Friday, July 5, 2013

Decker And Lessons Learned

“I have a feeling that a rather pronounced enthusiasm for nickel-and-diming might have caused a slightly more elevated level of dissatisfaction with customers”

Electronic Arts.  Is there a game company currently more vilified than the company voted the worst company in America by The Consumerist for the last two years?  The Penny Arcade Report's Ben Kuchera summed up the feelings of many gamers about the gaming giant back in April:
"Can you remember the last EA title that you truly loved? Can you remember the last interview you read about that game where a developer was allowed to explain their passion for the game? Bonus points will be awarded if it wasn't a Bioware-developed game.
"EA has become a company that releases mediocre products created by faceless teams. There is no real vision at work, no grand design. Just the idea that free-to-play games and microtransactions are the wave of the future, or at least they better be, because none of the company’s $60 boxed releases are finding much success with either critics or gamers. Lord knows that the latest Madden game will do well, but that’s only because gamers don’t have a choice if they want an official NFL title. FIFA will also likely remain a hit in the global market. So they have that going for them. Which is nice.
"Until EA stops sucking the blood out of games in order to make uninspiring sequels, or at least until they begin caring about how much gamers hate their lack of respect for our money and intelligence, this is going to continue. We don’t hate them because we’re homophobes, we hate them because they destroy companies we love. We hate them because they release poor games. We hate them because they claim our hate doesn’t matter as long as we give them our money."
So when CCP announced the hiring of Sean Decker as Senior Vice President of Product Development, I knew that a threadnaught was brewing.  If anything would raise the hackles of EVE players, hiring the former head of EA's Free4Play group would do it.  Especially since one of the first quotes from him that started circulating was one from last November, "I see the world as a micro-transaction."  I'll admit my first reaction was, "What's Hilmar thinking?"  Well, the language is cleaned up because what I originally thought is not workplace safe, but the question remains.  Didn't Hilmar learn anything from the Monoclegate two years ago?

After doing a little digging around, I believe Hilmar hired Decker exactly because of what occurred during the Summer of Rage.  I admit that I haven't searched all the EVE blogs, but has anyone gone back and looked at Hilmar's dev blog in which he apologized to the EVE community?  I felt better after reading it again.

CCP HellBunnie aka Sean Decker
First, I think players fear that Decker will bring the perceived EA mindset of "screw the players, they'll play whatever we give them."  I think that Hilmar will resist the mindset that believes that he knows better than everyone else and that the players will just happily hand over their money no matter what.
"Somewhere along the way, I began taking success for granted. As hubris set in, I became less inclined to listen to pleas for caution. Red flags raised by very smart people both at CCP and in the community went unheeded because of my stubborn refusal to allow adversity to gain purchase on our plans. Mistakes, even when they were acknowledged, often went unanalyzed, leaving the door open for them to be repeated.

"You have spoken, loudly and clearly, with your words and with your actions. And there were definitely moments in recent history when I wish I would have listened more and taken a different path.

"I was wrong and I admit it."
Two weeks later CCP had to lay off 20% of its workforce because players stopped talking and started pressing the unsubscribe button.  I think Hilmar learned not to take the players for granted.  I think he also learned a few other lessons.
"In the last months, we’ve taken a hard look at everything, including my leadership. What I can say for now is that we’ve taken action to ensure these mistakes are never repeated. We have reexamined our processes, hired experienced industry professionals for key leadership positions, reassessed our priorities, moved personnel around and, above all else, recognized our limitations." [emphasis mine]
One of the lessons is that if Hilmar doesn't feel that he is getting the results desired that he should go out and hire people who know more than him.  He indicated that in an interview with Massively's Brendan Drain Tuesday:
"Up until now, the responsibility for product development and deciding what direction to take with CCP's growing list of games has fallen to CEO Hilmar himself. With so many games and other items now produced by the studio and interesting connections like the EVE-DUST link, Hilmar felt that a dedicated person was needed solely to handle product development. 'There are a lot of opportunities in connecting those experiences,' he told me. 'Having someone dedicated to that will allow us to take advantage of those opportunities.'"
Sean Decker definitely knows more about the subject than Hilmar.  Ripard Teg, in a great post, listed the positives that Decker brings to CCP:
  • It gets CCP a smart, successful leader in the industry who has a proven track record successfully developing and selling both shooters and free-to-play games.
  • It gets CCP someone who's intimately familiar with development and retention issues in a F2P marketplace open to millions of potential customers.
  • He's both press-savvy and a good communicator, and able to operate well in an environment of games having difficult launches.
  • Frankly, it weakens what is likely to be their strongest competitor going into the holiday season just as that competitor was developing their marketing and launch strategies.
  • Interestingly enough, Sean has a lot of familiarity with nordic personalities and developers.  I assure you this is a thing.
  • It gets CCP someone who's familiar with what game genres are likely to go over well in different markets around the world.
  • It gets CCP someone who's very experienced in tying a lot of fractious development teams together, something it's clear that Hilmar himself was kind of struggling with.
I really think bringing in Decker is more about DUST 514 and World of Darkness than about EVE.  That conviction is strengthened by the information from the press release that Decker will work out of Atlanta and not Reykjavik.  Of course, as DUST 514 ties into EVE Online that doesn't eliminate all of the concern.  But the conclusion of Hilmar's 2011 dev blog leaves me with hope that the lesson of the Summer of Rage has not left his mind.
"We really do have something that no one else has. EVE is still unique in the real and virtual world. This is our vision for her, and we want so badly to take you there. But getting there is not an entitlement. It will take hard work, open communication and, above all else, collaboration with you. The greatest lesson for me is the realization that EVE belongs to you, and we at CCP are just the hosts of your experience. When we channel our passion for EVE constructively, we can make this vision a reality together.

"But enough talk from me. We all know that much quoted phrase, 'It’s not what you say, it’s what you do,' that will make the difference here. From now on, CCP will focus on doing what we say and saying what we do. That is the path to restoring trust and moving forward."
Over the past 18 months with Jon Lander serving as Executive Producer of EVE Online CCP lived up to these statements.   But Decker is walking into a situation in which he not only has a bigger portfolio to worry about but has to overcome the tremendous stigma attached to having served as a top executive at EA.  Hopefully someone warned him that, "It's not what you say, it's what you do," actually means something to CCP's customer base.