KARL MAGNUS TROEDSSON
EA’s DICE boss on innovation, virtual reality, and (not) being the bad guy
Over the past 16 years Karl Magnus
Troedsson has worked at almost every level of the game industry, starting as a level designer and artist for defunct PC developer Unique before becoming a producer then executive producer for EA’s DICE studio in Stockholm. Today he is the VP, general manager and CEO of EA’s Swedish and American DICE studios, and is overseeing Visceral’s work on the next Battlefield game: Hardline. Speaking after EA’s E3 conference, Troedsson discusses the new console generation, Battlefield 4’ s teething troubles, and why EA really is a company willing to take risks. DICE helped launch the new console generation with
Battlefield 4. What kinds of games do your studios consider to be representative of new-generation play? Each genre, each game, each team will have a different answer to that question. I always find that in the transition to a new generation of consoles, there are a lot of buzzwords around [like] ‘every game is going to use movement’, and that’s not true. Early on we decided human movement, from Kinect or something like that, isn’t suitable for a very fast-paced genre like shooters, but there are some [new] elements that are really cool. You can have more information pushed to a tablet or something like that. Pressing the button to capture footage and share it is super-cool, and suits us really well.
The most important part for us was the sheer raw power of these consoles, meaning that we could go to 60fps for our game and then push the bar so we could go to 64 players on consoles as well. For DICE, those were the key components for going nextgen. At last year’s E3, that didn’t perhaps fulfil people’s fantasy of what next-generation games would actually be. But I actually think now, when people start playing
Battlefield 4, they’ll realise that it’s been [a core change]. We’ll see where we go in the future. There might be voice commands we start using more… What are the most difficult challenges your studios have faced over the past few years, as new console hardware has emerged? In the state we’re at now, most games are shipped on three platforms: current-gen, next-gen and PC. We need to stop saying ‘next-gen’ at some point. If you have any kind of ambition – which most game teams do – you want to maximise your game on those platforms, right? That means you have more work to do. If you want to balance making a great game with being successful business-wise, those are the permutations you need to create. We had [been] planning for this for quite some time from a technology perspective with Frostbite, of course, and when we did Battlefield 3 there was already a lot of work going into the engine to prepare us for the next-generation consoles. At the same time you can never prepare all the way because the XDKs and SDKs are always coming in late. This year and next year I think we’re going to start seeing that game teams are really maturing. Hardline represents a very different take on Battlefield. Did you push for innovation among the DICE studios working on the new consoles? Innovation has been a bit of a buzzword for many years now. Some people associate innovation with large, revolutionary changes to an established franchise. That might be true, but if you have a long-lasting series of games you have to be careful about that as well. You need to think about the incremental steps [because] you can’t alienate your old fanbase. Well, you can if [that’s your choice], but we don’t want to do that. Innovation can come in different shapes and forms. In [ Hardline’s] case we’re introducing a brand-new setting that comes with new weapons, new vehicles, gadgets, etc. You can argue [whether] it’s innovation or not, but it’s a big change for us. In a franchise like Battlefield, when we introduced vaulting animations, you can’t put that as a back-of-thebox feature, but to the core established [players] that innovation is the one they were waiting for. On the other hand, you might introduce more dynamic concepts like ‘levolution’. I know that people hate that word; we still haven’t found a better word to describe it. How did you go about preparing Visceral for working on DICE’s long-time franchise? We wouldn’t have asked Visceral to build a Battlefield game or trusted them with it if we didn’t think they could deliver. We haven’t tried to change the way they work. I strongly believe that established teams have a modus operandi, a way of working, a culture… and if you start working with them, the wrong thing would be to go in there and try to change their core values. You maybe give some hints, tips and tricks regarding how they are supposed to go about things, because you have a lot of experience with building BF games, but you don’t mess with that core culture. You can challenge part of it, but if you feel that you need to go in and change something like that, you probably engaged the wrong team. I’m confident with the team that Steve Papoutsis is running and the
entire studio they have inside of Visceral, mostly because we have collaborated with them for several years. Visceral built one of the expansions for BF3.
