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How future EA games could incorporate fan theories, player data and famous streamers

EA Motive Studios founder Jade Raymond explains how her team is imagining the publisher’s next big IP

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

The mysterious new franchise from EA’s Motive Studios wasn’t announced at E3 2018; nonetheless, studio founder, senior vice president and group general manager at Electronic Arts Jade Raymond made time during EA Play to talk with us about the ambitious ideas she and her team are considering while designing their next big brand. The concepts about the future of video game storytelling are surprising and bold, to say the least.

Imagine a game where players give each other quests; a game where data is used to kill off the most beloved characters to maximize narrative surprise; a game where the best and most involved players experience new content first, incorporating their characters into the game’s lore. Raymond digs into these ideas and many others, providing a rare look at how a massive game developer hopes to shape the future of the medium.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Why games will be like neighborhood bars

Polygon: You’ve spoken a lot about player freedom, their ability to express themselves and create their own stories. I’m curious specifically what sort of decisions are you making now, in 2018, in regards to player agency, that you weren’t making in 2008?

Jade Raymond: Yeah, so at a high level, when we started working on the first Assassin’s Creed, that was 2004, it was clear that action adventure games were mostly linear. The team I started working with had come off of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and we were imagining what an action adventure game would be in the future, and at that point there’s really only Grand Theft Auto 3 as an open world. That was pretty clear to me, that if you can create that kind of open world and player agency, and mix it with an action-adventure genre, then that’s where it’s gonna go in the future. Fast forward, now it’s fourteen years later and even God of War is open world. It’s like everything has gone in that direction now.

But if you’re thinking about what’s going to happen for the next ten years, it’s really how do you create something that’s going to be more of a pastime, an appointment for people who love playing action-adventure games to get together. Open-world games are still like, you launch it and it’s an entertainment event, everyone plays it for like a month and then you move on. But how do you create an action-adventure game that’s going to become the most loved pastime? I think that we’ve seen that happen with shooters and I think more recently with the emphasis on social games ... obviously everyone’s talking about Fortnite and PUBG and that’s become that appointment for players. But in terms of the type of gameplay provided, it’s a very specific type of gameplay.

Polygon: You say pastime and you name like a bunch of things that are, I’d say, esports adjacent. Are you looking at sports when you are thinking about discovering this future type of design?

Raymond: Well, I’m thinking in the past maybe what we were trying to create was the Pixies concert or whatever. And now I think that we want to create this neighborhood bar. You could go and hang out and sit alone and read your book at the neighborhood bar. You could go and participate in karaoke night with your friends. You could go become a regular and everyone in the bar knows you, like in Cheers; you walk in and it’s like, “Norm!” You could be like the VIP. What you’re looking for out of that place can be very different, but it’s an appointment and a place you can go over and over again, and do pub trivia night with your friends if that’s what you’re into.

So I think when we think about how we’re creating that action-adventure game of the future, instead of thinking of it as being one event, that gets consumed and that’s it, it’s more like how are you creating something that’s sticky. That becomes the thing. So I think sports is one analogy right, but that’s one particular type of player that’s looking for a competitive type of play. If you think of the action-adventure player, to me it’s about immersion, it’s about relentless discovery, it’s about exploring.

A video game where players create the quests

Polygon: Do you think there’s this push then away from the one-time story and towards anecdote engines? I’m just trying to understand how what you’re describing affects story --

Raymond: Yeah, well and so are we! I think it ... I think that’s the thing that you have to solve right. If you think of life, sometimes I walk to work and I have this crazy story. I walked to work the other day, and there’s this woman walking her pig, and the pig had nail polish on. And I’m like, “That’s a beautiful pig!”

Polygon: Beautiful pig!

Raymond: And then I have a story to tell. I go to work and could tell people about this woman. But now it becomes something that like oh, well, if anyone’s walking to work on that street, they should also, they can also participate in that story. Maybe they can come to work and tell me a little more about it if they happen to see it. So there’s something for us to engage in together.

But sometimes I walk to work and it’s really boring, I don’t have any story to tell. An anecdote factory is kinda what life is and it’s not always fun. So when you’re trying to construct it for players, you wanna make sure that the event — like seeing the pig on the road with the painted nails — happens a really high frequency.

Polygon: More than the slog to work every single day.

Raymond: Yeah, right exactly. Where nothing happens and you just think about work while you’re walking. The approach to story in that context is where I think a lot of the innovation lies. It is kind of the holy grail of gaming that everyone from Ken Levine to Clint Hocking to Doug Church to everyone ... people have been talking about it forever. And then, what does it mean in a social context is even more of a question. I think we have a lot of really good examples of that I think in board games that have social elements.

Because we all have a need as humans to tell stories, even when there isn’t a story, you need very little things to construct a story. So that’s some stuff that we’re experimenting with.

