INTERVIEW: Patrick Soderlund is not your usual EA exec.
While the likes of Riccitiello and Moore are famously focused, fierce and have an FMCG background, the Swedish label boss worked his way up from a role at developer DICE, acquired by EA in 2006, to eventually oversee all of the EA Games titles released.
The most telling difference was when, during his chat with MCV, he leaned in to confess that a lot of the research publisher suits do to justify new releases and fresh IP is worthless. He’s a creativity-first label boss who believes in gut instinct, rewarding developers – and getting good games in return.
MCV caught up with him at Gamescom last month to talk about his strategy for the label, which he took over 10 months ago, and its games out this Q4 and Q1.
What’s your vision for the EA?Games label?
The label is basically a collective of developers and every single developer has its own culture. My job is to be the guy in the middle and help them. There are 1,000 people in a label – how do we get the most out of them and how do we get the best games made with those people? There’s a lot more collaboration now than before.
But without the products we don’t have a label so ultimately that’s where it all starts. And even though we have some long-lasting brands like Need for Speed, it doesn’t mean that we can’t give the consumers innovation.
Obviously, when you sit at the top of an organisation like this, the quality is important, too. But quality comes in different forms. Quality to me is quality in our workplaces, quality in the people that work there, quality in how we communicate with them, quality in the work environments. My job is to foster that feeling so they can see that the company is doing its part to support them. We put a lot of emphasis on that, because we’re going to push them towards high quality. Ultimately, that’s what sells games.
We have to offer freedom for the games teams. We have to be careful they’re not being too directed in what we tell them to do. You can’t get anything decent from an environment where they’re told exactly what to do. Some of the ideas that they have come up, some might say are too far our brands. But as game makers, we have to take risks to be rewarded.
Is the emphasis on developer empowerment something you’ve brought with you having worked as a developer yourself?
Well that’s how we did it at DICE. If you go there, you’ll see that it doesn’t happen by mistake. Everything from when you enter the studio, the people you meet at the front desk to how the office is laid out – everything has been thought through to help the staff work well. We’re very particular about that. We demand so much from our employees that frankly if we can’t show them that we’re willing to go all out, why will they? That’s my philosophy. And we have certainly made some difference to other studios with that mentality.
A lot of people criticise EA for not being innovative. But look at what EA has done with Battlefield 3. We said, here’s a game that looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before. We looked at animation, we looked at audio, we looked at every single part of the visual experience and we said: how can we change this? I think if that’s not innovation, I don’t know what innovation is. Then you look at Most Wanted this year and Need for Speed really looks cool and different. Those things don’t just happen by mistake, those are all diligent strategies with someone saying: ‘probably not good enough’.
EA Games is releasing titles mostly based on its big brands. But there’s a hunger out there for new IP. How are you approaching this demand?
There’s nothing that we’ve announced but we are absolutely working all the time on new IPs.
To me, the day we stop doing new IP is the day we put ourselves on life support and then we’re slowly going to die. It’s not only needed for the industry and for the consumers but it’s also needed for the creatives. They need something different to think about. They have a lot of creativity built into them that they need to get out. The day that we stop thinking about new things that are not Need for Speed is the day that I’ll probably leave the games industry.
This year you have a new Medal of Honor. Battlefield did phenomenally well last year. How do you balance the two? Are they always going to run side by side?
We’ll see going forward. Right now, we’re following the strategy we have. We had a great year with Battlefield 3. Obviously we wanted it to do well but we were a little bit surprised and humbled by what happened. I’d be lying if I told you that didn’t change how we think about things in the future.
When I look at Medal of Honor, I look at a game that feels very different when you play it and I’m glad because you have Battlefield and obviously Call of Duty, there’s no way around that. They are the same genre but they feel distinctly different and they can co-exist. The tricky bit for us was to try and find our own space for Medal of Honor.
What the guys have done this year is found not only a multiplayer gameplay that feels different to Battlefield and Call of Duty, but also the introduction of the global team multiplayer. When they presented that, that was something that really stuck with me. When you play the game, it really works. I always play the Swedes just automatically because I’m Swedish. They may or may not be the best class or the best team but I play them anyway, just like you’ll play as your favourite soccer team in FIFA. It’s about honour. I’m really happy that they managed to do that.
EA Games titles are for the core gamer and there’s a real chase on for core gamer money. How has that informed what you do?
It doesn’t change a lot because that’s the segment that we’ve always operated in. For EA, we have a Sports label that does all the sports games; we have Maxis who, for lack of a better word, is more for the casual gamers with SimCity and The Sims. So for me, it hasn’t changed what we do because we were always right in the middle of it.