In the first part of his interview, EA’s general manager Ben Cousins looked back at his career in digital, turning an experiment into a separate business unit, why he never ever wants to go back to retail and shared some very valuable wisdom from his time as a producer. In this second part, we continue to talk about his lessons learned as a producer, building a career in games, the sacrifices needed to gain more control and the opportunities of being first.
Cousins has had his share of both good and bad projects in his career, but found one returning element that marked all the bad ones. “The bad projects were ones where the leaders of the team were changing their minds,” he argues. “You need to pick the right goal, communicate that goal very clearly and stick to that communication all the way through the project.” According to Cousins, the trick is to stick to those initial decisions with a “real laser focus” and not let yourself, your team and even your boss be distracted by anything else. “You have a lot of responsibilities as a vision holder to maintain that focus,” he adds. “Make sure that the team implements and perform based on that end-goal rather than what they want to do or what the latest flavor of the month in the industry is.”
Another point of advice that Cousins stressed throughout his own career, is the need to make sure all the key players on your projects are very generously rewarded for helping the project and team stay focused enough to reach the project’ s goals successfully. “People need to understand that they get rewards for their work,” he argues. “That’s kind of the loop I like to see.”
The early start of Cousins’ career might look familiar to many producers in the industry. In 1999, Cousins started out as a QA tester on several N64 and Playstation titles at Acclaim Entertainment. He later ended up as an artist on Sabrina the Teenage Witch: A Twitch in Time by Asylum Entertainment, followed by his first job as a lead designer on a canceled prehistoric action-adventure game at Lionhead studios. “Between being a tester and then being at Sony in charge of a project, that felt like a really fast journey,” Cousins recalls. “Then it felt like it slowed down, but it probably hasn’t.”
One of the key moments in those early days came when he was unexpected laid off from his QA job after Acclaim Entertainment was closed down. “It’s generally when you move companies when you see those key moments,” Cousins recalls. Me might have ended up staying in QA much longer if he hadn’t been forced to look for a new job. “There wasn’t any QA work or any good QA teams around in London at that time, so I was forced to take on a junior production role instead,” he explains. This change was completely unexpected, but not unwelcome either. “I haven’t been on a career plan, it just happened,” Cousins says. “When I entered the game industry, I just wanted to be a level designer. That was my end goal. I hadn’t been driven by anything other than helping out and filling the gaps where I saw them.”
Nevertheless, Cousins embraced the change of direction. It happened again after the project at Lionhead studios that he was heading eventually got canceled. The following move to Sony gave his career another upwards swing. “One regret that I had was not leaving Lionhead earlier,” Cousins admits. “If I had left Lionhead after one year instead of two, I would’ve gone to Sony and I would’ve been involved with the EyeToy much earlier. That would’ve been a better learning experience for me.”
While addressing this, Cousins wanted to share a similar piece of advice with our readers on the matter of personal judgement and timing. “If you trust your judgement and you think you won’t be very good in the company you’re working at and you don’t think you’ll be able to change that, you should just leave,” he suggests. “There’s always a better opportunity somewhere else.” The promotion to a GM came as a pleasant surprise, but didn’t require Cousins to apply any pressure from his behalf. “The main thing I would say is that, I have never specifically asked for a promotion,” he admits. “I’ve never asked to change my job title or get more responsibilities. It’s always been offered to me. Either the person above me had too much work to do or they sucked and I think I can help out that person or in that situation, I’d just do the work. I don’t even ask permission, I just start doing the work.”
Cousins’ methods, modesty and openness to help his peers seem to have worked in his favor, making him quite popular within the EA ranks. “I don’t ask for a promotion when I take on more responsibility, I just take it on,” he says. “I’ve always said yes to people when they staid ‘Ben, can you deal with this’? That has hopefully given my bosses a fair amount of faith in me. That’s probably why I’ve been promoted several times.”
GMing is like playing the guitar
Becoming the general manager of Easy studios wasn’t an easy task for Cousins and required quite the amount of learning new tricks and reinvention on his behalf. It demanded the greatest sacrifice of all: giving up the tight involvement he enjoyed as a producer. Cousins offers a simple analogy to explain his experience with this change. “I used to be a musician and play the drums. I gave it up, even though I loved playing the drums. Drummers never get their songs listened to by the band. If you’re a drummer and you come to the band with a song idea, they never listen to you. You’re just the drummer. So I gave up playing the drums and started playing guitar so I could have my ideas heard better and I could have more control.” This is what Cousins also did with his career.
Though game design was always a passion for him and he’d always wanted to be a game designer, he quickly I realized the position would not give him what he wanted. “I quickly learned that the game designer didn’t really make the decisions or had enough control in order to really follow through on a complete vision. In order to take up that responsibility which gives you complete control, you have to learn more about the business. You have to think from a total leadership, rather than just the design.” So once again Cousins gave up what he loved in order to be able to make a bigger impact on his projects and have the degree of control he’s always wanted. “The business knowledge is not naturally where I excel,” Cousins admits. “I have to make an effort in doing that.”
For Cousins, the recent years as a GM have forced him to learn that and many other new things. But as he says himself, “It’s the learning and growing that is most rewarding.” With his creative nature, Cousins does not have a hard time have fresh ideas come to him naturally. Even though he has things come to him naturally, the river of creative ideas had lost its shine over time. “What is rewarding is understanding metrics, a business plan or creating a change which increases your profitability, because that’s all new for me,” he says. “I think that sometimes you need to walk away from what you love in order to grow.”
The Next Challenge
During his last four years at EA, Cousins decided to leave packaged goods behind him and fully devoted himself to free-to-play and digitally distributed games. In that time, his team’s efforts behind Battlefield Heroes paid off, showed EA that the market for this type of games had grown tremendously got him a promotion in return. “We’re stepping out of the exploration stage now and moving into the growth stage,” Cousins says. “The next step in my career is going to be about exploiting this knowledge from the research and development stage I’ve gone through and really use that to grow and turn this into a really big business. I may not have changed job title, or the kind of work I do, but there’s going to be more games, bigger games and a more mature organization.”
The freedom Cousins and his fellow colleagues enjoyed while pioneering this new business model within EA was not a given, but an unexpected treasure of opportunity. According to Cousins, this was caused by two reasons.
“We were always the guys in the icebreaker,” he recalls. “We were first and had more knowledge than anybody from day one. The first time I sat down with Johny Mang, who was our business guru for our games, we knew more than anyone else in EA about the Western world’s free-to-play business. If you’re always the first, you’re the guy with the most knowledge and experience.” The second reason for the freedom Cousin’s team enjoyed was that EA didn’t have a structure ready to operate online games. “So we had to build our own structure,” Cousins says. “If you’re doing something typical, which is standardized, you’re within the confines of an existing organization in terms of publishing, legal, finance, marketing, etcera. But because EA couldn’t offer us any support. We were doing something so new that we were forced to create our own organization. And when you have your own organization, you have more freedom to design it as you see fit.”
Cousins and his team over at Easy Studios are still making good use of that freedom while hard at work with the closed beta of Battlefield Play4Free, the newest addition to EA’s Play4Free brand. Cousins will also be speaking at this year’s Casual Connect Europe about the topic of getting EA ready for free-to-play gaming.