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Experiments and Innovations: The EA Approach

EA Games Europe's Patrick Soderlund oversees studios like DICE and Criterion, plus the freshly announced sim racer Need For Speed: Shift, and talks to Gamasutra about EA's new biz experiments.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

March 4, 2009

20 Min Read

Patrick Söderlund is the senior vice president of EA Games Europe, and while in the States recently to unveil sim-heavy franchise extension Need for Speed: Shift -- developed by UK independent developer Slightly Mad -- to the gaming press, Gamasutra took the opportunity to discuss how this externally developed game fits into the larger company's development philosophy.

But beyond that, what successes and failures has EA Games Europe (and the wider organization) seen recently, and how does Söderlund view them? What came out of the discussion was a view toward "experiments" that can enrich the knowledge base for the entire company.

From the data mining that underpins the free year of DLC offered by Burnout Paradise to the free-to-play infrastructure to support Battlefield Heroes, these services -- which break new ground for the company -- offer potential insights into how to best run development in the future.

And as for the company's current increased focus on quality? "To me, that is the only guiding principle if you're making entertainment... I think, for me as a person, I could not imagine working for a company that didn't have that as its guiding philosophy," says Söderlund.

Could you give me a picture of your role at Electronic Arts in Europe?

Patrick Söderlund: Yeah. So, my current role is: I'm overseeing the development studios that [the EA Games label has] in Europe, so that includes the DICE studio in Stockholm, which is about 300 people; the studio in the UK, Criterion, obviously the Burnout guys, they are about 100 people; and then a studio in Germany, called Phenomic, they have a game coming out called BattleForge.

And then, obviously, even external relationships like what we have with the Slightly Mad Studios guys. So that's my current job. Each studio will have local leadership, but then reporting to me, and I am reporting to the [EA Games] label president, which is Frank Gibeau, in San Francisco.

So, when it comes to working with external development in Europe, is that a decision that you make, about the studios that you choose to work with, like Slightly Mad?

PS: You know, I found them together with the guys at Black Box, and we made the decision to work with them. That's not something that gets decided from above, so we make that decision on our own.

One thing was spoken about during the demo was the specific choice of that studio as being well suited to the direction that the series wanted to go, rather than trying to force Black Box to go this direction -- it's perhaps not a style that specifically Black Box is really good at developing.

PS: Yes.

Racing is, but maybe not this exact game.

PS: No, you're right. I mean, obviously, we met with basically all of the existing independent racing developers there, and whether they're in Europe or the U.S. doesn't matter to us, but it just happened to be that these guys were in London, and they had, by far, the best looking technology.

And also, we figured we share the same passion for driving and for cars, so that's why it was a good fit. But, yeah, you're right, absolutely. And it was actually never discussed that this would be a game developed out of Black Box at all.

We looked at developing it internally, with other studios, but we didn't find a good fit, and we didn't have the capacity in the places that might have been good fits, so we ended up going external.

EA Black Box/Slightly Mad Studios' Need for Speed: Shift

Now, Slightly Mad... Is this their first title since they came together? Because there's an apparent controversy about the game's core developers...

PS: Yeah, so, what they did was: Slightly Mad Studios, up until just a couple of months ago, were called Blimey! Games. And then they had some restructuring happen, and then they became Slightly Mad Studios. So, then, the whole Blimey team became Slightly Mad Studios.

So this game has been in development for two years, but...

PS: The engine has been in development for about two years; we have only worked with them for about a year. A little more than a year, on Need for Speed: Shift. And there has been some press around stuff, and basically what happened was, the Slightly Mad Studios guys, the people that are in that studio have worked on GTR 1 and 2, and also GT Legends for a company called SimBin, in Sweden. So...

Do you have any comment on where the complaints over the game's heritage are at right now, with SimBin complaining about alleged confusion and threatening to sue. At least in my opinion. It's like, "We think we might sue them..." It's like, you do or you don't!

PS: Right. I honestly don't know what happened there, but what I do know is that the people that we work with are part of the development team that made those games. That's what I know, and that's all that matters. So, whether they think that they have a case or not? I can't comment on that.

Now, there's always been a sort-of a push and a pull between relying on internal development studios, and then going with external. EA has the largest development organization in the world, so how do you make those decisions?

PS: I think for me, the biggest driver is talent. And these guys display talent that we didn't have internally, in this particular sub-genre. They also had tech available that we liked, and they themselves were available as a team. So I think from that perspective it was a pretty good match.

