Electronic Arts’ Mike Blank joins Robbie to talk about his journey bringing subscription to the world of gaming. They discuss the challenges of subscriptions in the gaming industry, how to encourage consumers to discover new content within the subscription, and how EA offers multiple consumer models to support their “player first” promise.
2:15 – EA’s journey to subscription and why subscription models are particularly challenging in the gaming industry
8:00 – How EA used their “player first” mindset to create a subscription that would not cannibalize their business
11:29 – The importance of giving subscribers a taste of the product that leaves them wanting more
12:50 – EA Play’s ideal customer
16:47 – The metrics EA used to measure success, and the key data point for tracking returning customers
18:58 – Why helping a customer discover more content is so critical in a subscription business
21:53 – How EA shares subscription data across the company without distracting from other “player first” projects.
24:45 – How to tackle pricing in the gaming world and how EA chose its pricing model
30:16 – How to create a subscription that is beneficial from both a business and a “player-first” standpoint
33:29 – Mike’s advice for someone tasked with bringing subscription to a transactional or episodic business
35:51 – Mike’s advice for creating something evergreen within a “hits” or season based industry
37:21 – Robbie’s Speed Round
Robbie Baxter [00:00:11] We all want a business like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Businesses where once a customer engages with them, it becomes automatic and a part of their lifestyle from then on. But how do you build that Forever Transaction? I’m Robbie Kellman Baxter. And I have been studying subscription and membership models for nearly 20 years. In this podcast, my guests and I share the secrets and strategies of the Membership Economy. Join us for Subscription Stories: True Tales from the Trenches.
Robbie Baxter [00:00:47] Welcome to the show. It’s your host, Robbie Kellman Baxter sharing subscription stories with you, and today’s guest is Mike Blank. Mike is the SVP of Player Network at Electronic Arts, the makers of beloved video games like the Sims, FIFA and Star Wars squadrons. In this role, Mike defines how the players connect with one another, discover new games and play across platforms. Subscription is a key part of his strategy, and he has introduced many new models over the past five years. I featured his approach of continuous innovation in Chapter six of the Forever Transaction. Today, we’re going to talk about how he manages the tension between a big vision for a player first world vs. what’s possible and practical today in a complex and fast evolving ecosystem of gaming franchises, distributors, and platforms. Welcome to the show, Mike.
Mike Blank [00:01:55] Thanks, Robbie. Happy to be here with you.
Robbie Baxter [00:01:58] EA has historically built their model around these awesome specific franchises, each with their own fan base: Madden, Battlefield, The Sims. So why did you decide to implement subscriptions across all the franchises? Do you remember how that happened?
Mike Blank [00:02:15] I frankly, I think this is what inspired us to think about this idea of a gaming subscription because we were seeing what was happening in the world of movies and music and books and where Netflix was. And it was clear that if you could offer something of value in the entertainment space to a consumer with low friction, with tremendous convenience, at a price that was reasonable, that that package would be something that someone would want to pay for. In our case, in the world of console gaming games are roughly 60 dollars as an upfront cost. And that cost has been relatively similar for many, many years. And so our business has been built around blockbuster releases of amazing entertainment, immersive entertainment experiences that someone would pay for and then enjoy for some period of time. Not dissimilar, perhaps, to a blockbuster movie that you might go to a movie theater for. Although the price point is a lot higher for games, it cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build a triple-A game. The world of gaming has evolved, but that price point that sixty dollars price point has remained relatively stagnant. And so when I reflect back about like, well, why did we get into this business? It was because what we were seeing, the behavior that we were seeing in the rest of the entertainment world. And the question we asked ourselves was, why is this not happening in games? What is different about gaming that is preventing us or any other publisher or any other major developer of gaming consoles to experiment in the world of subscriptions? Gaming is more complicated, though. Why is gaming more complicated? Games are locked to particular platforms. The form factor of a game the way in which you interact with the game is different by platform. So if you want to play on a console, you have a controller. If you want to play PC, you have a keypad. If you’re playing on a mobile device, it’s a touch screen. The power of each of those systems,, while becoming more similar today, are not the same. Therefore, the game experienced by platform has to be different and there’s a wide variety of ways in which you might pay. Sometimes games are free and then you pay on top of that. Sometimes games are paid for upfront. Some games are cheap. Some games are expensive. There is no one size fits all experience for gaming. And so finding a model that can cross over between the myriad of different ways in which someone might buy and then play a game, that threading that needle is amazingly difficult. So you can’t actually point to Netflix or to Hulu or Spotify or any other entertainment like service and say, let’s just steal that and apply that model to gaming. Although that’s the natural inclination. It was our natural inclination when we first began the process of thinking about what could a subscription look like in the video game world.
