The coronavirus pandemic has been going on so long that it has begun to feel normal (though no less unsettling and scary) for many of us. This is also true for some of the biggest gaming companies in the world. They had to adjust their entire ways of thinking in order to operate in a world where their employees all work remotely.
A couple of months ago, I talked with several game creators about how they’ve adjusted to this new normal. Now, I’ve interviewed Laura Miele, the chief studios officer for Electronic Arts.
EA is one of the biggest gaming publishers in the world. It’s responsible for hit franchises like Madden, FIFA, Battlefield, and Star Wars. Miele’s job has her overseeing 10 studios in 20 countries, with 6,000 employees. So if you’re going to ask someone about the impact of the pandemic on the industry, she’s an ideal candidate.
I asked Miele about how EA has adapted to this work-from-home world, how it is taking care of its employees during these stressful times, and how this will impact the publisher’s future.
EA’s new normal
GamesBeat: Has the pandemic had a negative impact on game development at EA?
Miele: It’s had an impact and a change, but I don’t perceive it to be a negative one. I perceive it to be challenging for our people, for sure. But we also have had some incredible ingenuity and creativity in solving some pretty challenging, gnarly problems that we certainly weren’t anticipating five or six months ago. There’s a high degree of gratification and galvanizing attainment in a team coming together to solve new, unique problems. I’ve been impressed by the teams. When we first realized this was happening, we went into a very different mode and mindset as a management and leadership team for the company, and the studio organization specifically. The first pillar for us was to go into a wartime leadership position and philosophy, which required us to roll up sleeves and stand side-by-side with our team members and genuinely understand and learn together about the obstacles and challenges we’re going to have in developing games from home.
Again, there were certainly challenges, but there was such a high degree of collaboration, partnership, and support. We quickly moved into making fast decisions, taking risks that we maybe wouldn’t have taken before, because we felt like we needed to move fast, and we were in such an unusual situation. We felt emboldened to make fast decisions, to make the best games and provide the best environment for our people. That was something that drew people together. We have some fun stories that came out of some of the creative problem solving that our teams encountered. As an example, our audio team recorded all the Madden 21 voice talent from home with no quality drop. They were able to get equipment to the commentators, and they were pleasantly surprised with the results they got. We recorded the last third of the Star Wars: Squadrons score one instrument at a time. We knew it would be a long time before a full orchestra came together, and so the team was able to record one instrument at a time and mix the whole score together in postproduction. We also sent [mo-cap] suits home to the animators so they could do their own motion capture, whether of themselves or their kids or their spouses, to help them with movement and motion capture for the work that they needed to do. As we were coming across these great solutions and this problem-solving, everyone was sharing stories and coming together in a way that I haven’t seen from the teams before. That was incredibly gratifying.
The second part of this is that as a company, we 100 percent put our people first. We’re concerned and care deeply about the quality of experience that our people were having. When we started this out, I’d say that we — coming into this we had very high expectations, strong principles, and deep values about how we treat our people in the company. We were able to lean into that core foundation that we’ve been building over the last several years as a company, and when you can lean into that, it was very natural for us to immediately put into action what it meant to put our people first and to prioritize their safety, their well-being, their comfort. To their credit, our teams didn’t miss a beat. We’ve been delivering live service content and new releases. Our sports slate is scheduled to release soon. It came together in a beautiful, successful way, about how the teams came through. The company supported the teams and the people passionately. Our players have been able to engage in some great content. We’ve had two titles we’ve released. We’ve had 35 live service updates across 10 different titles, 10 DLCs, of which two were major expansions, for Apex and Sims. I feel proud that the teams were able to deliver for our players at a time when our players wanted and needed content, something to keep them entertained.
We also had — as we prioritize our people and the safety of our people, we were one of the first to send everyone home. We did it very fast. If you’d told me six months ago that we had more than 10,000 people working from home making games, I’d have said that was impossible. It would take us at least a year to put together the program management and planning to do that. But to everyone’s credit, within hours we were sending people home. We were quickly getting people operating and up to speed. One of the areas, clearly, is our QA and QV groups. Certainly offices and our infrastructure provide an important foundation for the work people do within our office that you can’t have at home. As we were evacuating our buildings and not allowing people to go back, one of our QV teams were training our security team members that were at the office. They had those iPad robots. The guy would get on his iPad robot and follow the security guy and help them reset servers with the little robot. He’d get on there and partner, walking down the corridor. That was pretty fun. We have a lot of great stories like that about how the team was super creative. Keeping people safe, but still trying to get all the things accomplished that we needed to accomplish.
