Electronic Arts has more brands for video games than it has teams to make games based on those brands. It could dust off an old intellectual property every few years and never miss a beat.
But Patrick Soderlund, executive vice president of EA Studios at the big game publisher, says that EA has to continue investing in new IP or else it will sign its death certificate.
We caught up with Soderlund at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade show in Los Angeles last week. At the show, EA showed off new IP from Mass Effect developer BioWare, as well as an air-oriented thrill-seeking game from Criterion. It also moved Battlefield into the cops versus robbers genre, and it signaled that Dragon Age: Inquisition represents a huge investment in time and money. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.
GamesBeat: I talked to (EA executive) Karl Magnus Troedsson a little bit earlier. He was saying that you guys had a good response to Hardline.
Patrick Soderlund: We did. When you make a creative decision like that, you run a risk. You never know how people might react. It’s a concept that’s been with us for more than 10 years. Probably the first prototype of something like Hardline was at DICE. We did it just after Battlefield 2. There’s still footage that I saw not long ago from that, which looks…not so good.
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The whole idea of a more urban cops-and-robbers type of theme has been there a long time, in multiple iterations that we’ve at least started. Then we’ve always had other ideas and things we’ve had to do. When Karl and Steve Papoutsis told me what they wanted to do, I said, “That’s cool. Go do it.” But you never know if it’s going to work right.
I’m pleased to see a good response. I’m happy that we were able to come here with a solid beta that people can play right away. The response is that it feels polished. It’s a true beta in the sense that we’re here to let people touch it, test the systems, find the problems. We’re also identifying not just bugs, but things we might have thought wrong about, that we can course-correct on and fix based on player feedback. So far, so good.
GamesBeat: Are you already getting requests for main battle tanks, so you can blow up the bank?
Soderlund: Not that I’ve seen. It may come.
GamesBeat: You almost have to retrain the audience in some ways. You’re going to have different stuff in this game.
Soderlund: Battlefield is based on a very simple formula. It’s rock, paper, scissors. 1942 was designed around that. You want an airplane to stand a chance against a tank. You want a tank to stand a chance against soldiers. But you also want to reverse that. Everything should be able to take out everything else with some kind of measure. Your job is to get into position and find that measure. That’s the essence of the Battlefield design.
I think that’s why the Battlefield brand has showed so much elasticity. We’ve been able to go and do 2142, which is a sci-fi game. We’ve been able to go to Vietnam. It’s all felt natural. We’ve also been able to branch out into something like the Bad Company series, which was a very different tone and style. This feels like a natural evolution for us. It shows that the brand can expand. We can do different things with it. I feel good about that.
GamesBeat: That gives you some advantages. This category doesn’t seem as crowded.
Soderlund: There’s a lot of good games coming this fall. We seem to be the only one in this segment, which is a good thing. You have some Battlefield players that are maybe into the Battlefield series mostly for the military fantasy. Some might say, “This may not be for me.” But I think we’ll also see a lot of Battlefield players who like this.
I also think this game can help us attract people who haven’t played Battlefield before, that maybe come from the GTA segment or wherever. They look at this and say, “I’m interested in that.” I’ve met a bunch of people here who have said that. That’s what we hope to get out of it.
GamesBeat: What else are you overseeing right now?
Soderlund: Everything but the Maxis business and mobile. So all the games, all the sports games, Star Wars, everything.
GamesBeat: Does Star Wars count as a reveal? There wasn’t too much there.
Soderlund: I think it was? We showed some stuff. We decided to show a lot of footage earlier than we normally would. We could have gone down the route that some others chose, going to Blur or some other expensive rendering company and making two minutes of spectacular video and slapping a logo on it. People would have clapped. But we chose a different path. We decided to let people in earlier and show them some things that are maybe more unfinished, not so polished, to teach them and invite them into what it means to make a game.
