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Rebecka Coutaz has a big job ahead of her as the new vice president and general manager of DICE, the Stockholm, Sweden-based studio that has worked on Electronic Arts‘ big franchises such as Battlefield, Star Wars Battlefront and Mirror’s Edge.
The studio has just turned 30 years old and has been presiding over Battlefield shooter games for two decades. But the studio has gone through a painful period of bug fixes and apologies to its Battlefield fans for the sorry state that it shipped Battlefield 2042 in when it launched the game in October and November 2021. Battlefield fans said the game was virtually unplayable, and even I encountered bugs like landing in pools of water underneath the battlefield in a multiplayer match. I would have put the game on the list of my favorite games of the year were it not for the bugs that I encountered.
That happened even though there were a total of five studios working on the Battlefield franchise, including the racing game studio Codemasters. The company underestimated how hard it would be to ship a game when the teams could not come together because of COVID-19.
Still, they got it done, and Coutaz is helping to figure out where DICE goes now. Coutaz replaced Oskar Gabrielson, general manager of DICE, in December, while the Battlefield group (which also includes Ripple Effect Studios and Industrial Toys) is now overseen by Byron Beede, general manager of Battlefield, and Vince Zampella, head of Respawn and senior vice president and group general manager at EA. And even with all of its resources, EA is outgunned in shooter games by developers with much bigger teams, including rivals such as Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty, Garena’s Free Fire and Krafton’s PUBG.
Born in Sweden, Coutaz has been in the gaming industry for over 20 years, starting her career managing first party certification for PlayStation 1, and most recently at the Ubisoft Annecy studio as managing director leading teams working on Assassin’s Creed, The Division, Steep and Riders Republic.
I interviewed her and she said she is doing what she has always done, focusing on evolving DICE while emphasizing creative culture and empowering teams for the sake of quality, diversity and inclusion. We covered a lot of ground in our interview and her excitement about the future of games, tech and the Battlefield franchise itself.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How long have you been on the job now?
Rebecka Coutaz: About six months at DICE, at the studio in Stockholm. I came aboard in November, right after the launch of Battlefield 2042.
GamesBeat: Can you fill me in on your career and what led you to this point?
Coutaz: I’ve been in the industry about 20 years. I started off my career at Infograms, which later changed names to Atari, where I worked in the publishing side of production and development. I had two important positions. One was heading up the European development side’s–what at the same we called post-production services, so QA, certification, localization, production portfolio planning, and so on. In the second position I was in charge of certain external developers. I had a team of producers working on things like Unreal Championship, Civilization III and IV. I spent about 11 years of my career over there. Then I jumped to a startup, because I wanted to be on the ground floor with a new developer and learn about different tools. I had my own company for a year and a half with three other partners in the industry.
Then I moved on to Ubisoft, where I was managing director for one of their studios in France, based in Annecy. It’s a studio that I had looked at for many years, because they made multiplayer games. They did the multiplayer for Splinter Cell. They had just shipped the multiplayer on Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. I liked making multiplayer games, and of course I loved making games that are online. When I got the opportunity to join them I took it. Together with the team there we built it from a studio of 71 people to about 300 people. We had the chance to work on games like The Division and The Division 2 with Ubisoft Massive here in Sweden, and we continued to work on Assassin’s Creed. We also created two new games for Ubisoft, Steep and Riders Republic.
I spent a big part of my career in France, and then I got the chance to join Electronic Arts and DICE. Being Swedish, I looked at DICE with a great deal of admiration for a long time. They’ve been able to create great games — Battlefield, Mirror’s Edge, Star Wars Battlefront. It’s an extremely talented team. Getting the opportunity to be able to lead them into the future is something that I just couldn’t pass up. So here I am. It’s been an interesting beginning, an interesting journey for the past six months.
GamesBeat: When you started, there must not have been that many women in the industry. Was your entry into games an interesting experience in that way?
