Just a few months after leaving his job at EA as chief design officer, Patrick Söderlund is ready to announce his next venture. Called Embark Studios, the company was revealed this evening at the earnings call for MapleStory publisher Nexon in Tokyo. Embark is a collaboration of sorts, with Nexon serving as both a publisher and investor in the fledgling studio. Söderlund’s team isn’t ready yet to show off a game, but the former EA executive has big plans for the future. “We have a mass-market, large-scale ambition with what we’re going to do,” he says.
To create that, Söderlund says that the studio will make use of emerging technologies to build new kinds of online interactive experiences. The press release announcing Embark is filled with buzzwords like “connected players, big data, speech recognition, cloud computing, and advanced AI.” In practice, Söderlund says this means finding ways to utilize these disparate technologies to design games that are very different from what’s currently available.
“It all stems from a belief that our industry, and the future of interactive entertainment, is going to look different than what we have today,” he says. “Although there is a ton of great games coming into the market every year, I kind of feel like to some extent we get more of the same. I think that we’re on the cusp of some changes. I think that all of these [technologies] combined will allow for very different experiences to evolve over time, that we haven’t seen.”
Without any actual games to show off, it’s hard to get a feel for what exactly this means. (Söderlund says the studio itself is actually less than a week old at this point.) In the absence of specifics, he gives a more theoretical example for the kinds of games Embark might make:
Games today are usually built around one layer. 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 athlete, inside of that world? These are some of the questions that are in my head. As I started thinking about those, along with some of the people I’m working with, I realized that it’s ambitious, and almost naive, but I think you have to go down that route to do something extraordinary.
Nexon CEO Owen Mahoney says that it’s “very rare” for the company to get involved with a venture so early, but it was sold on a combination of Söderlund’s broad vision and his experience. Prior to joining EA, he was CEO of Battlefield developer DICE. Once EA acquired DICE in 2006, Söderlund stayed on and steadily rose through the ranks, becoming one of the company’s top executives and at times EA’s most public face, most recently through some troubled stretches. “We want to build this future,” Mahoney says of Embark’s plans.
For Söderlund, who says he “had other options” after leaving EA, the new studio is also a chance to get back to being more involved with making games. “At EA I was always very close to the game-making, as much as I could given the job that I had,” he says. “This is a way for me to get much closer, to get back to actually making games, and designing stuff and building things on my own.” Part of that involves keeping Embark relatively small. Currently there are just a handful of employees — including Johan Andersson, who formerly headed up EA’s Search for Extraordinary Experiences Division, better known as SEED — but he expects to have between 15-20 people on board over the next few weeks, with an eventual headcount of around 35.
And while the ultimate goal is ambitious, the path to get there will start slowly. “I think starting with a game or a platform that can do all of the things we’ve talked about is going to be very difficult, and highly risky, and it’s going to take a lot of time,” Söderlund explains. “My approach will be different. We’re going to start by developing games that maybe share more traditional gameplay experiences, but at the same time try to prove out a couple of key things that I need to prove out for the future. I don’t feel like coming up with the ultimate dream or the ultimate idea, and hiding in a corner for 10 years, and showing up with something that may or not work, is the right approach for us.”
As for when Embark will release it’s first game? “I think you’ll see things from us quicker than you’d expect.”