FEATURE1 May 2009

Playing the team game

The video games industry has grown-up fast and its use of research is continuing to evolve. In an interview with Brian Tarran, Electronic Arts’ Michel Coulon recounts a transformational moment in the publisher’s history.

When Michel Coulon first started playing video games in the mid-1980s, the industry was a very different place to the multi-billion dollar business it is today. Electronic Arts (EA) – the company he now works for as senior director of strategic planning and insights – was only just starting out, having published its first title, Pinball Construction Set. That game was the work of a single man, programmer Bill Budge, and back then most games were made that way. Home coders such as Budge had a rapt audience – one that would queue round the block to buy their latest releases.

Flash forward 20-odd years and the big releases still attract the queues, but now they stretch all the way down the high street and beyond. Global software sales in 2008 were an estimated $26.5bn – only fractionally behind the movie business. Games are now made by 100-person teams within multi-million-dollar corporations, and the massive scale of development is matched by the huge growth in demand for interactive entertainment. Budge’s home-brewed pinball title racked up more than 300,000 sales in its lifetime across all computer platforms of its era. By contrast FIFA 2009 – the latest instalment of EA’s football game franchise – sold in excess of 600,000 on just one platform, Xbox 360, in its first two weeks of release last year.

At EA, Coulon is the man tasked with keeping tabs on the ever-changing needs of the gaming community – helping shape the company’s output so as to keep it on top of the industry it has grown to define.

Rising development budgets have led to a corresponding increase in the cost of failure, so video games companies have quickly learned the importance of thoroughly researching their product and their target audience before the game box hits the shelf. But for a relatively young industry the learning curve has been steep, and the research techniques games makers employ are continuing to evolve in sophistication, as Coulon explains.

Looking back to when he first joined EA in 1997, Coulon says he was struck by the focus the company placed on feature research – that is, finding out what elements gamers want to see in upcoming titles.

Marketing teams love product features and game boxes wear bullet-points boasting ‘enhanced graphics’, ‘two-player modes’ or ‘realistic animations’ as a way to differentiate themselves on crowded store shelves. The problem from a development perspective, Coulon says, is that if you ask consumers what they want, they’ll tell you they want everything.

He gives the example of a survey that presents respondents with a list of between 10 and 15 features and asks them to pick their favourites. They’re not restricted to just one choice, and so you end up with 90% voting for the top choice and 83% voting for the least favourite. Of course, the developer won’t have time to implement them all, and the most popular feature might take three times as long to program as the lowest-scoring choice.

“?Taking the team and bringing them to interact with the consumer was quite a big step, and not an easy one to sell in at the time”

Vince Nolan, 2CV

Coulon says that in such a situation “prioritising which feature is really important given the cost and the timelines involved is really difficult”. Time is especially tight in the development of a title like FIFA one of EA’s flagship franchises – new versions of which are released each year. The first instalment, FIFA 94, was released in July 1993 and the game instantly won a loyal following. Such was its popularity, with each year’s sale improving on the last, that success came to be expected.

That is, until Christmas 2001. “What happened very clearly for us was a wake-up call,” says Coulon. “We were facing an important challenge from the competition” – Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer – “and for a short period in the UK, they were overselling FIFA on PlayStation 2, which was the fastest-growing console at the time.”

Given the franchise’s importance to EA, it was clear something had to be done. Coulon says: “The wake-up call was really important in the way it shifted the perception of research from a development standpoint. It stopped the… I wouldn’t say complacency. But we stopped working with a franchise where success was granted. [ 2001 ] really emphasised the focus we had to have on listening to the players.

“At the end of the day, the passion these players have for football and for the product is what is at the heart of everything. If we don’t leverage that passion, if we don’t understand their feedback or we don’t listen to them then we won’t be able to develop a product or marketing campaign that works.”

Making the connections
In the post-mortem that followed Christmas 2001, it was suggested that the Fifa development team were “not close enough to the football culture”, says Coulon. Based in Vancouver, but with the bulk of sales in Europe, it was decided that a road-trip was in order. UK-based qualitative agency 2CV was hired to help the developers reconnect with their target audience.

The result, Coulon says, “was the most ambitious research programme EA ever put together in Europe”. Together the FIFA development team, Coulon and 2CV’s chaiman and founder Vincent Nolan visited the UK, France, Germany and Spain, talking to Fifa players and non-players and those who had switched to the competition.
“It was a very brave thing that Michel did,” says Nolan. “Taking the team and bringing them to interact with the consumer was quite a big step, and not an easy one to sell in at the time as I recall.”

“The team was really eager to understand what was going on,” says Coulon, “but that doesn’t mean there was no reluctance in taking the player feedback at the time.” The big concern for the team was the issue of compatibility – a common problem in games development, but in this case the compatibility issue had nothing to do with graphics cards, memory availability or operating systems.

The worry for the FIFA team was that findings of the research and the actions that were called for would be incompatible with the constraints they work under. Such concerns are not uncommon among creative teams, who often complain that the first they hear of research is when they are being force-fed last-minute changes to their product by the marketing team “because that’s what consumers want and it sells”.

Coulon’s solution was simple: get the creatives involved from the beginning. “Instead of dictating at the micro level what they should do given the insights we were coming to them with, the first thing we did was to sit down with them to try to understand what their priorities were, the constraints and the objectives, and marry that with the marketing team’s objectives and constraints and so on, to get a unified view of what the research should achieve.”

This approach proved to be “transformational” within EA, Coulon says. In setting out to reconnect the FIFA team with its consumers, he had succeeded in building bridges between marketing and development. “That’s probably my proudest achievement in terms of research – how we transformed the internal process in terms of unifying the marketing and creative team. That unifying process stopped a lot of the arguments that were taking place,” Coulon says. “The research not only enabled us to take into account what players were saying, but also to unify the teams around a vision of what the product should deliver.”

Emotionally involved
Beyond an accurate simulation of the mechanics of football itself, Coulon understood that to succeed the Fifa team needed a deeper understanding of the emotions fans have for their sport and to recreate that on the virtual playing field. Ultimately, that was the purpose of Coulon’s European tour – to help the developers capture that “passion” and bring it back to Vancouver.

“I have never been of the school of thought that says consumers dictate what the product should be… I trust the creative teams to do that”

Michel Coulon, Electronic Arts

“First we need to understand who our consumers are, their demographics and what we compete with in terms of their share of time and share of wallet. Then we have to understand their motivations and emotions,” Coulon says. “If we are able to understand that, we are able to give our creative teams a framework that is useful in terms of making sure they build features that reinforce or leverage those emotions and motivations while giving room to their creativity.

“I have never been of the school of thought that says consumers dictate what the product should be,” he continues. “I trust the creative teams to do that.”

2CV’s Nolan adds: “Defining the motivations that drive interest in a game frees creatives to build features that will deliver these benefits, without needing to endlessly research them with players. The idea of giving these guys some context around the emotions, around what they were doing, as opposed to focusing purely on the mechanics has really helped. And that’s a strategic vision that we all took and that Michel has pioneered – to make sure there’s a context around which to understand the detail, as opposed to leaving them with hard-to-prioritise lists.”

The project that was conducted following that fateful Christmas in 2001 marked the start of a new, smarter, yearly programme of research for many of EA’s biggest titles. “We basically led by example,” says Coulon. “We worked on FIFA and that spread very quickly to Need For Speed [a street-racing game] then to most of the key franchises within the business.

“Now, not every franchise has the same revenue potential and the same budgets to conduct research, so they have to adapt. But in general, the concept of what I call life cycle research – year-round, from concept discovery to post-launch studies – has been widely adopted within the organisation with great success.”