Having a new studio build a game in an established franchise is a big task and a lot of work to take on. A lot of muscle memory that an established team has, the new one doesn’t. Lots of people have been travelling between the two studios in Stockholm and California just to get that knowledge across. Building a BF game is such a huge undertaking; there are people from all over EA involved. There’s always one studio that owns it and carries the bulk of the work, but when it comes to actually shipping and finishing a beast like this, there are a lot of people involved. There are people from BioWare involved, even. Naturally we have some people at DICE helping out with some parts of the multiplayer, but the core game is still being built by Visceral. We just draw on the experience we have inside the company. To what extent are you planning to invest in VR? I wrote a paper on VR when I was a young guy in school, back when The Lawnmower Man was released. VR had a bit of an uptake then. Now it’s back, which is super cool and I’m personally really excited about it. We are definitely interested in it – we’re doing tests and playing around with it – but it’s not like we’re jumping on it and building a VR-only BF game. It has clear limitations. Again, most shooters are very high-paced, precision-based games, and when you try these things out you find they can be an overwhelming experience for you as a human being, with regards to your spatial awareness. That doesn’t go hand-in-hand with something where you want to pixel-shoot something in an FPS game.
I think we’re going to start to see different versions of VR as well. I think there’s going to be a spectrum here. Are you going to Google Glass’s augmented reality, or is it full ‘always immersed in the world’ VR? I’m really glad to see that the hardware manufacturers are putting effort into this – like the Morpheus, etc – and it’s something we’ll continue to play around with. We have some cool ideas about what we could do inside of an established franchise like Battlefield, and we’ll see what happens in the future. Why did it take an entirely new console generation to
revive Mirror’s Edge, and what makes it so worthy of revival when it was so unsuccessful before? It starts with that game idea – do we believe in this? Then, do we have a team that is passionate about building it? After Mirror’s Edge we took some time for serious [thinking]: what are we going to do with this game? Is this a one-shot or a franchise-to-be? Is it just a lovely memory for people or should we actually do something else with it? We were in that state for quite some time, focusing on Battlefield and other stuff as well, but then this team stepped forward with an idea saying, ‘Here’s what we want to do with the Mirror’s
Edge IP’, with some changes to it compared with the first one which I can’t go into here.
But there were some key changes to the core recipe which basically, for a lot of people, just made it click: ‘That’s a game that needs to be built’. It’s such a good idea, and now everything fits together. So then it quickly became a passion project, which a lot of people are very dedicated to building. The reason it deserves to be built now is that we think we have a great idea for a game. It’s not a long-lasting series just yet, but we believe we have something that people are going to enjoy and that’s why we’re going to build it. Battlefield 4’ s launch was marred with bugs and problems that dogged the game for months. How can you reassure players about the future of the series? Let’s start by saying that we acknowledge the fact that people have had problems with the game. I won’t go into detail regarding what went wrong. What I want to say is that, from the get-go, we’ve been dedicated to fixing this. It has taken some time, to the point where we delayed DLC and did several things in the background that people didn’t see. We have the whole family of DICE teams [on it] and people at Visceral have been helping out, making sure that Battlefield 4 is what it is today. We’ve patched it and improved it even further. We’re going to keep taking care of our games.
