I had a chance to talk to Dan Mitre who runs community at EA. He’s a totally awesome dude and it was awesome to meet him. Here are some snippets from our interview!
Black Shell Media: How did you get involved in all this? What’s your background in gaming?
Dan Mitre: I have humble roots. I actually moved to LA for music, so it was a natural crossover for me to be here. But working at a certain guitar retailer, you don’t necessarily make enough money to survive. One of my friends was a video game tester at Vivendi Games and he was working on a game called F.E.A.R. I told myself, “Look, I can make more money than I’m making now by playing video games, something that I’m passionate about. Let’s do this. It just makes sense.” This was 10+ years ago, so I got over there and it was just like the movie Grandma’s Boy. Just a crazy, chaotic jungle.
But it was fun, and back then, if you had any good talent and you wanted to move on from QA, you had to get out of there as soon as you could. Otherwise you’d just get pigeonholed to QA. Of course now, QA is a completely different facet. You have to be very professional. You have to have a background in coding and know video game production, because you’re very much working with developers one on one. You’re sitting in an office with them. Whereas in the past, we were all off-site. We just wrote up bugs.
So, fast forward a little bit. I got out of QA and started doing journalism—a little bit of writing with my current mentor, Chris Mancil, EA’s Director of Community. He brought me onto the community team to head up Freestyle Street Basketball, which is essentially a Korean-based RPG basketball game. But it has these elements where you always have to log in and play a match. The more you play, the better your character gets, and you devote earned points to different attributes. You can be a better point guard, for example. We had a really cool collaboration with lifestyle brands, too, like Ecko.
So, that gave me a good foundation of how to partner with big brands while still providing meaningful content to our players—and making the game stick enough with the players for them to want to play in a tournament on the weekend. So, there was Vivendi, and I hopped here and there as some products shut down—like when THQ went under, unfortunately. I moved to Sega at one point, but then Sega shut down.
Then I landed at EA and got the opportunity to work on one of the top properties in video gaming; Battlefield. I also work with Sims, with the community lead up by Amanda Drake. The Sims franchise has a huge community—great UGC coming out of that. So, I’ve been blessed. I work hard, but I also consider myself extremely lucky.
BSM: That’s amazing, rising up all the way from QA to where you are now.
DM: A lot of guys have done that, actually. A lot of CEOs start from QA, like Zynga’s Frank Gibeau. From those humble beginnings, you understand how to produce video games. And then you start with marketing teams, so you learn how to market them. So, it’s good to have both of those minds and not just be isolated to one. They’re very much important to each other.
BSM: As a QA guy, you mentioned that you’re working with developers and project managers, trying to understand every aspect of the process so you know where you fit in.
DM: Yeah, exactly. Everybody finds their little niche, right? That’s the beauty of the industry. It needs a little bit of everybody. It takes a whole bunch of gears to make that machine, and it’s good to be perfect in your gear but also be willing to learn other disciplines. It really rounds you out.
BSM: I guess that little paradigm goes out the window. You look at Indie developers, where they have to take control of every single aspect of it.
DM: Well, I don’t want to necessarily say out the window. It’s more important to wear many hats. As a community guy, I understand that balance of disciplines. We’re working with marketing and development, and you get very much rooted in those two different teams. Whether it’s social or paid media, all the way to front-end UI teams, working with back-end systems, and providing feedback from our players. As an Indie developer, you have to wear all those hats, because you have a very small team, very limited funding—or it’s just you, one dude out of your living room developing an app. But, man, once you hit it big, you reap all that success and you set yourself up for some incredible opportunities.
BSM: So, what was it like working on that basketball game and through community management? I’d imagine you have people, like you said, that are more into the competitive sort of tournament-style gameplay. But then there are the people that also play it casually. How do you reconcile those two communities? I know it’s a big topic on everyone’s minds, even with things like Battlefield or Overwatch, where you have the hardcore competitive scene and you have the casual scene. How do you balance those two things as a CM?
DM: First of all, you’ve got to have your ear to the ground. The landscape’s always changing, but you can always approach it with some sort of intelligence. Back then, obviously, I was new to the community, so I was learning everything, and I was very open to new processes—very open to new perspectives on how to approach the competitive scene. What I learned early on is you do have a core base that very much wants to dedicate all their time to being the best. And they want the recognition of that, amongst their peers and amongst the wider community. They want to show that trophy, whether that’s an in-game icon saying they won or some swag we send them.
You have to build programs around that, to cater to that, but you also need to inspire those who may be intimidated on the casual side—or may not know about the competitive scene—to join. You have to make it easily accessible. That’s always the challenge, isn’t it? Tournaments are very intimidating, even for myself. I’m not the greatest FPS player. I’ll try, but I’m pretty sure I’ll fail in the first bracket. But finding opportunities to get people more involved easily, that’s where you do need to develop those programs. Specifically for the core, specifically for the casual, so both are satisfied with their experiences. Then, provide those crossovers.
Let’s not forget about the spectator viewership of the competitive scene either. As much as people want to play and complete to be the best, there’s a big population that want to watch incredible players perform at their peak best. Building games that cater to both playability and are exciting to watch from outside of the ring is going to be key.