Do I think that we could have built this internally? Yes. Do we have tech that could do this? Yes. Do we have tech that could do it as well? Probably not. So, it's always a juggling act of trade-offs.

There are certain aspects that an internal team at EA would do better than what the guys at Slightly Mad could do, but our job is to help them in those areas where they are probably less experienced than we are, and then they will bring their expertise, and hopefully the mix can become a good result.

But, to me, the biggest driver for external versus internal is going to be talent. And also game idea, right? We had the idea, but it was not much more than an idea, and they took an idea and made a game out of it.

Right. Obviously there's a big difference.

PS: Right. To their credit.

And when it comes to technology, is it their tech, or is it your tech?

PS: It's their tech.

So, you didn't acquire the tech, or the engine, or anything.

PS: No.

How do you feel about that, organizationally?

PS: We can't give out details on dev deals, but: we're well protected on the tech side.

"It's valuable to call in the right people for the right job when the right job presents itself," is sort of the guiding philosophy?

PS: Yes. I've found that to be successful in the past. When you force people to do stuff that they're not comfortable with, usually you end up with a bad result. What I like about the Slightly Mad Studios guys is that they have an extreme passion for what they do, and they have a hunger to succeed.

I'm not saying that our internal teams do not have that, but once you're a small external developer, sometimes struggling to survive -- not that they do, but some of them are...

Most studios are the fabled "one deal from closing".

PS: Right. That's true. And that's not necessarily true of an internal team. So, once you give them the chance -- that's what I felt with these guys. We gave them the opportunity to work on Need for Speed, which, ultimately, is the biggest car franchise in the world, and they've taken that to heart, and they're so aggressive, and so passionate, and hard-working, and I think that's paying off.

To me, that's the passion that I wanted when I signed them up, and that drive for quality and to make something that people will enjoy playing, and will have a fun time playing. That's what is important to me.

I know that EA planned to do some reduction in force, which has been coming into effect across studios globally -- but is there a connection between spinning down some of the development teams at Black Box and developing Need for Speed externally?

PS: Not necessarily. As I said, I think that why we chose the Slightly Mad Studio guys was actually not because of overcapacity at Black Box. We picked them because of what they could do for us.

I think a lot of EA as a company is overlooking our whole development organization and saying, "Okay, in what areas can we shave some money off? And in what areas can we be more effective? And in what areas, frankly, are we not succeeding properly?" And based on those criteria, that's how you look at things. That's why we're making the changes that we're making.

It's not a secret that EA, as a company, hasn't performed well lately. And I'm a firm believer in the fact that we're changing that, but sometimes it's hard, and you have to do it right.

What do you think of the philosophy change at EA? The drive for quality. What do you think of that as a guiding principle for the company?

PS: To me, that is the only guiding principle if you're making entertainment. You can't survive in this industry without having -- I mean, I think, at least -- that guidance as your primary objective.

I think, for me as a person, I could not imagine working for a company that didn't have that as its guiding philosophy. And sometimes in the old EA that wasn't always true. Today, that is the guiding philosophy, that we have to get to quality, and quality will make you successful.

There are a lot of good games that don't sell, but in the long run you'll win if you strive for quality, and if you constantly put out high-quality products, you'll win without a doubt. So, for me, it's an extremely important factor, and it's one thing that I personally couldn't work without.

That's how I used to run the DICE studio in Stockholm when I was a GM for that for almost ten years; that's how we made the Battlefield products, and all of those games that we built in the past.

The last bad game from DICE was probably Shrek. That's a long time ago.

PS: Exactly. And Shrek was a game that came out of a studio that we acquired, and that that game was basically done when we acquired them, so that basically wasn't a DICE game. It wasn't built by DICE.

"DICE has a reputation for quality" is another way of saying it that's a little bit less snarky. (laughs)

PS: And, you know, it's hard to deliver high quality products; that's why I'm so proud of the fact that EA has something like BioWare in its family.

You have to admire the guys up there, because you know that whatever they touch, you know that it's going to be 90+ rated, every single time. It might take longer...

There's a definite correlation between development cycle and quality.

PS: Time, yeah. But, they certainly know they've found their way of making things at extremely high quality, and I respect them for that. I envy them for that; I wish all of us could do that all of the time, but I think it's important that we have our Ferrari Enzo in the company, in the form of BioWare.