GamesBeat: Going back to when work from home was starting, around March, how was EA feeling? Was there a lot of fear? Was there some uncertainty?
Miele: I think we as leaders did a good job at instilling both confidence and security for our teams. We were incredibly concerned about their safety, health, and well-being, and that of their families as well. Every piece of communication, every meeting, every conversation we had started with their health and well-being, ensuring that people were where they needed to be and comfortable where they needed to be. Our teams — I’d like to think that our teams felt secure and felt safe. The feedback we’ve heard and team health surveys and things have been incredibly positive on that front, about how we’ve handled this, how we treated them. We continue to put them first. We’re prioritizing their safety and well-being. I didn’t get a sense of instability or concern or chaos. I got a sense of the gratitude and appreciation that we’re all in this together, and that the leadership prioritized their safety and well-being. We communicated a lot.
For me, that was galvanizing. It created a strong foundation. We continued to communicate with each other. We had more town halls. We opened up Slack channels. Emails would go out two or three times a week. In some cases, if you asked our employees, they’d say, yeah, we got a lot of communication in that time. But we wanted to ensure that everyone knew what was going on, what was on our minds. We were very mindful in making decisions that would last as long as possible. We’re trying not to go day by day. We were saying, for the next six weeks, this is what we’re doing. So everyone could stabilize. They knew what to expect. As we would get information we would extend that. We’ve tried to have a lot of horizon possible, so our teams know what to expect. They know we’re acting and the choices and decisions we’re making. We believe that we’ve gone long on some of those programs — we did travel through the end of X month when we went out. We had about a five-month travel restriction for the company, which seemed long at the time, but now we’re probably going to have to extend that. But we’ve been working hard to have longer time horizons to provide as much certainty and as much stability for our teams as we can.
GamesBeat: Talking about those early days versus now, do you get the feeling that everyone has accepted the this as a new normal? Is everything is running smoothly?
Miele: Our teams are in different phases of their game development, but yes, I would say that. We’re providing stipends for people to be comfortable at home. Starting in Q3, people have $750 that our team members can use to make themselves more comfortable in their work environment at home. We’ve been providing equipment and IT support. Team members can come in and get office gear and equipment to be more comfortable. I believe we’re settling into that we’re going to be doing this for a little while. Our team members are expecting that and dealing with that. But we’re all, as human beings, in different points of the spectrum. It’s surreal. It can be taxing on them.
Again, we’re trying to provide the best support resources on every front: health care, mental health care, office equipment, basic things for their expanded needs. That’s important. It’s important that we allow for time off for people, because being in the same home environment can cause some burnout. We’ve been organizing group time off for people and providing light weeks. That way people don’t feel the peer pressure. They’re able to take time off at a similar time as other team members, so they don’t feel like they’re not doing their part or contributing in some way. We’re working to organize time off that’s similar for teams across the organization.
GamesBeat: Your job requires you to be in contact with so many different studios that are a part of EA, and all these studios can be in different countries, different time zones, different cultures. Is your job more difficult during the pandemic?
Miele: Historically, I travel quite a bit. I go and visit our studios once or twice a year, and we have about 20 studios. My old work habits were to be there in-person, be on the ground with our teams. But I have to tell you that it’s just different now. I’m in contact. I feel like I’m as in touch with our teams as I have been before. But it takes on a different form. Are we sitting down for dinner and having a glass of wine together? No. But we can certainly get on Zoom together, play trivia games. We have Slack channels where everyone shares their tech pictures and their coworkers at home. It has a human connection. Our work habits are still connected. They just play out in a different way than they did before. It’s one of the benefits of being in a creative company. There’s a lot of people who are super creative and want to have a personal, human, energetic connection with each other. There are coffees and teas. One of our teams created art classes for kids. Parents who have kids at home created art classes that kids of parents who work for the company can attend on Zoom. That way, their parents get a bit of a break.
I hear these stories and see these actions, see these human connections in a way that we weren’t able to do before, because we didn’t have Zoom. We had a big spades tournament that was supposed to happen out of our Orlando office, for the Black community at EA. It was only for the Orlando team. But because we’re all at home, we got Pogo to re-create it for us online, and we all participated in it. There are instances I could point to where we’re more connected, with more people coming together, than we would have before, because we needed to physically be there in person. We just had to think about it in a different way.
