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'Strange Ideas': EA's strategy for fostering innovation

"I firmly believe that you need to let people experiment and test things and come up with strange ideas," says EA Games label EVP Patrick Soderlund. Turns out, EA's formalized a way to let people tinker within the company.

Kris Graft, Contributor

April 12, 2012

3 Min Read

When running a publicly-held video game mega-publisher made up of around 7,700 employees, executives at Electronic Arts have the daunting task of trying to foster innovation within a giant machine that cranks out video games, one after the other. Patrick Soderlund, EVP of the EA Games label, which houses major brands like Battlefield and Mass Effect, recognizes that in these huge corporations, there is sometimes the need for more of a creative outlet. After all, video games are the product of human creativity, and once that is snuffed out, there's not much left. That's why about a year ago, EA decided to pay closer attention to small groups of developers within the company that were coming up with interesting new ideas; bubbles of innovation that were emerging within the belly of EA. "We have to come to a point, and we are at that point now, where we can actually afford to experiment," Soderlund recently told Gamasutra. "We have several ideation teams at our studio -- we call them 'labs' -- that may be working on five or six things at one time. And there may be five, ten people, or maybe even 20 people, who won't even have a direction. "I firmly believe that you need to let people experiment and test things and come up with strange ideas," he continued. "We may present a larger problem to them. For example -- a rather bad example -- 'We're missing a character-based action game' or something. They'd make a ton of things, and show us the results. The idea is to test things and either continue them, or kill them early. "Most ideas probably won't be the right ones. But then, one out of 10 or 15 ideas will be the right one. And that's the one that we'll say, 'We like that, continue.' Then we'll start funding it." Small experimental teams within larger publishing bodies are not unique to EA. But the fact that EA is now paying attention to and investing time in innovation in such an organized manner might be a surprise to those who view EA as a monolithic video game factory. "When you have a company this big, you'll have these [small groups] form naturally, because there's so many people," Soderlund said. "We just said, 'It's kind of happening anyway, so let's take control over it, and make this okay to do -- let's make sure that people can work with us.' "We've been doing it in a controlled form for a little over a year within our label," he added. "We started small, with one team, then we tested and saw some good results with it. A lot of the things you see today in our products come from these ideas. It doesn't necessarily need to be a new product. Maybe it's a way to make better animations, or a way of making cooler destruction." Soderlund, one of the founders of EA-owned Battlefield studio DICE, said the seed for these idea labs was planted at DICE during the development of the experimental downloadable online shooter, Battlefield 1943. "That [game's development] was basically a way for us to control ups and downs in our production cycles," he said. "Normally, people would go into a production too early, or they would basically get transferred to an existing game team. Instead we said, 'Do whatever you want. We'll put you in this pod, do whatever you want.' "And they said, 'Hey do you want to do Battlefield back in World War II again?' So they kept working on that. That kind of started something. Now we do it in all our studios. "I think it's important that we enable our people to innovate, and to be able to come up with new ideas. Because frankly, that's what our audience wants." Gamasutra will have more from Soderlund in a wide-ranging interview in the near future.

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