Coutaz: Before I even had a real time contract, I started out doing localization testing. I’d just finished university and I had to pay for my life, so I went into testing. That’s when I really discovered video games. Of course, being born in the ‘70s, I played things like Game and Watch and Nintendo. I played RPG games like D&D. But gaming wasn’t my main area of interest. Coming to the industry in 1999, working in localization testing and being able to see all these people with their passion and commitment and engagement, their willingness to create entertainment — that was their life.
In localization testing there were actually quite a lot of women when I came in. Then, when I started in the publishing sector, of course there were fewer women than today, but there were still some women. The biggest change for me, actually, was when the Nintendo DS came in, and there were games coming out like Nintendogs and some of the very popular puzzle games. To me that was a pivot point in the industry. And then of course you had mobile gaming, as the next big pivot. More women came into the industry.
We’ve made a lot of progress in the last 20 to 25 years. But it’s still not good. As you can imagine, it’s a topic that’s very close to my heart. I’ve tried to take every opportunity I’ve had to mentor, to make women understand that this industry is a fantastic industry to make a career in, to be able to share your passion. It’s an inclusive industry. Anybody can work here.
GamesBeat: Gaming has had its own version of the #MeToo movement in the last few years. Is it hard to have that conversation with women, about whether or not it’s a good place for them to work?
Coutaz: As I said, I worked at Ubisoft. At Ubisoft we encountered the #MeToo scandal all over the world. But there were no allegations in my studio, no room for that kind of behavior. For me, it was very important to have that as part of our core values. When I was in business school, you have those lessons about values, and it seems very abstract. But in fact, when I was a leader, those values are very important. I work on those values and the behavior of those values. Respect is a value, but what does it actually mean in the way you behave, in the way you treat your colleagues, in the way you talk to your colleagues, in the way that you act on the floor while you’re creating games?
We have to acknowledge that this is a situation that exists, but it’s also a situation we cannot accept. We can change it, and we are changing it. It can also be–as we proved in the studio I managed for 10 years, we didn’t have that kind of behavior. The video game industry can be a safe place. You can express yourself like you would anywhere else. You can be as you want. It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are. As long as you want to create great games and you have a passion for that, there’s a place for you.
GamesBeat: As you come into DICE, the studio has had some well-publicized problems and challenges. How do you look at your job and what you have to do given some of these recent challenges around shipping Battlefield and getting the bugs out?
Coutaz: There are two facets to the question. The first one is that, yes, Electronic Arts and DICE have had difficulties. But there’s been a great job ongoing, since way before I joined, to improve studio culture. Not only the DICE studio is involved, but also the other business units. There have been audits ongoing. There has been a true product management in terms of changing the culture, in terms of making people understand the values that are important to us and what is the behavior of those values. That part was ongoing long before I came here.
I’m carrying that work, because it’s work that is very important to me. I continue to work with the teams here at DICE and at Electronic Arts Stockholm to assure, as I said, that we’re a normal place where everybody feels safe and everybody can work. That’s ongoing. I haven’t encountered any difficulties since I started, in these first six months.
As in any entertainment industry, if you choose to manage through a stratification system, you’ll encounter difficulties. I never did that. I managed through teamwork. A game is made by a group of people. It’s not made by one or two. Everybody contributes to that game. That’s the way I’ve led teams in the past and that’s the way I’ll continue to lead. I’ll continue the work that’s already being done at DICE in terms of culture.
When it comes to Battlefield 2042, yes, of course, it was a disappointing release. Our fans were disappointed and the team here at DICE were disappointed. It was a difficult situation. But we have moved forward since then. We made some difficult decisions. We decided to focus on the health of the game, improving the game mechanics, before we would release new content. That was the focus of the update we just pushed out. We felt it was more important to improve the fundamentals of the game. Bug after bug, patch after patch, a little more each time, we’re improving things for our players and for the team. It’s far from perfect, but we’re confident in our commitment and engagement. We’re completely focused on Battlefield 2042. The majority of the team here, plus our colleagues over at Ripple Effect, are focused on Battlefield 2042. We owe that to our community, to our players, and to our teams.
