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EA exec Patrick Söderlund's new studio has big plans



Just a few months after leaving his position at EA as chief designer, Patrick Söderlund is ready to announce his next venture. Called Embark Studios, the company was revealed tonight on the earnings call for MapleStory publisher Nexon in Tokyo. Embark is a collaboration of different types, with Nexon as both a publisher and investor in the fledgling studio. Söderlund's team is not ready yet to show a game, but the former EA leader has big plans for the future. "We have a mass market, a big ambition with what we are going to do," he says.

To create that, Söderlund says that the studio should use new technologies to build new types of online interactive experiences. The press release that announces Embark is filled with buzzwords like "connected players, big data, voice recognition, cloud computing, and advanced AI." In practice, Söderlund says that this means finding ways to exploit these different technologies to design games that are very different from what is currently available.

"Everything comes from a belief that our industry and the future's interactive entertainment will look different from what we have today," he says. "Although there are lots of great games coming into the market every year, I feel a little bit that we get more of the same. I think we are in spite of some changes. I think all these [technologies] combined will allow for very different experiences to evolve over time, as we have not seen. "

Without any actual games to show off, it is difficult to get a feel for this particular means. (Söderlund says that the studio itself is actually less than a week old at this time.) In the absence of detail, he gives a more theoretical example of the games Embark can do:

Games today are usually built around one team. You run around and you shoot people or you play soccer. What if you could have 10 abstraction layers of simulation in a game where you could choose to become a farmer or go into politics, or join the military, or be a professional practitioner in that world? These are some of the questions that are in my mind. When I started thinking about them with some of the people I work with, I realized that it is ambitious and almost naive, but I think you have to go down that route to do something extraordinary.

Nexon CEO Owen Mahoney says it's "very rare" for the company to be involved in a venture so early, but it was sold on a combination of Söderlund's broad vision and experience. Prior to joining EA, he was the CEO of Battlefield developer DICE. When EA bought DICE in 2006, Söderlund continued steadily through the joints, became one of the company's top managers and at times EA's most public face, most recently through some troubled stretches. "We will build this future," says Mahoney about Embark's plans.

For Söderlund, who says he had "other possibilities" after leaving EA, the new studio is also a chance to come back to being more involved in making games. "At EA, I was always very close to the game play, as much as I could give the job that I had," he says. "This is a way for me to get a lot closer, to come back to actually making games, and designing things and building things on their own." Part of it involves keeping Embark relatively small. Currently, only a handful of employees – Johan Andersson, who previously led EA's Search for Extraordinary Experience Division, better known as SEED – but he expects to have between 15-20 people aboard in the next few weeks, with the possible number of employees over 200.

And while the final goal is ambitious, the path to get there will slowly start. "I think starting with a game or platform that can do everything we've talked about will be very difficult and very risky and it will take a lot of time," explains Söderlund. "My approach will be different. We will begin to develop games that may share more traditional gaming experiences, but at the same time try to prove a few important things that I have to prove for the future. I do not want to come up with the ultimate dream or the ultimate idea, hiding in a corner for 10 years, showing something that may or may not work is the right approach for us. "

As for when Embark will release the first game? "I think you will see things from us sooner than you expect."


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