Robbie Baxter [00:04:56] Yeah. I always say to companies that I work with her, I always advise them, have a vision of where you’re trying to go, what is that, Northstar? And then you go all the way back to the beginning and you say, what’s our first test going to be? Right. So can you describe kind of your big vision and then bring me all the way back to when you started and what that first like where do you even start when you’re trying to deal with all the challenges of the way that games are structured and played and all the different titles? Where did you where did you start and what was the vision?
Mike Blank [00:05:30] I’ll describe the vision, the initial vision, maybe less like a vision and more of an ethos. And then I’ll get to the vision. The ethos was and I remember this conversation that I had with our CEO, who’s our CEO today, Andrew Wilson. He talked about the notion of a mutual relationship and that the best relationship we could have with our customer, who we call our player, is to have a mutual one, a mutual benefiting relationship, one where we would provide ongoing value to a player. And in return, that player would engage in our games and ultimately, in part with their hard earned dollars and want to spend over time.
Robbie Baxter [00:06:02] That sounds like a Forever Transaction.
Mike Blank [00:06:04] Doesn’t it? I think when we spend time together talking about the Forever Transaction I was like, oh my God, that’s like what we’re talking about sort of. But your language, the language of forever promise actually encapsulates this idea very clearly. And so when we talked about the idea of having a mutual relationship, the amazing thing about a subscription is in its best form is that if you provide ongoing value in a convenient, frictionless way at a reasonable price, then the player in our case would be willing to spend time and engage with us and then spend their dollars at any time, even though I said earlier that we didn’t want to replicate what was happening in traditional entertainment subscriptions. The first place we went was traditional entertainment subscriptions and that meant, well, Netflix has a big catalog of content. Well, we should offer a big catalog of content. And Spotify has a billion songs or whatever the number is. And we should offer thousands of games because that’s what we thought people would want. We did a lot of research to understand what they would want. And frankly, when people say what they wanted a gaming subscription, oftentimes they say we want a lot of games. And so that’s where we where we started. We started with offer a big catalog content, both old games and new games that would keep people engaged over extended period time when they got bored of one game and move on to the next game. That cycle would continue and they would stay engaged and reengage over a long period time such that the engagement time that they spent would not look like what it is today. In many cases, not just for us but for many other gaming companies where they try, they pay for a game, they play the game for pretty time, they stop playing and they either move on to some other form of entertainment, movies, music or otherwise, or some other gaming companies offerings.
Robbie Baxter [00:07:40] So when you came up with this first experiment of a kind of player first subscription and player first as a big EA term, that I hear all over the place “player first”. You started with what? What was that very first offering? You said new and existing games?
Mike Blank [00:07:58] The very first offering, which we actually never offer to anybody, put all of our games in a subscription and we have games that we could offer in a subscription dating back to 1980 something all the way through to the games that are being released day and date today, because we thought that naturally any player would want the newest games. People want the latest, just like they want to watch the latest movies. But they also love playing games that are from the past great titles that they’ve known about and love but never played and never had the opportunity to play. And so we wanted to package all of that up and deliver that as the offering. We never did that. Or we actually should say we didn’t do that at first. We came together and put forward this idea that we’d offer all of our games and it would be amazing. And the reception we received was, I’d say, interested, but with an extreme amount of trepidation and perhaps fear. And the reason for that was our business is built on, was then not anymore, but was then built on selling 60 dollar games and reengaging players in those games over time. And if we were to supplant that 60 dollar game with, let’s say, a five dollar monthly offer, we could turn a 60 dollar sale into a five dollar sale and cannibalize our entire business.
