Last month, Electronic Arts announced it was to add 300 staff to its Galway customer service centre in Ireland. The centre, which was opened in 2011 by Bioware to support the launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic, already houses some 400 staff, but the increase aims to offer multilingual support around the clock to EA's customer base. We caught up with Peter Moore, Electronic Arts chief operating officer, to find out more about why the publisher was attracted to Ireland, the closure of PopCap in the region, and why games today are becoming around-the-clock services.
The Galway Centre opened in 2011 for Star Wars: The Old Republic--what's the focus on broadening it at this point?
Well, you're exactly right--when we first came in here it was a primarily a single game focus, with Bioware leadership. And as our business evolved and as the industry has evolved in the last 12 months in particular, and games moving more to always-on, 24 hours-a-day, seven days a week, we've also evolved and grown the centre. So I've been over about five weeks ago with the Irish Prime Minister making an announcement about growing this centre and a long term plan to add another 300 jobs in Galway. So much of that is focused on growing our ability to interact with our consumer 24 hours-a-day, seven days a week. As our games, as I say, become services, so does the demand to get instant response for our consumers…and we have to respond to that demand. Otherwise I think we're being disingenuous when we take their money if we're not there for them as we move more and more into this direct-to-consumer world that we as publishers are now embracing.
"As our games, as I say, become services, so does the demand to get instant response for our consumers…and we have to respond to that demand. Otherwise I think we're being disingenuous."
You mentioned the Irish Prime Minister there. What role has the government played in the formation of the customer service centre?
The Irish Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, in Dublin a few weeks ago--he and I sat down at a press conference and announced our commitment to Ireland, which they love. First, they love Electronic Arts being committed to the Irish Republic, bringing a technical element of our jobs, particularly focused on the Western part of Ireland and being able to grow our already pretty sizable footprint here. I also think we act as what they call a cluster in which a lot of other companies look at EA making a commitment to this part of the world and following suit and I think that's important to them. And our commitment, the power of what Electronic Arts brings to a region was sufficient to actually get the Prime Minister to get personally involved in making this happen, as well as the Minister of Enterprise, Richard Bruton, who was also at the press conference. I can take you back to places like Vancouver where we put down stakes many years ago and feel very proud about what Vancouver, British Columbia means to digital entertainment today, so much of that were the roots that EA decided to put down, and I think that they see that and feel that this situation is no different. When companies like ourselves make commitments to regions, other companies follow suit.
"When companies like ourselves make commitments to regions, other companies follow suit."
What are the overall aims for the Galway expansion, and how will you be measuring success?
Well, I think more and more as we start to focus on dealing directly with our consumers, so many of our game experiences now rely upon our ability to respond to challenges that consumers have. And the game experience is less about walking into a retailer and buying a plastic disc and taking it home and waiting for the game to load and then playing. It's more about downloads and achievements and entitlements and downloadable content and micro transactions. And your credit card is out there and we need to protect your security and privacy. And when you download something and it doesn't quite work the way that you expected to, we've had a commercial transaction with you and we need to help you. So from that perspective, we need to build out that competency because that is our industry of the future, that is the way that interactive entertainment is going, and we've got to be prepared to be able to help people--this is no longer an offline experience, this is no longer really a physical media experience going forwards, this is going to be direct to consumer digital. And companies like ourselves--I put us in the same bracket as Apple, Google, Facebook--we're a service, we're online, we're providing entertainment, and boy we better be there for the consumer when some of that breaks down.
What kind of standards does the customer service centre hold? Specifically, do you train the staff there to deal with gamers, who can be fairly contentious and outspoken?
(Laughs) Yeah, you don't get to talk to a gamer for three weeks I think is the training. We don't let you out in the wild for three weeks. I've had the fascinating privilege listening to calls and watching our agents help people get through--they've lost their passwords, they know they've downloaded something--they can't figure out where it went, they've got some micro transactions they thought they paid for--they can't figure out where they are in a game situation. All of those things have to be resolved, and we owe it to the consumer to resolve those things. We also have to be careful--we have 20 million contacts a year right now, either via telephone or live chat or email or web based support, and not everyone in a 20 million contact sampling is up to any good and we just have to be careful with what's going on. Obviously when you're dealing online and you're dealing with somebody's credit card information, we also have security and privacy and that is paramount in what what we do here.
"And companies like ourselves--I put us in the same bracket as Apple, Google, Facebook--we're a service, we're online, we're providing entertainment, and boy we better be there for the consumer when some of that breaks down."
Can you go into depth on the total headcount over there now, and how the 300 new jobs are broken down?
I don't know about breaking down, but since we made the announcement of 300 jobs, in the first week we received 1,500 resumes and CVs, so clearly great demand. A very fascinating industry for people to want to work in here, and so we're sifting through those now. We've got job [requisitions] on the website. When we look at our overall global number we're about six hundred employees full-time and part-time at Electronic Arts that deal exclusively in handling our customer challenges, plus partners around the world that we outsource some of our capacity to as well, so it's a growing part of our business; it's an important part of our business, and then there's no time limit on the 300 here in Galway. We're sifting through resumes, making the hires weekly, obviously looking at quality people rather than hiring in quantity and that is also important to us.
Is there still a dedicated Old Republic division within the centre, or has that been assimilated into the wider group?
