Activision's Dan Amrich chats with PSU about how editorial relates to community management, selling out, and breaking into the industry!
PSU: The best place to start would be the beginning. You previously worked at The Official Xbox Magazine. While working there, did you ever think you would end up working with a publisher?
Amrich: I never had aspirations of working at a publisher when I was in the media because I didn't think there would ever be any place for me. Every role I could think of, I was not qualified to perform. Game designer or game writer is a pipe dream to a lot of people, I don't have the organizational skills for a producer, and I didn't want to go into PR. So while a lot of folks in the media at least entertain the possibility of working for a game publisher, I simply didn't know what I would do for one. And then community management became a thing, and suddenly, I was qualified! :)
How closely does your role as Community Manager at Activision mimic your position at OXM? Or, do you see Community Management as an extension of editorial?
I definitely see it as the latter -- that's specifically why I was interested in making the shift, because it didn't seem like I would have to give up a lot of the things that I enjoyed doing in the media. Activision offered me a role where I would still be writing a lot -- I am editor-in-chief of OneOfSwords.com, with a current staff of one.
At the same time I could get closer to the decision-making process, understand it more fully, and be able to explain it to other people when asked. It's not really an extension of what I did at OXM, though I do still plan features and previews and things like that. I just do it all in the context of Activision. Sometimes I think of myself as an official fansite.
When I was interviewing for this position -- which didn't exist yet, so I didn't have a template to follow other than Major Nelson at Microsoft, whose work everyone at Activision admired and respected -- one of the senior VPs asked me if I had any questions as we were wrapping up. I was pretty far into the process at that point and the reality of what I was considering really started to hit me. So I asked, "Yeah, how do I sell out?" I explained that I knew the reason Activision wanted me was because of my editorial credibility over the years; I wasn't famous but I was a recognizable enough name that I would probably bring some readers with me -- but I realized I would no longer be speaking for myself. And he gave me this ashen-faced look and said "No, no -- you can't sell out. You need to be authentic.
That's the whole point. If you aren't yourself, this whole thing doesn't work. We will actually need to protect you from some of the people in this building who may think they can co-opt you for their own needs. But they can't -- we need you to be you." And at that point, I thought, okay, if 70% of what they are telling me this job will be is true, I should do this, because that would be a sweet gig. And it turns out they kept 100% of their promises! Two and a half years later, I still post my podcast without anybody screening it first; I post blogs and tweets without seeking approval for that content. That autonomy makes my position very unusual.
Obviously, I have to respect the same NDAs that the media is asked to respect (I signed a big one the day I was hired), and my fact-checking has to be spot-on before I go public with anything, but other than the "well, duh" stuff like "don't talk about unannounced projects" and "don't comment on lawsuits," I am allowed to do my thing my way. And my way involves talking about and playing other games, acknowledging what's going on in the gaming world, and playing what I personally want to play in addition to being knowledgeable about Activision's games. I still get to be me, as a writer and a gamer.
I'm also asked for my editorial opinion on decisions being considered internally fairly often, "What would gamers think if we did this? What would you want to see if you were still in the media?" My position operates as a two-way street; sometimes I bring a publisher's message to gamers, other times, I bring the gamers' message to the publisher. I'm in the games' corner more often than they might realize, representing their interests to people here. And while I can't go into detail, I am happy to say that I have helped avoid a few missteps and advised the right people at the right time on a few things. So that makes me feel good about what I do.
TL;DR: I operate like an editor, and I write what I want without getting my ass fired.
Why did you feel like you were selling out at that stage of the hiring process?
I spent so much time fighting the presumption that the media was not ethical -- it was a bias that assumed a bias! -- that when I found myself in a position where I really would be taking money directly from a publisher, I couldn't think of a better term for it than selling out. I may have been simply too hard on myself for what is arguably a really great career opportunity, but I've always worried about my integrity as a writer -- I want to be trusted, and I want convey what I know in an honest manner. But a few months after I joined, one person from the media came to visit the office and actually said, to my face, "Oh yeah, I forgot that you sold out." That person was very rude, to be sure, but they were echoing what I had been thinking too -- was I trading my credibility for a paycheck?
