At its E3 2014 press conference earlier this week, Electronic Arts showed almost as many "conceptual prototypes" of future games as it did games that were playable and on the verge of release.
Instead of showing a big blowout trailer for the next Mirror's Edge, it showed artists creating its heroine, Faith. There was "early in-engine footage" of Star Wars Battlefront and concept art of Criterion Games' next title (but not a name for that game).
The company teased a new Mass Effect by showing artists working at their desks and creators talking about their vision. They promised a new franchise from BioWare Edmonton, but offered little that was concrete.
There were other game announcements, some of which featured real gameplay — not just conceptual prototypes. But the number of titles shown in such an early state was surprising and uncharacteristic of EA. It was also totally intentional, executive vice president of EA Studios Patrick Söderlund told Polygon.
"We could have gone the way of announcing a bunch of IPs with pre-rendered movies and a nice logotype, gone to Blur or someone else and paid them a lot of money," he said, "but we decided that we wanted people to see what it takes to make a game and get them involved. We wanted to invite them into the development process of where our games are.
"I went to many other press conferences and they chose the old way of doing it. They paid a bunch of money to make a trailer that had nothing to do with the game and then they put a logo on the screen. We showed you what the games look like today, how they play and we invited you guys into the world of how it is to make games at EA. I personally think that's pretty cool."
Just because those game's showed up as concept art and 3D models, Söderlund noted, doesn't mean that they're "years and years away."
According to Söderlund, it's not just a change in philosophy about how EA shows off its games for the first time; it's a reflection of EA's evolving approach to making games.
"We wanted to show people how we're changing how we're developing products"
"We also wanted to show people how we are slightly changing how we're developing products," he said. "Maybe in the past we would have gone for a full vertical slice of the game. You would've played that and it would look great. But we would have spent a lot of money getting there, quite often to realize that the game wasn't what it needed to be. And then we would toss that work away.
"It's time-consuming, and not particularly cost-efficient."
EA is attempting to fix that by doing more rapid prototyping and building tools that enable that, Söderlund said. The company wants to "find the fun" fast, ensure it's making the right product, then add the fidelity to make something complete.
The publisher also wants to get its games into the hands of players earlier, to "get them to help us make the right decisions and ultimately make the best possible games." Yes, even Electronic Arts is embracing the "early access" concept — and no, we're not talking about Battlefield 4.
"That's a different EA than what we're known to do," Söderlund said. "But it's a philosophy that came out of the game teams themselves, it's what they wanted to do. We've seen that with good success as it relates to Criterion, where we've taken games and first and foremost allowed other teams inside the company to play them. And with that came very valuable feedback that ultimately made the game's better."
Another reason we've seen less from the new Mirror's Edge and Star Wars Battlefront — two DICE-developed games that were announced at last year's E3 — is that the studio has been asking for more time to develop its titles. With the studio juggling ongoing Battlefield 4 development with Mirror's Edge, Battlefront and another unannounced game, it needed more time.
"Not everything that we do needs to be something that we can annualize"
"We have taken that approach with Mirror's Edge," Söderlund said. "It wasn't necessarily our plan that DICE would build Battlefront, but [when EA secured the Star Wars license] they said 'What are you crazy? Give it to us.' They presented a plan whereby 'We're going to build Battlefront, here's how we're going to do it, and we want to continue building Mirror's Edge and whatever else we're doing and here's how we're going that.'
"There was a direct ask from the studio to build Battlefront."
Söderlund also hopes that he can accommodate other requests of his studios, like developing fan-favorite follow-ups to games that didn't sell as well as Madden or Battlefield.
"The EA that I'm trying to help build isn't an EA that needs to annualize everything," he said, adding that not every game is going to be a 10 or 15 or 20 million unit seller.
"When you run a creative organization — and the DICE guys are working on Battlefront, they've done a lot of Battlefield — I think it's important to let them have a creative way of expressing themselves ... And Mirror's Edge is one of those games.
"We do have an idea that's going to do the initial idea justice and I think takes Faith onto a different trajectory and makes that game as big as it can be."