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EA's Sean Decker

The head of the publisher's LA studio talks PC gaming, the RTS genre, and why not everyone likes multiplayer

As living-room consoles have gone from strength to strength, they've had a noticeable impact - albeit in different ways - on both the PC gaming space and the RTS genre.

EALA is one studio that deals with both, and in one franchise, with Command & Conquer - here the studio's head Sean Decker talks about both of those topics, gives us an update on the business, and explains why not everybody wants multiplayer gaming.

Q: How's business at EALA?

Sean Decker: It's good, very good - we have a lot of people working on a lot of great stuff, obviously Command & Conquer is what we're showing here [at Gamescom]. I've been at the studio all of four months now - I was the general manager at DICE, so I'm kind of figuring it out.

They've made great Command & Conquer games year after year, so for me I'm coming in half-way through a game, seeing where things are, which is fantastic.

Q: So why the move from DICE - was that something you wanted to do, or did the company suggest you'd be good in LA?

Sean Decker: It's pretty much both - my family's from the US and we lived in Sweden for six years. It was a long time, but the other thing is that my original role at EA was with Westwood, so Command & Conquer was the first franchise I'd ever worked on. Obviously I did shooters at DICE, and there are some other games there that fit with EALA's portfolio.

Q: There's a fair bit of variety in the games that come out of EALA - how do you feel that shows off the talents in the studio?

Sean Decker: Yes, it does. EALA started as three separate studios - Dreamworks, Westwood and then the original EA studio that was there as well, so that's where all that talent comes from. Obviously that was many years ago and people have come and gone along the way, but I think it's a great mix.

At DICE, I loved it there and I'd go back in a heartbeat - but it's very focused on first-person (whether it's Mirror's Edge, or Battlefield, or anything else), and it's nice to ge some mix-up. For people who are super-creative it's great to try something that's a little bit different, and a lot of places you have to go elsewhere to do that.

So it's a good place, and the campus also has EA Mobile and EA Play as well - there's a lot of creative talent moving around, and it's great for it.

Q: With all the studios around the world, do you share much tech?

Sean Decker: Within the studios it's very city-state-like, where you pick what you like, and you work with the people you work best with. No technology's perfect, and EA's had some successes and failures along the way.

There's this system called Ant, which was originally developed by the sports guys for the great animations they do in FIFA and NHL. A lot of different studios have adopted that into their technology - it wasn't something that somebody said they had to use, it was literally that someone saw it, thought it looked cool and wanted to take a look at it.

Everybody loves it now, and most people plug it in. I think most of the games you'll see coming out in the next two-to-three years will have some of Ant in it somewhere - but the sports guys started that and others started picking it up. I think there's a lot of really good sharing, but it's done on a voluntary basis.

If you look at all the technology that each different studio uses, everybody's got a flavour that they like, that fits their games. The Dante guys and Dead Space use Godfather and the original engine from there. A lot of people use Unreal, at DICE we created the Frostbite engine because that's what we wanted for Battlefield... it's what you want, but you can kind of steal from everybody else.

Q: With development costs as high as they are, that must be a good way of offsetting some of that?

Sean Decker: The cost is definitely a benefit, but the other side of it is that at the end of the day you don't want to spend half of your time creating tech - you want to spend your time making a game. If you've got an artist who can sit there and make some content quickly, and spend their time doing creative stuff - as opposed to something that's not getting through the pipeline, that's not working... that's frustration, and then you stop getting what they want to do and what they came to EA to do.

So I think it's really about that - I'll take the cost benefit any day, but it's not as great as some people might think. Quite often, when you're taking a new technology you have to learn it and all the rest of it. But once you get it going, and it's stable, it's fantastic for designers, artists and everybody else.

Q: So you came into EALA after the overall cost-cutting measures were already complete - has everything settled down now?

Sean Decker: I've been in the games industry for 15 years and I've never seen it not change. If you're successful, you're grow and if you're not, you won't. That's really what it comes down to, and we're happy with the size that we are now, and happy with the games we're making.

If things get better and we do well, we'll probably grow... and if not, we won't.

Q: How do you see retail for the PC platform at the moment?

Sean Decker: Yeah, it's a bit like the music industry when it comes to CD sales and all the rest of it. There are still a lot of those out there, but it's shifting, and that's all there is to it. With DICE, Battlefield: Heroes is an example, it's really all about finding the way the customer wants to get the games they want to play - that's all it comes down to.

If they want to be at home and download it? Great. If they want to get it from a store? Great. We need to be at those different places with those ways. I think the PC market... I'm a huge bleeding-edge guy, and I love gadgets, and I think digital distribution in whatever form it takes will happen. Will it happen tomorrow? No, but I think that's the way most people will eventually get their games.

