5CA Conversations with… Pascal Debroek - The PX Hub

by 5CA | June 10, 2021


At 5CA we’re obsessed with great CX as well as the people who help to shape it. In our new ‘Conversations’ series we sit down with some of the most passionate, interesting people in our industry to talk about what makes for standout customer experience.

To kick off our series, our very own Rory Stark is here in conversation with Pascal Debroek, a Player Experience (PX) industry expert who has worked at some of the most innovative mobile gaming startups in Helsinki and is the founder of The PX Hub , an essential resource for anyone involved in player experience.

In this interview, Rory and Pascal shed some light on Pascal’s road to becoming a PX expert and talk about the (sometimes undervalued) importance of Player Experience. They discuss the benefits of focusing on creating a great Player Experience, and Pascal provides some valuable tips on how to get your PX show on the road.

Let’s start at the beginning, Pascal. How did you get into customer experience in the first place?

I started out doing every kind of job there was, from working in a grocery store to delivering newspapers, and I don’t have a background in code or anything like that. But what I did realize early on was that I was pretty good with people.

After that I landed my first job in customer service at a global consumer electronics company, where I worked for 3 years. And I usually say, when asked about my experience , that it was where I also learned how NOT to provide impactful customer service! It was a big faceless corporation that was all about volume and numbers of tickets, not so much about the people behind the questions and messages.

So how did your career in the gaming industry begin?

After that, there was a job opening at the games company Supercell, for Dutch-speaking player support, and to my surprise I got the job! That was where l learned that CX is done differently in a start-up vs. corporation, but also that video games require a different touch than most consumer products. The team was super-ambitious, and it had two big hits on its hands that had really exploded. I learned a lot there and that experience still shapes the way I approach challenges.

After Supercell I got a call from Next Games, who approached me to build their player support department from the ground up. Not only did that team manage to defy industry benchmarks, it also helped transform the company to be more player-focused, and that was where I started to get a lot more into player experience.

It was when I started looking outside of the gaming industry towards customer experience that I realized there was lots we could learn about player experience from how other industries did it, and that not a lot of gaming companies were thinking about this: the bigger, overall experience of players with a brand.

What was that do you think? Why is PX still not always given the emphasis it deserves?

Mobile gaming is a young industry. Take something like Free-to-Play (F2P) on mobile – it’s only 10 or 12 years old! In this industry everything evolves very fast – some things faster than others, however.

UX has gained a lot more importance in the past few years, becoming its own discipline, no longer being shoved under either Art or Design. For various reasons, player experience, for example how you deal with a customer, map their journey, how you actually incorporate player feedback into your game development – all of that is all still in its infancy . Perhaps we’ll see its importance grow over time, like it did for UX.

Why is that? How did PX get left out of the loop?

There are a lot of issues bubbling under here, and this is just my opinion, but I think it has to do with the fact that mobile games are often regarded as a high-risk investment. For every company that actually succeeds in creating a sustainable game, there are most likely 99 that also get funding but don’t manage to create a game that manages to break even – and they go under.

This puts a lot of pressure on the companies to make revenue and prove their game works as fast as possible. That means they tend to skip certain parts. So, player experience becomes something that is easily skipped.

And what’s the result?

In my opinion, I think the whole discipline of player experience is undervalued in gaming. Take a game like Monkey Island. It was put together by a core team that focused on elements like coding, design, and graphics. Sometimes it feels like that holy trinity of disciplines is still what we think of, decades later, as the essentials for a successful game.

So what happens still is that companies only invest in PX once they know they have a game that will make money. Whereas if you started out by investing in finding out what players want and think about your game, you could build a better product from the start. It’s a catch-22 situation!

Because the value of great customer service is so misunderstood, so many companies fall into the trap of thinking ‘how hard can it be to reply to users?’ They end up believing that pretty much anyone can do it. And that’s usually when the PR nightmares start.

And then, only when it’s too late, do they realize that maybe this isn’t something that simply anyone can do well…

Why do you think games inspire such strong feelings in the people who play them?

Games are not just something you consume. You escape into whole other worlds, and you invest a lot of time in those worlds, right? As a result, players form really strong emotional bonds with a game.

And if you mess around with that bond because of the changes you make to the game or the UX, what do you think will happen? It’s going to lead to some very emotional reactions. Which is why gamers can be very vocal.

How can you make sure you create great PX?

