‘A Way Out’ Is the Next Step Towards a Better EA

Today marks a major release for Electronic Arts. Among the biggest game publishers in the world, EA is a monolith unto itself with a library of games spanning everything from professional sports to high-profile franchises like Star Wars: Battlefront. So what could excite a company that made more than $4 billion in 2017?

A Way Out, a co-op only indie title that, at best, will make EA exactly $0.

Why does this title matter so much to EA? Because it is only the second release in the fledgling EA Originals program, a goodwill effort to foster the best in creative thinking in the industry and the brainchild of EA’s Executive Vice President in charge of Worldwide Studios Patrick Soderlund. Before he was an executive, Soderlund began his career as the kind of small-scale developer EA Originals is designed to assist.

a way out 3 A Way Out is a tale of two friends, best experienced by two friends. Hazelight Studios

“I just remember the pains I went through,” he told Newsweek. “You need to not only convince people that you have a great idea, you also need to convince people that you can make the game.”

The EA Originals program seeks to identify unique, innovative game developers and provide them with financial support that has very few strings attached. The hallmark of the program is the profit-sharing between EA and the studios enrolled in EA Originals: there is none. Once a game covers its costs, 100 percent of the profits will go directly to the studio, not to EA.

“We understand that we are a creative industry. We are a creative company, an entertainment company. If you look at our portfolio of products we deserve to have something like A Way Out in our portfolio. And if that means some of the other games are going to have to pave the way to pay for that, we're fine with it,” he said.

What makes A Way Out so special? It’s a co-op only game, something that’s become almost unheard of in the gaming world. There are plenty of multiplayer games, like Overwatch or PUBG, but A Way Out is about two people working together, not against each other.

The story follows two men who bond after a prison break and, in the course of their escape, must solve problems together. This is done with a litany of different mechanics, from familiar video game stuff like shootouts with police to tense quick-time events like passing escape tools between prison cells. Beyond its outside-the-box concepts, the game also benefits from a cinematic aesthetic that makes it as interesting to watch as it is to play.

The company behind A Way Out, Hazelight Studios, is helmed by Josef Fares. Soderlund recognized in him a passion and a vision that stood out among the dozens of other pitches presented to the EA Originals program.

“We have to think about the world in a different way. And when we meet with someone that's as strong as a creative as Josef is, he articulated his visions, basically, on a napkin to me. I said 'yeah let's do it,'” he said.

Copy of Josef_Fares_Mocap Josef Fares doing motion capture work for A Way Out. Hazelight Studios

The value for EA Originals isn’t measured by dollar signs. It’s measured in talent. Soderlund believes it’s essential for a company as large and as prolific as EA to cultivate talent from as many avenues as possible. This program is a two-way street providing insight into trends and development strategies far different from what EA’s existing studios might be doing.

“Building these large-scale, blockbuster type games, how do you stay fresh? How do you innovate? How do you make sure they're seen as market-leading and people want to go back and play them with the best of intent?” he said. “There's a lot of games out there that are too formulaic, that don't have enough innovation.”

What Soderlund is looking for are games that do something different, that push the boundaries of what people expect from interactive entertainment. He casts a wide net. To date roughly 200 pitches have come through to EA Partners, the internal team tasked with finding the best of the best. Funneling the best ideas up to Soderlund provides a chance to make connections across the industry.

“We designed the program to be a program where we got access to great developers and to talent that we wouldn't normally touch,” he said. “If we do our job well, and they do their job well, then maybe there's a longer-term relationship there that I think is important.”

He certainly believes Hazelight and EA have a bright future ahead of them. He’s hopeful his company will work with Fares again on another project, maybe something “a lot bigger, that's less niche, where we give them more funding.”

His expectations for EA Originals don’t hinge on review scores, either. Given the choice he would rather see a title polarize an audience and garner scores that are all tens and zeroes then fall in the middle and receive fives across the board. (He’s confident A Way Out will receive strong scores, and early reviews suggest he’s right.)

a way out 2 The cinematic feel of A Way Out supports the story for people playing, and for people watching. Hazelight Studios

Despite Soderlund’s best intentions, there’s no denying EA has a popularity problem among gamers. It’s won dubious awards like “Worst Company in America” and recently found itself mired in controversy over microtransactions in Star Wars: Battlefront II. Of course Soderlund believes his company and, more importantly, his people are severely misunderstood.

“Oh we’re ‘Evil EA,’ I’ve heard it all,” he said. “What people will find if they start interacting with EA is that this is a company with a lot of developers and creators that care, profoundly, about what they make. They don't see themselves as a monolith or an evil corporation, there's none of that.”

He argues that, ultimately, games are made by people and people aren’t perfect.

“Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong,” he said.

EA Originals is an attempt to get it right from the very beginning. And if Soderlund gets it exactly right, he’s got $0 to look forward to.