Robbie Baxter [00:09:17] This is so important. This is an issue that I’m so grateful that you’re kind of breaking down, because I think people look at you and see EA Play and see what you’ve done with subscription and say, you know, they’ve figured it out. But it is if you look back, it’s scary. And you have colleagues who have these franchises and they’re looking and saying, we don’t want to turn a 60 dollar game into a five dollar binge. Right. You know, for a month where it’s 60 dollar game, you know, somebody playing a 60 Goller game every two weeks. So what happened? So you came you said, look, we’re going to do frontline, you know, the new games. We’re going to do the catalog of old games. It’s going to be amazing. It’s going to be five bucks a month or whatever it was going to be. And your colleague said, wait, we’re afraid. We’re concerned. How are you going to make sure that we don’t do any harm here?
Mike Blank [00:10:06] No gaming company had any experience in this. And it was yes, it created a lot of trepidation. So the first thing we did was we went back and we we actually had done a ton of research already to understand what we think would be of value. But we actually did a lot of research to get people over the hump to help them understand that people would play more than one game if we provided the opportunity for them to do so in a service that would enable that to happen. And so when we looked at the data, what we discovered was that over the course of years. Players do play more than one game. They don’t just get stuck into individual franchise and then live in that franchise forever, they play lots of games. But the barrier to entry is high. That price point is high. The barrier to entry is high. So we got people over the hump. People will play more than one game. If given the opportunity to do so and the barrier that’s currently preventing them from doing that is eliminated. But where we settled was actually let’s test something. Let’s get something in the market. Let’s not stop because we’re afraid of the business risk. Let’s put something on the market that wouldn’t put our entire business at risk. And it would actually establish whether consumers, whether players would appreciate the ability to play multiple games through an offering. And so where we settled was we’ll offer catalog games only in the first offering, these were games six months or older, and therefore somebody who wanted to play the first game right when it came out, we would still provide you with a taste of that new game. So you could get early access to frontline games, to new games. When they come out, we would give you 10 hours of play in that new game.
Robbie Baxter [00:11:35] So a 10 hour taste, you always talk about a free trial being a taste of what you’ve got, but you don’t want to fill them up. What is 10 hours of a game?
Mike Blank [00:11:46] Ten hours is a fraction of the total experience. It would give you just enough to know whether there is appeal for you in the game. But it wouldn’t let you master it or wouldn’t let you complete the game, cause some games could live on forever. So it really was a taste to give you a sense of what the game was about and whether you’d want to experience it further and whether you’d want to go down and buy it. And in our case, what it established was that people do want to come in and try the game and then maybe they chose to buy it, or perhaps it wasn’t something that they wanted to buy, but that if it was something that they could pay as part of an offering six months later, that would be appealing to them. So games that are six months or older, 10 hours into a frontline game, a new day and date release game, and discounts 10 percent discount in in-game purchases. And in your language Robbie that you’ve established as being a member, treat the players of our subscription as members, provide them with unique benefits and rewards that recognize them for their engagement in the subscription. And one of those is providing them with a discount for ongoing purchases that they might choose to make.
Robbie Baxter [00:12:49] And who is this initial subscription? Who is it for? Was it for people who had never played EA games before, kind of as an entry into the world of EA? Or was it for your existing fans, your players who were familiar with one or more of your existing games? Or was it for your best customers, the ones that bought multiple games every year?
Mike Blank [00:13:12] Difficult question. Probably one of the things that you worked on with us and you talk to us about a lot like choose who the customer is. In this case, we knew that there were a significant proportion of players who would want to play our games, but who couldn’t because of the barrier to entry. So this wasn’t necessarily for players who had never played an EA game before, although we knew that some players would come in because the price point was lowered and therefore the barrier to entry was reduced. But we believed that this would appeal to players who want to actually play more than one of our games, but where the price point or the barrier to entry to play more than one of those games was too high and therefore they would only ever engage in one game or they would only ever buy one game at discount and they would still only ever engage in one game. The subscription was then to solve that problem. How could we help players who want to play more than one game? But not be concerned about playing that game right when it came out. So these were players who were engaged with our games, generally speaking, who wants to play multiple games, but the price point was too high to pay for it. And who would reengage in our catalog over a period of time because we would enable them to do so. Is this our best customer? I’m not sure what we would describe as our best customers. Is that the player who spends the most? I would say no. It’s a portion of our player base, but not all of it. And again, we’re learning there. What would mark something that players want to engage with over a period of time? That again, delivers an amazing value, but at lower risk. Again, to establish what would ensure that players retain over time.
