Patrick Söderlund Explains How Frostbite Has Changed EA For The Better
When we sat down to play Dragon Age: Inquisition for the first time, we noted that the pause mechanic that lets players plot their attacks had changed. The ability to slowly wind time forward while paused (called "engage mode") was described by creative director Mike Laidlaw as an unintended byproduct of Frostbite 3.
BioWare isn't the only EA studio to push the engine beyond its original purpose for first-person shooters. In an interview with EA executive vice president Patrick Söderlund, he explained how Frostbite has changed how EA developers work with one another.
"The notion of a one-tech platform for us as a company is the right one," he tells us. "The positive effects of that are just so profound. We have 300 people that work on Frostbite 3. They're spread around the world in Sweden, Vancouver, Montreal, and other locations around the world."
While the development hubs for the Frostbite engine are located in Stockholm and Vancouver, developers throughout EA make an impact on how it works. However, Söderlund is clear that studios get to choose whether to use the engine. "Now there's enough engines out there that you can license one, but with that goes a lot of addition and change to the underlying tech structure," he says. "As time evolved, we took a conscious approach of never forcing anyone to use it. That's a very important statement for us to make. Quite often when you deal with creative people, they want to be in control. Even if you're a programmer, you want to create something."
Söderlund explains that Frostbite offers the opportunity for developers to make their mark without having to reinvent the wheel or work with an licensed toolset. "What we've done now with Frostbite, is sort of create this open source development model," he tells us. "Take BioWare as an example. They chose to use Frostbite on their own, even though they knew it didn't support open-world structures. It didn't support big worlds. They had to implement streaming systems. There was no advanced dialogue or cutscene system, so they had to implement those things. The main package of Frostbite keeps expanding, because of what the Frostbite team develops, but also because of the things teams keep adding to it. The streaming solution that BioWare added is now in the main branch helping us build open world games in general, whether that's Need for Speed or Dragon Age. The dialogue system is also part of the main branch."
There are other benefits of EA's approach to engines that have an impact on how developers work outside of major projects. For instance, some prefer to assist another team before beginning on the next big game at their home studio. "The benefits of having 3,000 people trained on the same engine are profound," Söderlund says. "If some team is struggling to get something done and needs help, it's virtually impossible if you don't have the same knowledge base or tech."
EA's model allows the company to pull from other studios for short periods of time. Because they are all using Frostbite, the learning curve for new team members is significantly shorter. It's conceivable that this would also have positive impact in the case of corporate reorganization that leaves some developers in need of new work. Keeping them within EA means both ongoing employment and retaining the investment made in that individual.
Söderlund doesn't anticipate deviating from the one-tech model (which includes the Ignite sports engine) any time soon. "I see a world where there is only one tech platform for us long term," he says. "We just need to have a conscious plan and strategy for how we get there."