EA's Dead Space

We all know that Mirror's Edge didn't perform particularly well this fall, and Dead Space performed well but wasn't a huge hit, and then on the back of that some of the analysts were saying, "This 'quality' thing didn't work out! Time to switch gears again!" I think that's simplistic, but...

PS: I think that's way simplistic; I think if you analyze games like Dead Space and Mirror's Edge for their lifetime performance, I bet you'll find them to be seen as successful.

They're both new IPs; it's hard to break new ground with new IPs, especially in that Q3 window, when you have games like Gears of War 2, Call of Duty 5, and a bunch of other really strong products with a 2, or 3, or 4, or 5 on it. So, I think that we could have done a better job as far as ship timing on, probably, both of those.

I think that in the case of Dead Space, I think that we executed well on our quarter targets; probably better than we could have hoped for. I love the game; I think it's an awesome game, so kudos to the team for putting it together.

I think on Mirror's Edge we did a lot of things that we set ourselves up to do: it's an extremely innovative product, both in terms of art direction, to in-game music, to the movement and everything. Is it perfect? No. Are there things in there that we will address for future versions? Absolutely. Was it a good first attempt? Yes! That's kind of how I summarize it.

I can't compare Mirror's Edge to what we did with Battlefield... But we did a game back in the days called Codename Eagle, in 1998, '99, for Take 2. We were independent. That was kind of the foundation for Battlefield 1942, which ultimately was a slightly better game than Codename: Eagle.

And I'm not saying that Mirror's Edge versus the future iterations of Mirror's Edge is a Codename Eagle versus 1942, but what I'm saying is that I think that as long as you learn from your previous product, and you learn from what worked and what didn't work, you're ultimately going to be okay.

DICE is a pretty interesting studio right now -- not that they haven't been in the past, but it seems like right now is a little more of a ripe time for DICE splashing out with Mirror's Edge and Battlefield Heroes as well. There's been a lot of talk about Battlefield Heroes, but things have been a little bit quiet recently; how do you feel about the progress that the title's making?

PS: Well, we just reopened the beta. We had a beta open about four or five months ago; we then had to go back home and get some back-end work fixed. We [just recently] reopened the beta. Actually; it's done really well for us. You can now the game as the game is meant to be played.

So, you can buy stuff; you start out with basically nothing, and you have to work yourself up into the levels and ranks to progress. You'll earn points; you can buy points. I'm playing it, personally. I know Frank Gibeau, the President of the label [EA Games], is; we're both having a great time.

I have high hopes for that game. It's a very interesting... call it "experiment," for EA. It's a free-to-play game; it's a very different approach than what we're used to. I personally think that we're going to do really well with it, and at least we'll learn a lot from building it; on that segment of the market that is going to be huge in the future. It's huge in Asia.

There are so many problems with pirated PC products out there that, for us, as game makers, we're actually thinking about whether we should even build PC games today, or whether we just do online-only PC games, because that's the only way that we can keep people in sync so that they're not playing pirated products.

If you ship a single-player-only game on the PC, you're going to have a hard time today. It doesn't matter what security system you have, within days it's cracked, and you have a hundred thousand people playing it, but tens of thousands that will buy it.

The kind of flak you can take over DRM has gotten really severe. Especially, well, Spore was a huge controversy.

PS: Yeah. And ultimately, if you look at that, I think people are completely overreacting... I think that we could have done a better job explaining why we're doing it, and making sure that people understand that unless we do something like this, we won't be able to build games for you on PC.

Unless we go to a different model, like the free-to-play model, which is lower fidelity, and then microtransaction-based for the people who want to spend the money. And whether that model is going to work in the Western world or not, it's still... We don't know yet.

That's going to affect, also, the genre of the games that can be created as well. It's a freeing model in some ways, but it's also a limiting model in other ways.

PS: Yes. Without a doubt. And it's interesting, because it's industry-shifting. There's a lot of stuff that's happening right now in the world that we're going to have to maneuver through -- which I am excited about, but it is challenging, without a doubt.

That's why Battlefield Heroes -- and we're getting closer to full commercialization, and we're going to go live with Heroes -- that's going to be a good learning for us as a company.

EA DICE's Battlefield Heroes

I saw a really fascinating look at the technology that drives Battlefield Heroes at Austin GDC. Because some parts of Battlefield Heroes are reusable parts of a back end that can be used across potential other projects, which is pretty valuable as well.

