Electronic Arts (EA), the world’s third-largest gaming company, currently employs 400 people at its European Customer Experience Centre of Excellence in Galway, Ireland to deal with about 3 million support requests each year. It recently announced a further 300 jobs at this facility. We met with Peter Moore, Chief Operating Officer of EA yesterday in Galway, where he spoke about the reasons for this expansion and why the future is bright for EA in Galway.
The methods by which we are getting our video games are changing. Since it was founded over thirty years ago, EA has primarily distributed its games through cartridges and discs sold via retailers. But now, games are more commonly being distributed digitally to our devices – our PCs, tablets and phones – and EA is adapting its broader strategy to include a focus on “direct-to-consumer” with systems like Origin.
EA opened its Galway facility in 2011, primarily to support Bioware’s game “Star Wars: The Old Republic” (SWTOR). This game is one of the main ones distributed via EA’s Origin platform; in fact, 40% of all SWTOR sales were made via Origin. The Galway facility has expanded to support a range of games, including sports titles like FIFA. EA’s sports games are continuing to grow, and Galway is a hub for FIFA consumers around the world.
When talking about the centre in Galway, Peter Moore cited Galway’s incredible talent base and the tremendous cooperation received from IDA Ireland, the government body responsible for attracting inward foreign direct investment. As a key support hub for FIFA, one of Ireland’s advantages is in being a country that really understands the video game as well as the actual game of soccer, so support staff here can help maximise the consumer’s game experience when they ring with some game issues. There are ten contact centres around the world: Galway and Austin are the largest ones staffed by EA employees, and smaller centres are run by external partners for capacity issues.
Typical problems experienced by consumers would be broken games, being unable to progress further (requiring some handholding), forgotten passwords, or issues downloading and getting on to games. The support staff not only fix problems and make the game experience better, but they also upsell, finding out what consumers are looking for and helping them find it by suggesting what games they should play. Most support is through phone or live chat sessions with agents, with asynchronous support via email being queued to deal with later. Timely support is hugely important, as Moore says: “In today’s world, if you’re not picking up the phone in 5 minutes or answering a chat in 2 minutes you are losing.”
While the primary focus in Galway is on Europe, to facilitate real-time problem solving in a nearby time zone, the centre is a 24-hour location dealing with consumers all over the world, with regular hand-offs to other locations. As well as calls, live chat and emails, EA are building tools that allow communities of gamers to solve problems themselves. The new Answer HQ platform was set up to allow users to create forum threads about what is happening to them, facilitating DIY-problem solving amongst a community of gamers that typically loves to work collaboratively. This platform is almost like a game in itself, where gamers can get points, rewards and incentives. EA’s Head of Social & Community, Chris Collins, is also based in Galway.
Galway also houses some more key functions for EA, including their global training organisation for learning and development, policy functions, and central project management offices. There’s also some technical development of systems that can matchmake consumers to support staff. EA worldwide deals with about 20 million support contacts per year: the Galway facility caters for about 15% of that, or 3 million support requests, and this is growing exponentially with social media support requests. The type of people that EA are looking for in Galway are typically those with strong customer skills – good at dealing with people and solving problems – and who already have or can develop knowledge of the game – because those who don’t understand the game are more likely to be ‘called out’ during support requests. Moore also made particular reference to Galway’s strong connection to the university system, with NUI Galway and GMIT providing a source of skilled graduates to EA. It’s easy to attract people to Galway, and EA itself is an attractive place to work due to the energy and excitement around the gaming universe and being in the entertainment business.
Employees get training in the various support platforms and the games, and there are a number of labs dotted around the Galway facility where they can refresh their gaming knowledge. Crucially, employees need strong technical skills to be able to deal with the multitude of systems and tasks required: whether it be working with Salesforce, EA’s Nucleus network (allowing staff to see historical records of what a consumer is playing), or multitasking amongst the various problems currently assigned. Staff get three weeks of training before they are ‘let loose’ on one game, but they can get certification on other games that they may like or want to support. Some support staff go on to developer roles, and others end up in management. Current EA Labels President Frank Gibeau started off testing games and doing customer support for EA in 1991.
Moore says that EA delivers entertainment, but in many respects they are no different to Apple, Google or other large corporations that have hundreds of millions of users to serve. It’s not all plain sailing, because there can be a fairly high turnover rate for customer support staff who don’t have a thick skin, especially when receiving abusive emails from gamers frustrated with a problem. And that’s what they have to focus on, the problem, while understanding the customer and the dynamic involved. It can be very rewarding, and a tremendous launching pad for a career in games (as evidenced by Gibeau and others) if done right. Moore can see those who are natural leaders just from wandering around the facility, stating that it is easy to see those people who are ambitious and have the requisite skills. As part of a “hero academy”, executives from EA often come to the Galway facility to be part of a support team and experience customer support for real.
Michael Lawder, EA’s Vice President of World Wide Customer Experience was asked about the infrastructure and culture in Galway, and how it impacted on EA’s decision to locate there. He spoke of the strong creative and technical nature of Galway’s population, and how EA were very happy with the infrastructure in a facility that was purpose built for being a contact centre. There’s also a good talent pool, with lots of people who want to work for EA. Within four hours of the jobs announcement in September, EA had received 200 CVs. They have since received 1500 resumes that they are currently sifting through for quality talent so that they can interview for the technical attributes and soft skills required in candidates. The high attrition rate can be avoided by a specific recruiting strategy to make sure they have the right people: those who can defuse a situation to solve a problem, to turn an abusive email into an email of thanks. Language is also very important; while the Galway centre mainly deals with English, French and German, around 17 to 18 languages are supported by EA.
Having already made the commitment for 300 extra jobs in Galway, Peter Moore sees digital-to-consumer continuing to expand as EA titles like Battlefield 3 and 4 grow bigger. Next generation platforms from Sony and Microsoft will also be handled in Galway, and “phase two” is currently examining how to grow and expand the facility in Galway. He also complemented the calm atmosphere and “pleasant vibe” in the facility, and we were shown breakout spaces and recreation rooms for employees to play video games and traditional games. EA recently changed the facility from consisting of segmented sections with high walls to a more-open plan layout, which has improved the dynamic of “one big team, all in this together”. Teams are organised in horizontal sets according to games, which also adds to the sports feel. A motto on the facility wall says “Connect, Resolve, Exceed”, and that’s all about getting the right people with a love for the game to help consumers get through those difficult scenarios.
Moore left us with a few thoughts on the future of EA, while referring to his delight with the outcomes of the Galway facility and an investment he claimed no other competitor could compare with. We are currently at the tip of the sphere in terms of how the gaming industry is changing. We grew up with the likes of Sega and Nintendo, and an industry based on taking a cartridge away from a shop. The transformational turmoil produced by the Internet is both an opportunity and a challenge, with direct-to-consumer necessitating investments in a new distribution channel whereby the retailer is no longer the normal route to a consumer. Knowing what the next generation of gaming holds will help, especially the move towards digital and downloading full games in this way, as the focus moves from retailers as the games supplier to EA themselves. Physical media will still be important, but we are seeing a significant increase in direct-to-consumer purchases, not just the games themselves, but in-game ads, new maps, and other content available over a subscription period. This changes the entire focus of what the gaming industry is about.