EA’s top geek Scott Cronce steers us through gaming’s future technology (interview)

bf 4 smallGamesBeat: When it comes to R&D, what do you concentrate your resources on? You have some R&D in the teams. Does that mean that, say, the DICE studio’s Frostbite engine (developed for the Battlefield games) comes from the work done by the DICE team?

Cronce: The majority of the R&D is done in the game studio teams. It’s part of the culture. It’s driven by-product design, or sometimes by the freedom to just say, “See if you can go make this cool water effect happen. See if you can get this radiosity effect working within the pipeline.” One thing is being able to get it up and running so people can see it. The second step is to figure out how we put it into the pipeline of the game. Unless you can do that, it’s not going to work. People will come up with some really cool stuff, but it completely breaks the pipeline, and that means it might not make it in this year.

GamesBeat: It sounds like applied research in the sense that you’re working within the context of having chosen a game engine. You’re not going to go make a new engine.

Cronce: We used to have research with no development. We’ve gotten away from that. If it’s pure research and it’s too far away from when the intended generation is going to ship, you often make cool inspirational demos, but they don’t have any effect on anything that might be shipping.

kinect frownGamesBeat: Is that also a role that has shifted to the console-platform holders in some ways? Like Microsoft doing tech demos related to the original Kinect.

Cronce: Microsoft still does a lot of research. It makes sense, if you’re making a console, to continue to do research and try to find out which of your ideas is going to be big. That’s part of what they do. Software ends up being a lot simpler. The cycle of idea to demo to production of that R&D is much faster. With hardware, you think, “Okay, I want to have this visual control system, like the Kinect.” Then you’ll find different companies that do it. None of them may have everything you want, so then you have to go build it. That might be two, three, four years of work.

GamesBeat: Do you have some people who actually are technologists, who are still in some ways centralized R&D?

Cronce: Yeah, that’s EA Tech. EA Tech is what’s left of the Criterion organization. They’ve gotten into a very healthy spot. They have tech, like our animation engine that everyone uses. They have the physics engine that’s used by most game teams, and all the commodity software. We try to build a simple, easy-to-understand API that can then work on all platforms. That’s the majority of what they’re doing. They’re trying to figure out, “Okay, if I want to be able to do one function, I want that function to work on multiple platforms. I don’t want to have to think too much about it.”

You can’t do that for everything, but for a lot of things you can. By doing that, it makes it simple to have a few developers create something that’s going to save time for thousands of developers. It’s something we’ve always had in some form, since the very beginning. In the early days, when we were a publisher, all the engineering we had internally was specifically for those tools and cross-platform tech.

GamesBeat: Then you have things like EA’s Origin online-games service. Is that coming out of a business group, or is that part of R&D?

Cronce: We really don’t have pure R&D. It’s coming out of the business group. They’re responsible for producing those pieces. We’ve found that R&D that’s not applied to either feature effect or a problem is not useful.

The trend you’re seeing more and more is that the service side of running a game is becoming a larger component. You have two choices. You can have each game team do it themselves, or you can look at what the common pieces are, look at the future of what you want to have, and then build that separately.

GamesBeat: As games go digital, then, there’s this associated task of providing that infrastructure.

Cronce: It’s also the other trends, like large data. You want to be able to know how your games are being consumed. You want to know what users like or don’t like about them. It’s part of that big-data component — being able to use the telemetry in games not just for development, but also when they’re live as well.

pixar monster's university houseGamesBeat: It sounds like you have an interesting pattern. I don’t know if companies like Pixar run into this, too. There seem to be stages in the cycle where there are more people on tech than a certain number of people on creative. Then it switches sometimes. If a technology has been around seven years, like in this last console generation, it seems like all the manpower is going into creative, [into] making the games. Do you go through those cycles, then?

Cronce: We do. Right now everyone’s going through the cycle of learning these platforms that they’re in the process of finishing. That means spending a lot of resources on creating what will be the new engines that we use for this next generation of consoles. Each team has to figure out how they’re going to allocate that across their team.

If I have a franchise, and I’m shipping both a gen-four and a current-gen and a PC title, I have to figure out how I’m going to spend my R&D dollars in order to set myself up for the future. We put that down at the level of the individual game, the individual franchise, the individual division, and the label. They get to figure out what the best way is for them to do that.

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