and it’s inspired by the beam on the Blade Wing in Star Wars Rebels, where they took the hyperdrive out of the prototype B-Wing in order to have that crazy, charged laser.
It’s not one to one exactly that, but that’s the inspiration for it. While you’re using it, you barely turn and you’re really a sitting duck, but you are shooting an incredibly powerful weapon dead ahead.
So, we have a lot of things like that. It’s something I’m proud of in the game. We don’t just have, you know, “My lasers do 5% more damage!” No, it’s chunky stuff — even for the passives — that make a real difference.
There’s a hull you can take on some of the ships, a Reflec Hull, that makes you more fragile, like straight up reduces your hit points on the ship, the whole hull health of the ship. But it automatically stealths you, hides you from enemy radar after you get past a certain distance. So it’s the kind of thing that can really help you get behind enemy lines, or surprise them, or just get away. There’s lots of stuff like that, both for the passives and actives, that help that issue you’re talking about, that fatigue. “Every fight is the same!” Well, once you have all seven different slots on your ship for different components plus, you know, the other four members of your team who all can take their own things, suddenly you get a lot more variety and a lot more to keep track of, even in a core dogfight, let alone the Fleet Battle mode.
To make things more competitive, and to make things more interesting for your players, what did you ask of Lucasfilm? What did you need them to create or allow in the lore to make this game more fun?
How do you how do you balance the New Republic and the Empire? The lore says TIE Fighters don’t have shields, so we don’t have shields on our TIE Fighters. That’s one of the things — we don’t even let you mod them to put shields on them, because we felt like that’s kind of part and parcel to what makes a TIE Fighter a TIE Fighter. So we didn’t we didn’t want to let the player even change that. That’s pretty fundamental. But, you know, as far as the tuning: “How many points of hull health does a TIE Fighter have?” There’s nothing, there’s no canonical answer to that. Maybe something kind of loosely implied by different sources, but not something strict.
So, as we worked with Lucasfilm a lot of what we do is talk about the abilities that we want to do, the kinds of passives that we want to do, and talk to them about what makes sense. What’s viable for this kind of ship to have? What’s viable for that kind of shift to have? What doesn’t make canonically. “In this time period, this thing wouldn’t have been around yet. So they can’t really use that.”
Example: We don’t have hyperspace tracking in our game, because it’s not invented yet in our timeline. And we don’t want to, so that’s fine. But, we try to make sure we’re abiding by sort of what makes sense chronologically, and that we’re never doing anything — how do I put it. Because of where we sit in the timeline — because we’re after Endor, we have a fair amount of flexibility around that idea that, “Well, you know, the war has taking a turn. The Empire was like, ‘We got this! We easily are going to win!’ And now suddenly they’re going, “Oh, maybe, maybe not.’” And so both sides are starting to tinker a bit more, and so that’s why we’re seeing these modifications by both factions within our game, and why you see things that you didn’t see in films. Because it’s a little bit later they started messing with different things. But the baseline, what you see by default, is still straight up what you would see in Return of the Jedi.
Ehhhh, maybe. There was there was a dude who looked a little familiar in one of those cockpits.
Alright, so place this within the timeline of Star Wars — for Star Wars nerds — and talk about the other canonical books and movies and things that people should bone up on before this game launches
Well, I mean, there’s nothing that you need to read by any means to set up. But you know if you’ve seen the original films you are you are good to go to play this game. If you haven’t, you’re still good to go, but a lot of the fun comes from having a familiarity with the movies. I think if you’ve seen Rogue One that helps a bit just because it grounds it. There’s a whole ship in the game [the U-Wing] that comes from Rogue One. As far as our setting, it’s a little bit of a complicated answer, actually. The overwhelming majority of the game — all the PvP, all the multiplayer, the vast majority of the single player story — takes place after the Battle of Endor, like a few months after Endor, but well before the battle of Jakku. You’re seeing one of the military campaigns that gets us from “Maybe we can win!” to actually winning at the Battle of Jakku. So there’s that, and I can’t go into the details, but our story plays a pretty key role in how the Rebels are ultimately able to win there. So it leads to big events. As far as the beginning of the game, it’s a little different.
We actually start with a prologue. So when the game kicks off, it’s set right after the Death Star has blown up Alderaan. I’m going to say this now, because people are going to tell us we made a mistake, but we didn’t. When you watch our character creation sequence, you’ll see the Rebel symbol and not the New Republic symbol. That’s because, in character creation, you are still a rebel. So you’re creating your characters for this moment that happens in the time period of the original films. Some stuff happens that sort of helps set up our story, and after the prologue is over now we say, “Okay, do you want to keep going with the story? Do you want to check out PvP?” We sort of open up the game to you. And that’s the big time jump. As soon as that little prologue is over, now you’re in the meat of the game, which is all post-Endor.
