Sometimes, even The Force needs a little assistance.
Last week, one of the world’s largest video game companies, Electronic Arts, released one of the biggest games of the holiday season, a shooter called “Star Wars Battlefront.” The game combines the settings, characters and sounds of the “Star Wars” movies with the frenetic combat of games such as “Battlefield” and “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.”
Now if only the caller from Colorado could figure out how to buy the game and play it. It’s Monday, the day before the game officially launches, but “Battlefront” is already being played by thousands of game console and Windows PC players through EA’s “Early Access” program or in beta form when the game was being tested publicly for weeks.
Annie Benedict, a cheerful customer adviser who’s been at EA for a year and a half, takes the call at her desk in northwest Austin, a desk adorned with a tiny green X-Wing and a more sizable Yoda figure. Benedict is one of about 135 advisers in Austin who are part of EA’s massive “Customer Experience” team, headquartered here. These are the people (closer to 1,200-1,300 globally) who answer telephone calls, conduct online chats, tackle social media requests or read and post in EA’s forums where people are seeking help with technical glitches, installing a game such as “Battlefront” on their system or trying to get past a billing issue, such as the man from Colorado. (EA did not provide specific customer data for this story.)
“Hello, this is Annie from Electronic Arts, it looks like you’re having a problem with your Origin account. What seems to be the problem?” Benedict says over her headset. On her dual-monitor screen setup, she’s able to see account information from the caller, access notes and information that can help solve the issue, and a chat dialogue with a specialist who can help Benedict get the issue resolved.
The caller, who sounds frustrated but not especially angry or unreasonable, isn’t able to answer the security questions he set up for the PC account (“What’s your favorite movie?”) , Benedict is still able to lend a hand, determining that payment for the game isn’t going through because of too many failed EA Wallet attempts. It’s locked down for two hours and the caller will have to wait and try again after that time limit expires.
“I know it’s a little irritating, but our system has to process all of those,” Benedict assures the caller. “In two hours you’ll be able to use the wallet. I’m gonna go ahead and get that info to get your debit card working with your account.”
Benedict confirms his card information and zip code and does a few more bits of troubleshooting to make sure she’s fixed the problem before hanging up. Benedict thanks him and wishes him a nice day.
“You too, love you, bye,” the caller responds.
Uhhh… You’d be surprised how many times that happens, Benedict says. “I think he’s just used to talking to his significant other,” she explains.
Benedict says she’s not a super hardcore gamer; she typically grew up watching her brother play games, but she really does like video games and enjoys helping people get their games up and running. She’s worked on EA games including the popular “FIFA” soccer series and “Battlefield Hardline” prior to “Battlefront.”
For a big game like this one, advisers get the game about a month early to play through and familiarize themselves with potential gameplay and installation issues. They take classroom instruction and get educated on issues that may come up on PC versions of the game (which can introduce a wider range of hardware incompatibilities) or on game consoles such as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Sometimes, Benedict says, just want to have a conversation with a live person on the phone or geek out about games. “Being in the gaming industry, helping gamers, you do have those crazy passionate ones,” she said. Part of her job is to keep them on track and to get their problem solved, which is what most callers want most in the first place.
“What I really like is just helping people in general and getting a smile on their face, fixing it and getting them going.” The best, she says, is when she can get a frustrated parent’s tech issue solved on behalf of a waiting kid. “You hear a kid cheering in the background,” she said, “that’s the best one.”
The customer support team also works with the developers of games such as “Battlefront,” which was made by a studio in Sweden, to identify problems that are coming up for users, which helps developers stamp out bugs and improve gameplay, said Joel Knutson, who works in Austin as EA’s vice president of worldwide customer experience.
The company offers support globally in 18 languages, 24 hours a day. The Austin-based customer experience headquarters designs the entire support experience for EA and customized support systems for each game, though Knutson says they don’t go as far as making themed support for games such as “Battlefront.”
“We want to be genuine to ourselves and EA as a company,” Knutson said, “rather than try to theme it to ‘Star Wars’ and pretend we’re robots, which is cool, and speaks to the heritage and the (intellectual property)… We’re trying to have a consistent, compelling and understanding tone of voice for our players.”
Knutson does acknowledge, however, that some support advisers are skilled in Yoda voices and may employ them on a call when absolutely necessary.
Supporting games has become crucial as the gaming business has grown into a $22 billion industry. In recent months, two games riddled with bugs or problematic development created big issues for developers. The Windows version of “Batman: Arkham Knight” had so many problems that publisher Warner Bros. Interactive had to offer refunds to anyone who bought the game. And last week, the makers of the new game “Afro Samurai 2” pulled the game from PC and PlayStation stores because it failed to live up to gamers’ expectations.
On the eve of that launch, Knutson was confident there would be no show-stopping problems. “We are very ready,” he said. “We’ve done so much work to make sure it’s going to be a great launch.”