It’s been over 30 years since DICE made its games industry debut. Vince Pavey chats to Rebecka Coutaz about the Battlefield studio’s legacy and what it’s been like since she took command of the studio back in November.
When a small studio based in Stockholm that was mostly known for digital pinball and racing video games released the expansive class-based war shooter Battlefield 1942 in 2002, it changed the company’s trajectory forever. Despite some brief asides to work on games like Mirror’s Edge, Medal of Honor and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, the studio has largely had a resolute, determined focus since on delivering warfare experiences that are considered the main competitor to Activision’s Call of Duty.
A part of EA since 2005, DICE will celebrate 20 years of Battlefield this September. The most recent entry in the popular franchise, Battlefield 2042, received a lukewarm reception from video game critics, and an even cooler one from the army series’ most faithful fans. In response to the reactions to the latest game, EA stepped in and made substantial changes to the brain-trust and corporate structure surrounding the future of the franchise. One of these steps was the appointment of Rebecka Coutaz as general manager at DICE.
Coutaz is an experienced studio manager, with 10 years leading Ubisoft Annecy on her impressive CV, having contributed to some of the biggest modern hits to have come out of Ubisoft in the last ten years, including Steep, Tom Clancy’s The Division, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Driver: San Francisco. So why change companies and move to Stockholm?
“I don’t know if you know, but I’m actually from Sweden, I’m from Gothenburg. Of course, I’ve grown up and I’ve been programmed in Gothenburg, and being Swedish, of course, I’ve always looked at DICE with a lot of admiration. I followed that team for a very, very long time. I’ve been very proud of them. I’ve always dreamed about being able to join them. It’s a super talented team, and DICE the studio is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Battlefield is celebrating a 20th anniversary. So I’ve been looking at this team for a long time. To be able to join them and build on the future together with this team is very, very cool.”
Efforts have been ongoing to fix the issues found within Battlefield 2042 over at DICE, and Coutaz has been one of many people that is leading the charge in rebuilding the perception of both the development studio and the brand after their last game basically flopped out of the gate. She understands however, that recovering will be a process that will take some time, dependent on ongoing work at the studio, as well as listening to the continuing discussion between the Battlefield team and its community of players.
“When it comes to Battlefield 2042, our players were disappointed, but so were we as a team. We were sad, and our players as well. So we have continued to improve on the game. You know that we have focused on the game’s health, we have focused on the core gameplay mechanics, and we had to push Season One out because of that reason. Little by little we have improved the game, we have listened to our community and we have implemented their priorities, I would say, which are also our priorities. So little by little we have improved 2042, and the only way for us to regain that trust from that community is to continue to deliver. To deliver on our commitments. So that is what we are set out to do. So yes, it was a difficult situation, however, we can lean — and I’m being humble — we lean on 30 years of experience, with a great team, with a lot of Battlefield veterans. We are a legacy in the industry. We will continue to improve, we will continue to be better. We will continue to ensure that we can meet our players’ expectations of all the gameplay experiences that we provide.”
So, how are things feeling these days, eight months after launch? As DICE continues to fulfil its promises to its player base in Battlefield 2042, morale continues to shift inside the Stockholm based studio. A negative reaction can be a crushing thing for any creative team, but the studio head steadfastly believes that the only way out is through, and that with each game update and piece of new content launched, things are improving for everyone.
“You know, we are game creators and we create our games with our heart and our stomach. And we are nearly like artists going into a vernissage. Of course, when we put our hearts and our stomachs out there, it’s hard on us. We are passionate about what we do. So of course, we were sad. But it’s getting better. You know, for every patch we release, for every bug we can fix, and all the improvements we can do. It’s getting better and better. So I would say that, of course we have to continue to improve the gameplay experience for our players. The more we improve that experience, the better the morale in the studio is and the prouder we can be of what we are creating.”
Creatively, Battlefield is still absolutely the focus of DICE as a studio, despite new oversight from Vince Zampella at Respawn Entertainment, who is himself notable for being in charge of Infinity Ward when Call of Duty became the best selling franchise it remains today. It isn’t lost on Coutaz just how important Battlefield is to not only DICE, but its parent company.
“Battlefield is the heart of DICE. It’s a big part of EA as well, you know. This team here at DICE have been dreaming for a long time about rolling out a plan that can include other platforms as well, like mobile. Now together with EA and its teams, we can finally roll out that dream that the team here in the studio had. So we have full support from EA, and we have full support from Vince and the rest of my colleagues in that group. So we are totally focused on Battlefield 2042. The majority of the team at DICE and many people at Ripple Effect are also working on Battlefield 2042. So that is our focus at the moment and it will be for the future as well.”