Robbie Baxter [00:14:52] So to summarize, what I think that you were saying is it wasn’t for total neophytes who weren’t familiar with EA as their point of entry, like, oh, I think I’ll see what this EA company is all about and see some of their games. And it wasn’t for the the best members, the best players who, as you said, play multiple games, play over time, play with their friends, are engaged in the network. It was sort of to move people who were kind of like what I would call light good customers, kind of, you know, moderately engaged and deepen the relationship. Is that fair?
Mike Blank [00:15:26] Yeah, I think that’s fair. Our goal was to help those players become more engaged. Our goal is to help those players and provide them with an opportunity to play more when the current models of engagement prevent them from doing so. So you’re right, it wasn’t for the total neophyte, the person who’s never played before, although we knew that we were gonna get some most players. It was it was inevitable.
Robbie Baxter [00:15:46] Yeah. So a couple of things that I think are important to point out here. One of them is that even though you focus on a group and as Mike said, I always want you to focus on who you’re really solving, what problem, what ongoing problem for what is the goal of the subscription, both for the organization and for the member or the subscriber or in this case, the player. Of course, there are going to be people who show up who don’t fit that profile and who are going to come in. And that’s fine. It’s just important to be clear on who you’re optimizing for. So that you can measure and you can prove. One of the things I know you were measuring for in those early times is how are people interacting with new games, with frontline games and what is the risk going to be of bringing those games in? And it sounds like in the next phase you were able to start introducing more of that frontline game experience and maybe even to see that your subscribers, it was actually serving as a tool to bring them into the deeper games, introducing them to games that they wanted to buy.
Mike Blank [00:16:47] That’s exactly right. We learned that players play more than one game when given the opportunity to do that. And what we discovered was that we would have to provide them with a compelling catalog of content that provided them with unique rewards and benefits that would keep them engaged in the service. And that’s where we experimented. We experimented with providing them with deeper benefits associated with individual games because they were coming into play a particular game, like most players arrive at gaming, not completely vacant of any knowledge about what’s happening in the world of games, but they come in because they want to play FIFA or they want to play battlefield or they want to play Apex or one of our competitor games. That’s where they start. But what they discover is once they’ve entered into the world of games, that there’s a whole world of other games that they could play. And so that’s what we learned. One of the key data points, actually, this was an interesting aha moment for us was probably intuitive, actually, at this point but at the time, maybe not exactly as intuitive. Players that played two or more games were more likely to stay in the subscription. Which in retrospect perhaps is rather intuitive. But at the time, we didn’t know what would indicate whether someone would stay in the subscription or not.
Robbie Baxter [00:17:55] And this is like the most important thing or one of the most important things in a subscription is to understand when you’ve kind of effectively onboarding somebody. In other words, where someone has said, I’m going to stay a subscriber for a while, because usually when somebody joins a new subscription, I know this is how I do it, they kind of make a note of when the free trial’s over or when the first month is over and they’re going to get billed again so that they can, you know, make sure they get value and make sure they get out if they don’t like the service or if they don’t make it a habit. So if you’re designing a subscription, you really want something that you know, that if somebody comes in the front door, they’re going to stay for a while. They’re gonna get great value on an ongoing basis. So the subscription doesn’t work if they don’t stay. And that’s a very different kind of model. And I love what you said about you know okay, when they play two games, they stay longer. So that’s really important. We need to attract the kind of person who would play two games and we need to make it really easy for them. They came in with one game, but we need to make it easy for them to discover that second game.
Mike Blank [00:18:58] That’s right. Discovery was critical. That continues to be critical. Another interesting data point for us is that the vast majority of players don’t actually know how many games are in a subscription. So whether we have two hundred or two thousand, they underestimate the number of games that we have. That’s another interesting data point for us. And I think that’s one of the things that when I use something like a Netflix or a Spotify, one of the things I discover is there’s a there’s a lot of content in there. And they employ a whole variety of mechanisms to help you understand that. We have to continue to evolve in our ability to help players discover and recommend content for them. And we continue to impress upon the various corners of our company that discovery is a really important problem to solve. And again, when you’re built on a model like we are at EA or in most other gaming companies where players come to play one game, this idea that discovery is critical isn’t something that immediately comes to the forefront. But we you are evolving towards a subscription business, particularly in a transactional based, episodic based model that we have and most other gaming companies have. Discovery is absolutely critical. And if you’re a company like ours where we actually do have a robust portfolio of games where players could play all of those games, the ability to help players discover and recommend becomes even more important. If you’re a one game company, there’s nothing else to discover. And then the onus is on the platform holder, like the Apples, the Microsoft, the Sonys within the consoles or on the IOS app stores to help you find the next app or game to play. In our case, we have a portfolio and therefore discovery becomes critical for us to figure out.