In a lot of ways virtual reality has been … I want to say “loss leader.” It’s been speculative. You see so many developers going, “Well, now we need to make a version that isn’t VR because no one is playing this game” So why was it important for your team to make this a VR game? And again, a VR game that I can experience start to finish entirely within VR. That’s what your trailer says.
Yep. It’s not wrong.
We started the game, and we had the initial prototype up and running very quickly. Much faster than normal. We were very pleased with that. We got it running in a week. And we had it running in VR by the end of the second week. So this game is like, really, really, really, from the ground up, both 2D and VR.
And why? I mean, you kind of hit the nail on the head there. From a business standpoint, talking about how do we “optimize the amount of money this game is gonna make,” VR doesn’t make sense. It’s a much smaller audience than the broader market. But why are we doing it? It’s because we think it’s cool.
Not to give the super obvious answer, but we started this project and we went, “You’re seated in a cockpit. You have a fixed reference frame. You’re immersed within this role as a pilot on both sides, both factions. It’s a game that naturally fits in VR. You don’t need to port it to VR. This is a game that is that is capable of being — not every design is capable of this — but this design was capable of supporting both kind of intrinsically from the outset. And who doesn’t want that?
I know not everybody has VR, and that’s fine, but if you do or if you’re even considering it, we thought this is an amazing opportunity to let players do something that like… I don’t know about you, but playing the the Rogue One VR mission in the first Star Wars Battlefront is frigging amazing. And you see that and you’re like, “Can I just have a lot more of this?” And we thought, “Well, yes. Yes. You can. We’ll build that.” And so that’s very much what we’ve been doing with Squadrons.
Talk to me about my peripherals. First of all, is my Track IR going to work?
So I’m pretty limited in what I can say there. What’s on our website is what I’m allowed to say. We will support HOTAS [hands-on throttle and stick] and traditional joysticks — non-throttle joysticks as well — on PC. I cannot say yet whether or not we will have that on console. I cannot say yet the specific hardware we will or won’t support. All that’s going to be coming later, so keep your eyes peeled. But I can say at the bare minimum that we will support HOTAS on PC.
I imagine that designing is this game for controller was a bit of a challenge.
You’re not wrong.
Tell me about how this is gonna feel different from Battlefront 2’s aerial combat on a controller.
First of all, it depends on if you use the defaults or not. We have our default controller scheme. We have a few different ones you can choose between, if other things feel more comfortable to you. It’s not like there’s just the one. But, beyond that, even on console, we have a really robust customization system so you can remap anything. Remap the sticks. Remap the buttons. It’s pretty in-depth, particularly on the console side. PC users are a bit more expecting of that, but on the console side it’s a bit more rare. So it’s not just presets.
So I can, for instance, put roll on my triggers.
You can remap whatever you like.
Your trailer said that everything can be unlocked by playing the game. What can I expect to see for DLC though down the line?
What we’re trying to do is trying to make a game that’s a little bit old school and it’s mentality. You give us your $40, we give you the game. It is a fully self-contained experience. It’s not, “Well, okay, here’s part of the game and the rest of it will be out next week.” No, it’s the whole game. So at this point we’re not talking about live service or DLC or anything else. Not saying it’s impossible, but that’s really not that we’re going for. We’re going for a game that you buy and you haven’t you like.
Can you tell me just a little bit about the metagame loop? What am I working towards in multiplayer? How am I building my skills and my Squadron?
I can’t go into too much detail on that. I can tell you that when you play you’re going to be unlocking two different kinds of currencies. One of those currencies is for cosmetic stuff, to make your pilot look and sound cool. To make your ships look and sound cool. The other one is more mechanical. It’s how you’re getting those components that let you change out how your ships behave. And to be super clear, it’s orthogonal progression. It’s not Level One Laser, better Level Two Laser. We don’t do that because we don’t want to unbalance the playing field. It’s all like, “Well, you know, the laser that’s more like” — I’m using just normal shooter terms — “more like an SMG. So it’s sort of spray and pray. And it’s got a little bit shorter range. It’s got its own trade offs.” But I want the laser that hits like a truck, but takes 20 minutes to recharge. Not literally 20 minutes, but you follow me; that idea of trade offs, kind of weapons and components that are that are better or worse at different things. And then where the team aspect comes in is, “Okay, I’m doing this. What are you taking? What is she taking? How are we working together with our loadouts to be an effective strategy.”
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