DICE is a studio in demand. With 400 men and women working on multiple different games simultaneously, is it possible to keep all the balls in the air without sacrificing quality or the staff members that made DICE what it is today? We asked DICE’s Creative Director, Lars Gustavsson, how he keeps the wolves at bay.
Everyone wants a piece of DICE and it’s the job of Lars Gustavsson to keep those wolves at bay (“people want us to do a lot of things,” he says, “and we want to do a lot of things.”) but where do you draw the line? How do you learn to say no, and how do you manage a burgeoning studio with 400 staff members without losing a small part of the magic?
“I think my job is to worry.”
As Creative Director at DICE, Lars Gustavsson has been involved, at the ground level, in almost every Battlefield game ever made. He speaks wistfully about his time on Battlefield 1942, as part of a 20 man team. “There are many days when I wish we just had that small team where you could be in more control,” he says. Now it’s his responsibility to help manage over 400 people and maintain that small team atmosphere. It’s his job to worry, but it’s also his job to ask the right questions and — sometimes — to have the right answers.
“It’s just a chaotic frenzy,” he says.
At this precise second the majority of DICE is working on getting Battlefield 4 prepped and ready for shelves, both actual and digital. But things have changed since the ‘old days’. Planning, multiple teams, work ethics: the things that are taken for granted in smaller studios must be managed and, sometimes, shaped.
“What’s really changed nowadays is that, in the old days, you shipped a game, looked at expansions packs and so on, but you weren’t really planning ahead so much,” explains Lars. “Nowadays we have the main team then we have the operations team. We have people who know how to work across multiple projects.”
The games industry has a reputation for burnout — the dreaded ‘crunch’. Developers talk like war veterans: the thousand yard stare. The sacrifice. The obliteration of work/life balance. All too often creators bear the brunt of mismanagement and the tail end of development becomes a sustained blast of endless work hours and work weeks that blend into months. Lars hopes that better preparation and a flexible workforce helps reduce that eventuality. It’s difficult to eliminate completely, but avoiding the crunch is a major part of Lars Gustavsson’s job description.
“Whenever we talk about studios we hear about people eating, sleeping and dying in the office,” he says, “but at DICE we try to have everything in place. We’re trying to make people last in this industry and enjoy what they do.”
Sometimes the issue lies with the creative process itself.
“We definitely try to avoid the crunch, but at the same time we do stumble. It’s like most creative spaces, whether you’re painting a painting or writing a book, it is very easy to get into that mindset where you don’t want to let it go.”
“We have such a huge amount of people working on these games from the planning stage. On Battlefield 3, we struggled in certain areas and ended up coming in late, but still you promise yourself — this time you’re going to do it all right! The world continues to change so it’s a constant struggle, but that’s why we love being in the games industry.”
Another part of the puzzle is motivation: how do you keep creative people engaged when working on the same franchise year after year. Lars has been working on Battlefield for most of his professional career and remains enthused by the series (“I still see endless possibilities, and when I don’t? It might be time to do something else”) but admits that respite is important for the team at DICE.
“The roar in the company when we announced we were going to be doing Star Wars: Battlefront threatened the whole interior of the building,” Lars laughs.
But, for many, Mirror’s Edge is the crown jewel. Gustavsson won’t be drawn on that project, mentioning it only in passing. Yes, people are working on the games. No, he can’t talk about it. He won’t even allude to its direction. He is, however, happy to reflect on the pride DICE has for the original, and what it meant to the studio that produced it.
“With Mirror’s Edge,” he says, “there’s a lot of pride at DICE that we were able to create something like that. I still have a lot of respect for EA for investing in it. Even now, travelling around the world doing interviews for Battlefield 4, I’m always asked about Mirror’s Edge.
“From the moment I saw the first prototype, it was clever, but to combine that with the art direction and the soundtrack? To me it’s one of those universes that you long to go back to. There’s a lot of pride in that game at DICE.”
Lars Gustavsson is tall. Shockingly tall. Taller than most human beings outside of a basketball court. But DICE is bigger than one man. It’s a mega studio comprised of hundreds of human beings all working towards a single goal. Is the culture DICE worked so hard to foster — quality, passion, innovation — in danger of being lost in the mix?
“Once you get over 100 that small company feeling starts to fade,” admits Lars, “then you have to create company meetings that are intimate: you have to let people know who you are! You have to create cultures within the cultures, but you have to make sure people remember what DICE stands for.”
Growth is not a priority for DICE, it’s something that happens in response to the projects thrust upon them. Lars’ priority right now is to build stability. To invent how a modern 400 person studio can function as a collective without individuals getting lost in the mix.
“Right now it’s about stabilising the organisation,” he says. “Letting it all come together. My responsibility is to make sure that we don’t do it by sacrificing people. It’s about quality, passion and innovation and being able to do it over a long period of time.
“We celebrated 20 years last year and I want to see the studio sticking around for the foreseeable future.”