But then I remembered the old saying: "There's a difference between selling out and other people buying in." And since Activision approached me and let me help define what this role would be, I started to see that as a valid interpretation too. I'd like to think that I could go back to the media some day, having this extra nugget of experience, and I'd have a better view of the industry for it.
I know you can't go into it, but just to clarify, sometimes you consult during some games development? Would that be similar to what N'gai Croal does?
No, I'm not really called on for software evaluation; that's one of the services N'Gai offers as a full-on consultant. I have been asked a few times here and there -- sometimes formally and sometimes casually -- to take a look at a game in development for my feedback. But the stuff I was referring to is more along the lines of how to phrase things, how to communicate to the game community so that the message won't be misunderstood. Activision has made its share of comments that have been taken out of context, used as weapons by the community, or just plain weren't good things to say in the first place, so when I'm consulted, I try to help the company speak in a way that won't be misinterpreted. And a few times, I've been able to articulate just what makes gamers angry and why, so a few things that were planned wound up not being done that way or done at all after I chimed in.
Sometimes I help remove the problems before they are problems. :) So having an appreciation for both the gamer's point of view and the company's point of view lets me help seek a common ground, so everybody understands each other.
After being employed by Activision, was there any job aspects you expected to do, but didn't end up doing? Or vise versa?
I am not really good with metrics; I am a writer, I'm a pretty good public speaker, but when it comes to making PowerPoint charts of X, Y, and Z, I'm not so hot. So I've resisted that kind of stuff; like a lot of geeks I have a knack for computers, so searching for data is not a problem. Reporting that data in a way that a business wants to see...ugh. So I downplay that and it hasn't been a big deal -- I give updates on my followers and traffic more informally, and that seems to be working out okay. I have heard from other CMs that they have detailed reports to file with lots of charts and they're constantly tasked with proving their effectiveness -- which makes me feel almost guilty for my freedoms. You can listen to the community and converse with them, but you cannot force them to support you in any meaningful way that "proves" you are doing your job as a CM the way businesses traditionally like to prove return on investment. My boss, thankfully, understands that.
I can really tell you have quite a bit of freedom there
Yes, my situation is unusual, from the discussions I've had, and the legal team was the very first to notice that I was out there talking. My boss had my back, explained who I was, and basically protected me when the going got rough -- and I in turn tried to learn what I needed to do to make her life easier and not cause trouble. Jeff Green now works at PopCap and is very happy there, but he was at EA before that as their editor-in-chief. At the time, we were both guys who had recently left editorial to do CM for huge publishers, and we compared notes a lot. I had an insane amount of freedom and he had a lot more restrictions -- to the point where I told him "Use me as an example to create a more comfortable space if you can!" I think about that every day -- even when the going gets rough, I am very grateful to have found my situation here. I think I have earned Activision's it by working with and around them for 15 years prior, and that turned into a different level of freedom. It's a huge amount of mutual trust.
Do you feel like the detailed reports that other CMs have to provide can get in the way of them doing their job? Honestly, I don't see how charts can prove engagement of a community.
It's all about expectations. I am very grateful that I get to spend the bulk of my time actually talking with the community and generating content for my site. Some companies put a priority on other things. I currently believe that the CMs who have to spend more time justifying their existence than they do talking with fans is in the minority, but I've heard a few scary stories here and there.
Finally, what do you have to say to people aspiring to go into your field since it's rather new?
You won't get a job in CM unless you are already doing it. If you are engaged in a community, if you are respectful to its members, if you are stirring interesting discussion and generally not being a jerk, these are the things that are going to build your reputation. Even though I came from the media, I volunteered to set up OXM's Twitter account and Facebook page while I was there -- and I was an admin in both the OXM and GamePro discussion forums. I think you have to be drawn to it first, then realize, hey, I can do this as a living! So if you are thinking it's a career option, start looking at how you are interacting with online communities now, and see what you could do to refine that.
Dan, thank you so much!