I recently had the opportunity to do an interview with James Nichols, Community Coordinator for EA Mythic for Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (WAR.) For those of you who don’t know who James is, let me bring you up to speed a little bit. James was formerly involved in community management as a volunteer with one of the very early Vanguard fan sites. When Sigil needed another community relations expert they turned to that community and James came aboard. He took over for Nick Parkinson (Glip the Gnome) when Nick moved elsewhere within Sigil and became the day-to-day Community Manager. You may have known James there by his forum name of Elrar. I first met James on one of my visits to Sigil when I was going to do an interview with Salim Grant for my Vanguard Site, Vanguard Crafters. James is the kind of guy that you like immediately upon meeting him. When all the drama with Sigil went down, he found another home for his community skills at EA Mythic. He’s been there since, herding the Waaaaagh! faithful and keeping the beta forums civil and useful.
I asked James to do an interview so you all would have a little more insight into a community manager’s life at EA Mythic and what is going on with the Warhammer Beta. James was as straightforward as he could be about things, and in spite of the fact that the game is still in beta and under a pretty serious NDA was able to share some information with me regarding what is happening there. I also asked James a couple of questions about working at EA that weren’t in the interview like how he likes living back on the east coast after being in San Diego for a while (he likes it,) and whether or not Paul Barnett is that manic all the time at work (he’s not.)
What follows is the interview in it’s entirety. I would usually run a narrative through that but I wanted to give this to you all as I got it from James. For more information about WAR, go to warhammeronline.com.
TGG: So you are getting to be a veteran over there at EA. You all settled in?
James: I wouldn’t say a veteran but I am going on eight months now (honestly can’t believe it’s been that long.) I work with a great team here – it’s great to see marketing so passionate and knowledgeable about our product. The whole team is that way, really.
TGG: How is the community for the game shaping up?
James: The community is awesome. Warhammer brings together a lot of people of different backgrounds and it really gives a unique perspective over previous communities I’ve been involved in. You have people here who are die-hard Warhammer hobbyists (they paint/play with the table-top figurines) then you have people who love what we do with RvR combat, be them Dark Age of Camelot veterans or PvP enthusiasts from other games who are looking for a home.
I spent my first few weeks here reading up on Warhammer and talking to people about the lore and history. I find myself now always wanting to know more and hopefully I’ll get the time to be able to work on my own army!
TGG: Are you guys learning a lot from the “different kind of beta” that you are doing?
James: The Focus Tests we’re doing are really working out well. With beta it’s hard sometimes to get the feedback you really need, there’s a lot of different minds giving you feedback and while many people have great ideas we can’t always apply them to our game. This creates a pretty large signal to noise ratio.
We figured – why don’t we ask them to give us what we need? It took a little bit for everyone to get used to but with the content being very focused and the feedback we request following suit it really allows everyone to jump into beta and know what they can test and respond to in order to help us make a great game.
From my perspective the whole community really seems to be working as a team, we all have a clear goal and while not everyone agrees (which is a really good thing) we get an overwhelming amount of constructive feedback that’s easy for the developers to find and read.
TGG: I know that you can’t comment on release dates and the like, but what is your sense for how things are progressing?
James: The game is still obviously in beta. If you play it for a few minutes you’d realize that. But with that said it’s looking really awesome. Things are starting to come together more than ever as the mechanics of the game continue to get refined and tuned. I was just doing some RvR last night when we captured a keep, it’s exhilarating and I thought to myself “I can’t wait to play this on a live server.”
The truth is though we still have a few months in front of us before this baby is ready for prime-time. We’re making sure it’s worth the wait so everyone can enjoy the glory of RvR and the other brilliant features we have in store. We’re working our asses off to make this game one heck of an experience.
TGG: You guys have over a half million beta applications so far. Is that number surprising to you?
James: Honestly, in this industry I wouldn’t call anything surprising. We’re still a young genre and in this post-World of Warcraft world we have to be ready for anything. But you better believe we were excited to see that number. It personally gave me an overwhelming sense of responsibility. There are a lot of people looking at our game who want to play it and immerse themselves in our world for good-long while. We’re striving to deliver that experience to them.
The higher that ticker rises the more and more encouragement it gives to us. When someone asks me: “How awesome is your game?” I just want to be able to reply “So awesome!” I think we’re getting there, haha.
TGG: What’s the biggest challenge you have as a community leader at EAMythic regarding the community’s expectations?
