It’s been over a decade since Electronic Arts bought Battlefield developer DICE and with it, acquired former DICE chief Patrick Söderlund.
Since then, Söderlund has moved up through the ranks, working in various leadership roles and now, after an executive reshuffle this year, to a new position as chief design officer for the company.
At E3 this week in L.A., Söderlund explained the broad creative strategies at EA, giving us a rare birds-eye view of the motivations that drive EA as a game publisher. (Edited for clarity and length.)
How does the ideation process and greenlighting work within EA?
It’s a very stringent process. We have what we call a game development framework where for the first gate, which we call Gate 0, there’s like a manual of what you need to do. So you have to get a brief together, you have to do a company build. There’s a framework around what you need to accomplish to get the first gate.
Then, there’s a discussion between basically myself, [chief studios officer] Laura [Miele], and [chief marketing officer] Chris Bruzzo. The three of us have kind of a joint greenlight committee where we say, “listen, this makes sense” and then approve the gate. The first gate is like the concept gate. The second gate becomes more evolving the concept and preparing for production. Then we approve the gates one by one. So it’s a staggered system where we let the teams run very independently, I would say, and then they present and we talk and we give directional guidance.
“We just believe that [Anthem]’s a way for BioWare to build a more contemporary game. It’s a way for BioWare to take the essence of what makes a BioWare great — the lore, the characters, the stories and the choices that BioWare is known for — but to put it into a more relevant, contemporary game design that is online-focused.”
Then they go into full greenlight, which is when you go into production. When you go into production, then you make the game, but there are two or three gates prior to production.
How many years for EA does it average between the concept and the production?
It all depends. You can imagine the FIFA games. They go through the first two or three gates in weeks because they make a game every year. If you make a new IP like Anthem, your first three gates may take you two years. So it depends.
So can you give a little background, since you bring up Anthem, how that started? It’s Bioware so you already have this big brand in Mass Effect. How did they convince you, “Okay we’re going to do a space, sci-fi thing, but it’s not going to be Mass Effect?”
I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in Anthem from the start of it…BioWare is a developer that’s been known to have an ability to create new IP. They’ve done it multiple times successfully. This came from them as, “We want to build a different game. We want to build a different type of game and we believe that warrants a new IP.” So we said, “okay.” And Casey [Hudson, BioWare general manager] started working on it. And then after, I would say, about a year or so into Anthem, Casey decided to go to Microsoft for a while.
Obviously he came back. It’s been a fun journey. The game, obviously, from what was initially pitched versus what we have today, of course it will diverge a little bit and it will change over time but it’s pretty much what Casey’s vision was from the beginning.
And we just believe that it’s a way for BioWare to build a more contemporary game. It’s a way for BioWare to take the essence of what makes a BioWare game great — the lore, the characters, the stories and the choices that BioWare is known for — but to put it into a more relevant, contemporary game design that is online-focused with more players and a game that, when it launches, is live over time. That was the vision for Anthem and what BioWare wanted to build. It was a relatively straightforward process. The first time we showed it to the executive team and the board, everyone said, “this is incredible.” It was one of the easiest projects I’ve seen to get greenlit.
Going to the external stuff, why is it important for EA to get these smaller projects from external teams?
You mean the Originals program? For me, it’s a way for us to do a couple things. One is, it’s a way for us to get in contact with developers and products that we probably normally wouldn’t get in contact with.
“I came from a development background. I started my own development studio many years ago in apartment with five people late at night drinking Jolt cola and I know how difficult that was. If we would have come into contact with a program like Originals, that would’ve changed everything.”
If you look at Connie from Jo-Mei showing Sea of Solitude, that’s a game I don’t know would have seen the day of light if it wasn’t for us picking it up. It’s a game that’s her personal story. It’s a game that focuses on emotion and loneliness, a lot of things that are relevant in today’s world in a way that I think is important. So that’s one side.
Finding these developers with these ideas that we believe should be put in front of players and give them proper funding, proper support, and proper marketing effort. You see us popping Sea of Solitude next to FIFA and Battlefield on stage. That’s the beauty of that program. We’ve done that consistently.
The second thing I think it is is it’s a way for us to show the world that EA cares and that it’s a way for us to give back. I came from a development background. I started my own development studio many years ago in apartment with five people late at night drinking Jolt cola and I know how difficult that was. If we would have come into contact with a program like Originals, that would’ve changed everything we did at the time.
So it’s a way for EA to give back to the community and to show people that we care about the industry and we want to nurture and bring forth new ideas and developers. I think the third one is, I actually think it’s something that can hopefully help the EA reputation and the EA brand, which I also think it’s important. You’ll see a lot of people inside of EA being incredibly proud of the Originals program. That’s an important thing for them. I hope that people on the outside can see it as something positive.
So as someone who helps define the EA brand, that kind of softens the image. We’re not just the big huge…
Because we’re not. You’ll find inside of EA that it’s a company full of a lot of passionate, smart, intelligent people who care deeply and sometimes, it pains me to see that doesn’t shine through all the time. That’s on us as a company to fix, but if you come inside the company and you view the people, you can see that it’s full of people who want to do the right thing.
Do you feel like there’s this, a friend of mine called it a “hatred tax,” that just because EA’s been around for a long time, it’s successful, that there have been missteps, as the company has admitted…Do you think you catch an unfair amount of flack from fans and media?
Yes and no, I would say. I think yes of course we feel that way. We get frustrated because, to your point, there’s a hatred tax. At the same time, perception is 9/10 of reality. If people feel something and say something, we need to listen to them. And that probably means we have done something wrong. It could have been in how we communicated, it could have been in what we’ve done. It would be arrogant and probably not particularly long-term, with a long-term view, if we decided, “Well that’s hatred. We don’t care about that.” We need to care about it. And we can feel that way maybe for a split second but we can’t listen to that. We have to be accountable and understand that again, perception is 9/10 of reality.
