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'Strange Ideas': EA's strategy for fostering innovation
'Strange Ideas': EA's strategy for fostering innovation
April 12, 2012 | By Kris Graft

April 12, 2012 | By Kris Graft
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When running a publicly-held video game mega-publisher made up of around 7,700 employees, executives at Electronic Arts have the daunting task of trying to foster innovation within a giant machine that cranks out video games, one after the other.

Patrick Soderlund, EVP of the EA Games label, which houses major brands like Battlefield and Mass Effect, recognizes that in these huge corporations, there is sometimes the need for more of a creative outlet. After all, video games are the product of human creativity, and once that is snuffed out, there's not much left.

That's why about a year ago, EA decided to pay closer attention to small groups of developers within the company that were coming up with interesting new ideas; bubbles of innovation that were emerging within the belly of EA.

"We have to come to a point, and we are at that point now, where we can actually afford to experiment," Soderlund recently told Gamasutra. "We have several ideation teams at our studio -- we call them 'labs' -- that may be working on five or six things at one time. And there may be five, ten people, or maybe even 20 people, who won't even have a direction.

"I firmly believe that you need to let people experiment and test things and come up with strange ideas," he continued. "We may present a larger problem to them. For example -- a rather bad example -- 'We're missing a character-based action game' or something. They'd make a ton of things, and show us the results. The idea is to test things and either continue them, or kill them early.

"Most ideas probably won't be the right ones. But then, one out of 10 or 15 ideas will be the right one. And that's the one that we'll say, 'We like that, continue.' Then we'll start funding it."

Small experimental teams within larger publishing bodies are not unique to EA. But the fact that EA is now paying attention to and investing time in innovation in such an organized manner might be a surprise to those who view EA as a monolithic video game factory.

"When you have a company this big, you'll have these [small groups] form naturally, because there's so many people," Soderlund said. "We just said, 'It's kind of happening anyway, so let's take control over it, and make this okay to do -- let's make sure that people can work with us.'

"We've been doing it in a controlled form for a little over a year within our label," he added. "We started small, with one team, then we tested and saw some good results with it. A lot of the things you see today in our products come from these ideas. It doesn't necessarily need to be a new product. Maybe it's a way to make better animations, or a way of making cooler destruction."

Soderlund, one of the founders of EA-owned Battlefield studio DICE, said the seed for these idea labs was planted at DICE during the development of the experimental downloadable online shooter, Battlefield 1943.

"That [game's development] was basically a way for us to control ups and downs in our production cycles," he said. "Normally, people would go into a production too early, or they would basically get transferred to an existing game team. Instead we said, 'Do whatever you want. We'll put you in this pod, do whatever you want.'

"And they said, 'Hey do you want to do Battlefield back in World War II again?' So they kept working on that. That kind of started something. Now we do it in all our studios.

"I think it's important that we enable our people to innovate, and to be able to come up with new ideas. Because frankly, that's what our audience wants."

Gamasutra will have more from Soderlund in a wide-ranging interview in the near future.


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Comments


Sergio Bustamante II
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While I was at EA Tiburon we had a "New IP Forum" that got together regularly. These groups certainly help spark innovation and creativity. Eventually EA did greenlight things. A person I worked with at EA Tiburon comes to mind, Kyle Gray. Talented guy that got his project eventually published.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Hatsworth_in_the_Puzzling_Adve
nture

Glad to see EA still has a strategy to continue to foster these types of ideas!

Bart Stewart
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Serious, non-snarky question: who gets to decide whether some innovative idea is right enough for development? There's a tension between creativity and commercialization -- do the creatives ever get to "win?"

Also: "bubbles of innovation that were emerging within the belly of EA." This may be one of the more disturbing sentences I've ever read on Gamasutra....

Nathan Champion
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"We have to come to a point, and we are at that point now, where we can actually afford to experiment..." I'm curious as to what prevented them before, especially considering that many have experimented with far less resources than EA.

Kenneth Baird
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A world war 2 shooter as an example of innovation?

Nathan Zufelt
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Why can't it be? Do you really believe that nothing innovative could be done with a World War 2 game? Giving people a chance to try out new ideas is the only way to make these new discoveries.

Nathan Champion
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The example used was far more specific than "a World War 2 game." It was a Battlefield game, which carries with it a series of expectations based on its name.

Michael Rooney
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I think the example was of how people naturally formed creative teams when given some freedom. Not so much what the specific product that came from it was.

Steve Macintyre
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Being a leader in game development, we theorize that if we let our developers sleep longer, they are more productive. Therefore, we will allow another 30 minutes of sleep for a grand total of 3 hours. Testers however, will remain at 2 and a half. Of course this number will be reduced during crunch time.

Joshua Darlington
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"Character-based action game" sounds good. New characterization tech tools would be awesome!

Nathan Mates
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I've posted this before (internally at EA, and places like here): innovate your way to re-releasing your back catalog. Namco, Sega, Atari, etc manage to put out emulated copies of their classics on virtually every platform. Why can't I get Archon, MULE, Bards Tale, etc on the impulse-buy $20 discs near the registers, or online? I'd buy those classics in a heartbeat. Sad to say that the last EA title I enjoyed was Boom Blox (and sequel) and haven't bought any titles since then. Getting some cut of older titles is better than nothing.

Disclaimer: I was with Pandemic Studios nearly 10 years when EA bought Pandemic in 2008. Left voluntarily in Nov 2009.

Kyle Redd
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At one time I think I wondered the exact same thing (Undying and System Shock being my most wanted). But the sad part is, even if they did something like that, they'd probably screw it up.

