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Player experience and content moderation stories have dominated the gaming news cycle in the first half of 2020, and show no signs of slowing down. As industry and player interest
in the previously oft-dismissed world of support agents and moderators grows stronger every day, we at Two Hat thought it was time to shine a light on the professionals who have been doing this work in the shadows for years.

We recently caught up with Pascal Debroek, a longtime player experience professional who has worked at some of the biggest mobile gaming startups that Helsinki has to offer, including Supercell, Next Games, and currently Hatch Entertainment Ltd. As Head of Customer Service at Hatch, he is responsible for providing a safe, fair, and frictionless environment for all players.

In this conversation, Pascal shares his experience running successful player support teams and provides invaluable advice for leaders in similar positions.

Two Hat: Let’s start with the obvious question. Why do player experience roles have a higher churn rate than other roles?

Pascal Debroek: Support functions, such as player support, community management, and moderation roles are often not considered to be integral to product or game development, despite the
obvious value they bring to customer retention and product development. CS departments are, more often than not, perceived to be a cost-center, a necessary money-sink to appease
consumers when they might run into a problem and some form of consumer-facing communication is required.

When these functions or departments are not perceived to be part of the “core” of your studio, and the employees don’t feel empowered, nor get the right training and tools to do their job, that will make them feel unappreciated by their employer. Having user feedback being dismissed and waved away – “Oh, that’s just another customer complaining about something not working” – that certainly doesn’t aid the situation. That’s basic Employee Experience knowledge and not just for studios, but for any organization out there.

You have to understand that these can also be emotionally draining jobs. Most of these are pure customer-facing, and in a lot of the cases deal with either sensitive topics,
aggravated end-users dealing with a situation that did not meet their expectations or even outright insults and threats. Let’s not forget, most contacts with players stem from an emotional state; happy, sad, angry, you’ll encounter them all in these roles. And because it pays off to be empathetic in such roles, it also means your employees are more susceptible
to the emotions that surround them.

And that’s not taking into account the exposure to personal insults, bullying, threats of harm and self-harm, racism, sexism, predatory behaviour, and child grooming to name a few. While these (hopefully) don’t occur all the time, it takes perseverance to stomach them and see the good in things. But I can promise you, it does affect most at one point or another in their career. And that is why it is so important to focus on well-being for these roles. We all have a threshold on how much we can handle before the job starts requiring more than we can give back.

It’s a shame because it’s such an important role for any gaming studio and can be a really valuable stepping stone for those who may not want to make support their career. People
who get their start in these support roles understand more often than not what the business is about, they understand basic game design, they understand production. The player support and moderation experience allows them to perform in a slightly different and more player-centric way in other roles because they already understand the perspective of the user.

TH: What are some things that leaders can do to keep their player experience staff happy, safe, and healthy?

PD: As a team leader, the first thing that is required is a safe environment built on trust. Especially if you are in a place where you’re constantly dealing with other humans, and as I
mentioned earlier, potential emotionally-laden communication.

Your team needs to be able to trust each other, both in doing their job to the best of their abilities, but also in being able to support every single person in that team. Without that,
your team will never feel safe and that will have an impact on efficiency, well-being, and ultimately performance. Even more so, if even one team member feels the team lead doesn’t have their back, you’ll end up in a very dangerous situation that could escalate at any moment.

You need to create a team with people who have empathy and people skills, it will make their job a lot easier. While I’m not going to suggest you would need to hire similar people – always go for compatible people who, in addition to a practical skill set are also good at reading and dealing with emotions. Communication is not only about what is being said, but also about what is not.

Once I started involving the whole team in the recruitment process, I saw a surge in team member compatibility and with that an increase in trust and performance over time. We would go through several screenings, talks with me as the hiring manager, an interview with HR, followed by talks with two more senior people from the team. And finally, they would meet up with the rest of the team for a casual half-hour to one-hour chat. Just talking about things the team would want to know like, “Hey, what kind of movies do you like? How do you unwind? Any interest in sports? Are you into superheroes?” which can lead to the dreaded Marvel or DC argument [laughs].

It’s important to hire the right people because every team member that you’re adding to the mix will affect and even change your team culture.

Then when it comes down to team culture itself, you need to ensure that you have a fair and open culture and an understanding that you’re all in this together, for the same cause. And people need to be very receptive to feedback and are expected to provide feedback. I believe you can be honest, to the point, and still be respectful and mindful. If you have that initial trust, it should be a lot easier to have those conversations, including the more difficult ones.