PS: Yes. That's exactly the point. So, this is our first experiment, but the learning that we draw from this will be applied to other games, and the back-end tech that we'll be creating will be used in other games.

So, basically, we'll be much faster to market with other products; we'll be cheaper to make them, which ultimately gives us the chance to make more of them. So that's right.

Shifting gears a little bit -- this relates to Criterion -- but something that I thought was pretty amazing is the year of Burnout Paradise updates, which is pretty unprecedented, I think, and I don't think it gets as much attention as maybe it deserves.

PS: It deserves a lot of attention, and what the team, Fiona Sperry and Alex Ward, and the team out there in Guildford have done this year, is industry-leading, is setting new standards, and I think that from an EA perspective, we have learned so much from doing that this year.

And I think people don't understand how valuable it is for us as a company, and for the studios, to get the data. We can see everything that every single player does; we know.

Just to gather that data and to look at that and say, "Okay, they prefer pink cars instead of this; what conclusions can we draw from this? Okay, this game mode that we shipped? No one cares about it -- why? Here's why, and there's a lot of data that backs this up."

And so, therefore, making new versions of the game, we'll know a lot more now, based on player behavior and that kind of stuff, because previously we didn't even know; we just had to guess, right? So, it's all anonymous to us, but we still get a whole bunch of data which we can analyze, which is pretty damned cool.

I'm actually pretty surprised that the primary thing that you called out -- I mean, I'm not surprised that you're calling this out as a valuable thing, but I would have thought that sort-of the primary concept behind it was avoiding used game sales.

PS: That's been one of the things, absolutely. To keep people interested in the game, and yeah, without a doubt, we've seen used sales affect all of our products, and I think that instead of trying to find a legal way around that, we as game makers can say, "How can we make sure that people keep the games that they bought? How do we make sure that they keep playing them?"

And the way that we can keep doing that is to engage them in the world that we actually sold them from the first time.

That's why I think that something like Heroes, or even something like Burnout Paradise, is compelling to that extent, and we want that to transfer into shift as well, and to many other games. If you look at the Battlefield series, the community is such a big part of that franchise, and it will continue to be that.

Where did the idea to do year-long DLC come from? Did that come from Criterion?

PS: Yes. Came out of them.

Sort-of similar, I imagine, to the Battlefield Heroes, in the sense that it's an idea that came from within the studio, and then was executed on...

PS: Yes. The Battlefield Heroes idea came from... Well, I knew that we wanted to make a free-to-play game, but then Ben Cousins was the guy that created Heroes, and he was the guy who came up with Heroes as a concept, and what Heroes became; it was his idea.

With Criterion, it's an interesting idea; I mean, at some point, there has to be some number crunching, though, on a year of free DLC. Is there someone sitting there with a slide rule, saying, "OK, it costs X amount of money having this live team doing these updates, versus how much we think we're saving on..."

PS: Yes. I mean, of course there are financial implications to any business, right? And in the case of Burnout, I think that what Fiona and Alex and the team over there have done is that they've managed to actually create revenue out of a game that shipped a year ago. They managed to sustain revenue going into the company -- and obviously spending money against it, too...

Being a big company like EA, I'm glad that we're allowed to conduct -- let's not call them "experiments", but for lack of a better word -- experiments like that. Because we'll learn so much, as a company, and as long as we're good about sharing that, sharing the learning from that, and being evangelists inside the company so that we make sure that all the other 10,000 people get understanding for what worked, what didn't work, and what to avoid, and what to actually do in the future.

I think it's worth the money. Even though it's probably hard to look at that specific game and say, "Yes, we made X amount of money on this thing," in the future it's going to be worthwhile for us, I think.

Another interesting thing about Paradise that I think there has not been much reporting on is that it got onto PSN as a full game download, at a bargain price. Has there been a tangible benefit to that that you have seen?

PS: Yes. Yes, we've done well with that, actually. And that's been good for us, it's been good for Sony, and it's been good for all parts, I think; that was a smart move. Yeah.

Again, is that a test case?

PS: Yes. Absolutely. We have to test and see, right? What do people prefer; is this a tangible way to get the product out, post-launch, to get the product out to a different audience, or is it more like a casual buyer will buy it because it's there? That's been an interesting test for us. But that has been successful for us. Without a doubt.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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