Naturally we’re dedicated to making sure that the next game we launch, Battlefield: Hardline, is going to have a better launch, which is why we have a beta already. But it’s about looking at, and taking care of, our product. There’s one thing I want to get across, which I think is really important here: some people say, ‘You’re annualising the franchise now – does that mean you’re going to give up on the other game?’ I want people to keep playing BF4. Our commitment to BF4 is going to continue, even after Hardline is out – fixing problems, fixing bugs that might occur, balancing issues, and even introducing new features. We are going to be committed to running games more in parallel; previously we ran them more in a serial way. That expansion has led to the formation of a new Los Angeles studio, but how much of DICE LA is comprised of remnants from Medal Of Honor developer Danger Close? The old Medal Of Honor studio is not the DICE LA you see today. When we formed that studio we had a couple of key recruits on the old team when they moved over. When you look at the spread of talent inside that studio now, the majority are new recruits. I can’t wait to
“SOME PEOPLE LIKE TO CALL OUT EA AS THE BIG BAD WOLF, BUT I THINK IT’S ONE OF THE MOST CREATIVE COMPANIES THERE IS”
start talking about what we’re doing there, but that’s for the future. I know [Danger Close] carries some negativity for a lot of shooter fans – they didn’t like Medal Of
Honor. The senior talent inside that studio comes from the old DICE Stockholm office. It’s a bunch of Swedes basically running the studio. What has the cultural change been like at EA over the past few years? Is the door still open to IP
experiments like Dead Space? Absolutely, otherwise we wouldn’t be allowed to build [the new] Mirror’s Edge. We have new things boiling in the background that we’re not ready to show in full. At the conference we gave a sort of status report and showed a work-in-progress version of some games, and for me that’s a significant change for the company and how we think about things. We can dare to show products that are in production and say, ‘It’s coming when it’s ready – don’t ask about an end date because perhaps we don’t even know yet’. I know there’s a big appetite from my boss, Patrick, and his boss, Andrew Wilson, to have a creation process for new IPs without losing focus from our established franchises. There’s definitely some really cool things happening inside EA, both from a games perspective and also from a company perspective.
There’s an Internet following that likes to call out EA as the big bad wolf in the industry, but I can tell you this: I’ve been working at DICE since 2001. We were purchased by EA, and I think EA is one of the most creative companies there is. It consists of a lot of people who are very passionate about building and publishing games, but especially from my perspective, about developing games. We do this out of passion. We want to build the best games we can. I think if you go to Criterion or BioWare or any other studio, they will in some shape or form tell you the same thing. We’re really passionate about what we’re doing. Inside of the family of EA we feel very good about it. Naturally it’s our responsibility to convince people, show people who we are and show our passion. That is, I would dare to say, a little bit of what we tried to do at this year’s press conference: ‘Here we are – this is us, the people behind the game’. Activision has said that the industry has no room for small games. Is that something you agree with? I won’t talk about their strategy, but our strategy is slightly different. We believe there is room for new ideas and for new IP that can come out of the gate and perhaps not be billion-dollar franchises from the get-go. Putting that on a new IP from the beginning is not the right way of going about it. I’m a strong believer that if you have a great game and a passionate team [and] a conversation with your fans, then business success will follow.
That’s not always true – you have great games that come and go because they didn’t manage to get their business side together, but if the focus is on the game team and the creative side, that’s usually a good recipe for success. At the same time, there is the reality that we want our games to be successful. It’s our responsibility to think about the business part. I know that talking about money can almost be a forbidden subject for some people. I don’t think it should be, though. We’re running a business as well. We’re in this business because we’re passionate about making games, but one doesn’t come without the other. Why does EA seem to have a hard time convincing people of its passion for game development? I actually don’t really know. I think with every organisation that grows to a certain size, people start to question it a bit. We have made mistakes in the past, perhaps we made some bad choices and business decisions… Every company does that. The only thing we can do then is rectify that and show people that this is what we’re about now. I don’t think that it’s unique to EA, but what I think is unique right now is how we talk seriously about this inside the company: we don’t want people to perceive us like this, we don’t agree with the image that people say we have, and we want to show them who we are. That involves perhaps letting people look a little bit closer at what we’re doing.
The Battlefield series has long been DICE’s bread and butter, so it’s little surprise to see EA looking to explore the breadth of its appeal by introducing Hardline
EA took the new Mirror’s Edge to E3, offering a glimpse of the game far earlier than it ordinarily would, or perhaps should. Its debut was little more than confirmation that the game still exists