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EA's Core Strategy: Tech, Teams, Brands

In this new interview, EA Games label boss Patrick Soderlund discusses how the huge publisher tackles its core gamer business -- whether it's from the perspective of the Frostbite 2 engine, or its free-to-play business, or fostering creativity.

Kris Graft, Contributor

June 18, 2012

15 Min Read

At Electronic Arts' EA Games label, Patrick Soderlund runs the show. It's within his business that the publisher creates its high-budget games that are targeted towards the dedicated "core" game player.

These franchises include Battlefield, Dead Space, Need for Speed, and other major series. So how does Soderlund's label foster innovation, when fans of these long-running franchises have built up years of expectations?

That's not the only challenge within EA Games -- the label is also in charge of EA's Play4Free business, which is based on the free-to-play, microtransactions-based model. Combining that emerging model with a traditional core games audience can be a tricky proposition.

The core games market is changing, and between new tech, business models and high-budget sequels, Soderlund is trying to leave little to chance.

What's your overall vision for what EA Games is supposed to be?

Patrick Soderlund: I think Frank Gibeau -- who's my boss and continues to be my boss, and ran the EA Games label before me -- was instrumental in a turnaround for the games label. That [turnaround] started in 2007 or 2008 when, frankly, the quality of our products wasn't that good, we were lacking innovation; we just kept doing the same thing over and over again.

I think Frank really set the direction for where we needed to go in order to be successful in going forward. And I was obviously a part of that, running both the shooter and driving businesses for Frank, basically during this whole time. I come from DICE originally; I was one of the guys who was a founder of [now EA-owned] DICE and a partner in crafting Battlefield. And then as we got acquired, I just got more and more things to do inside the company, and I did a pretty good job at it. Then more and more got added to my plate.

So when Frank asked me if I wanted to take over the EA Games label because he was going to oversee all the labels, then I said, "Yeah, okay, that sounds like a great thing." And for me, it meant added responsibility in terms of more teams, more products, and more locations to keep track of.

A couple of things, though, that I felt like I really wanted to continue was what Frank started -- the continuous push for quality, the continuous push for innovation. Innovation in both the products that we make and how we treat the people, how we develop our products, and frankly, key things that can be game changers.

These are what I consider "game changers" -- things that you look at and say, "Okay, that was unexpected." For example, I think the Frostbite engine that we crafted for Battlefield 3 came out and people looked at it and said, "Wow, that really looked different; it felt like that's kind of the next generation of gaming."

So that's the approach that we take, that I take, that I want us to really be at the forefront and push the boundaries of what current hardware technology can perform at, and then where we're going in the future.

You talk about quality and innovation. From the top level, where you are, how do you foster and encourage that with your studios? It's not just like, "Hey, make your games better!"

PS: [laughs] Yeah, "Make them more innovative!" I think for us, obviously being a big company, we have the pressure to obviously make money -- which is ultimately why we exist -- and I think the way we look at it is, we have games that are big franchises, and we need to make sure that they stay fresh, keep feeling innovative, and that consumers want to buy them once they come out.

You know what I'm talking about -- Battlefield, Need for Speed, etc. At the same time we have to come to a point, and we are there now, where we can actually afford to experiment. We have several ideation teams in our studios -- we call them labs -- that may be working on five or six different things at one time. And there may be five, 10 or 20 people that won't even have a designated direction, because I firmly believe in the fact that we need to let people experiment and test things and come up with strange ideas.

We may present a larger problem to them. As a bad example, "We're missing a character-based action game." Then they may come out and experiment with a ton of things, and then show us stuff. The idea of it is test things, and either continue or kill them early. Most of the ideas will be probably not the right ones. But then one out of 10 or 15 ideas will be the right one -- that's something that we're going to say, "We like that. Continue, and now we're going to start funding it."

How long have you guys been doing that with the "labs"?

PS: I think you'll find, whether it's at Activision, EA, Apple, When you have a company this big, you'll have these [small groups] form naturally, because there's so many people. 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 now in a kind of controlled form for a little over a year, in our label. And we started small in one team, and then we tested it and we saw some good results. A lot of the things that you see today in our products come from these ideas, and it doesn't necessarily need to be a new product. It can be, "Okay, here's a better way of making animations", or, "Here's a way of making cooler destruction in something."