If you think of the basic level of, in a lot of open world games, or a lot of games in general, you get quests from NPCs and that’s part of your story, right? You piece these together. You can create a system that very easily, if I was playing with you, incentivize me to be the quest giver, and if I was giving you a quest from me, don’t you think I could make it a lot more interesting for you than whatever automated line was written, right?

How player data and theories could shape future game stories

Polygon: So that’s a thing you’ve been talking about that I find really interesting. I would say what’s even more complicated than the holy grail of storytelling is the idea of collaborating with the players. And in a previous interview, you said that to make a game right now, there is almost no boundary between the creator and the player. That’s a very nice idea because some of the players are very nice, I would say a majority of them are. But some of them are very awful, in some terrible ways, and they can be very loud and controlling.

So I’m curious as you think about this sort of collaboration between designers and players, what steps are you taking to create fail-safes to create a community in games where this idea is actually possible, a place that doesn’t scare away the good people.

Raymond: Yeah, it’s ... I mean that’s a great question. So coming back to the other thing you were asking about before — making a parallel with how I was thinking about things like ten years ago versus now — the goal when we created Assassin’s Creed was to create a brand that is a sandbox that has a defined framework that can stay fresh, and that we can hand off to future teams or to people making comics or people [doing other things] ... and they can still have their creative sandbox, but still make something that’s authentic to the brand. So [with Assassin’s Creed] it was like, pick any a pivotal moment in history, come up with an alternate historical reason for why that moment happened, put some recognizable characters, an assassin behind it all, and you have an Assassin’s game.

I think that framework is what’s kept the brand still interesting to this day because you can keep on picking new and interesting times in history. As long as you put in an assassin and it’s one of the characters, you can create a new spin and the teams can have fun with it. I think now when we’re designing the brand and picking the framework, it’s not just how do we create a brand that can be handed off to professional teams, but how do we create a brand that’s owned by the players from the start. There is that framework and players can own it at different levels. There’s a lot of different levels of what this means and also how we can control it and what will make sense and not.

These are things that we’re developing now. We’re very early in game, we’re still in what you call the concept phase so we’re working through some of our prototypes.

We’re talking about making a prototype as a board game and we’re playing it as a live action RPG with people in the office. Because when you’re trying to prototype these social mechanics someone’s gonna drive narrative and that what’s going get real people in.

Polygon: Can you share some specific ideas?

Raymond: There’s some simple ideas, like, for example, if you take Game of Thrones, you know let’s say at one point in the story you’re going to have the Red Wedding. You know that at one point some family is all going to be obliterated. You can put these kind of big story beats there in your overall story. Then you could say, we’re going to do it based on data.

Let’s say you have a traditional faction system and let’s say players are really gravitating towards this one family, and they’re the most beloved. If you really want to shock the community the most, those are the ones you plug in to kill off — based on who players are really interacting with.

Games that reward the best players with special access

Polygon: My fear of that would be — let’s take something like Westworld or The Last Jedi. Neither of those could be made if the creators had listened to the fans. Last Jedi being a pretty great example of this. If they’d gone to the most hardcore fans, the film would not have been created. But what you’re talking about isn’t seeking advice, it’s more like using information that players are perhaps unknowingly providing in ways that influence the shape of the game.

Raymond: To increase the impact of the narrative. Or, the other thing that I think is really exciting in a J. J. Abrams kind of way, there’s always layers of mystery, right? And then there’s always all the fan pages [speculating about] what’s really going on, what’s really happening, right? How do you create enough different layers of possibility, but still leave the blanks there, where you can kind of, in some cases, based on what players are doing, just do the most shocking thing. But in other times, kind of let the most popular idea win. So maybe if there’s passion for, and this has nothing to do with our game, but just as an example, aliens [appear], why not go with that and let the community have a baby win, and hey you guys were right, it was aliens and [the players] sort of co-write in some ways.

The other thing I think is really exciting is YouTubers and streamers. We have these new different roles of people in games, and right now, the way it works is you make the game and then you have these people who have an unbalanced influence on the game. They’re still outside of the game, but they have a special association to developers. But you don’t really see that impact in the game, it still really happens outside.

So I think another thing that can be really interesting is you track the way some people in the game are having more of a positive influence. Let’s say, you can give each other quests and let’s say someone is creating a lot of entertainment and really investing in the community in a positive way You could say that the first time a particular epic thing happens, they get the first go at. Or they and their group of friends do. And then in historical lore of what you’re creating, they’re the ones who did this thing. And then you get the feedback loop reinforcing this, because people know that they’ll forever be in the lore of whatever by having done —

Polygon: They compete to —

Raymond: Yeah, to influence in a positive way. So you can create positive feedback loops for positive behavior and positive behavior being “I’m creating and participating. I’m creating the right kind of community and providing more entertainment. I’m enriching the experience and lives of other players.”