GamesBeat: I just came from some events at Summer Game Fest. There were other executives I talked to who discussed how difficult, unexpectedly difficult, it’s been to manage through remote development. That’s been cited as one of Battlefield’s challenges. Do you feel like the teams are getting used to this in a way that doesn’t lead to these unexpected delays and challenges in keeping the quality level up?
Coutaz: Like all game studios, we were taken by surprise. We had to move everybody home in 24 hours. I’d say that a good thing about the pandemic, though, was that the flexible working model was accelerated. In the last two years we’ve built so many new tools, so many new processes to be able to work in that kind of environment, just to be able to survive. The level of innovation in connectivity, on a personal level, for me was very impressive. I think we only did it in two years because of the pandemic. If we hadn’t had the pandemic, this kind of innovation would have probably taken us a decade. That’s the good part.
Of course, having teams around the world that were in different time zones, not having the right processes, the kind of processes that were adapted for remote work, and the adapted communication processes, that was devastating. I can speak as a leader within the industry, because I spent time at Ubisoft during the pandemic, and I’ve spent time at Electronic Arts as well. It’s simply everywhere. It’s the same across the whole industry. It is different, and we need to adapt.
Now we’re in a flexible world. We have some people at the studios and some people still working remotely. Of course we’re adapting every day. The beauty of the flexible model, though, is that we can recruit talent that we couldn’t before. Let’s say we have a passionate Battlefield fan in Australia or Vietnam or Canada. Previously we probably would have said, “Well, you can’t work from there. You have to be based in Stockholm.” Now we know it works, though. We can draw talent from all over the world now. If you’re passionate about Battlefield, come and join us. Here at DICE we have 20 job openings. At Ripple Effect in Los Angeles they have more. We’re creating a new studio in Seattle. No matter where you are in the world, you can work on Battlefield.
But of course it requires a different way of working. Some people don’t like working from home. They want to be in the studio. Maybe not every day, but they need that social aspect. They want to be more hands-on. They want to be able to play the game on the floor with their friends and their colleagues. We’re learning as we go. In the end, we’ll be able to create greater games because of the talent, because of the flexibility that we allow for each and every one of our people to be able to adapt. I’m hopeful. With all the difficulties we’ve been through, it’s still been a good thing, because it’s accelerated our progress toward what we needed.
GamesBeat: For this job, I don’t know if the fans expect you to have esports-level talent playing Battlefield yourself, but is that–when you interview for this kind of job, do you have to show that kind of passion for Battlefield? Or is there something else about running development on your level that’s maybe more important than that?
Coutaz: My drive is video games. My drive is entertainment. To be able to work on one of the greatest entertainment brands in the industry and contribute to that–for me it’s like being able to work on Star Wars in the cinema. That’s my passion. I have to admit, though, that I’m a very poor player of Battlefield. My two sons kill me very quickly. I avoid going out and being humiliated like that. But for me it’s one of the greatest brands out there.
The goal we have for DICE is to be the powerhouse behind Battlefield, to be one of the powerhouses in first-person shooters worldwide. DICE is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and Battlefield the 20th anniversary. DICE deserves to be the powerhouse that it should be in FPS. Together with the team here at DICE and the Battlefield franchise, with Byron and Vince and Marcus and Alex, that’s what we’re going to do.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like there are unique challenges for Battlefield among first-person shooters given where the competitive market is? It’s astounding how many studios EA can bring to Battlefield, how many people can work on it, and yet it’s not the biggest game out there. There’s still plenty of competition in the market. How do you look at how EA can improve in a market that’s as competitive as this one?
Coutaz: As I said, Battlefield has been around for 20 years. We have a loyal community and a loyal player base. When we don’t deliver, they criticize us and we hear them. We try to improve and we focus on what’s important to them. Yes, there are companies out there that are also very good at this, but now we have all the foundation. What we’re doing now with Battlefield together with Byron and Vince and Marcus and Alex — it’s what the team here at DICE has been dreaming about for years, and they couldn’t do it. Now Electronic Arts is rolling out this plan together with DICE. Of course it’s a competitive market, but I like being the underdog. I like that situation. We won’t be there for a very long time.
