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Q&A: Fredrik Liliegren on Red Jade Studios

In this exclusive Gamasutra interview, we talk with Fredrik Liliegren about the recent closure of DICE Canada, the subsequent re-formation of Red Jade as an art and animation outsourcing service, and the fate of the original, surprising Red Jade handheld
Fredrik Liliegren has been involved in the games industry for 18 years in various positions, most notably as founder and CEO of Digital Illusions CE in Sweden, and later as Studio Manager of DICE Canada. Electronic Arts officially completed their takeover of the company on the 2nd of October of this year, after originally obtaining a controlling stake in DICE in January 2005. On October 5th, DICE Canada, who were responsible for titles like Battlefield: Vietnam and Battlefield 2: Special Forces, was closed down by its new parent company. On the 16th, Liliegren announced the opening of Red Jade Studios, an art and animation outsourcing service which is currently comprised entirely of former DICE Canada employees. The name had previously been used by Liliegren in the development of a handheld system that relied upon digital distribution which was abandoned in 2001 after partner and major investor, Ericsson, pulled funding from the project. Gamasutra contacted Liliegren via email to discuss the closing of DICE Canada, and the formation of Red Jade. Why have you decided to focus on art and animation services rather than development with Red Jade? Over the last 9-12 months we did an assessment of the available external art houses for our internal project and it became clear to me that the art outsourcing business was in a tremendous growth phase as the games industry transitioned from its old ways of game development to a more agile and scalable model. So I found it inspiring to take part in this transition from a service position rather than a development perspective, since I think that it offers greater challenges and rewards at this point. I also felt that, taking all the experience that my team and I had accumulated over the years in the trenches, we could offer our clients something other art houses could not. Do you think we'll see more outsourcing of this nature within the industry, and more companies like Red Jade forming to take advantage of this? Definitely, I think that finally the games industry has looked at how other media does its development, utilizing the core team of talent and then hiring other core talent on a need basis. Understanding that you can focus on being really good at something in-house and you will be able to find other people externally that are really good at something you don't necessarily wish to be really good at to compliment you. But outsourcing is not just another way for people to get into the business: it takes talent, smart business people and great work ethic to make it work long term. I think in the short term we might see a lot of smaller studios trying to enter this space, but unless they are 100% focused on this space they won’t succeed in the long run. Starting an outsourcing business to fund your own games is not what your customer will be looking for. How many of the Red Jade staff are former DICE Canada employees? All of Red Jade’s staff are ex-DICE Canada employees at this point, but we are already interviewing for additional positions. How long had been you considering opening Red Jade? I started to seriously consider this to be something I wanted to do about 6 months ago, but kept it on the back-burner to see what EA would be able to offer the DICE Canada team once the acquisition was completed. So you were under the impression that EA would be taking full advantage of DICE Canada, rather than shutting the studio? No. I understood that their overall strategy might not be to have a smaller shop in a smaller place, but EA is a smart company, and I know that what they care about more than anything is the talent they have. We worked together to try to find a scenario that would work for both EA as well as the talent on the team, and unfortunately we were not able to find a setup and situation that would be beneficial to both parties. We did part ways amicably and EA handled the situation as well as can be expected, offering a lot of support to all employees in regard to finding either positions within EA or at other places. We are actually working for EA at this point at Red Jade. How long prior to the official announcement did you know that EA would be closing the DICE Canada studio? Did you anticipate the closure being so soon after the acquisition was finalised? I knew about 2 weeks prior to the announcement. I did expect that EA would make a quick rather than slow decision, as we had already been waiting for a decision for over 18 months after EA initiated the bid for DICE. Are you pleased that EA chose to move quickly, rather than prolonging the decision? We had been waiting for a decision for 18 months, so yes, it was good that a decision was taken as soon as possible. What was your initial reaction to EA's preliminary attempts to obtain a stake greater than 50 percent in DICE in 2004, and what was your reaction to EA’s purchase of a controlling stake in January 2005? As the founder of DICE, shareholder and a senior member of the management team, I was involved in the discussions with EA, prior to the official bid. I agreed with both senior management as well as our board of directors assessment that for DICE to continue to grown and be able to develop the titles we wanted to develop we needed to become part of a bigger entity to be able to be competitive. So I was 100% for the EA deal, just had hoped it could have happened faster. What were the barriers to the deal happening faster? Was it your shareholders, and, if so, why do you think they were more reluctant than management and the board of directors? There were a number of large stake shareholders that felt strongly that DICE could move forward independently to create better shareholder value to them than the offer EA was giving. They had a different opinion than management and the board. Once they had completed their takeover, do you think the influence of EA on DICE was something that was felt strongly? The acquisition was not completed until October 2nd 2006, so I don't really have a feel for what influence EA will have on DICE moving forward, since I am no longer an employee of DICE. There was no influence by EA during the time they held 50% of the company? The only influence EA had on us was as the publisher of our titles. Being a publicly traded company, we contained to operate at arms length distance with EA until the merger was complete. Why is "open communication" such a priority for Red Jade? I believe that in a relationship where you are supplying your customer with critical assets for their game, you have to be able to clearly and openly discuss all issues so that you can solve those issues quickly and move forward together to create a great title. I’d rather ask too many questions than too few - the more information and knowledge we have as a supplier about what our customer is looking for, the better we can perform our job as well as share the knowledge and experience my team has assembled. In regards to your previous use of the name, what was the Red Jade handheld, and why do you think it failed to make it to market? The Red Jade handheld was essentially a PS1.5 with mobile internet connectivity with online distribution of content from day one. It was well on its way to be ready in 2001 and set to be launched by Xmas 2002. The reason it "failed" was that at the end of 2000 Ericsson (our main investor and partner) ran into financial difficulty and therefore decided to cut our funding. At that point, the Internet bubble had burst as well so there was no other investors willing to take a chance on a revolutionary piece of hardware. In short, we would have launched a PSP in 2002 with online distribution. Imagine the possibilities! Do you still believe that there is a market for such a device, especially now that digital distribution is becoming more viable? Yes, but it is now too late to do it as a start-up. PSP is getting there, and Nintendo is getting to that point as well. Neither of them has the mobile part yet. But someone of the larger handset guys will bring a machine out sometime. How did you retain the rights to the name, and do you think the use is the name with your current venture is wise, considering the handheld's lack of success? Being the founder of Red Jade allowed me to retain the rights to the name and .com address. I don't really see an issue with reusing the name, it obviously is a remembered name and a great .com address! It also allows me to re-use the 1,000 t-shirts I have in storage somewhere. Are there projects lined up for Red Jade currently? Yes, we are fully engaged for the time being on projects. At this point, we are under NDA and can not reveal the projects we are working on. But we are always eager to discuss future projects with any game developer looking for talented and experienced artists. At what point did you begin offering Red Jade's services, in order to have these projects already in the pipeline? We started Oct 2! We already had work with EA negotiated and ready to go.

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