EA's Soderlund: 'Adapt or become irrelevant'
21st Aug 2012 | 10:37
It's hard to fake a dedication to games which is why many game publishing executives, rather wisely, tend to not bother.
So when Patrick Soderlund showed me his Battlefield iPhone app (just, by the way, to demonstrate how it works), I surreptitiously peeked at his player stats to see how much time he's invested in a game that he publicly endorses so regularly.
One hundred and seven hours online, it said.
Soderlund is the executive vice president of the EA Games label, with share options and all the rest of it, but he entered the games business from a cherished childhood of buying plastic cartridges in shops and daydreaming about how they'll play on the ride home.
The industry has transformed immeasurably since those more straightforward times, and today Soderlund's job is to carry EA's key brands into an unknown future. This herculean task forms the basis of our interview.
You could argue there's not enough "born-gamer" DNA within EA's upper echelons, with key executives coming from other ventures such as Häagen-Dazs, Reebok and even restaurant management. That's why Soderlund, who founded his own games studio in the '90s, has become such an important asset to the team.
CVG: The path the games industry has taken over the past five years is fascinating because initially platforms had split in different directions - console, PC, social and mobile etc - but now it seems that companies like EA are tying them all together. But how best do you do this? Do you create silos that are different experiences of the same brand across devices, or do you create an interconnected range of games?
SODERLUND: Yeah I think it all comes down to whatever brand you are talking about. Criterion, for example, is creating a cloud compete service across all mobile devices, where you can rank up on your mobile, on your Vita, on your console.
If you look at Battlefield 3, we have an app that brings up everything you need to know about your stats. It's a companion app, essentially, where you can look at what unlocks you have coming, or chat to your friends, or plan your games.
That app is essentially console data feeding into your iPhone, but can the same happen the other way around? Can your iPhone data feed into a console game?
Yes technically it's very simple, though it's up to the console manufacturers whether they want to allow it.
But coming back to what you said about our approach, I think a lot of people are over-complicating the matter. What I tell my teams is, listen, you guys love games just like your customers do, so you need to look at your own habits. How are you using your tablet? How are you using your iPhone? How are you using Twitter?
I am explaining to them that they should base their game projects on what they are doing themselves. So it can be a vast interconnected experience across devices, or it can be something else like 'cloud compete'.
So the solution lies in the brand then?
On Mass Effect people care about the sci-fi history, so that's what could be serviced on tablets, and on FIFA people care about player stats and transfer fees, so that function could underpin the smartphone apps. Is this the kind of strategy you are talking about?
Yeah, I think that's exactly what it is. We need to go back to the essence of these games and go from there to see how they fit beyond console and PC. The idea of making a Need for Speed port on the iPhone, I just don't agree with it. What's the point? You have to play to the strengths of the platform that you're using.
No company has yet to properly integrate a game experience across all devices, so it's interesting to see what steps EA will take to attempt this.
I look at it as evolution. Looking back five years and looking at today, there is such a vast difference to how I consume entertainment and how I connect with people. We just have to embrace these changes rather than be afraid of them. I think some people are so surprised by the changes that are happening that they become afraid of it.
They try to stick to what they know and that's the danger. If you don't adapt you become irrelevant. I absolutely believe that's the case.
Electronic Arts is rapidly expanding to digital and online models perhaps more comprehensively than any other third party publisher. Do you think EA will still be selling content at retail in ten year's time?
I don't know, it's a hard question. We know that packaged goods work, and the majority of our current revenue comes from that. That's still a viable business model.
In the long term, we'll see more and more people gravitate to downloaded content. I happen to think that there's something about physical content, like books, that's collectable and satisfying to own.
I still want physical content but I'm not part of the new generation of gamers. I remember a time when I bought a cartridge and excitedly read the manual on my way home, imagining what the game was going to be like. Maybe kids don't have that anymore.
There will eventually be a tipping point, one suspects. The market share of physical games will decrease and decrease until it no longer becomes commercially viable to distribute on discs. It will be decided that there is no longer a significant reason to pursue physical and retail. The big question is when.
I think it's going to be sooner than people think. I think it's going to be sooner than ten years. That's my personal opinion, and might not be what EA thinks.
Do you not feel that a digital-only model could remove casual players from the equation?
The distribution method won't change how games are advertised or marketed, just how they are delivered to customers. My 96 year-old grandmother plays Cut the Rope and World of Warcraft. Honestly I don't think there's a digital barrier for the causal audience any more.
Does Origin have the potential to expand beyond PC?
Oh absolutely. Absolutely. We need to be where the consumers are, and at the moment that's on PC.
But where could Origin expand?
I think it could expand anywhere, on any device.
Gabe Newell recently branded Windows 8 a "catastrophe". Obviously EA has a growing business in the PC space so I wanted to know what your position was on the operating system.
Well, if you look at the Windows 8 mobile platform, I actually think there's a lot of potential there. It's a significant step forward. I used to be a Windows Mobile user and I left that, but now I'm interested in moving back.
What about Windows 8 for PC? What is your position on that?
Honestly I couldn't comment because I don't know enough about it.
Finally, how much is EA investing in Wii U? Will there be just ports of other games?
Well I would say EA doesn't make ports at all anymore. We try to make games that are ideal for each platform as much as possible. Obviously for PS3 and Xbox 360 the systems are similar, so we cross-develop. But we will always try to take an approach about what is unique for that platform. Wii U has many unique capabilities so you have to embrace the unique elements of the platform otherwise there's not much point doing it at all.
There is no general rule for developing a game. We custom tailor for each one, so everything is a bit chaotic, but it's worth it.