TH: You mentioned involving the team in the hiring process. How do you ensure that they continue to work together closely once they’re hired?

PD: There is also no reason why people on the team couldn’t have a one-on-one with each other. I’m not talking about HR-related topics here but professional development, mental support. It’s more like people asking for advice, another point of view, coaching on a particular topic. Or it can just as well be someone feels they need to lift some weight off their shoulders because of a personal situation.

And of course, there is the obvious “Hey, I have this kind of message. How would you deal with people who talk like this?” There are times when people will send a Slack message to each other and say, “Hey, do you need to talk? You want to grab a cup of coffee? Do we want to go for a short walk?” It’s ok to get frustrated or stuck at times, just as long as you realise it. In the end, everyone should know that they are among peers and they should assist each other. And as a supervisor or as a manager, you need to allow those kinds of things to happen.

Continuous learning and sharing experiences having open, honest feedback, people being able to tell each other how they feel – that’s the most important part. If you’re not feeling good, then how are you going to be able to do your job? You need moral support from your supervisor, but also from your team members.

TH: Because player experience roles and responsibilities are so emotionally charged, do you find that you have to look at success metrics differently?

PD: Metrics are important, but they will never show you the full story. Personally I feel many companies oversimplify by trying to fully quantify performance in support and moderation functions. In a lot of cases, there are external and irrational or emotional factors that will affect your metrics. If you then use those metrics to judge the performance of an individual, now that’s not really fair or motivational, is it?

At a previous employer, we decided not to use KPIs as a determination of whether staff was performing well, but rather used it as a benchmark for industry standards and it would allow the team to push themselves constantly. Of course, this doesn’t mean we were not paying close attention to the KPIs, yet by simply removing the “fear” aspect of employees not meeting certain artificial performance metrics, we created an environment where we would constantly challenge ourselves to work smarter and be proud as a team of our achievements.

The following is a perfect example of why the “traditional” take on support KPIs can be detrimental to a CS agent’s mental health, efficiency, and overall customer satisfaction: If you’re assigned a queue and you’re the one that is dealing with all the sensitive topics and negative feedback that comes in, it takes an emotional toll on you, and it becomes a lot harder to reply with each subsequent message. In order to create an understanding throughout the whole team, and to protect them, every team member would, in turn, be taking care of these more challenging topics and conversations.

Anyone dealing with these more sensitive or negative content and tickets was allowed to take more time. As long as a player received a timely and correct answer, they could take as long as they needed to reply, within sensible limits. The reasoning for this was that when you’re dealing with heavy topics in player support or player moderation, it can suck you emotionally dry very fast. If that means you’re only doing a quarter of tickets in a whole day compared to a top performer, then no one is going to ask why you didn’t do more, because everyone understood the challenge. The worst thing that can happen when you are feeling emotionally drained is adding time pressure. Ultimately, the end-result for the player or all players is more important than adhering to artificial time constraints that don’t reflect the context of the issue.

TH: What’s the business benefit of investing in experienced player experience leaders?

PD: There are a few reasons why a company would want to invest in more experienced Player Experience leaders. All of these stem from the mere fact that there is no substitute for experience. Rarely do companies ask for the added business value of hiring an experienced backend developer or a more senior product lead. Yet when it comes down to customer-facing roles, many companies still seem to struggle with the answer to that question; as if it somehow would be any different than for other roles.

If you’re looking to set up a department that communicates directly with your players from all over the globe, in order to create actionable insights on your product development and provide a safe online environment for all while maintaining scalable cost-efficient operations and always needing to keep in line with the expectations of your audience, would you rather not invest in someone who has the experience?

In order to succeed in your CX endeavours, you hire the right people, so they can hire the right talent, train them, coach them, empower them. They understand the expectations of the audience, what channels to use, how to approach communication about particular topics. They know the tools out there, how to tweak them, can create processes, analyze support metrics and plan resources accordingly. And often forgotten, these are the key people who need to influence decisions across departments and teams, walking the fine line between customer-centricity and profitability of the product or service.  And those insights only come with experience.