Battlefield, inherently, is not a competitive game, in the sense of CS: GO or Overwatch. Those games are built around competition. That’s the sole objective. They understand that on the outside that, yeah, you have a lot of people that play casually, but to get the full experience, you need to play competitively. You need to put everything on the line. Battlefield is a different kind of game. It’s a sandbox environment where you can choose the way you want to play, without necessarily focusing on competition. We reward those who play the objective, and then we also reward those who go rogue and play lone wolf. So, Battlefield’s a different beast.
But, as we’ve announced over the past year or two, Peter Moore was taking on the competitive gaming division. Of course, he’s left the company now. He’s going over to Liverpool to be the CEO of the Liverpool Football Club. So now we have a new gentleman who’s stepping up. Competitive is still something for us—on the horizon—and it’s going to be interesting to see how our franchises leverage the competitive scene and how we start building out our game to support that.
BSM: When you get big genres, like the first person shooter genre, you have people from a variety of backgrounds playing it. You have kids, for whom it’s their first game. You have people that have been playing since the original Call of Duty games. How do you balance for that in a game? Even toward the community, the sandbox experience, like you said. How do you make sure that everyone has a good time, regardless of where they’re coming from?
DM: It’s a lot of listening. On our end, we would bring in people that have a competitive background into the development process. Hypothetically, you would bring in someone who has a background in the competitive scene. They know what the competitive players want from listening.
We also have a program called Game Changers. It’s a really awesome program where we bring in people who have all sorts of different backgrounds into our franchise. Whether they’re a forum moderator, a streamer, a big time YouTuber, or just a lifelong fan of our development studios, we bring them in before we even announce a game. This is a critical part in the development, where we have an opportunity to make changes based off of player feedback. So, we bring them in, and we sit down with them from anywhere from six to eight hours day, for two to three days a week. We bring them out, whether it’s Stockholm or Vancouver—wherever our principal developers are—and get them in front of our creative designers, game designers, and level artists, and they play the latest code. Then, they provide that direct feedback, we make those changes within a month or two, and then we bring them back and say, “Okay. We made some of these changes. We may have passed on some of them, but what do you think now?”
So, we’re using the voice of the player to create and optimize our experiences in the game. That’s the way we would want to approach it if we are going to make some headway into the competitive scene: bring in some competitive players and listen to what resonates with them while still leveraging our internal expertise.
Plus, you’re better positioned for success when you’re making games for the players. You have to be very open. You have to be ready to be humbled. You have to be ready to say, “You know what? That guy said this element sucks.” And, that can hit you where it counts—in your ego and your pride. Especially, say if you’re a level designer, and the guy says that your map sucks: that was your baby for the past six months. You have to be open to that criticism, because the end goal is to make the game for the player. “Player first,” is our mantra at EA.
BSM: So, what would you say, overall big picture, is the hardest part about your job? The biggest challenges you face?
DM: Time. Time. As a community manager, we’re on 24/7. I’m not saying that other people don’t work hard in the industry, because they do. Our developers put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. A lot of time away from family. But in Community, like I said earlier, we wear a lot of different hats. I keep up with a lot of different teams, and that’s a global affair. I was just in Stockholm last week. The week before that, I was in Seattle, and now I’m here in Austin.
I live in LA. I haven’t seen home in three weeks. But we’re passionate about it. It’s just . . . it’s time. If we could make more time in the day, us Community professionals could cater to more players. Fortunately, it’s easier now. Especially at EA, and especially with the introduction of social media. It makes it much easier to interface with other players on a real-time basis and to get answers and question our community—and we get good feedback cycles on a real-time basis.
BSM: As a community manager for a AAA title, even for Indie games, how focused should you be on reaching out to every individual person verses trying to appeal to the community as a whole? If you have a steam game, for example, should you make announcements to encompass frequently asked questions, or should you individually go and reply to every single person that says anything about your game? How do you guys handle that?
DM: Both. One person can only do so much, right? We had a program in place called ICE, an Integrated Customer Experience team equipped with response messaging. It was about fourteen passionate guys and gals based out of Austin whose sole job was to go and respond to people on social media—Facebook, Twitter. So you had that one on one interaction.
Whereas a person like me, I don’t get to be on social media all day. I love interacting with our players one on one. I hate this, and I’m not trying to stroke my ego or anything, but the higher you get in the industry, the harder it is to spend time with players one on one. So you build out programs to do that so you can have that one on one interaction. You also identify top tier influencers, those who have big voices, and you build out campaigns with them. So that way, their voice is heard and you’re creating great content for them to then push out to their communities. Because they’re representative of big communities. You’ve got Jackfrags. He has two million subscribers. And you have Alan Walker, 6.2+M on YouTube and reaching all over social media. Working with those high level, top-tier influencers, you’re able to reach a lot more people. But everybody’s voice matters, so we have to build out those programs to do that.
BSM: So, how would you suggest a small team of Indie developers go about doing something like that?