GamesBeat: It seems like Ubisoft led the way when it comes to multiple studios working on the same project, like with Assassin’s Creed. Is that something you can bring with you, helping all these studios work together?
Coutaz: Yes, yes, for sure. As you said, Ubisoft has been working in this collaborative model for a long time — not only with AC, but games like The Division, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs. That’s one of the skills I’m bringing to Electronic Arts, sharing those best practices. It’s one of the skills we need for Battlefield, because we’re working across multiple studios.
GamesBeat: Is a shortage of talent becoming a big challenge for you? What do you think the scope of that talent shortage is like for the game industry right now?
Coutaz: Yes, there is a talent shortage, but at the same time there isn’t. I can explain. As development studios we work closely with institutions in our countries to make sure we can help build programs at universities. We help make sure that these programs are adapted to the future tools we need, for instance, for things like procedural generation. When we know that something like procedural is coming, we’re calling universities and game development schools and saying, “Hey, you need to teach your students about these tools and technologies, because we’ll need them in three years.” I can only speak to Europe very closely, because I’ve been in development here for a very long time, but here we have this very close collaboration so that everyone can be prepared.
Second, this is a question of diversity and inclusivity. We have to dare to go and recruit outside our own industry. We have to dare to recruit people that are not like us. We have to dare to recruit people who don’t have the same experience as us. We’re doing that, and you can do that in certain disciplines. Engineering, for example, tool engineering, online engineering, netcode engineering. Even game design, you can go and find people from TV, from cinema, from animation. We just have to do that, and that’s what we’re doing today. We have to work very closely with what we call talent acquisition, and we have to prepare our managers and our leaders to not be afraid of going outside where they’re used to looking. The more we can recruit from other industries, the more we’ll learn as well. At the moment we’re doing fine. We have a great rhythm of recruitment at DICE, actually. We dare to go outside.
GamesBeat: We talked about how complex game development has become, but also, there are some interesting things being layered on top of games that keep changing the industry. There are new game engines. There’s the metaverse. There’s blockchain and new business models that come with it. What do you think about how DICE will be adapting to what’s happening in the industry?
Coutaz: It’s super exciting for me. I think of when we went from PlayStation to PlayStation 2. It was a question of who could learn the technology the fastest, the learning curve. At the time you were eight people making a game. But it was just a question of spending time on the learning curve to be able to make great games.
Today, as you said, we have new technologies, new platforms, new business models. We have cloud engines. We have VR. We have new actors coming in from China and other parts of Asia that are very strong. For me it’s super exciting, but it’s also difficult. We have to make the right choices, but we also have to be ambitious. We have to be able to innovate and take risks. To be able to innovate and take risks, you have to have a lean, agile organization, so that you can test and fail fast. I hope we don’t fail fast, of course. But you test and build on what’s good, and if you need to fail you fail fast.
The talent we have here at DICE, they are very impressive. The technology we’re working with in Frostbite is very impressive. I’m very hopeful for the future. We have to be ambitious. We have to take risks. We have to innovate very fast. This is one of the teams that can make that happen. I’m very proud to be able to contribute and lead this team into the future.
GamesBeat: I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Brendan Greene about the ambitions he has for more metaverse-like games. One of his main ideas is that this combination of human game design, user-generated content, and AI together is going to be needed in order to create these vast worlds that everybody wants, or seems to want.
Coutaz: My dream is to be able to provide a spot-defined gameplay experience, a gameplay experience that’s adapted to each player. If you’re a great sniper at 150 meters, or maybe you’re a bad sniper like me at more like 36 meters, we know that and we’ll provide an experience for you. That’s my dream, that we can make that for you. The question is, who will be first, and when?
GamesBeat: How many people do you have across DICE now? Have you gotten into the thousands, or are you still in the hundreds?
Coutaz: We don’t give out exact figures, but we’re still in the hundreds. But we’re also still recruiting.
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