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Electronic Arts re-examines game making as the next generation looms

Game makers are most honest when they're talking about the previous version of a gaming console. With the next, next-generation of consoles within striking distance, clarity comes to the decisions that drove the games made for the retiring consoles.

For Electronic Arts, that clarity helped them see that their last-gen problems were driven by a cacophony of game engines, a mess of tools that hindered more than it helped the creation of new ideas.

"The last transition, we didn't do a great job as a company managing our tech base," Frank Gibeau told Polygon. "What we ended up with was a proliferation of engines, such that at the peak of the last cycle, this cycle, we had something like 20 different development environments for our game teams to be working in.

"Sometimes you just don't need 20 different hammers and 20 different set of tools because it becomes very difficult to manage, it becomes very costly, and in fact it actually limits innovation because you have so much time that your spending on engine development as opposed to focusing in on gameplay and features and content."

Gibeau believes EA has a handle on that problem this generation. Almost two years ago, he said the company started investing research and development in the creation of two game engines, two tech bases, essentially two tools upon which all future games at the company will be created.

The concept, he said, was to create two engines, one for sports titles and one for everything else, that could be shared by the entire company and last for the entirety of the coming Xbox One and PlayStation 4 lifecycle.

The proprietary engines, Ignite and Frostbite, are both designed to evolve, allowing developers to "build on and iterate and innovate and grow as the [console] cycle grows," he said.

"Now they're distinctly different engines because the types of experiences that Frostbite can provide are much more oriented toward entertainment type properties where you have open worlds, you have destructible environments you've got big, big set-piece battles," Gibeau said. "Unlike in sports where many times it is much more constrained, it is much more focused in on the individual player and their physics and their AI and their team behavior.

"So we found that we could never go to one engine, but we were definitely able to arrive at a place where two technology bases are powering what EA is going to do over the next generation."

Gibeau says the two engines each now have more than 2,000 developers internally building games on them and sharing the lessons, iterations and innovations.

"So we literally have 2,000 developers making Frostbite better every day with every game," he said. "And the same is true of EA Sports Ignite. We've got about 2,000 developers on the EA Sports side who that when the FIFA team does something new and cool in AI, the Madden team, the NBA team, the UFC team can all share in that."

"We definitely learned from the last transition where we didn't manage our technology well and it's something where we took a real key focus on," he said. "We did it early enough that the game teams right now are not fighting the engine. Nobody is trying to finish EA Sports Ignite and Frostbite 3, they're done basically. What they're doing right now is that they're building games on those technology. That's really putting us into a position where [this week] when you see our product, it's live code, it's running code."

The potential downside of building games on just a couple of engines is that the publisher risks releasing video games that all look alike. But Gibeau said that was something EA engineers considered when deciding what sort of tech to build for next-gen consoles.

"We got to a place where we felt that Frostbite had the flexibility where we wouldn't end up with the sameness and we would be able to tell different stories and create different experiences that would feel diverse and different," he said. "A lot of that sameness can be changed through art direction and asset creation. We'll be very methodical and thoughtful about how we make these engines feel alive and so it doesn't feel like carbon copies of each game, just slightly different."

While the big lesson for Electronic Arts during the last generation was the cost of using so many different game engines, there were other lessons too. Gibeau said that while he believes the company has a very balanced portfolio of games, he did agree that the company "probably shipped a few too many shooters."

"We're definitely taking that into account, but I don't think it was gratuitous and if you look at the broader EA portfolio, it's more balanced than any other company out there I would argue," he said. "As we look at the Xbox One and the PS4 era, we're definitely focused in on bringing forward some very proven franchises that are familiar to all like Madden, FIFA, Battlefield and NFS. But we're also going to introduce new IPs that haven't been seen before."

The end result is a upcoming slate of games that include a mix of new and old.

"Within EA right now we have probably at least half a dozen new IP starts under development in one form or another for next-gen consoles and some of those will be brands you might have heard before and we've reimagined them or brought them back and some of them will be completely new or fresh to Electronic Arts," Gibeau said. "It's important that our studios have new intellectual properties because that's what keeps our talented teams motivated and to work on new stuff and be able to innovate. We're excited the portfolio we have in front of us. We're going to try and enter some new places where we don't necessarily have as big a position. We're excited to get into action in a more significant way in this nex generation then we did last time. And you'll probably see fewer shooters from us but certainly bigger ideas in that shooter category. "

Good Game is an internationally syndicated news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and their bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.