This happened with the Alice sequel not too long ago - The original Alice was included as a bonus if you preordered from EA, as an exclusive. Today the original game is still not available for sale anywhere, including Origin! They offered a 12-year old game that people want to buy for a couple of weeks as a preorder bonus, then killed it. Absolutely idiotic.

Bart Stewart
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Kyle, you read my mind. Undying was fun, but I would pay serious coin for an original System Shock with higher-resolution graphics and modern PC controls. (Note: Dead Space is not that game.)

Kyle Redd
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@Bart

Yeah, how come System Shock 1 never gets any love, huh? Everyone always talks about the sequel like the first one never happened, but I firmly believe the original is the superior experience. Better story, better puzzles, and more varied gameplay throughout. The sole flaw is the game engine, yet it is still compelling even today via DOSBox.

Philippe Lacroix
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That mostly why www.gog.com his a awesome place to go shooping. There his so many great games that can't be bought anymore. :(

Chris MacDonald
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Many of the EA games are available in some way shape or form. A PSP collection containing Syndicate, Wing Commander, Ultima: The Black Gate, B.O.B., Budokan, Desert Strike, et al. was released in 2006. As for Bards Tale, it is currently available for iOS. Within the iOS release of the 2004 game are the original Bards Tale 1 & 2 with 3 "coming soon". While these releases aren't as widespread across platforms as many would wish, some companies are listening. In the case of Archon, it's on iOS as well as of April 6. So I guess, between gog.com and iOS you should be taken care of fairly well. As for MULE, it was published by EA but I believe the author retained the rights and was working on a new version at the time of her death several years ago. This can be the case with many classic games as some of these large companies acted only as publishers.

Nathan Mates
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Chris - I don't have (or want) an iDevice to play Archon. I've got a Wii (among other consoles), which would be more suitable for 2 player action, and the Wii certainly has a C64 emulator. An emulator for XBLA/PSN wouldn't take much work. There's a lot of games that would play better on consoles rather than iDevices. Action games need real buttons and a d-pad, not the emulated garbage of touchscreens.

I specifically mentioned Namco, who's flooded the zone with their classics, releasing emulated versions of their games on PS1, PS2, PS3, XBox1, X360, N64, Gamecube, Wii, GBA, DS, PC. Sega's not been quite as prolific, but they're getting better. It's been 15+ years since Namco started this strategy - you can't call EA "listening" if only a small percentage of their titles are available for mass consumption. Tracking down rights wouldn't take 15+ years if management actually cared.

Kyle Redd
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@Chris

While there have been plenty of re-releases of EA games over the years, there have been very, very few examples of them having been done right. That PSP compilation you mentioned, in particular, was nothing more that straight ports of the SNES versions of the games. Most reviewers agreed that the package was almost completely worthless: http://tinyurl.com/7ehcxsc.

Similarly, the GOG releases have not been well-handled either. Most problematic is that EA gave the rights for GOG to sell only the core games, without any of the expansions. Many of those expansions, like Alien Crossfire for Alpha Centauri, contained major updates and enhancements to the rest of the game, and the whole package suffers for their absence.

God knows why EA declined to make the expansions available, but given their past behavior, it's hard not to expect that they are holding them back with the intention of offering the "complete" versions later via Origin. Whatever their excuse, I doubt it's anything less than ridiculous.

k s
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Nathan Pandemic games were one of the reasons I got into game development, RIP Pandemic Studios.

Joe McGinn
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Formalizing small groups so they can be creative is a proven failed concept, in my opinion. It is admitting the bigger problem - the mad rush of schedules for the vast majority of the staff does not allow for creativity. Those little teams are one drop in a rainstorm of production-rush.

Don't mean this as a dig at EA developers, I'm sure they are as creative as any people. But this will not fix the fundamental problem with the process.

Michael Rooney
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Where was it proven? Don't Microsoft and Google both do the same thing? I'm pretty sure the group working on google project glass came about from one of those special interest groups.

E Zachary Knight
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Yeah, Google has part of Friday set aside as time for developers to work on whatever they want. This is where the experimentation comes in play and new ideas are born.

The problem with what EA is doing is they are trying to corral that creativity and control it rather than giving it time to grow free. While they may still get some neat stuff, they won't get near as much as a company that fosters creativity from the beginning.

Joe McGinn
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Actually all of Friday at Google .. 20% of every employees time, which, as you say, is completely different than corralling it.As for Microsoft ... the are not an innovative company.

p.s. - how creativity works: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VShmtsLhkQg

John Flush
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The only thing creative at EA is their department that keeps coming up with how to get more money out of feature chopping for later release in DLC.

Benjamin Gifford
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I'd like to see some of those 'bubbles' that were rejected pop up on Kickstarter. Let some of these ideas fly, EA, and see some sunshine.

Kyle Redd
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Something tells me EA wouldn't get a very friendly reception on Kickstarter (nor should they, really).

It could be pretty amusing, actually - They'd probably have to print out that giant mash of disclaimers, restrictions and registration requirements that you always have to agree to right there on the project's page. Maybe one of the rewards for the $100 tier would read something like this:

"Exclusive to this campagin, EA will give you 60 days notice before we shut down the servers, instead of the standard 30 that everyone else gets! Get an extra month of enjoyment from your game before we kill it forever!"

That would be a popular reward amongst the backers, I bet.

Matt Cratty
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I read innovation and EA and I'm terribly confused.

Adam Danielski
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The only thing they want to innovate on is how to squeeze more money from the consumer. Innovation isn't putting out half a game at $60.00 and then charging the consumer for the rest as DLC. I am waiting for them to put out a Madden with no player and you will have to pay for the rosters if you want the names of the players.

Alan Rimkeit
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Oh man that idea is F'n EVIL. LOL


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