I think it actually started at DICE with Battlefield 1943, and if you remember that it was a small XBLA game. And that was basically a way for us to control ups and downs in our production cycles. Normally, people [whose work on a game is finished] would kind of go onto a project too early, or they would basically get transferred onto another game team and not be effective.

So we told those people, "Okay, do whatever you want. We'll put you in this pot, do whatever you want." They said, "Hey, we want to do Battlefield back in World War II again," so they kept working on that. And that kind of started something, and now we do it in all our studios.

But [the activity of labs] goes up and down. Like these guys who are working on Medal of Honor, they don't have the time right now, so they're focusing on that. But at certain points in time -- and that may be a year from now, when they're down-turning and they're starting up something new -- then we do these types of things. So I think it's important that we enable our people to innovate and to be able to come up with new, cool ideas, because frankly, that's what our audience wants.

I play a lot of games -- probably more than I should -- and I just look at them and say I want new ideas; I don't want the same thing over and over again. And I mean it's hard to do that, but at the same time we're trying. We have a lot of games shipping, and you'll see that in our lineup that we're trying to be -- not necessarily different for the sake of being different, but different for the sake of giving our consumers a fresh new experience.

Medal of Honor: Warfighter

You're a publicly traded company and you can't say, "Okay, it's done when it's done!" So how do you work towards higher quality?

PS: No, of course we can't. I mean, we will have our deadlines on the Medal of Honor game -- the big ones -- but I think it's important that we actually allow ourselves to do exactly that, to not be time-specific about certain things. We are in a position where we can probably afford that to some extent, and I think that's one of the benefits of being a part of such a large company as EA. We can have that, but obviously in a very controlled form. But still... I think it's important.

That's why we're seeing actually a lot of people [job seekers] gravitating towards EA right now, people that we're looking for. We're having a good time hiring people today, because EA is changing as a company... It is still a big company, but just because you're big doesn't need to mean that you don't have innovation.

And another thing we're trying to point out, the Play4Free team that we started in Stockholm was exactly this. It was a bunch of guys that had an idea that came to me and said, "Hey for Battlefield, do you want to do this kind of cartoony, third-person shooter?" And they wanted to make it an XBLA game and I said, "Okay, not so sure about that, frankly." And then I was sort of thinking about it, and at the time I happened to be traveling a bit to Asia, to Korea and China, and saw all these free-to-play games.

That's all it is over there.

PS: Yeah. I'm like, "You know what? This may be the right place for us." So we just put a group together and said, "Test this." Very few people knew about this inside EA; we just did it. And then when we started to plant this seed amongst the executives, they first immediately didn't get what we were doing, and I remember showing a trailer, and it was like, "Why are you doing this?" We said, "Okay, we'll continue doing it." And it's continued, and now fast forward later, we have a couple hundred people working on free-to-play games and, you know, it's booming for us; it's really growing.

When you're talking about the couple hundred people, just like the whole free-to-play catalog or including...

PS: The client-based stuff. So Battlefield Heroes, Lord of Ultima, Need for Speed: World, [not social network games].

So all this experimenting -- is it hindered by EA's current strategy of "fewer, bigger"? It sounds like EA will take less risk launching new IP, focusing on the ones that work.

PS: Yeah, so I think fewer, better has helped us to really focus and do the big ones better. Arguably, if you look at our quality on the big ones, it's gone up in the last four or five years; we really made a transformation there, with some missteps along the way, but in general [we've improved].

Basically, the strategy is, if we do fewer, bigger, better, that will allow us to do more things. I've been at EA for six and a half years now; we're still making a lot of new things, a lot of new IP. Then obviously, you have to think about when in a cycle you launch them. Is it the right decision to launch a new IP at the slowing-down phase of the current hardware, or do you wait until something else is coming?

But I think [EA CEO] John Riccitiello has really focused the company around these fewer, bigger products, and that's really helped us make them better. We're launching half the amount of product we did before, but we're more successful. And I think it's been an instrumental change at EA, and frankly the right one for us, because that will allow us to do more new IPs.

One thing with you at the helm there, too, it kind of speaks towards the possibility of the EA Games label being more tech driven, because DICE [where Soderlund was previously CEO] is quite known for advancements in that area. What's your approach to pushing technology under the label?