PAST AND FUTURE
While audiences enjoy new Battlefield 2042 updates and cross their fingers for an eventual Battlefield: Bad Company 3, both Rebecka and EA are currently enacting larger plans around how to modernise not only Battlefield, but DICE as a studio itself in the years to come. “So first of all, as I said, we are a big part of what EA is doing on Battlefield, of course, together with Ripple Effect, and with the new studio in Seattle, and we want to be one of those powerhouses that are working on that.
We also want to continue to work on our studio culture, where our craftswomen and craftsmen can actually continue to develop, both on a personal level and in their craft, so they feel satisfied. … That’s not really the right word in English, but we want DICE to be a place where staff feel that they can develop and thrive and have the best environment to be able to make the most valuable gameplay experience for our players. So it’s a process that had already been started, to work on the culture in the studio. I’m carrying that on with the team here at DICE. It also means of course that we have to dare to be diverse and assure an inclusivity of everybody into the studio. We’re doing great.”
Sadly, Coutaz did not get into the finer details on what changes were made to assure diversity or inclusivity were assured over there in the Gothenburg studio, or even how they were really encouraging staff to develop and thrive. In the short while since Coutaz has joined DICE, she has already incorporated an assortment of changes to the way the studio will develop games going forward however, including moving to a hybrid working model. But which changes are the ones she’s most proud of now that she’s the one driving the tank across the Battlefield?
“I came on board at the end of November and EA and DICE had already kicked off a retrospective of what we should learn from Battlefield 2042. So that had already been kicked off when I came on board. That involved all the developers from all the studios that worked on Battlefield 2042. So DICE, EA Gothenburg, Criterion (who’s now working on Need for Speed as you know) and Ripple Effect in LA. There were many, many learnings that we got from that retrospective that will help us to form the future of how we should work.” she thinks for a moment, before explaining “The feedback that we got from all our developers has helped us to improve and look into our tools, to our development processes, to define the roles and responsibilities for individuals, but also for our teams. All this will help us to foster a more rapid decision making process, which is vital when you make games like we do that are multiplayer, that are live, which require a lean and agile organisation where we can take risks and where we can innovate quickly, and know where we can improve. I would say that because there are so many studios now working together on Battlefield 2042. These processes are even more important, because we work in different time zones. We are also in the new hybrid work model. So all of this has to be much more structured and defined. So that is a lot of great work that we’ve done, all together, in the last six or so months.”
Coutaz also believes that the highlight of her time at EA and DICE has been meeting the developers themselves: “Meeting all these passionate people. You know, it’s my drug. It’s my energy and they are all game creators, so they want to make the best games ever on this planet. So for me, that is really the best part of my job. These passionate people. I’ve got to meet with Battlefield veterans who have been around for 20 years. I’ve got to meet the new employees that are passionate about the brand, who joined DICE for Battlefield 2042.” she said, “I’ve also got to meet with great colleagues in the other studios to be able to work with people, you know, like Christian Grass at Ripple Effect, Marcus Lehto, Alex Seropian at Industrial Toys and Vince Zampella and Byron Beede. For me, that is very, very enriching on a personal level, but they also have an impact on Battlefield 2042. To be able to leverage from their best practices. It’s just fantastic. I’ve also met so many good people at Electronic Arts, so I feel very, very welcome.”
Due to the length of time Coutaz has already spent in the games industry, she may just be the perfect person to take on a challenge like Battlefield 2042, one with the experience to be prepared for any of the surprises and difficulties that will no doubt pop up while getting the Battlefield war effort back on track.
“I wouldn’t say there were no surprises, but you know, I’ve been in the industry for a long time. I’ve been in the industry for more than 20 years. I’m being very humble. But I have, I have experience from having been in production and development on the publishing side. Having led one of Ubisoft’s studios in France. I have that experience as well. So, I’ve worked on games that worked really well. I’ve also worked on games that encountered a lot of difficulties. I’m not saying that I know everything, don’t take me for that. I’m being humble, but I use all the experience that I have acquired in my life working in this industry. I use that experience together with the teams here at DICE, and with the teams at EA. So of course it’s been tough, but I haven’t really encountered anything that I didn’t expect to encounter.”
Coutaz is so singularly focused on Battlefield and getting the latest title and the franchise in general to being in a good place at the moment that she hasn’t even had time or inclination to even consider working on another IP for Electronic Arts. That doesn’t mean it’ll never happen, however, but it won’t be any time soon: “I haven’t really thought about another property so far. I’m so focused on Battlefield. My drive is the passionate people, but it’s also to be able to work on one of the greatest entertainment brands in this industry. So I’m very satisfied with that at the moment and we need to improve, so I can’t even project myself to any other brand at the moment. I need a bit more distance from it. At the moment, I’m just so proud of being able to contribute to Battlefield.”