Brad Hilderbrand is a Senior Publicist at EA. He works on a bunch of EA Sports properties, and he serves in a senior role on the campaign for Mass Effect: Andromeda. We caught up with Hilderbrand last week over a chat that spanned nearly an hour. We talked reviews, previews, his daily work and what it’s like at EA.
We’re splitting that chat up over a few separate stories. Brad talks fast (he’s a busy guy), so we covered a ton in that conversation.
We started, though, with a chat about how EA’s PR team handles the review process. What’s a Senior Publicist’s role during that review period, and are the reviews produced by critics important to the development of games.
“When we were getting ready to launch Mass Effect,” Hilderbrand told us, “my day was a lot of, you know, writing the review strategy, working with our agency on the press list, working with the dev team on interviews and things like that.” Hildebrand and the PR team monitor review distribution, they field questions about games, they note cited bugs and problems if reviewers bring them up.
They even start to give developers some early feedback based on what reviewers might tell them they’re seeing ahead of review publication. If that’s anything, of course, since not all reviewers share insight.
Once a game is out or the embargo on reviews lifts, the team starts its post-launch efforts. This is where things get crazy. It’s Hilderbrand’s team’s job to collect all the reviews, read them, isolate key themes and boil all that information down for the developers. They might read through (and Hilderbrand emphasized that they read every single one) 200 or 300 reviews. That’s right, the reviews matter to a publisher like EA. It’s not just hype-generation that they’re after; they take stock of the positives and negatives and use that information to make their games better.
“What are the things that people are consistently saying that are good about the game? What are people consistently complaining about or just could have been stronger? You take all of that info back to the team and say, ‘here’s what the critics are saying.’”
Hilderbrand has to take those reviews and present them in a way that’s both digestible and actionable for a team, and that can be very difficult given the subjective and objective nature of reviews. They aren’t simply factual representations of what works and what doesn’t. They’re also subjective impressions of how a game makes players feel.
“It’s hard to present ‘bugs’ as an issue,” Hilderbrand told us. “You know, we get that with almost every game. People say, ‘oh, there are bugs.’ That’s not super helpful, but when they get specific with– you know, for Madden a couple of years ago, they got specific. ‘The physics were wonky after a play.’ That was an actual, identified problem. I took that back to the team and said, ‘hey guys, people are saying that after they get up from a tackle the physics get really weird.’ That was something the team could work on for the next game and try to improve. It helps us to have that really specific criticism…”
Hilderbrand explained that criticism of more subjective matters isn’t nearly as helpful as identifying problems in combat, movement, animations or UI. When it’s easy to identify and isolate what’s wrong with a given mechanic, it’s easy for the team to get to work at fixing the problems.
We asked Hilderbrand concisely if the goal of this review collection and analysis is to actively make games better. Are teams looking at the content of the reviews and deciding, “let’s build a patch to fix this issue.” While we refrained from pointing towards the obvious elephant in the room, one might consider the status of Mass Effect: Andromeda here. People are upset about the character animation system. Does EA (and publishers like EA, perhaps) use those formal, critic-generated complaints to decide whether or not something should be patched? Or, is all of this material simply being gathered to make the next game better?
“It’s both,” Hilderbrand responded. “Things that can be fixed? It’s good to have that. Our teams have a good sense of what they want to work on, but it’s good to have that information about what’s impacting the player the most. We do feel like the reviews are a really good indication of what players are seeing when they play the game, so if a reviewer says ‘I really think that Specific Problem X is really bothering me’ and that’s a consistent theme across almost all the reviews, it’s good to take that back to the team and ask if we can fix it in an update.”
How the team responds depends entirely on the scope of the problem at hand. They might say that it’s something that they were already working on and plan to patch away within a few days. It might be new to them and a bit harder to fix, so it could take a few months. Or, as is the case sometimes, it might be a problem that’s deeply rooted in the game’s code. So deep, in fact, that it’s impossible to fix. It’s those problems that the team files away for the next game.
Which brings us to our next conversation with Brad Hilderbrand: would it be better if games writers were more critical of games during preview events? I told you we talked about a lot. Stay tuned for that story.