Even the console - look at it, they're doing games on demand right now, and I think there's a good market to be had for many years in packaged goods on PC... but eventually it will go online.

Q: How do you see the PC gaming scene at the moment? There are people who will say it's dying, but then there are still key PC-only genres and franchises, effectively...

Sean Decker: It's just shifting - the money is moving from one place on the PC to another place on the PC. Digital revenue is continuing to grow year after year for everybody. The MMO space, the MSG space, places like Pogo - they do fantastically well, and there's the entire Asian market that's almost exclusively PC as well.

So yeah, it's completely overblown.

Q: Looking at the RTS genre then - perhaps it's been a bit underserved in the last few years, but there are some key players releasing in the next six months... so why the revival, or is it just good timing?

Sean Decker: I think it's a little bit of both - there are some fantastic studios out there that have been making from great RTS games, and I think that Command & Conquer has consistently put out great quality year after year. I think you'll continue to see that, and whether it's on console or PC, it really goes back to where the consumer wants to get their experience from.

RTS is a great market and I think it will continue to be so - and I think that some of our competitors are coming out with great titles as well. The more people that are interested in and play RTS games, it's great for us.

Q: FPS games eventually made the console space its own, but what are the barriers for the RTS genre moving over - and do you ever see that changing?

Sean Decker: I think that there have been a lot of good attempts at it, but nobody's gotten to that place where they've got it. I think the biggest barrier that it faces is the real-time in it, as well as the space... to be able to control multiple things across space you can't necessarily see on your screen - that's always been the big issue, and there's never been the perfect solution that everybody's gone to.

I think you'll continue to see people attempt to do it.

Q: Will someone crack it eventually?

Sean Decker: Well, go back to the FPS point - eventually somebody did, so I think it'll happen.

Q: The FPS genre's very mature know and has lots of history - working on Battlefield you'll be aware that it's increasingly hard to innovate in such a venerable space. There are similar challenges for Command & Conquer in the RTS space, aren't there?

Sean Decker: I think we're doing some of that with Command & Conquer 4. When Westwood first started the genre, from Dune 2 onwards, there have been some things that people have pulled in - like resource-gathering and buildings - and to break out of that, you have to break out of some of those tenets that people think you have to use.

For example, Battlefield said let's take 64 people and throw them in a sandbox, and see what they want to do. If you think about Command & Conquer 4, we're taking lots of those tenets and kind of throwing them out - now you're really one person controlling this battle, and it's all based on something that actually moves, as opposed to the Tiberium harvester and so on.

We think of World War I to World War II - the first was all about the trenches, the fixed positions, and that's the same as Command & Conquer. The second one was the Blitzkrieg, everything on the move, and this is where this is going. You don't know where the guy is, he's not fixed in one location.

It's things like that, and player progression - people want to feel some ownership of what they play. With multiplayer in the past it's been win or lose, but now it's more about how a person did, how much experience they gathered, maybe they get another unlock so they can take them on again with a different tactic...

So there are a lot of innovations in Command & Conquer 4 right now and I think you'll see us continue to innovate year-on-year.

Q: How do you balance the needs of the solo player with those of the multiplayer?

Sean Decker: Right now the majority of our players play single player, but when they're done with the game about 40 per cent go on and play online. So I think you need to respect both of those - and first-person shooters have the same thing. The vast majority of people would finish the campaign, and then about 40 per cent of players would go online.

The consoles have done a great job of online... Xbox Live, you can collect everything you've ever done, and it's super-easy to connect - just give us your line and your accounts and go from there. We need to get to that level of accessibility for people [on the PC] and find more reasons for people to play.

When you think about the reasons people play, there are so many - there are very competitive people, there are people who are co-operative and want to play with their friends, there are people who are collectors who want every achievement and award... and everybody has different things to motivate them to go online, and the question is, can you provide what that person wants?

So far we've provided some of those elements, but not all - and that's what we're going to try and do.

Q: Do you expect to see that 40 per cent go up over time, is it inevitable?

Sean Decker: I don't think it is, actually, because I think there are a lot of people who don't like to play games online. They want to go home and play for 20 minutes by themselves and just have their own experience - they don't want anybody else interrupting it.

And then, hey, they've gotta put the kids to bed or whatever else it is. There are a certain number of people who want those experiences, and there are a lot of people who are just there to forget about the day.

I think trying to get to a place where everybody will play online... But having a connected experience is different, though - if you're playing an MMO but not joining up with everyone else, you're having a connected experience but not really playing with others.

So, connected experience? Yeah, I think everybody will be having those, and it's a good way for people to go, especially when people want to play at home, work, wherever they want.

Sean Decker is head of the EALA studio. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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