James: WAR has a lot of great features; however, over the years of development like any game those features will change over time. It can be challenging sometimes to help the community understand why those changes need to be made.
It’s important to realize that what we do is always done in the benefit of the game. We don’t want to have a feature heavy game if only 20% of those features work correctly. It’s important players feel like they’re playing a finished product and not a “work in progress.” We’re at the point now where critical decisions are made every day, production is running a tight ship in the scheduling department and greasing the wheels to make sure we’re running like clockwork as much as possible.
Reality for any game is though that change happens – and so really the most challenging part of my job is to make sure that those changes, large or small, are clearly understood and the reasons behind them defined. I never expect everyone to agree with the change, but I always make it my goal to ensure everyone understands why we made it.
TGG: What’s been the most fun pairing for you so far to test?
We’re currently focus testing the elf pairing right now, their world is truly amazing looking and is fun to explore but my heart goes to Chaos and pillaging the empire. So I’ll have to go with the Empire vs. Chaos focus test. (Shameless plug: Be sure to check out the News From the Front on the EvC Focus Test coming in a few days to www.warherald.com)
TGG: I know you guys are making an effort to be very true to the lore and feel of Warhammer. How much have you learned about Warhammer since you have been there?
James: When I started here I really didn’t know a whole lot to begin with, in fact I pretty much knew Warhammer existed and there was something about playing with pewter miniatures which you could paint.
Since then I’ve truly learned a lot, I wouldn’t say I’m a master of their lore but I really took it upon myself to get to know each of our six races (and to a lesser extent all of the Warhammer armies) I wanted to know what motivates them, how they live, and their strengths and weaknesses. As I said above I’m looking forward to being able to start my own army and look forward to reading some of the novels we have floating around the office.
TGG: A lot of people are interested in getting into the game business. Can you tell them what an average day at work is like for you?
James: My job differs in a lot of ways from designers, programmers, and artists. I don’t really have a schedule and today is one of the few “average days I have.”
It’s important to note that my day is never-ending. I’m on call 24/7 and if I didn’t have to sleep I could find something new to do every hour of the day.
Generally I always start off by checking emails and IM’s before heading to the office. On occasion I’ll look at the forums to see what people are talking about and get an idea for what some of the “hot topics” might be for the day.
I always have a big list of “to-do” it’s my job to prioritize them and make sure they get done. A lot of my responsibilities have to do with coordinating communications and the beta test.
I generally give production a report on some problem areas in the beta based on feedback and throughout the day check in for updates on how things are going and get a sense for what our schedule is looking like.
In between I’m most likely tracking down answers to interviews, working on newsletter content, posting/reading message boards, and work on long term projects in preparation for launch and beyond.
When I go home I’m still responding to emails and working with beta testers on the beta forums and keeping an eye on the fan site forums and responding as necessary right up until I go to bed.
There are a lot of little things that change each day, too many to list but my days are never dull and always provide me with some great new experience.
TGG: True or false. The 8-hour work day is dead in the gaming business.
James: This really varies – sometimes you can put in your eight hours, go home, and enjoy yourself but as many of you know there are also crunch periods where sleep is precious and sometimes the only thing you do while you are home.
It’s something I think everyone needs to accept if they’re serious about getting into the industry. But to be honest I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
It’s great to be able to wake up in the morning and want to go to work or not mind working from home on a weekend or at 1AM on a Tuesday. It can be stressful no doubt but when you’re truly passionate about what you do I find it doesn’t bother you. It’s my hobby, lifestyle, and career all rolled into one. Some of my friends think I’m crazy, but after I explain why I do it they understand and many of them wish they could feel the same way about their careers.
One day I might feel differently and yearn for a 9-5 job where I can expect what’s around the corner, but I hope that day isn’t anytime soon.
I want to thank James for taking time out from his hectic schedule to do this interview with me. I’d also like to thank him for being as forthcoming as the circumstances allow. If you haven’t taken an interest in Warhammer yet you may want to check out their site. Over 600,000 people have signed up for beta there so far, so there is a fair amount of buzz going on. I’m definitely hoping they have a hit coming in this game (see my “Why I Quit WoW” post from earlier) and I’m hoping that more and more of you get a chance to get into Beta and help them make the game as good as it can be.
Keep an eye out here as well as we will be stepping up coverage of WAR and all of the other games that will be coming out in the near future.
Are you ready for Waaaagh?!?!?!