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How Patrick Soderlund hopes to transform EA and its game engines

Patrick Soderlund has only been on the job for about six weeks, and he's already making big changes.

As Electronic Arts' executive vice president of EA Studios, his responsibilities are global. Soderlund oversees studios from California to Calgary to Sweden that produce games like the Dead Space series and EA Sports titles and the Mass Effect games.

Until very recently, Soderlund was the EVP of EA Labels. The title change from Labels to Studios is more than just a flourish. It's a reflection of the way that Soderlund believes the global developer-publisher should be run.

"To me, there's no such thing as a perfect organization."

After Andrew Wilson became CEO in September, he asked Soderlund to take over EA Sports responsibilities. When he did, he started making fundamental organizational changes to the way the EA's worldwide network operated.

"Basically, what we did was, we said, 'Okay. Let's break the [EA] Labels structure that was [EA] Games and merge it into one organization that we call EA Studios that reports to me,'" Soderlund told Polygon in a recent interview.

The reorganization reflects his belief that, from a structural standpoint, EA can be run better and that the Labels organization hampered some of what he wanted to accomplish.

"To me, there's no such thing as a perfect organization," he said. "You just have to organize around, honestly, what you think is right for the people you have around you."

The structural changes seem bigger than a simple organizational chart would show. They're about people, too — people Soderlund wants to work more closely together. People like those who make EA's sports games and those, like EA DICE, who make the Battlefield series. Under the old Labels structure, those were discrete operations. In his estimation, the Labels structure helped employees attach to their specific home in the organization and brought departments like development and marketing together. It was a good system, but its time has passed.

Now, they're joining together in what might be the biggest change he's made. Marketing's moved to under publishing's umbrella, and EA Sports is no longer an entity separated from the rest of the developers at the company. It will work side-by-side, and he hopes hand-in-hand, with the studios that make games like Battlefield 4.

Soderlund realized that a change was in order when he began talking with those in charge of BioWare, EA DICE and EA Sports.

"It was obvious to me that there's cross-pollination that should be happening that isn't happening," he said. "Things that are going on in the Sports side of the business that should be probably replicated or at least thought about in the Games side, and vice versa."

"It's just what you think is right for the people that you have ."

The result is a simpler, unified structure. Instead of having multiple chief technology officers, for example, EA will move to one that spans both its Ignite (sports) and Frostbite (everything else) engines, all under the new, massive hybrid restructure.

The two-engine strategy is one that now-CEO Andrew Wilson hinted at in the wake of the Xbox One reveal event in May, when he told Polygon that the idea was to build the best engine possible to "free up game developers' time to make great games."

Soderlund hit the same notes in our recent interview when he spoke about EA's focus on making its engines the best they can be for the developers. By focusing on updating only two engines, he said, it should allow developers to focus on doing what to do best: making games, rather than fighting with software.

"There isn't a way to organize yourselves perfectly," he said. "It's just what you think is right for the people that you have and for where the company's going."

And where is the company going? Here on the precipice of next-gen hardware, Soderlund sees many possibilities. EA could find that collaboration between the teams that develop its two engines makes their better by sharing. Or maybe they'll create a grand, unified engine — or they could decide to use one over the other, or even a hybrid. It's up to the boots on the ground, he said. And it's going to take a bit of time to figure it out.

"I would say in six months' time, we most likely will have a different tech strategy."

"It's not so much me making the decision as ... the people creating the technology and the people that are the customers of the technology groups, which are the game teams," he said. "It's going to have to be something we look at over the course of time, but I would say in six months' time, we most likely will have a different tech strategy. What that is, is too early to tell."

Time and again, Soderlund's explanation about the changes at EA revolves around collaboration and sharing, both of people and technology. It's clear that Soderlund hasn't picked a winner. He's leaving that decision to the teams he's merged.

"As I look at it, there are some great things with Ignite and there are some great things with Frostbite. And I think both can benefit from some kind of sharing amongst each other."

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