Robbie Baxter [00:20:27] Yeah, and that’s been part of the change that you’ve been leading, at EA, because back in the day when you had that first conversation, you are a franchise company. You have these super blockbuster triple-A titles. But there isn’t a lot of discovery, the organization wasn’t really set up for that. But now that you have this huge library, this catalog of content. How did you learn how to do discovery and how did you bring the rest of the organization along to say, look, it’s not just about bundling all the games together. We actually have to think about the experience, the onboarding, the discovery of new titles, how we engage them and go deeper with them.
Mike Blank [00:21:07] This is an incredible challenge and continues to be an incredible challenge. A lot of it comes down to continually sharing data and continually highlighting to the organization the value that the subscription brings to our players and the data that supports that. So we are on a mission, a constant mission to continually share what’s happening within the subsurface, whether positive or negative. We can’t completely dismiss, although we’re wanting to dismiss, the challenges associated disappears, because the perception originally was, if you continue to present the challenges then the appetite to continue would decrease. We took this on as a challenge. And so we regularly shared and we continue to regularly share what the data tells us.
Robbie Baxter [00:21:53] Who do you share that with? Do you kind of share it with the leadership team or are you out kind of evangelizing to your peers? What does it look like to build support? And how do you balance not wanting to distract people from the very important work they’re doing running their businesses, but at the same time wanting to build an understanding for something that has such high potential for the future?
Mike Blank [00:22:16] This has been an experiment also, and we’ve learned a lot of lessons in terms of how to share. We share at all levels of the organization. Everyone understands that subscriptions are great. But when you’re dealing with a team that is measured on an annual basis about how many players they can bring into their game to create a robust community of players, that creates long term engagement, that sells a bunch of games, we have to demonstrate to them that subscription is a value add to them. And so that meant for us, as we learned, how does the subscription bring more players into their games? How do we bring more players in the games that might not have played their games before but that are players EA games or other competitive games where they might engage for longer? Another interesting data point for you here is that roughly 80 to 90 percent of the players who are in our subscription have played a new game that they’ve never played before. And so when we say that to our game teams, they say, incredible. How do we take advantage of all those millions of people who have never played our game before? So we again, we share all the way up through the organization. Now, we’ve gotten smarter about this. We used to blast this throughout the organization at company town halls. We were super excited about it. We view ourselves as intrapreneurs. We were constantly, this is probably said the wrong way, battling against inertia, battling against a common way, a historical way of doing things. And so our tendency was to push against that and fight against what was ingrained in the process and the operation of how we operate our company. So we yelled from the rooftops, as you said, though, it distracted at some level. And what we found was that games had to think about how to build great games. And the more we talked about subscription, the more it distracted them from the business of building a great game of building something that was truly player first. So we had to pull back a little bit. We have to be really careful about what we shared and when and now we have, you know, a trusted sort of group of individuals across the company that we share regularly with and then peppered throughout the year, we tout the new things that we’re doing and we highlight to the company that it’s a really important initiative and that there’s some really amazing learnings that we’re deriving here. And what we’re seeing now is that we’re not the only ones invested in subscriptions and gaming. Anyone who is watching the gaming world today is seeing that, whether it be Sony or whether it be Microsoft or virtually any other platform holder or game company is spending time figuring out how to provide a valuable subscription offering to their players because they recognize that this is probably the way of the future.
Robbie Baxter [00:24:45] So we haven’t talked about pricing and it’s something that companies really struggle with, especially, you know, they feel a lot of times they’re like, well, so you have the games and they’re sixty dollars and then they have unlimited games. So, you know, what should the price be? And I would be interested in getting some behind the scenes understanding of how you came up with your pricing model and how you think about pricing philosophically because you have subscriptions and you continue to have the individual package game.
