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Image credit: Timothy J. Seppala, Engadget

What EA learned from 'Mass Effect' will shape its future

A candid conversation with EA's Patrick Soderlund about 2017 and beyond.
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Timothy J. Seppala, Engadget

When I spoke to Electronic Arts Executive Vice President Patrick Soderlund last week, Kotaku's report about why Mass Effect: Andromeda turned out so poorly hadn't been published yet. Nonetheless, when I asked him about the flawed game's development cycle, he was incredibly candid -- just as he had been in 2013 when I'd interviewed him about his company's move from myriad game-design toolkits to just two. Here are his thoughts on several key topics.

The state of 'Mass Effect: Andromeda'

In 2013, Soderlund told me that if the experiment to move all nonsports game development to Frostbite didn't result in games that looked, sounded, felt and played better, that would be cause for concern. "We can talk all day about the developer communities and the speed of development, but unless that yields better games for the consumers, it's not worth anything -- it's a simple fact."

Since then, pretty much every EA studio has shipped a game using the Frostbite engine. Most of them have been pretty good, but there are a few exceptions. Despite the game indeed looking and sounding better, Battlefield 4's multiplayer barely functioned at launch and, more than that, dabbling in multiplayer had a nasty habit of wiping progress in the single-player campaign. The long-awaited follow-up Mirror's Edge: Catalyst was effectively a dud that did little to capture imaginations the way its predecessor did in 2008. Visceral Games' gritty tale of militarized cops and robbers, Battlefield: Hardline, failed to set the world on fire as well, sitting at 73 percent on review-aggregator site Metacritic and prompting a return to historic wars for the series.

Which brings us back to Mass Effect: Andromeda from earlier this year. Here's the full question-and-answer.

Engadget: I know that you have said you are very proud of the team's work and how the game turned out, but that isn't the complete consensus on the consumer side of things with how the animations worked -- glitches and bugs, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that.

Soderlund: No, and as you should. Here's how I look at this: A game that we launched in the market that doesn't function and is full of bugs, that's not who we are and that's not who we should be. Trust in me that that's something I look at and I say there needs to be a change in process and a change in strategy. What I will say, though, is that we are a large organization with 6,000 developers. If one game comes out and we have those issues, then we come out and we attack that problem.

That doesn't mean that the whole organization has that problem. But what you said, I can only agree with. It warrants a change in process, it warrants a change in approvals, which we're going through. So all I can say to those people who feel that way is, we hear you, and we agree with you. We will make sure that we rectify that going forward.

With Mass Effect, the game wasn't maybe as finished as people wanted it to be. Of course, we take that seriously. What we do is we look at that toward the Mass Effect team themselves, but we also look at what learnings can we apply to the rest of the organization so that this doesn't get replicated in another place around EA. Of course, anything that comes out of BioWare we'll apply thorough dialogue and change to ensure we get the best possible game in the market.

On BioWare's new big project, 'Anthem'

Despite how Andromeda turned out, BioWare was in the spotlight at today's media briefing with the long-in-the-works Anthem. Which, honestly, should show that EA still has plenty of faith in the role-playing studio.

Soderlund: You'll see us announcing a new IP from BioWare at EA Play, but that game, I think I can say, without sounding like a complete arrogant prick, I think it pushes the boundaries of open-world fidelity to a whole new level, unlike anything you've ever seen before. ... It's a new IP from BioWare, they've been working on it for quite a while. We're gonna have a very short section of that at our press conference, and then it will appear with a gameplay demo at a partner's press conference the day after.

It's cool for us because it's been awhile since we came up with a new IP. We actually have several new IPs in development, but to create something from scratch and build something new takes time [laughs]. And this is the first out of more new IP you'll see from us, and massive, hugely, hugely ambitious -- almost to the point of too ambitious, but I like that -- and I'm very bullish on it. I love it. I've been very personally involved in it and maybe that's why I'm biased, but I hope people are going to like it.


On proving naysayers wrong with Frostbite

Soderlund caused a lot of friction when he pitched Frostbite as being the one game engine that EA would use moving forward. The worry was that such a move would be impossible and could push the company deeper into the red than it already was in 2013. Plus, the idea of taking a game-design toolkit that had primarily just been used for first-person shooters (the Battlefield series from developer and Frostbite architect DICE) and making racing games and role-playing games with it was pretty wild.

Soderlund: I'll be honest, there were even people inside the company who, at the time I started this project, if you want to call it that, who were questioning the viability of whether it was possible, and I was in some heated discussions where I said, "Listen, we are gonna have to do this. It's the only thing that makes sense and let's work on figuring it out."

All in all, I think you will see ... if you look at the EA portfolio as a whole, whether that's Battlefield 1 or FIFA or Star Wars Battlefront or whatever else comes out of EA, I don't think people are going to look at us and say "I think they have subpar technology." I think people would relate to the games that we do as great-looking and with a tech platform that seems to be doing the job.


On Frostbite Go, the mobile game engine

In 2013, EA also announced it would shift its mobile-game-design tools over to Frostbite as well. At the time, EA said it was "one of our most exciting current projects" and that it'd bring "true Frostbite experiences to all major mobile platforms." Four years on and there hasn't been much, if anything, said about the mobile toolset since.

Soderlund: Frostbite Go is actually something that we've continued on, I would say, in a slower form. Our mobile teams have applied ... a lot of the work that they have done has been on Unity, and we've slowly moved away from Unity, and we have a mobile engine that we call Osiris that originated out of Firemonkeys in Australia, the Real Racing guys, that we believe is a good foundation for our mobile games, at least in the short-term.

Given everything that we've been doing with Frostbite, we may end up going to Frostbite long-term, but we have a tech foundation that we like in Osiris that we're pushing right now inside. I'll have to get back to you long-term on what the plans on mobile are.

Engadget: OK, but as of now Frostbite Go is at a standstill?

Soderlund: "Well, both yes and no. There are people working on it, but it's not something that I can say there's gonna be a game on Frostbite Go in the next 10 months or the next five months."


On the long-overdue follow-up to EA's first sports game with a story, 'Fight Night: Champion'

Sure, last year's FIFA made headlines for bringing a narrative to the beautiful game, but it wasn't the first time EA had added a story in a surprising place. In 2011 EA released Fight Night: Champion, and beyond the series' trademark fisticuffs, it took the franchise in an incredibly exciting direction: an M for Mature rating. That meant the game could be more violent and graphic with how it portrayed battles between its pugilists. Facial cuts looked much more painful and detailed; blood would stain the ring and your boxer's trunks; your corner cutman would drop the occasional four-letter word of encouragement.

The story didn't stray too far from Rocky territory, but rather than feeling clichéd, it came off as incredibly earnest. Since then, EA has tried its hand at mixed-martial-arts games, but unlike Fight Night, the controls were overcomplicated (they kind of had to be, given the amount of moves and positions available), which limited the audience to hardcore MMA fans. And even then, they weren't very well-received by critics and players.

The good news for Fight Night fans is that Soderlund counts himself among us.

Engadget: Before FIFA had a story mode, before Madden had a story mode, EA had another sports game with a story mode: Fight Night: Champion. We're kind of overdue for seeing that again.

Soderlund: [Laughs] I can't comment on that. You and I are very aligned. I love that game and we may or may not be working on one, but I can't give you any information.

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