PS: So I think tech, for me, is an enabler to do great things. And I think if you look at Battlefield 3 when we introduced the Frostbite 2 engine, all the things that we made in there were gameplay-driven or experience-driven; we didn't just make tech for the sake of making tech. We looked at Battlefield: Bad Company 1 and 2 and asked, "How do we take this to the next evolution -- what are the things that break the experience? And we identified certain pillars.

Animation was a key component that we said, "That ain't cutting it." And how do we not just make a little leap, but how do we make a gigantic leap in animation? And that gravitated us towards our FIFA team, who have an advanced animation system. So we took that, and we then rewrote that and implemented that, and iterated it into a first-person shooter, because different things happen when you put that first-person versus third-person like in FIFA, right?

Audio is another thing. Audio is such a big portion of a product that you don't really think about, but we said we have to nail audio. And I think audio is one of the signature pieces of DICE and the Frostbite engine. We win basically every single audio award that you can win, and there's a very deliberate effort on that.

And then the other part is rendering and destruction. And destruction is cool, but we said we want to make gameplay-altering destruction, not just destruction for the sake of it. It needs to be, "Okay, I can shoot through that wall and kill someone; I can take away cover."

You certainly see that in Battlefield 3, with a lot of emergent gameplay. Someone rockets your building and then changes the map's landscape.

PS: And that's cool, because that adds a different level of gameplay. So yes, tech-driven for sure, but we shouldn't make tech for the sake of making tech; tech needs to be an enabler for consumers to have a better experience. That's how we look at it.

So part of this iterating on tech, you're intentionally overshooting [average PC hardware] a little bit to prepare for the next consoles?

PS: Yeah, I'll be honest with you -- Frostbite 2 was built for the next generation. That's how we started it. We had that in mind and we said, "We're going to have to build something that can scale." It doesn't mean that what you see in Battlefield 3 is the end state. That's the beginning; that's where we start and then we go forward. But we have a tech base that makes me feel really confident in how we're positioned for what's going to come in the future.

So Frostbite 2, Danger Close is using that now [on Medal of Honor: Warfighter]. Why was there that decision to use Frostbite 2, and what was the engine it was running on?

PS: They were running [Epic Games'] Unreal before.

Was this a case where you wanted the team to use internal tech?

PS: We take the philosophy on not forcing tech upon anyone. It was basically a desire from that team, when they saw the results of Battlefield, and they saw the results of what that engine could do at the time. I'm not saying [Epic has] a bad engine -- I'm just saying comparing the two at the time it was like, "Okay, we can do more of what we want with the Battlefield/Frostbite engine."

And also you have other things: the economy of scale, if you want to call it that. This is boring business stuff. But at some point in time, we want to transfer resources between studios, and if they have the same knowledge on the tech base, it's going to be a hell of lot easier for us to do that efficiently, and for them to get help or for them to give help. So that's why we decided to center on one tech piece, and that was Frostbite; it was the obvious choice.

If the team wants to use Unreal, then you're cool with that? Or are you going to say, "Check this out, we should probably stick with this because..."?

PS: Well, you know what? It needs to be validated by the same business sense, but in theory I'm cool with them using different tech, if they have a good reason for it. So we're not going to force anyone. There will be other games on Frostbite as well. You know, you saw Need for Speed was on Frostbite last year, and hopefully more to come.

The other big part about giving back to the players [through tech], is we have a team of 40 or 50 people in Stockholm working on the runtime and the core of what Frostbite is -- the game engine, but also the toolset developers use to create.

But if we now have the Danger Close guys working on things, they're making some things in Medal of Honor that you couldn't see in Battlefield, taking it a step further. So for us, they're not only using Frostbite -- they're pushing it forward. And then our guys -- the Frostbite team -- takes the code and decides if these parts are going to get integrated back into the main branch, and then we can use it for more products.

If you take this and multiply it by more teams using it, you've got an ecosystem where there's a continuous push in the engine that's not led by just 40 or 50 people, but maybe 500 people. And that's how we scale our advantage, I think.

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About the Author(s)

Kris Graft


Kris Graft is publisher at Game Developer.

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