DM: Identify your core players, identify the people that are very passionate. Bring them in for feedback. Not necessarily in person, but in virtual spaces as well. People that represent the larger community. If you’re a small Indie developer, you don’t have a lot of time to interact with your players, but it’s important to dedicate some time to interact with them one on one. Because even the small voices count.
BSM: Do you guys do any work with small or midsize influencers? Do you do anything to support them?
DM: They’re very important. So, the analogy I always use: it’s a pyramid. The pyramid can’t stand without that base, and the base is your low- and mid-tier guys. Those make up the majority of your community. So we don’t just look past them. In fact, we build out programs to work with the low-tier influencers, whether they’re inspired to go to the mid or the higher, we give them the content they need, make sure that their voice is heard, and integrate them into the feedback. A lot of the time, we see the mid-level guys love where they’re at.
Then, of course, we work with the top-tier guys. It’s interesting, though. The top-tier influencers have earned their stripes, and now they’re running their own brands. They’re able to call the shots where they can: “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t have the time to do that anymore. I’m sorry. I need premium dollars to run that.” I totally get it. A lot of the guys we work with were mid-tier guys at one time. They were very hungry for content, but now they’ve gotten so big and their time is so stretched—and time is money—that they get to call their own shots. Now, we leverage them in a different way. So we build out the low-, the mid-, and the top-tier in all of our campaigns. It’s very important to capture everybody.
It’s a mutual, beneficial relationship. And one of my challenges has always been early on that if we’re only going to work with the top YouTubers, people will see that. People will think, “Oh. They only care about guys who have one million plus subscribers. They don’t care about me.” No. I want everybody involved with our Game Changers program. So when I’m building out the roster for an upcoming developmental feedback session, I do want the top-tier guys. They’re very much representative of the larger, but it’s important to have the mid and the low. Because the public perception of that roster is very important.
BSM: A lot of developers focus on getting the big guys, the PewDiePie and JackSepticEye types, to play their Indie game, because they think more views translates to more money, more exposure, and more community engagement. One thing that we’ve noticed is that whenever some of the big guys play a random Indie game, it’ll show up on the front page of YouTube because it gets two million views. You get a bunch of people coming to the game, sure, but a lot of those people may not necessarily be very interested in your game. Because PewDiePie, for example, is playing hundreds and hundreds of different games. Whereas if a smaller YouTuber, who only plays, for example, cardboard titles, plays one of your games, you’re going to see a lot deeper engagement and a lot more conversion from that guy. Because, you know his audience is more interested in your game.
DM: Yeah. You nailed it. You nailed it exactly. So, what is our objective? Are we looking for a core quality feedback? Are we looking for a core engagement and core impressions? Well, then we’re going to go to the mid-tier guys. The mid-tiers, those 40-50,000 subscribers are following them because they have adopted their personality. They’re not necessarily following them because they’re friends or a friend’s friend or because media has propped them up so big. I’m not discounting the big guys: it’s very important to have the PewDiePie’s and similar personalities in your campaigns, because they are the shotgun effect. They cover multiple games, and we understand that. That’s why top dollar gets some mega impressions. But, that’s where you reach new audiences. So, what’s your objective? Are you looking to reach a new audience, or are you looking to reach your core? Build out the campaigns and the rosters on those, depending on what you’re shooting for.
Here’s a real-world application. Let’s say we just released an innovative update notes feature upgrade. Which we recently just did. Battlefield 1 now has update notes on the web. And, it’s all visual based, so it’s not buried in a forum anymore. I won’t necessarily go to PewDiePie or a similar top tier guy and say, “Look. Can you push out news about update notes?” His community doesn’t care. His community wants to see the latest announcement, the latest gameplay. But, I will go to the mid-tier, the Darkness429’s, the GrizzleBF’s of the world, and then I’ll start sharing those update notes, because their communities are comprised of core guys who care about that content.
BSM: What advice would you give to Indie developers who are trying to reach influencers of various sizes?
DM: Listen to your community. You’ve got to have good pulls with your community. Don’t develop the game in a vacuum. Listen to what your players want. Take that feedback and consider it. Seriously consider it and how you would leverage the rest of your team to make those elements happen. And then iterate with your community. You’re developing specifically to the game that they want to purchase in the end.
Before Andrew Wilson came on as our CEO, we lost touch with our player base. We were making games for a wide variety of reasons: whether it was because we just knew how to make games, we were just pumping out a template of what we did last year, or we had the greatest minds in gaming making games based off of analytics. So, Andrew Wilson comes around and he puts into effect the mantra of “players first”. Everything we do should be player first. Your game should be developed with the players in mind. Marketing campaigns should be developed with players in mind. So, everything we do takes into consideration what the players want, what resonates with them, and then we build out the support to deliver against that. That has completely shifted the way we make games, the way we talk about them at EA. And let the EA stock prove the results, right?
BSM: Any parting words or final thoughts that Indie developers should know or that anyone, in general, should know?
DM: Just get out there and network. Get out there and meet people. This industry is all about who you know. It’s a tough one to break into. It can be very saturated in some areas. But if you have talent, if you have a good idea, don’t let anything stop you from achieving it. So, get out there and meet people. And listen to your community.