Mike Blank [00:25:18] Part of the ethos, again, of our company is player choice. So we know some players want to buy, they want to own. Some players want to subscribe because they want access and they value access over ownership. So we knew that we were going to have to offer choice. That was one thing that we knew to be true. The second thing we knew to be true was that we wanted to optimize experience, as I described earlier, for people who wanted to play more than one game. And so there was a tension at that point. The tension was, well, if we want people to play more than one game, then we should charge them what it would cost to play more than one game. So one game is sixty dollars and two games, one hundred twenty dollars. And of course, it was a hundred dollars for a host of additional benefits. So you weren’t paying the same amount for the same thing. You were paying perhaps the same amount for a lot more. And I think there’s merit to that argument. Right. Hundreds of games, knowing that people don’t generally play more than a handful of games. If somebody was spending a hundred and twenty dollars for two games, but then getting the benefit of a lot of games, that’s tremendous value. So that was one school of thought. The other school of thought was drop the price significantly, make the price so cheap that it was a no brainer offering. Why wouldn’t everyone want to becomes a subscriber? So instead of spending sixty dollars for a game, you spend five dollars for a game and then people would stay forever because the price point was so low that it was inevitable that they would always just stay with you. So what I would like to say is that it was a really clean decision making process that was not the case. In fact, there was a lot of gut around what would make sense. We actually ended up doing a lot of research and the research wasn’t definitive. The research suggested a whole array of price points with each game with different emotional reactions, whether it be nine ninety nine, because that’s what other subscriptions in the market commanded. And therefore, if we had a subscription, it would also be 9.99. As we see now there is no set price point for a subscription. Netflix is now charging a lot more. Some subscriptions are a lot less. Some are offering annual subscription. Some are offering monthly subscriptions and everything in between. So at the time, there was really only one offering, 9.99 Netflix. That’s what you would offer. But that didn’t align to either the super cheap price point to bring more people in and keep them retained or that more expensive offering but offer more. So it wasn’t clean. We did a lot of research. In the end we netted towards the lower end of the price point spectrum. And the reason for that was, again also let’s talk about what the price point is today. It’s effectively five dollars a month for back catalog games or thirty dollars a year. You get a pretty sizable discount if you wanted to pay upfront for an entire year. Half price, because, again, a lot of people don’t spend an entire year playing a game. Therefore, if we could get them to play for a longer period of time, they might stay with us and play more games. And that would be a mutual benefit to them and us. We then offered, as I’ve alluded to already, a frontline offering, which is closer to a hundred dollars a year. And again, that would account for people who were playing more than one game, but not so much that it would prevent them from wanting to play a lot of games or stop them from entering into the ecosystem. Again, this is a little bit of a test also. What is the right price point for someone who, again, we’re optimizing for retaining people over a long period of time? And we continue to learn here. There is no definitive answer at this point as to what the exact right price point is, because we have a diversity of offerings for diversity of types of players. I think what we’re discovering is we need to keep experimenting with the price point.
Robbie Baxter [00:28:57] Yeah. What I find interesting about your price point is the lower pricing that you talked about is much more in line with, let’s say, carwashes, theme parks, where if you just go for one day, you pay almost as much as you pay to have a season pass. Right. It’s usually the season pass is somewhere between two and three times what a single day costs, with the idea being that they’ll stay longer and also that they’ll buy other stuff, which I think is a really interesting thing to note. In a Netflix model all they have is their subscription. But at EA you have the subscription, which is a great way to play and it’s very cost effective way to, you know, play multiple games. But it’s also a way to discover games that you want to go deep in. And so, as you point out, with millions of people discovering a new title that they never played before and then going and buying that game or playing that game. And so it’s I think it’s really important to also understand when you’re, and this kind of goes back to what you were saying about data as well, that helping people understand that what you’re doing in subscription is creating value in multiple ways. So it creates your own revenue stream from the subscription. But you’re also driving additional revenue through discovery for your colleagues across the organization for these other businesses.
Mike Blank [00:30:16] That’s right. There’s two halves of the equation. There’s the business value associated with bringing more players into the ecosystem, driving up what we call MAU or DAU, there’s the total number of players playing your games because you’re creating a healthy and robust community of players in the game is actually what in many cases…
Robbie Baxter [00:30:31] That’s monthly monthly active users and daily active users.