GamesBeat: Star Wars: Squadrons is interesting, because it was announced in the middle of the pandemic. Was that specifically challenging, to get ramped up for a major game coming out this fall during these new times?
Miele: So much of our marketing now is online and directly connected to players anyway. We’ve made some great changes and innovations in how we communicate and connect to communities and players. We’re well-positioned to do this from home. The editing and the assets themselves were remarkable. Our Lucasfilm partners have been phenomenal in approving and engaging with us. It didn’t feel that different to me. We announced it and pulled the assets and the messaging together. In some ways we have more people looking for more content, and our industry happens to be well-positioned to provide this content. We haven’t had to stop making games, stop making cool fun trailers. It’s a lot harder for film and TV to get people in person and continue with their productions. I feel like we’re in a position where we’re able to continue production, continue to create content for consumers, and that’s exciting. We were looking forward to our fans’ reactions to announcing Squadrons. We’ve been working on it in secret, and we were super excited to get it out and talk about it. I don’t feel like we missed anything because people were working from home.
GamesBeat: EA has been doing a lot of stuff on its own in terms of promotion. You haven’t been a part of the E3 show floor for a few years, for example. Do you think that helped EA prepare for how things work now?
Miele: I do. Many things we’ve done in the past few years put us in a great position to help continue our support for players and our communities and our games. In EA Play — it kept evolving. We ended up in this great place with EA Play this year that just felt like a natural evolution from where we were last year, and even from the year before that. Things kept evolving and changing. The idea that we want to connect with players in their homes, and that their engagement in what we constantly create for them matters, their response matters, and how we respond back to them — we’ve been fine-tuning and evolving for many years, but yes, it feels like a lot of work we’ve done and the evolution we’ve experienced prepared us for a meaningful show this year.
GamesBeat: What does EA look like in a post-pandemic world? Is working from home going to become more common in general?
Miele: I’ve thought about how we think about games in the future, whether it’s how we make them or what we’re making for players, what has changed in the world and our player communities that we have to think about and consider as we evaluate our product strategies. How we’re making games — I do think that we’ll probably have some kind of hybrid as we move forward. I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to exactly how we were making games before. But I do value the importance of people coming together in a room, in person, as it relates to the innovation and creativity process. I believe in in-person kinetic energy, people interacting with each other and reading their body language and expressions. That’s incredibly valuable and important in the creative process and in innovation. In things like production and development and creation of some of these ideas — that could potentially be done more from home, or more balanced between working from home a few days and being in the office. The requirement to be in the office, the requirement to travel, that people have to travel — we’re learning new ways to communicate and new ways to connect. We’ll see a difference. But I still value and still believe in some of our process and some of the creative ingenuity of people being together. That matters a lot.
GamesBeat: The game industry has been doing well during the pandemic. Gaming is attracting a lot of new players. How do you keep these new gamers interested in the hobby, even once they’re able to go to movies and concerts again?
Miele: One of my favorite things about games is the social connection. The idea that you can have a shared experience immediately with people that you’re friends with, or make friends with people online, is powerful. There’s no other entertainment medium that can fulfill that motivation, that need, in the way that games can. While people are getting a sense of that, of that experience, I don’t expect them to necessarily walk away from it, or completely lose it as they evolve, as new content is able to come online in the next year or two from other media. There’s something engaging about playing a game with friends or meeting new people online that only games can provide. That’s how we’re thinking about how we prioritize our product strategies or product features, where we’ll be investing resources. Social engagement, social design, user-generated content, stuff that’s fresh, I think a lot of these motivations and needs are going to be accelerated. We want to be there to provide players that kind of experience.
GamesBeat: Are there any last big takeaways you have from how the last several months have been going?
Miele: Again, the point really being — those of us in leadership positions shifted into a wartime sort of leadership mode. We had to roll up sleeves and get in to work with our teams. As a company, the fact that we prioritized our people, that we were immediately — we immediately prioritized their safety and well-being. They, in turn, were there for the players. They were committed to providing players with the best content. That’s something I’m proud of, with all the teams. The idea that we’re — we’re looking at games, looking at the future in a different way, about what players and the market want and need, and how we will deliver that. That will evolve and change. I’m optimistic that it’s going to be better than it was before, that our future is going to be better than our past. We’ve learned a tremendous amount. When you care about your teams and you care about your players, good things come from that. I hope that’s the story that will be written about us in the future.