EA DICE: "You could market research any product to death"
GM Karl Magnus Troedsson on filtering fan feedback, why Mirror's Edge 2 had to be made
Electronic Arts' DICE studio is working on a number of projects with very vocal fanbases. In addition to the Battlefield shooter series for which it is best known, the studio is also responsible for rebooting the Star Wars: Battlefront franchise, and delivering a sequel to its critically acclaimed but commercially underachieving 2008 action game Mirror's Edge. Speaking with GamesIndustry International at E3 last month, DICE general manager Karl Magnus Troedsson said the studio's rising profile over the years, combined with the rise of social media, has changed the way it interacts with fans.
"The amount of feedback is just crazy," Troedsson said. "It's gotten to the point that there's no way to respond to it all. In many cases, we have had to step back and become a little bit of a silent listener."
"The amount of feedback is just crazy...In many cases, we have had to step back and become a little bit of a silent listener."
Ultimately, Troedsson said the change has been a positive one because so much of it has to do with the success of Battlefield, but that inability to directly respond in the same way has presented some new challenges for DICE.
"I think gamers expect more direct communication with developers today than in the past," Troedsson said. "In the beginning when you have a small community, you're there, they know you're there, and it's easy to talk to them. But in the journey of Battlefield, we started to become pretty big, and maybe we lost contact a little bit with our players. We want to get closer to our players as much as possible. And some people are going to say, 'That's buzz word bingo, direct-to-consumer, feedback, whatever.' But it is very important for us. We want to listen to what our players have to say."
Obviously, players communicate with DICE through various means. There are the official forums, which Troedsson said is one of the studio's main lines of communication with fans. There's also the Battlefield Community Test Environment, a program where a limited group of players test out new updates before they're officially rolled out. This gives DICE a chance to see if their fixes actually fix known problems, and it gives players a chance to provide feedback on changes before they're pushed through to the entire player base. One avenue of communication Troedsson downplayed a little was Twitter, which he described as "a little bit chaotic" for feedback purposes.
"It's very easy for us to miss things, but also get things over-dialed up. Because that's the other thing as well. Not every feedback we get is good feedback. There's a lot of opinion. Some people want to take Battlefield and combine it with this game and that game and that would be their dream game. And some people just want to go back to Battlefield: 1942, the way it was in the past."
Despite the avalanche of fan input DICE is getting on what they should be doing, Troedsson doesn't find it any more difficult to stay true to the team's original vision for a game during development.
"Any great game team that delivers a great game has a very strong idea of what they want to do," he said. "If you have a game team who starts listening to every piece of feedback, you can feedback your game to death just by having people like me and executives and everyone else pulling the team in different directions. 'You should do this or you should do that. Change that, do this.'
"[Y]ou can feedback your game to death just by having people like me and executives and everyone else pulling the team in different directions."
"But the team itself needs to have the integrity to stand up and say, 'No. This is not in line with our vision. Remember, this is what we said is the core of the game. That's great feedback, I'll take that. We can mold that into it. No thank you, that's not good; we're not putting pink elephants into the game.' You need the integrity of the game team to do that, and usually that's one or a couple of people who have that vision in their head of what they want to create."
Mirror's Edge was one such game built on a team's distinctive vision. Between its female protagonist Faith, a somewhat minimalistic art style, and first-person gameplay that was more run-and-jump than run-and-gun, Mirror's Edge stood out from the rest of the big-budget efforts of the time. That helped win over critics and build a dedicated fanbase, but the game still disappointed at retail. It remains to be seen exactly how DICE will manage to produce a worthy sequel that will retain the things fans loved, while somehow avoiding whatever qualities ultimately kept it from being a financial success, but it doesn't seem like a problem Troedsson is overly worried about.
"You could market research any product to death if you're not careful," Troedsson said. "In the same way, you can go out on a limb without knowing anything about the market and make mistakes that way as well. When it comes to this product, as we do with all our games, we take a sound look at them from different approaches. We take a look at it from a gamer perspective: Is this something we want to play ourselves? Do we believe in it? What does the heart say? What does the gut say? And then we take the business approach and look at it with the mind as well. Do we believe that this has the opportunity to make the numbers we need for this to make financial sense? And then there are a lot of people in the organization spending a lot of time analyzing markets.
"The Battlefield 4 experience as it is now is a solid experience, which means all those fixes are going straight into Hardline as well."
"But somewhere between the heart decision and the brain decision, you just need to make up your mind. Mirror's Edge is definitely one of those products. We're so passionate about this product; it's a game that needs to be built, basically. Is there an element of a leap of faith here, no pun intended? Yes, there probably is, as there is with all games as they're being built. You don't know if they're going to be a smash hit from the beginning. But do we feel like we're swimming out into an unknown ocean? Absolutely not."
Even if Mirror's Edge 2 isn't an "unknown ocean," Troedsson says it felt like the Mirror's Edge intellectual property was still not quite fully formed after just one game. That's one of the reasons DICE would have been hesitant to let another studio come in and handle the game's development in the same way Visceral Games is taking point on this year's Battlefield: Hardline. The Battlefield franchise is well established at this point, so Visceral has a small library of games to use as reference when it comes to figuring out what belongs in a Battlefield game and what doesn't.
When asked if the Visceral team was under an unfair amount of pressure with its first Battlefield foray--a stylistic spin-off and the first new entry in the series since the troubled launch of Battlefield 4--Troedsson brushed aside concerns. In fact, he framed the Battlefield 4 issues as a net positive for Visceral.
"Sure there's a lot of pressure building games of this magnitude and with these expectations," Troedsson acknowledged. "But they're well prepared. They're a well-oiled team that has shipped a lot of games together. No matter what kind of games you do, that's a hardening experience to be creative but still against the timeline. So I don't worry too much about that, per se. The action of coming after the launch of something like BF4, both a massive game which is a big success for us, and is currently a very stable game a lot of people are enjoying, is actually a positive as well. The Battlefield 4 experience as it is now is a solid experience, which means all those fixes are going straight into Hardline as well."