This might sound obvious, but try to get people who understand player experience in your game team as early as you can. When you are designing a feature, it’s easy to get tunnel-vision, so that you focus at an atomic level solely on that one element of the game, potentially at the expense of other parts of the game.

Whereas really of course, you need a holistic approach. You want people who, if you add a particular feature, will ask “Yes but how will this affect the other parts of the player experience?”

If you have those people on your team early on, then you can have a better chance of spotting those changes you make to your game that might cause thousands of tickets in response from gamers.

What about those surges in demand? How do you handle them?

If you’re staffing to try and deal with spikes in demand, then my advice is to accept a margin of error and risk hiring too many people than too few. If you invest too little, you’ll reach a point quite quickly where if anything goes wrong you’re not going to be able to deal with it. Whereas if you pay a little more you will have more hands and it will enable you to play a little bit with the elasticity of the volume . If you’re hanging on by a thread in staffing, you’re going to pay the price in quality as soon as someone takes a sick day. This also erodes the motivation and emotional well-being of the rest of your team.

A lot of companies think, “I don’t want to pay more just in case something happens” but they’re not seeing the big picture. If you hire smart people they can help with much more than handling tickets: reviewing your FAQs, come up with tutorial videos, rewrite your processes and see if they are still up to date. It’s more about investing in elasticity than in efficiency.

You’ve talked before about the need for gaming companies to find good BPOs. What are some of the drivers for you to start that search?

One of the main things a BPO should be able to provide is value. Value for your business and your customers. If you’re only looking at the cost-cutting aspect then you’re undermining the value that a BPO can bring to your business. If you get the mix right then the BPO agents can truly become an extension of the gaming company.

What you should look for from a partnership with a BPO will obviously depend on what your business needs. For me personally, having access to multiple languages is one of the advantages a BPO can bring.

Take me for example – I live here in Finland in a country with 5 or so million people, so the chances of me finding a huge gamer who can also speak multiple languages and has experience of working for start-ups? I’m not going to find those people . I might be able to find a French speaker or a Russian speaker, but I’m going to have trouble with certain languages. And that’s where a BPO can help me.

A BPO also allows you to minimize your overheads so you don’t end up employing thousands of people, which might make your business vulnerable in a slump. A BPO should also offer you more flexibility around location and time zone. Let’s say most of your players are based in Japan or South Korea, for example, then you are going to need agents in the same time zone as your players.

What about when it comes to choosing the right BPO provider? What are some of the most important things to look for?

Culture is so important to making the relationship work. We talk about ‘gaming companies’ but really they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are corporations – you have over 10,000 people working for you for example and you’re a big corporation!

Whereas for example, if you are a 20-100 FTE studio, you’re not going to want too much bureaucracy getting in the way. You’re always trying to look for that extension of your own company culture, whether you’re a start-up or a corporate.

What about their experience in your sector?

Ideally you want a partner that really understands gaming. I know that sounds like common sense, but I get approached all the time by companies offering me customer service resource, but their background is in finance or some unrelated sector. They’re not gamers!

Don’t get me wrong, each company has to start somewhere, but a BPO needs to be able to credibly show that they understand gaming, that their agents understand gaming. Otherwise, why would I sign a deal?

What about your working relationship with them?

It must be a collaboration – a partnership. And the best partnerships are based on mutual understanding. For example, a BPO has multiple clients – not just my company. So I want to know what they learned from other clients that can help me?

The more you collaborate, the better results you get. I would definitely be looking for a two-way street. I’m not looking for someone simply to take my pain away, as much as I’m looking for someone I can build a relationship with, in order to elevate the service that, together, we can provide.

If you had one final piece of advice for a company contemplating a deal with a BPO, what would it be?

One thing I’ve noticed is that the companies who are the best prepared to make the jump to a relationship with a BPO are also the best at making that relationship work. Those who wait until they’re beyond capacity to sign a deal? That’s a disaster, right? It’s going to take months before you’re back to any kind of decent service level.

When I was at Next Games, we did all our due diligence and planning in advance. We started documenting the hell out of everything right from the very beginning – all our procedures and policies. So, we created a foundation that could be applied to all the games. It meant that everything was ready before we actually signed a contract with our chosen BPO.

We hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as we did. Our thanks to Pascal for his time and generosity in lending his large brain to us, and you can find his excellent site The PX Hub here.