Mike Blank [00:30:34] Yes, monthly active users. Daily active users. In fact, peak concurrent user usage is also critically important in gaming because again, in a multiplayer game setting, the total number of players you have available to play with is actually really critical. That’s why some of the biggest games in the world today are those games that have the largest audiences because you have a lot of people to play with because gaming is inherently social. So our game teams knew this and therefore bringing in more players into the ecosystem and helping them discover new games to play that they’ve not played before. And then building up the player base for those particular games is of tremendous value, it wasn’t, necessarily or immediately the amount of money that we brought in because we could acquire a ton of users. But if those users don’t stick around and play, then that’s a fleeting metric and in fact, would be a detriment to our overall business. So we have to find ways to bring those players in and to establish the value for our game teams that these players would come in and stick around and play by virtue of creating more robust communities. So that was on the internal on the business side. On the player side, it was establishing the value that if you were to pay something to us on an ongoing basis that we continue to provide you with value on an ongoing basis. So we also had learnings where at times in a monthly offering, if any individual month became stagnant, whereby we didn’t provide new content, new rewards, new benefits, then players would drop out. And we didn’t anticipate frankly, again it sounds intuitive, but we didn’t anticipate that necessarily, in part because we thought, well, there a huge catalog. So there would always be something else to snack on and try. But there has to be a constant beat, constant drum roll of something that we remind you of that’s valuable for you in that offering, that would entice you to keep coming back. And so, again, whether it be on the internal business side or whether it be on the player side, there were there was a meeting of the metrics which was create an ongoing value internally and externally, create large, robust communities internally for our game teams, but also for players because they want more people to play with. And in both cases, if we were able to do so, that would end up generating revenue for our company. And that would be of mutual benefit. We provide ongoing value, players pay and it would be a match made in heaven.
Robbie Baxter [00:32:51] You make it sound really easy. But I know that there are a lot of challenges along the way. And so I’m wondering if we can just jump into advice for people who are listening. What advice do you have? A couple of different categories. So first of all, you talked about being an intrapreneur, somebody who’s an entrepreneur, but inside a company. What advice do you have for somebody like you who’s tapped with this kind of daunting but potentially career making assignment to figure out subscription for a transactional or episodic company? What advice do you have for that person?
Mike Blank [00:33:29] It’s a career enhancing or career limiting. It sort of depends on how you go at it. I like to think it is career enhancing. So what kind of advice? I think there’s three things that you need to keep in mind. The first is persistence. I would expect that if you’re working inside of a company where this is not the normal course of business, where you’re as I described earlier, you’re up ending the traditional way in which the business operates, you’re going to have to be persistent in order to get your message across, because there’s a lot of reasons not to do this. A lot of good reasons not to do this. Fear, anxiety, the current way of operating, inertia, time, energy. You have to be persistent. The second is you have to drive towards incentive alignment. And that incentive alignment is not just for the business internally, but for the people who are acquiring the subscription. And I described earlier how our metrics actually are married. Creating robust communities, getting people to play together, providing more value. All of that is beneficial both for our teams internally and for players. And finally, I guess I should say thirdly, but first and foremost, you have to create value. And so if I were going at this again, the most important thing, and I think we did this, but maybe we would invest in this further, the most important thing you can do as someone who is coming up with something new and moving from zero to one is meet a user need that is not currently met. And therefore, it’s not really about building a subscription per say because you could find subscriptions, could work, a la carte could work, it’s about building something that people care about and that you demonstrate can be offered to someone through that offering that they’d want to pay for. So that’s what I have to keep proving, is that we’re gonna have something that people want. And in doing so, through persistence and incentive alignment, you can get the organization along for the ride and your players will come with you or your users will come with you.
Robbie Baxter [00:35:27] What about as somebody working in a world of hits and seasons trying to build something that is evergreen? You talked about kind of, you know, this mutually beneficial, ongoing relationship in a world where you’re making hits for, you know, these titles that are hits and that it’s kind of a seasonal there’s a release every X months and people are waiting for that. What’s your advice for somebody who’s trying to come up with something evergreen in a world of hits or a world of seasons?
