Laura Miele loves working with people who make games — a love that began to be cultivated around 25 years ago, when she got her start at former EA subsidiary and Command & Conquer creator Westwood Studios.
“Those years working directly with developers forever shaped my understanding of the complexities and sophistication of game development, as well as my appreciation and admiration of game developers,” Miele says.
Now, she’s the chief studios officer for EA, where she works with over 6,000 game developers across the company. Miele tells us she sees EA’s internal studios as the “gravitational center” of the company, with the focus of her job being to empower those developers to make the things they want to make, all the while responding to the wants and needs of EA’s game communities and fans.
“In terms of our game development philosophy, our players are always our north star,” Miele says. “As I started this current role, I wanted to strip away some of the preconceived notions about what games we should be investing in and really start listening to players and incorporating their voice into our development process. Since then, we have announced a slate of games that players asked for: a new Skate, College Football, a Command & Conquer remaster, the Mass Effect Trilogy and we developed free content in Battlefront 2 for several years to turn the perception of that game completely around.”[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=I%20wanted%20to%20strip%20away%20some%20of%20the%20preconceived%20notions%20about%20what%20games%20we%20should%20be%20investing%20in”]
Miele repeatedly emphasizes the importance of keeping players involved in the ongoing development processes of all EA’s games, citing as examples EA releasing the Command & Conquer source code, and the recent announcement of a new Skate game by a new EA studio called Full Circle.
“We call it Full Circle for a reason — we want our players’ experience with EA to come full circle. Our players deserve to be part of the process.”[ignvideo url=”https://www.ign.com/videos/2019/02/07/why-there-are-no-titans-in-apex-legends”]
Miele points out that responding to what players are asking for is very rarely something that can happen instantly, pointing to annual franchises like Madden and FIFA which iterate more slowly over each new installment. Major changes to how games like that work, she says, often don’t happen until a few years after they’re first brought up, simply due to how challenging development of annual installments can be.
“We have recently added advanced innovation teams that are heavily focused on tech development and dedicated to long-term game development,” Miele says of Madden and FIFA. “These teams explore innovation initiatives that players will get to experience in two to three years.”
And Miele also wants to make it clear that being player-focused doesn’t mean “making everyone happy 100% of the time.” Our conversation with her occurred just ahead of the announcement that BioWare would end development on Anthem, a game that BioWare strove to overhaul over the course of a year in response to player feedback. Miele says that ultimately the studio needed to allocate its time and resources to franchises like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, and that the COVID-19 pandemic made it especially difficult to make the game into what players wanted.
In contrast, Miele points to Star Wars: Battlefront 2, where EA DICE was able to take the time to turn the game around from its original form, which players were unhappy with.[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=I%20don%E2%80%99t%20believe%20in%20directing%20or%20telling%20games%20teams%20what%20to%20create”]
“When I first took this studios leadership role, players were incredibly unhappy with this game,” Miele recalls. “We had made commitments to deliver content to the community, but we didn’t have team members assigned to deliver on these promises. We quickly pulled together a great team of people from our studios in Vancouver, Montreal and Stockholm to immediately get to work on fulfilling our promises. We created free content for players because it was the right thing to do and I felt we owed it to our community of players.
“We didn’t expect any accolades or pats on the back for this work, but we actually saw a significant sentiment turn around from players and the game was re-reviewed at much higher scores. Players still love to play Battlefront 2 and I feel we are moving past its history. To hear fan feedback and see players loving this game is deeply gratifying.”
Another franchise where players may not necessarily feel they’ve gotten everything they wanted lately is Titanfall. Though Titanfall has a dedicated community of fans, right now, developer Respawn currently appears to be focused on the battle royale taking place in that universe, Apex Legends, rather than on a new main series game.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end of Titanfall proper, though. Miele confirms that Respawn is fully in control of what happens to the franchise in the future, who will make the decision based on, once again, what players want.
“Apex takes place in the Titanfall world and the Respawn team is incredibly proud of that legacy and brand,” she says. “That team will determine what the future holds for Apex and Titanfall. I don’t believe in directing or telling games teams what to create, it has to come from the player community, and the inspiration and motivation of developers.”[ignvideo url=”https://www.ign.com/videos/2020/06/19/ea-play-2020-reactions-new-skate-game-star-wars-squadrons-more”]
So ultimately, what does it mean when EA and its studios say they will listen to its players? Ultimately, EA proper does have the final say on decisions regarding what games get made or updated or ended, Miele acknowledges — they’re all in business together, after all.
“There is a lot of creative autonomy within Electronic Arts but there are certain values and principles we have as a company that we just couldn’t allow to be compromised.”
But there’s an overarching understanding across the company, she says, that teams should have the creative license to receive, listen to, and accept or reject feedback from players. The studios are, after all, the creators and entertainers making the art in the first place.
As for how the studios actually collect that feedback, Miele points to a number of areas. One of those is social media, which she says played a key role in making Skate 4 happen.
“With Skate for example, we knew that every time we posted on Instagram that the first comment no matter what we posted would be #skate4,” she says. “But we only want to revisit a series if we’re confident we can build an experience that moves the franchise forward in a contemporary way. ”
Other sources of feedback include actual game telemetry that shows the developers how players are interacting with the games and what problems they are having as they play, customer support feedback, and the game’s community teams.[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=We%20knew%20that%20every%20time%20we%20posted%20on%20Instagram%20that%20the%20first%20comment%20no%20matter%20what%20we%20posted%20would%20be%20%23skate4″]
“One of the things I did in the first 100 days of my role as head of studios was to spend time with our community leaders for some of our biggest franchises,” Miele says. “I asked them to give me their best advice on how we can have a better connection to our players. The biggest theme was – please listen to us about the content players are asking for which resulted in us green lighting Skate, College Football, Command &Conquer and additional content for Battlefront II.
“We take all of these inputs and that gives us a sense of what players are loving and not liking- our studio leaders then work with the game teams to determine how we prioritize and address direct player feedback.”
Ultimately, Miele says, everything is about balance — EA will step in and make decisions as needed, developers are given agency to make the things they want to make, and players — hopefully — eventually feel their needs and wants are met.
“It’s about working to understand what a player’s motivations are and working to meet those,” Miele says. “While at the same time recognizing our game teams are tremendously talented at their craft and will determine where the story and game go.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.