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"

Patrick Soderlund

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"

Patrick Soderlund

"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"

Patrick Soderlund

"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."

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Latest comments (12)

James Prendergast Process Specialist 8 years ago
"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."

Well, I suppose that's one way to justify lay-offs!!


Serisouly though, I get what he's saying but I think that you can definitely get that fresh blood and those new ideas from within a work environment without having to create or rely on churn - you just need to have the right policies and structures in place to foster that.
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Ken Varley Owner & Freelance Developer, Writer, Devpac8 years ago
Is it just me who thinks that BF3, COD etc are just hand held lead storylines. Theres no freedom in their games, its very similar to FPS on rails. Its just covered in so much fluff.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development8 years ago
I don't know, they all blend into one for me. The genre peaked at Quake 3 and from then on it's been all about the "other".
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Show all comments (12)
Daniel Rohde 3d Environment Artist, Playground Games8 years ago
When it comes to first person shooters I have seen no new ideas come out of big money AAA publishers in a long time. Personally I stopped playing them from after the release of Modern Warfare 2, Battlefield 2 for good reason. I have seen no great new efforts in creating or injecting any new experiences and ideas besides the reuse of old content with a new skin as it were. I mean what happened to risks and pushing the boundaries or are all the big companies just turning into Zynga that follows the policy of copying others ideas. A lot of games turned to blockbuster movies for inspiration and pulled out the stops to wow the consumer and now I feel totally unexcited about anything in the fps market. It just feel like FPS market has gone bland and has been milked for all its worth (whilst there is still a profit margin to get). I do wonder how long this will continue however or will the consumer just mindlessly buy games because of a named brand... who knows.

I do however look forward Indie games more than big titles as they are the real risk takers in trying new things. Free to play models have given some good inspiration and a new life but I genuinely feel that business has got in the way of what games were about. I do look optimistically at the new generation of consoles in hope that they will help nurture what creative risk takers we have and not create too many barriers for them. We need that fresh look on things or i feel that things are going to become very same'y far down the road where older generations will be saying to their children 'this game is like the one I played 10 years back.' I know my dad does that with music he hears of mine and i worry that is going to be the becoming of the games industry.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Daniel Rohde on 12th June 2013 5:34pm

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David Serrano Freelancer 8 years ago
Wow, a rare public admission of the problems with EA's development focus. I think I just saw a pig fly past my window.

However lol, the fact that EA actually developed a Mirror's Edge sequel is why EA is a fundamentally broken company. Does EA own another IP which is critically acclaimed and has little to no competition? Oh yeah... The Sims. The Sims (franchise) has sold more than 150 million copies to date, is or was critically acclaimed and there are no other AAA games like it on the market. Mirror's Edge sold somewhere between 3 to 4 million copies across all platforms. And while Soderlund may not think male or female protagonists are an issue, almost 70 percent of Sims players are female and 48 percent of the gaming audience is now female.

So instead of assuming the small but reasonable risk involved in developing a new IP which could expand and build on the proven game play concepts of one of the most successful game franchises of all time, which has no competition and is also highly popular with female players... EA assumes the risk of developing a sequel to a game which 98 percent or more of the audience ignored. And they plan to release the sequel on the next gen consoles which will likely have a smaller installed base than the PS3 and 360? And EA's rationalization for this is Mirror's Edge drew critical acclaim and had a vocal fan base (which represented about .1 percent of the audience) asking for more?

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 8 years ago
@ David

(Man, it's weird giving EA the benefit of the doubt, but here goes.)

Looking at Faith as a character, and Mirror's Edge as an IP, it could be argued that ME holds the best of both worlds. It's an "established" IP (inasmuch as it has a fan base), and it could be easily marketed to female gamers. The E3 trailer showed no guns, interesting choreography, a female protagonist who is dressed sensibly and has mostly-normal proportions, and an FPS perspective which was tense without being excessively violent or gory. In addition, it's been confirmed that it's not Mirror's Edge 2, but a Mirror's Edge insert-year-here; a reboot. It's something that can be marketed to newcomers to the IP, whilst fans of the first game will be happy with the same gameplay (as long as there aren't any guns this time. :D ). In addition to that, there are barely any parkour inspired games, let-alone parkour inspired FPS games. So your comment re: no competition is just as valid for Mirror's Edge as it is The Sims.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 12th June 2013 7:02pm

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Andreia Quinta Photographer 8 years ago
Thing is Morville, how many young girls/women do you see interested in parkour to feel appeal for this game, and how many do you see interested in interior design/dressing up/architecture?
The point you make is valid of course, but the target is small compared to a Sims/SimCity thing. Although after saying this I wouldn't really appreciate if one of EA's PS4/XBone first releases was another Sims game.

I guess I just don't understand the business decision side of another Mirror's Edge, it was a commercial failure on release, gaining some acclaim with time. But the same could be said about Beyond Good & Evil and everyone wants more of that (BG&E won a lot more acclaim thou, to the point of cult classic).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Andreia Quinta on 13th June 2013 7:57am

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 8 years ago
Mmmm... BG&E2. Ahhhh, if wishes were horses. :D

With regards to your other point, I actually know quite a few girls/women who are interested in parkour. None of them do it in real life, but certainly a game about it appeals to them; one of my girlfriend's favourite games is actually Mirror's Edge. Your point is well-taken, though. :)
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Lewis Brown Snr Sourcer/Recruiter, Electronic Arts8 years ago
I think people underestimate just how much we all get asked about Mirrors Edge 2. As someone at EA who works with DICE, but talk to people not at EA it is by far and away the most asked after game before this was announced. It was one of those games that probably changed hands many times second hand or was leant to friends and produced a much bigger following than the units shipped suggested. I guess we will see if thats true when it comes out.
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Christopher Thigpen Lead Producer, Kiz Studios8 years ago
"Consumers and press have been telling us they want something different."


Since when did Press have the sway to change a developer's focus? I don't think that the press puts the coins in the coffers. It is the consumers. You either work for the consumer, or you close shop.

And as for pay them to say what you want them to say.

All businesses should be consumer focuses.

This just continues to illustrate the disconnect between executives and their markets.

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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 8 years ago
@Lewis: I believe ME2 will indeed do well (and better than the first with the open world aspect). However... please consider adding in the first game as a bonus OR getting it out beforehand as a low-priced download on PSN/XBL so those who missed it can meet Faith before her new adventures.

We all know there will be those who haven't played it and will simply buy because of the hype, but somehow be disappointed because they don't "get" that it's not what they wanted it to be (yeah, those folks still exist)... Nothing like a few too many Metacritic down-scores from players that all say "it's DICE, but it's not a FPS and not whut I expected!" to ruin a dev team's day...

Of course, I'd personally LOVE to see any ME game on the Vita and Wii U, but I won't even ask if that's possible...
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Lewis Brown Snr Sourcer/Recruiter, Electronic Arts8 years ago
@Greg I doubt I have any say that ME1 will be included :-), I take your point on some poeple who don't realise what they are buying being confused by the game, hopefully they will give it some time, good things come to those who wait!
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