That also comes with a risk of showing things that are not done, showing things that people can’t necessarily touch. Obviously the best thing would have been if we came here with a full game that people could play. We’re not in that phase of production. That was impossible. But we will be there soon.
GamesBeat: I heard a nice compliment about Dragon Age. Someone said that it’s EA’s equivalent of the leveling-up that Bethesda did with Skyrim. Is that some of the ambition behind the game?
Soderlund: That’s the ambition on the team, absolutely. Dragon Age is a game that we’ve allowed to get more time, to be a bit more ambitious with it, to strive for a higher production value, a larger product, a deeper product. I hope that thesis proves to be the right one. If we can be compared to as good a product as Skyrim, such a massive game as Skyrim, then I’m very happy with that.
GamesBeat: You look like you’ve hit your schedules more lately. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but you’re not announcing a game, delaying it, and delaying it again, which is the pattern we’ve seen in some cases.
Soderlund: We’re getting better at hitting our dates, I think. It’s also about when you announce. The original idea was for Dragon Age to come out earlier. We decided to push it. That’s arguably late, then, but I think it was the right thing to do. It’s a balance. You have to have games that you ship on time. But you have to ship them when they’re ready.
It’s the same thing with Hardline. I saw some guys saying, “They should have worked on Battlefield 4 instead.” Well, this is a different team. They’re nothing to do with Battlefield 4. This has been in development for more than two years. This has a longer development time behind it than, arguably, Battlefield 4 and Battlefield 3 had. It’s about how we utilize our resources inside the studio system.
When we know for a fact that we can hit the dates, then we can start communicating them. We’re also getting better at that. That ties back to the whole company being managed in a slightly different way than before. We’re now in a position where we’re trying to create some flexibility. With flexibility, when the company’s doing better, performing better financially, that allows us to be a bit more flexible, and not have to be so tied to hitting a date.
I certainly feel a difference. I get a lot of support from our CFO, Blake, and the rest of the executive team to give the products enough time for them to be as good as possible. We made a very tough decision to prolong the TitanFall project by a couple of weeks. Contrary to what some people may think, that was made solely out of product-based concerns. The game, at that time, was done, but it wasn’t smooth enough. We needed some framerate optimizations. We had a few too many bugs. We needed to clean it up and ship a game that was 100 percent ready.
Did I want us to be able to communicate that earlier? Did I want to be able to avoid that? Absolutely. We found ourselves in a situation where that was impossible. Maybe, in the past, we would have said, “Ship it anyway.” I called up Andrew and said, “We have to let this sit for a couple of weeks.” He said, “If that’s what you have to do for the game, do it.” To me, that was such a good feeling, that we could make a decision based on what’s best for the game and the people who are going to play it. We can do that because we have more flexibility now.
GamesBeat: Next-gen development seems like it’s easier, because it’s all X86-based now. There are still delays happening, but maybe it’s more for quality reasons.
Soderlund: I think that’s true. Most developers out there have been able to master the hardware. That’s not necessarily difficult. It’s a PC-based development platform, in essence, known to many people. It’s absolutely easier to optimize for Xbox One and PS4 than we did in the last generation, especially for PS3.
GamesBeat: I talked to Frank Gibeau a little bit about your prospects on mobile, with Apple doing Metal and so on. There are some interesting technology changes that might help publishers out.
Soderlund: As these phones and tablets get more and more powerful, I think the types of products and games that will appear on them can be different. More higher-fidelity products will appear on these things. That’s where bigger companies, companies known to create higher-fidelity games—Our expertise in game-making becomes more applicable to these machines than it is today. That’s why I’m excited about them. It feels a little bit odd to see something at that fidelity running on an iPhone, but it’s pretty cool.
GamesBeat: Does that make it at all tempting to make your tools available more broadly?
Soderlund: Our philosophy with Frostbite is that it’s an EA-wide engine. It’s now being used by most of the game teams inside EA. If Frostbite Go, as we call it, becomes our de facto mobile technology engine, that’s a good thing. But there are no plans today to license it out to other people.