Consumer demands for next-gen have changed - EA's Soderlund
EA Games exec on Battlefield 4 and the shifting FPS market, Star Wars, Mirror's Edge, and the problem of low staff turnover
As much as the console gaming business is cyclical, it's clear that this generational crossover has some key differences compared to previous ones. On the morning after the Electronic Arts media briefing, EA Games executive vice president Patrick Soderlund sat down with GamesIndustry International to discuss some of those changes, as well as the issues facing the publisher when it comes to Battlefield, Star Wars, and the just-announced Mirror's Edge.
One trend that stood out at yesterday's media briefings was the abundance of open-world titles and other content-rich titles in complex genres. In the last generational jump, the first wave of software for the new systems tended to be more conservatively designed.
"Consumers and press have been telling us they want something different," Soderlund said. "Last time around, we didn't really have that problem. If you think about PS2 to PS3 era, it was all about high-def gaming. You can now enjoy this in high-def. They were fine with the same game they could play on the PS2 because it looked so much better. You can't do that anymore. The games on PS3 and 360 still look OK. It's about what we do outside of graphics that will make a difference, I think."
"Consumers and press have been telling us they want something different. Last time around, we didn't really have that problem"
Speaking about EA DICE's move to next-gen development, Soderlund said a lot of the team initially approached the new systems with the notion of building around what had been done on Xbox 360 or PS3 and scaling it up from there. Soderlund said that was the wrong way to look at it, and stressed that the team start with the new generation in mind, making a game that's catered to all of the advances the systems bring and scaling it back from there as needed. Specifically, he mentioned the second-screen functionality, 60 frames-per-second visuals, and enhanced connectivity as perks he wanted to explore with the PS4 and Xbox One.
The systems aren't the only thing changing for EA DICE. The competitive playfield has also changed, as Soderlund acknowledged that the number of competitors in the first-person shooter genre has been dwindling. However, those remaining entrants in the genre are having to up not just the quality of the games, but the quantity of quality content they contain.
"If you just look at what we're doing today versus what we did five years ago, look at how much is in them," Soderlund said. "You need a deep, engaging single-player campaign. You need multiplayer with 7-10 game modes. You need to have a huge variety of locations. You need some kind of service to support the game post-launch that is not ripping consumers off but actually adds value. People choose one or maybe two games and they stick with those, and they want to be in that experience for a long time. So we as game creators need to make sure we fulfill their needs, to keep ahead of the curve. It's an interesting shift in that sense."
The resulting pressure means Soderlund has to keep an eye on the competition. However, he also has to be careful not to keep too close an eye on what they're doing.
"[E]ven though Battlefield 3 was a gigantic success for us, I would say we may have looked a little bit too much at our competitor"
"One can advocate that even though Battlefield 3 was a gigantic success for us, I would say we may have looked a little bit too much at our competitor," Soderlund said. "And we've been criticized for that, especially on the single-player side. But when we started doing Battlefield 4, we said we were going to make the game we think is the right game for us and the consumers. Again, you can't be arrogant about it. You have to be a little paranoid about what others are doing, but staying true to what you're doing is the key."
That shouldn't be too big a problem with the new Mirror's Edge, a follow-up to DICE's 2008 first-person action game. That game drew critical acclaim and a vocal fanbase asking for more, but its sales figures were underwhelming, and there's been essentially no competition to keep an eye on, much less copy.
"People wanted to love that game, but in all honesty when the game came out, there were a lot of things that were great with it, but there were a lot of things that were frankly too frustrating with it," Soderlund said. "And I think that limited our sales to some extent... You can't have a game where people keep falling down all the time. Of course, you want to have that vertigo fear, but it was too punishing. So how do you go about that without breaking the exciting gameplay moments?"
Soderlund said EA has been wanting to make another Mirror's Edge for years, but they needed to wait for a developer to come up with the right solution to that problem. Unfortunately, gamer will need to wait to hear details about what that solution was. As for whether the industry is any friendlier to the idea of female protagonists since Faith debuted in the original game, Soderlund balked at the question.
"Is it Mario, or is it something you can't remember? People that play games always remember Faith. And that's a sign of success to me. Male or female doesn't matter"
"To me, it's not about female or male," Soderlund said. "It's difficult to create a new IP and a character and an icon that people care about. And if there's something we did right with Mirror's Edge, it was just that. You didn't have to like her, but you immediately realized what she was, the art direction, movement, the clothing... To me, it's about that. Is it Mario, or is it something you can't remember? People that play games always remember Faith. And that's a sign of success to me. Male or female doesn't matter."
Soderlund also addressed some reports of DICE developers leaving the studio to join up with mobile outfits like ngmoco and Rovio. He said the developers who left could be counted on one hand, and he's more concerned about the number of employees leaving being too few rather than too many. "I think you need a healthy turnover of people in a studio to get new, fresh blood in," Soderlund said. "And frankly, to get the people out that maybe want to do something different. And DICE has always been a studio where you have like 2 to 3 percent turnover. And that's not enough. You want more. And I'm not saying this in a bad way, I'm just saying you want that healthy tug of war."
Finally, Soderlund addressed the announcement of DICE's work on Star Wars: Battlefront. When EA Labels head Frank Gibeau first approached him about the possibility of working with the Star Wars license, Soderlund said he had two thoughts. First, it was crucial to put the best teams on the project, and they had to want to be in on it. Second, having DICE do a Battlefront game was a "no-brainer."
"That game concept, that series, combined with DICE is a match made in heaven," Soderlund said. "I'm biased, but I can't think of a better developer suited to take that game on."
Now the plan is for DICE to preserve the elements from the original Battlefront games that worked well and defined the series, but to put DICE's own stamp on them. And if they can't do that, it's not enough to just shuffle out any old thing just because it has a marketable license attached.
"We'll go about this like we do any other game," Soderlund said. "We're not going to greenlight a game today that doesn't have some key elements of innovation and that we don't think is going to do well in the market. You can't. It's too expensive."