However, it’s not just about investing in experienced people. It is also about the resources allocated to the team and the tools they are provided to do their job best. You can hire a top leader, but if they have to make do with an email-only contact center, you won’t get far. The most obvious answer is that more experienced leaders can boost retention metrics in the mid to long term when given access to the right resources. That in itself is a major advantage for studios, especially in the competitive f2p [free-to-play] mobile space, but it extends well beyond that.

What will our players thank us for? Image credit: Mark Pincus

There is this quote from Zynga that I feel more companies should ask themselves. On a wall in one of their offices is this one question: “What will our players thank us for?”

That is a very important thing to reflect on as a company because it all comes down to player expectations and surpassing them. You don’t create fantastic experiences without thought, without understanding your audience, nor without investing in the contact points your audience will reach out to. Because those interactions, the quality, the lack of friction and the efficiency, will leave a lasting impression.

As a follow-up question, I would suggest companies also start asking themselves what their brand will be remembered for later on. This is something companies like Apple, Amazon and Netflix understand. Within games, simply take a look at companies like Activision Blizzard or Supercell. It’s obvious they are not just making games, they are building experiences and are differentiating themselves as a brand. People these days download Supercell games not solely on the premise that it is a good game, but because they have come to expect good games from Supercell as a brand.

TH: Can you tell us about any initiatives you’ve done to boost company awareness of player experience teams?

PD: At Next Games, we created a management-endorsed shadowing initiative dubbed “Player Support Bootcamp”. You would sign up for three-hour sessions where you would be told how player support works, what tools we use, how we communicate, learn about our processes or what happens when we log a bug, how we do investigations, how we do moderation.

It was purely voluntary, and at the high point of the program, we had more than 62,5% of the company signing up for sessions. So we decided to gamify it: Come to three sessions, you get a fantastic-looking degree, created by one of our very talented marketing artists. People started competing for spots in the program; we were fully booked for months. Degrees appeared hanging from the wall or stood framed on desks as a badge of honour, while developers shared personal experiences with the Bootcamp over coffee in the kitchen.

We saw two huge changes come out of the program. A UX designer kicked in gear a big feature redesign of how users save their game progress, based on the feedback she saw from players during Bootcamp. After the implementation of the redesign, we saw a decrease of more than 20% of tickets regarding lost accounts. Huge impact on our bottom line there.

The other change happened when a senior client programmer who went through the program noticed that we were wasting time trying to localize some of our questions since we sometimes would get messages in languages we didn’t have native speakers for. We were copy/pasting the tickets into Google translate, putting them back into the CRM, then replying using Google translate. So in his spare time, he actually started programming a bot for us that would go through the CRM and automatically translate emails for us in advance, saving us time and money.

The buy-in from the management team was crucial to the success of the project. Our CEO was actually one of the early adopters and possibly the biggest proponent. We could see that shortly after the producers of the games actually got a really big interest in the program and gently persuaded people to sign up. Especially for those teams working on new projects, the Bootcamp was a source of inspiration. So it had a huge impact. And I’m sure that there are still people who are talking about the program today.

TH: In your opinion, what does the future hold for player experience teams?

PD: Users nowadays have a better understanding of game mechanics and social dynamics, and they also have higher expectations. Seven to eight years ago, if there was a game on the
app store, you were just comparing that game to the next best game. Nowadays, you compare that game to the last best experience that you’ve ever had, which could include pretty much anything on the app store and beyond, from Amazon to Spotify. I’m expecting every game experience to be just as frictionless as on Clash of Clans, but just as deep as Skyrim. Is that fair? Perhaps not, considering technical and other limitations, yet it is what is happening.

I’m not the only one who thinks companies need to invest more in the service aspects of their games. There’s an unstoppable mindset change happening in the retail and on-demand landscape; the service industry is getting disrupted. Games-as-a Service is already a really big thing right now and it shows no signs of slowing down. But the games industry will need to adapt fast to keep up with this evolution, which obviously doesn’t happen without a change in attitude towards supporting functions and towards the gaming audience.

The whole idea of simply hiring a junior person who can answer email messages for cheap, that’s also going to disappear. The need for emotionally smart, educated and experienced support and moderation personnel is going to skyrocket. The more technology advances, the more need there will be for people who can rely on experience and a higher understanding of what they’re doing, who understand the tools and the processes they’ll be using, but most of all, understand humans and human behaviour.

TH: That’s a great point to end this on. Thank you for sharing your insights, Pascal!

PD: My pleasure, Carlos! Thanks for speaking with me.

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