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Former EA exec Patrick Söderlund’s new studio just opened, but it has big plans

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. Söderlunds team isnt 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 were 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 whats 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 were 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 havent seen. Without any actual games to show off, its 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 Im working with, I realized that its ambitious, and almost naive, but I think you have to go down that route to do something extraordinary. Nexon CEO Owen Mahoney says that its very rare for the company to get involved with a venture so early, but it was sold on a combination of Söderlunds 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 companys top executives and at times EAs most public face, most recently through some troubled stretches. We want to build this future, Mahoney says of Embarks 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 EAs 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 more than 200. 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 weve talked about is going to be very difficult, and highly risky, and its going to take a lot of time, Söderlund explains. My approach will be different. Were 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 dont 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 its first game? I think youll see things from us quicker than youd expect.

Nexon makes strategic investment in Patrick Söderlund’s Embark Studios

Asian online gaming giant Nexon made a strategic investment in Embark Studios, a new game-development company that former Electronic Arts and DICE executive Patrick Söderlund founded. As the sole strategic equity investor in Embark, Nexon (the maker of games such as MapleStory and Dungeon & Fighter) will also serve as worldwide publisher for titles that this new company developers. Additionally, Embark CEO Söderlund has been nominated to serve on Nexons board of directors; the nomination will be ratified at the Nexon annual shareholders meeting in March. I believe games are on the cusp of changing radically, thanks to new technologies, said Söderlund in a statement. Connected players, big data, speech recognition, cloud computing, advanced AI and more will open up new play, enabling developers to build a wider range of experiences, and for players to create and contribute. Embark is a group of veteran creators eager to move beyond current play experiences into the future. Nexon has been on an investment spree under CEO Owen Mahoney, as he expands Nexon from Asia to the West. It has also invested in companies such as Shiver Entertainment, Big Huge Games, Boss Key Productions, Playfusion. Some have gone well, but some have not. Cliff Bleszinskis Boss Key Productions, for instance, shut down after its LawBreakers shooter game failed to gain traction amid the success of rival games like Fortnite. EA executive vice president Patrick Soderlund. He added, The partnership between Embark Studios and Nexon is built on a deeply aligned vision about the future of interactive entertainment, and about challenging the standard conventions and practices of how to create. Also, Nexons global leadership in nurturing online game worlds and communities for many years is critical to our mission. The Stockholm-based Embark seeks to develop new types of interactive entertainment and simulated virtual online worlds enabled by the massive leaps in technology that have already occurred and are on the horizon in streaming, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence. The company will also build its own technology platform to optimize for the new games and experiences it will offer. While the online games business is very large, it is still just getting started, said Nexon CEO Owen Mahoney in a statement. Today we sit at a major inflection point, with highly advanced AI technology, dynamic provisioning of computational power from the cloud, and new user interface options now offered by multiple vendors and at consumer-level price points. What remains scarce is the ability to make deeply engaging online virtual worlds that appeal to a broad global audience that can grow for many years. The formation of Embark represents one of the most exciting developments for the future of online games. Embark will develop the next-generation of online multiplayer worlds leveraging both its leaderships proven experience creating beloved global franchises, and Nexons ability to grow live games worlds for years, even decades. Both Nexon and Embark believe that the next generation of online games will be deeply immersive simulated realities, with persistence and deep consequences for player actions. Söderlund was the CEO of Stockholm-based DICE, which was acquired by Electronic Arts in 2006. Over the years, Söderlund held many executive roles, and he eventually became executive vice president of worldwide studios, and most recently serving as the companys chief design officer.