The Most Powerful Woman in Gaming Wants to Make EA Loved Again
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- One of the first things Laura Miele did when she became chief studios officer of Electronic Arts Inc. three years ago was to gather 19 video game influencers in a conference room. “What do you want me to hear? Lay it on me,” she recalls asking them. “One guy sitting at the corner of the table, he just said, ‘I don’t understand why you don’t give players what they’re asking for.’ ”
It’s something many gamers have wondered about EA for years. The $40 billion company, one of the biggest in gaming, is responsible for Battlefield, Madden NFL, and other megahit franchises. But many gamers have long seen EA as a necessary evil, resenting the direction in which it took some games and bristling at its aggressive attempts to extract money by charging extra for digital items in games that cost as much as $70 upfront. This dissatisfaction was no secret in 2018: Gamers spent their days filling up Reddit and other message boards with free advice for EA—but many felt its decision-makers weren’t listening.
EA’s leadership knows it has to improve that relationship, and Miele is a key player in its efforts to do so. Her focus group asked for new content for Star Wars Battlefront II and requested new types of games. Miele quickly assigned 70 people to the Battlefront development project, which dramatically improved its net promoter score, a measure of how likely people are to recommend the game. She also prompted EA to create a skateboarding game and committed to reintroducing its college football franchise, the two genres at the top of the influencers’ list.
In a sense, the guy at the meeting became a stand-in for all of EA’s long-suffering customers in Miele’s eyes. “I wanted to do right by this player,” she says.
As chief studios officer, Miele manages 6,000 staffers and thousands of contractors globally. She oversees EA’s 24 studios, where she makes personnel decisions and sets strategy, and she’s reshaped how the company uses analytics to create and market its games.
In the process she may have become the most powerful woman in gaming. In a 2019 International Game Developers Association survey, fewer than 30% of the more than 1,100 respondents were women, and few if any hold a more central role at such an important company. “It’s a tough place for a woman,” says Peter Moore, who was Miele’s boss when he was EA’s chief operating officer. “It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but she battled her way through.”
Proving good intentions is more important for EA than ever, as the business model of gaming continues to shift in ways that have the potential to alienate customers. Like its rivals, the company is increasing its focus on free-to-play games, making money through sales of digital products such as outfits and weapons for characters.
There are signs it’s succeeding. Apex Legends, EA’s free-to-play hero shooter game, has posted more than $1 billion in sales since it was first published in 2019, and it continues to grow. “The way to succeed with free-to-play games like that is to listen to and engage your customer base and earn their loyalty through incremental purchases,” says Doug Clinton, managing partner of the venture capital firm Loup Ventures, who says Miele deserves much of the credit for Apex Legends. “It feels like a proof point for her that the company is adapting well beyond traditional disk sales.”
Miele, 51, was born in San Francisco but grew up on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. She got her start in games—the kind that require a board—during family nights, when she pitted herself against her brother in Monopoly, Clue, Yahtzee, and backgammon. While attending the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, she worked at architectural companies. By the time she dropped out she’d moved on from receptionist positions to more senior roles, while gaining a reputation for organizing lunch-hour card games with her co-workers.
Miele landed a job as a project manager at Westwood Studios, a video game developer best known for Command and Conquer, in 1996. She eventually took over all marketing for its parent company, Virgin Interactive.
It wasn’t always a hospitable atmosphere: Miele remembers her colleagues expecting her to take notes at meetings, then clean up afterward. “That is just not something I would do today,” she says. “I adapted a lot because I was so passionate about what I was doing. I found my voice along the way.”
When EA acquired Westwood in 1998, she stayed on. At the time, the company did revenue forecasting by looking at sales data once a month and putting together spreadsheets by hand. Miele was tasked with developing more advanced analytics. She hired a group of data analysts, nicknamed “the Jedi,” and had them build EA’s first statistical regression models to examine sales trends, seasonality, and preorders. It took almost two years to put the system in place, but it overhauled the company’s business processes, and executives were soon using it to determine how to invest in advertising and promotions. “I loved how data and analytics can inform your judgment and your gut instinct,” Miele says.
Miele also decided to make one major break with EA’s existing business practices. In 2011 about 80% of game advertising budgets were spent on TV ads. But she saw how much time gamers spent online and decided to spend the bulk of the ad budget for Battlefield 3 on digital, downplaying other types of ads and cutting the TV ad budget to only 30%.
Messing around with the plan for Battlefield 3 was a good way to make people nervous. Miele remembers two executives calling her in for a meeting and demanding to know why they weren’t seeing billboards for the game as they drove in to the office. “It was scary for me, too, and I don’t blame our executives questioning me on that,” she says. But the game ended up being EA’s fastest-selling, moving more than 5 million copies in its first week. From that point, Miele’s marketing strategy became the standard for the company.
When EA signed a 10-year deal with Walt Disney Co. in 2013, Miele became Star Wars general manager. In 2014 she took over publishing operations, marketing, and other key areas, first in the North American region, then globally in 2016. At the time, the game industry was moving from physical disks to digital downloads, transforming its relationship with retail partners such as Walmart Inc. and Best Buy Co.
Miele was in charge of smoothing things over, explaining that EA would start competing with them for customers even as the retailers accounted for the largest portion of the revenue. “I never said to them, ‘Hey, see you later, we are moving on,’ ” she says. “It was, ‘How can we move forward together?’ ” EA began making physical cards with digital credits that its retail partners could sell at their stores, allowing them to share in the revenue from digital sales.
EA’s studios are spread around the globe, and Covid-19 altered Miele’s routine radically. “It was a very difficult year, and I’m really proud about how our company showed up,” she says. “I considered myself a wartime leader last year. You had to get in a bunker with everybody.”
Days became an endless progression of Zoom calls. To keep up with gamers, Miele started spending evenings listening to Clubhouse chats while answering work emails. Because she hasn’t been on the road, she’s also had more time to dine at home and play board games or Apex Legends and The Sims with her 16-year-old twins. As the pandemic retreats in the U.S., her schedule might change, but she still envisions providing more flexibility to her employees to work from home and office. “I do think we’re going to have a different work environment as we go forward,” she says.
Miele is itching to get back to the studio visits. She’s helping steer EA further toward smartphones. The company plans to release mobile versions of Apex Legends globally this year and spent $2.1 billion in April for Glu Mobile Inc., a mobile game publisher, while also preparing the next releases in its existing franchises. “I think the next Battlefield and the mobile shooter games, along with how successful the M&As come out will be key litmus tests of her management this year,” says Matt Kanterman, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. “Her scope is clearly rising.” —With Dina Bass and Jason Schreier
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