Mike Blank [00:35:57] There are only a couple of paths you can go down if you’re dealing in that kind of business, and that is either breadth of content or depth of content and offering. And so you have to determine in your particular form of subscription, are your users looking for breadth and access to a lot or your users looking for depth and a depth in terms of how you treat them from a membership perspective, how you communicate with them, how you help them discover content that’s relevant to them. Those are the kind of things that we’re leaning into now, because, again, what we discovered is in gaming, massive breadth is likely not something that a player actually has time to engage in. And they’re looking to really engage deeply in the things that they love.
Robbie Baxter [00:36:43] So well said. What I’m taking away from what you said is, number one, that if you’re in it a world of hits or a world of deep and narrow fandom and you’re trying to build a subscription. The most important thing is to recognize that that’s probably going to be the hardest thing about your subscription and to be thoughtful about it and then to go to your customers and really understand what is the ongoing promise they want you to make. Is it about breadth or is it about. I always want there to be something new in my lane, but I am never going to leave my lane. So I got my takeaway for today so thank you. OK, we’re almost done. I wanted to a speed round with you. So just quick answers. Don’t think about it too much. First subscription you ever had?
Mike Blank [00:37:29] It was an XBox subscription. Gaming. Seems natural, I guess.
Robbie Baxter [00:37:36] Your favorite subscription today?
Mike Blank [00:37:38] Netflix.
Robbie Baxter [00:37:39] What do your employees love about working with you?
Mike Blank [00:37:44] What do they love working with me? I’m persistent. I’ll never let something die. And I try to bring a little humor along the way.
Robbie Baxter [00:37:53] What’s the hardest thing about working with you.
Mike Blank [00:37:55] My persistence and that I don’t let anything die. What’s a blessing is also a curse.
Robbie Baxter [00:38:01] What would you say is your superpower?
Mike Blank [00:38:03] I think it’s the ability to mobilize an organization around a new idea and be able to convince them it’s something that though they haven’t tried to before or that it might be really scary that we’re going to find a path forward.
Robbie Baxter [00:38:13] Mobilizer man. Right. Intrapreneur man. And then what do you think are the natural skills that you have that make you good at subscription?
Mike Blank [00:38:27] Desire to understand the data and understanding that an acceptance that ultimately the individual who dictates whether something will be successful or not is your consumer and between understanding that, accepting that it’s not just foisting upon them some kind of business model and really, really diving into the data and unearthing the insights. Those two things, I think lead to success.
Robbie Baxter [00:38:50] I love it. That’s great. A great place to end. Thanks for joining me today, Mike. This was a real pleasure.
Mike Blank [00:38:56] Robbie, thanks for having me. It’s always been fun working with you. I love your book. You’ve taught us a lot along the way. We wouldn’t be here without you. So I look forward to many more opportunities to connect with you again.
Robbie Baxter [00:39:07] Great. Many more conversations.
Robbie Baxter [00:39:12] Thanks for listening, everyone. I’m Robbie Kellman Baxter, and this has been Subscription Stories. Today I was talking to Senior Vice President of Player Network at Electronic Arts, Mike Blank. You’ll find more about Mike as well as a transcript of our conversation at RobbieKellmanBaxter.com/podcast. To hear other success stories of entrepreneurs and executives creating their Forever Transaction in this new and exciting Membership Economy, subscribe to my podcast wherever you listen most. Also, if you like what you heard, please take a moment and give me a star rating and write a review. Reviews matter so much in helping others find great content. Thanks for listening and thanks for your support.
- Mike’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/blankmichael/
- EA Play, EA’s subscription service: https://www.ea.com/ea-play/news/welcome-to-ea-play
- Robbie’s Book THE FOREVER TRANSACTION: https://robbiekellmanbaxter.com/the-forever-transaction/
Mike Blank is EA’s SVP of Player Network. In this role, he oversees how the company enables players to connect together, discover games and evolve to new distribution models. Mike is responsible for building teams, providing vision, and helping to invent the next generation of EA including the consumer platform and subscription-based products. Before his 18+ years with EA, Mike worked in law. He received a BA from McGill University and a JD from The University of British Columbia.
“Everyone understands that subscriptions are great. But when you’re dealing with a team that is measured on an annual basis about how many players they can bring into their game to create a robust community of players, that creates long term engagement, that sells a bunch of games, we have to demonstrate to them that subscription is a value add to them.“
—MIKE BLANK, ELECTRONIC ARTS
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