It's part, but it's no different from FIFA, it's no different from Battlefield; It's an MMO so it is a large part of this centre here that takes care of folks and as you know we're moving to a hybrid model going forward here with both subscription and free-to-play and that is relatively imminent, so from our perspective we need to be geared up for that, so it's a big part of what we do here, but so is FIFA and Battlefield and as of today Medal of Honor and as of next week Need for Speed.
Zenimax also has staff in Galway. What's the attraction of the area? Why is it so enticing?
First of all, it's a beautiful place to work and it's a relatively young place. When I say that, from a demographic perspective, there's a tremendous amount of technical students here at the local colleges and university that gives us a pipeline for well-educated technical folks coming right out of school, what we call "campus hires" that would allow us to bring them back in. And at the same time, we get great support as we alluded to from the Irish government, in making sure that we're developing programmes through the Irish Development Agency in making this an important part of what they do here in Western Ireland, and like any government, they take job creation very seriously and invest accordingly and we're delighted to work with them. I had the pleasure of meeting them when I was in Dublin, and I'm going to see them again today, and we have a very close relationship and we'll continue to compare notes of how we can help build this part of the world and continue to invest in it. And when we think about the two places in the world now that are important to us for our customer experience, it's Austin, Texas and Galway, Ireland.
In terms of measuring customer satisfaction long-term, how does EA go about that?
We measure it daily--so much of what we do will be surveys with the customer that brings back we we call CSAT scores: customer satisfaction scores. Typically, and you know this because you're a consumer is that survey, the post-transactional surveys, if you talk to us we'll ask you permission to ask you about experience and ask you to rank what happened so we're getting 24-hour-a-day feedback on what we can do better. And then we ask you, quite frankly, to be able to rank us and that's how you get customer satisfaction scores because we can think we're doing well, but if the consumer doesn't think we're doing well, then nothing really matters because it's got to be their reaction to us, and then that builds into a score database that we look at internally every single day.
" I think the idea is to make games bigger, make them 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week experiences."
The expansion in Galway has come at a similar time to the reduction at PopCap in Dublin. What was the primary decision in terms of the closure?
Unrelated--they're both in Ireland, that's the only linkage between the two. The other one was more of a development studio but PopCap had grown enormously and they were just doing some resizing in their business. I think the good news is that we were able in a lot of instances to offer other EA opportunities to PopCap folks. I know that, having spoken to, and got some reports back, that many of them are already gainfully employed elsewhere so we're hopeful that that hasn't been too negative an impact on those particular folks, and my thoughts are always with the employees and their families and hopefully they get employment again quickly which I think is going to be the case in most instances.
What are the big challenges for EA going into 2013?
Well, I think we're still going through this transformation as an industry and I think we're handling it as well as anybody, if not better. We've got big franchises but less of them, and I think the idea is to make games bigger, make them 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week experiences and we talked about a few of them already--Battlefield 3 in particular. We're still seeing peak concurrent users grow and gosh, we're nearly 11, 12 months since we launched that game and that's great for the industry. FIFA is a phenomenon on its own, and FIFA Ultimate Team--the way that people interact with that game now, I think, is industry-leading. And then [Star Wars: The Old Republic] is still a powerful part of, you know, certainly what we look at as the future of massively multiplayer games with great IP layered on, and we're going to be fascinated in the not-too-distant future to see how this kind of free-to-play and subscription hybrid model works. And we're geared up and ready to go with that. I think that we've, as a company, made all the necessary investments both in infrastructure at the back end and customer service that is somewhat invisible I think. But when you grow to [become] a company that literally interacts with hundreds of millions of people a month through all of our game experiences, you better have the infrastructure, the plumbing if you will, that works every day, otherwise it all falls down pretty quickly, and I'm confident we've got that.
FIFA's been a huge success, especially in the UK. What about NBA Live, what can you tell us about that franchise? Will it be going free-to-play?
"But when you grow to [become] a company that literally interacts with hundreds of millions of people a month through all of our game experiences, you better have the infrastructure…otherwise it all falls down pretty quickly."
No, there's nothing to announce on that, you saw the announcement that we're not shipping NBA Live this year and it'll be "standby, stay tuned for further info on that."
We're not sure if you saw Tim Schafer talking about the cultural effects of disbanding teams at the end of projects, but do you have any opinions on that at all?
You know, look, I saw the headline--I got on the plane from San Francisco two nights ago and saw the headline. I didn't read down but I think I can probably guess his drift. You know, the idea of roll-off for teams being disbanded--I don't know, it's difficult for me to respond to that until I've read the story. I've been in the industry long enough to know that we're constantly re-mixing staff and studios to make sure that we're reacting to consumer needs. And boy, this industry right now, you think about what's going on with social, what's going on with mobile--where do you deploy your resources so that everybody is succeeding? The employee, the company, the gamer--it's quite a challenge. Knowing Tim, he's pretty outspoken and he's a very talented and creative chap, so I'd have to read it before I can react to it, but I can pretty much imagine what the point is and all I can tell you is that from our perspective is that the continued changing and swirling seas of our industry requires us to be able to redeploy resources to wherever consumers want to play their games. Five years ago, nobody had ever heard of an iPad and smart phones didn't exist, Xbox Live wasn't the powerhouse that it was today, nor was PlayStation Network, and from that perspective we've had to change the way we create games and then link in games and nothing has been a more disruptive force than the Internet over the last decade. And so all of that comes together where you just can't have the status quo of a studio doing the same thing year in, year out and you've got to look at studios and retrain and redeploy your resources accordingly.