So, internally how do you hold yourselves accountable? There’s two things. There’s the lootbox thing which was somewhat addressed earlier this week…I wonder what these kind of PR issues look like inside EA? There’s the women being featured in Battlefield backlash, too. Can you give some insight of what it was like internally?
“The lootbox thing was just something that, we’ve said that and I’ve said it publicly many times, we clearly didn’t get that right…that triggered a whole event inside the company.”
Well the lootbox thing was just something that, we’ve said that and I’ve said it publicly many times, we clearly didn’t get that right. And you have two choices. You can hide in a corner and pretend it didn’t happen or you can actually be accountable and say “okay, we didn’t get that right.”
That triggered a whole event inside the company. We put together a team that’s worked on issues like, what does a life service look like inside of EA, what are rules, guidelines, and a framework we can put together? That’s why you can see us standing up on stage today and clearly articulating what it means for Anthem. People know, okay that seems fair.
For us, if we can put together a framework in a system that is fair, where I feel like I don’t have an unfair advantage because I pay and where I feel like I pay $60 to EA for my product and I feel like there’s enough value for that. If there’s a means for me to pay to dress differently and to look differently in the game or something else, we want that to feel fair and relevant and I think that’s the mantra. And I think people will respect that. And we will continue to ask people questions and listen to people to get it right. Sometimes you have to get something wrong to make it right. And that’s the approach that we’ve taken.
“These are people that are uneducated. They don’t understand that [women in World War II] is a plausible scenario. And listen, [Battlefield V] is a game. Today, gaming is gender-diverse like it hasn’t been before.”
“On the [women] in Battlefield, this is something that the development team pushed. Battlefield V is a lot about the unseen, the untold, the unplayed…The common perception is that there were no women in World War II. There were a ton of women who both fought in World War II and partook in the war. And we felt like in today’s world—I have a 13-year-old daughter that when the trailer came out and she saw all the flak, she asked me, ‘Dad, why’s this happening?’ and she plays Fortnite, and says, ‘I can be a girl in Fortnite. Why are people so upset about this?’ She looked at me and she couldn’t understand it. And I’m like, ok, as a parent, how the hell am I gonna respond to this, and I just said, ‘You know what? You’re right. This is not ok.’
These are people who are uneducated—they don’t understand that this is a plausible scenario, and listen: this is a game. And today gaming is gender-diverse, like it hasn’t been before. There are a lot of female people who want to play, and male players who want to play as a badass [woman]. And we don’t take any flak. We stand up for the cause, because I think those people who don’t understand it, well, you have two choices: either accept it or don’t buy the game. I’m fine with either or. It’s just not ok.
Games as platforms is even a bigger thing now, it seems like, than ever. And you’ve said you’re thinking about games five years from now. So what kind of stuff are you planning and how much is games-as-a-platform going to be a part of that?
I think the future sits in user-generated experiences. We’ve spoken a lot about user-generated content and I think a lot of people follow that path. Basically, Minecraft was user-generated content but there wasn’t much of an experience. It’s a builder.
Extrapolate that and and say what does a user-generated experience look like? And that’s where I think gaming is going to head and I think we’re spending a lot of time thinking about what that could look like. They may come in the form of a platform. As a company, we may have to move away from the thought of “this is going to be a product” to “we’re going to have to deliver a platform where gamers create their own experiences.” We will use tech that’s available now and will be available in the future to enable that.
So I think you’ll see catered games and game experiences that are specific. You’ll see that as well, that will continue. I think you’ll start seeing more more platform thinking, where long-term, EA may be a platform not a game.
A follow up on that: Does that worry you or equally excite you that people will latch onto one game?
Listen, whether it’s one game where there’s multiple game experiences in one platform or whether it’s, I don’t know, the answer to that, it’s kind of cool to not know the answer to that. But I think it’s clear that there’s no world where everyone will play the same game.
There may be a world where people partake in the same world, but some choose to race cars in that world. Some people choose to drive a taxi or be a medic or a nurse or some people may choose to play a simulation layer that does financial instruments, ala Wall Street. You don’t know.
Think about it as a world or platform with different types of experiences in it. And when I say user-generated experiences, that doesn’t mean we let everything go and that there’s complete freedom. We have to provide rules, guidelines, and a framework to allow people to do that. This is so conceptual and so science fiction-esque that it’s almost hard to talk about. I think we owe it to the world to start thinking about these things and to start analyzing and trying things to see where we can end up.
Can I ask real quick about machine learning? So how would that play into games of the future?
I think it’s going to be an integral part, because machine learning will do so many things and it has so many applicable layers to it. But if you combine machine learning with speech recognition and maybe even voice alteration, these are techs that are available today.
Just go to Alexa or Google Assistant and you realize that intelligent conversation with an AI is highly plausible. So for you to be able to come into one of our games and have an intelligent conversation with AI agents that will, depending on what you do or what you say, the story will evolve, that’s kind of interesting. So that’s one layer where machine learning can be applicable. We use machine learning for all kinds of things, for QA, for testing the games.
I know it’s a buzzword in the industry right now, but we’re doing a ton of stuff with machine learning. Our CTO Ken Moss has a large team working with machine learning. The SEED (Search for Extraordinary Experiences Division) team does more applicable research in machine learning and with the experiences in focus and what type of experiences will this allow for us to do that we can’t do today. It will have a profound impact in the industry, more so than people think.