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Pole to Win’s CEO on building for the games of the future: ‘Better, faster, cheaper…’

With 2,000 employees across 17 sites in ten countries, Pole To Win’s (PTW) CEO Deborah Kirkham certainly has plenty to keep her busy. The company promises to “bring your story to the world.” Though as with any outsourced service provider in the games industry, its own story is somewhat obscured, as it keeps the names of its clients very close to its chest.

That secrecy can make talking up the company’s achievements somewhat tricky, which is part of the reason Kirkham is in London speaking to MCV. Having recently been made a board member of PTW’s parent company PPHD, she’s on a mission to build the company’s profile, a mission that dates back to her promotion to CEO from COO earlier this year.

PTW’s European president Andy Emery and CEO Deborah Kirkham

With six months under her belt, we start by asking the key differences between running the company day to day as COO compared to leading the company as CEO?

“I was actually surprised at how different it was,” she says. “Yes, I had definitely been running the company for years, as we had grown, but it’s very different focusing inward as opposed to on strategy and vision and trying to raise PTW’s profile. A lot of people around the world still don’t know who we are, even though we’re a big multinational company. It is different, I love it,” she smiles confidently.

That big multinational provides a big range of services: customer support, quality assurance, localisation, audio production and engineering.

With over nine years at PTW and approaching 20 in the industry, Kirkham has plenty of experience across those services, but the games industry never stays still long enough for anyone to get comfy on their laurels, she explains.

“PTW has been in business for 24 years and things change constantly. The games industry is probably the fastest changing, most innovative industry on the planet. We always need to stay ahead of trends so that we can be there when our clients need us. The industry is going through lots and lots of changes now, if you look at streaming, esports, 5G or VR.”

With its roots in Japan, the company once specialised in bringing games from east to west. But today Kirkham rejects even our use of those terms: “East and west? That depends on where you’re standing on the planet,” she notes sagely.

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 BUGS

“We are a global company and our clients are global… You’re not just talking about translation anymore, you’re talking about localisation and culturalisation. As more and more companies develop their games for a wider audience, and really want to take their games global, it multiplies what we need to do.”

Kirkham explains that the company now supports 30 languages and that’s its work is a criss-crossed global web of localisation, with clients spread across China, Japan, the US, Europe and beyond, all of whom want to reach every territory possible.

“[Localising] everything to everything is a pretty accurate description,” she agrees with us.

Andy Emery, PTW’s president for Europe, adds: “That increasingly complex web isn’t as predictable as it once was. It’s quite often surprising. You think: ‘Oh that’s going to be western localisation,’ we’re going to do the European languages for this Japanese title for example. But in fact no, actually it’s going to be two Chinese dialects and Korean. And then another project, from the same team, has totally different requirements.”

“One of our clients all of a sudden needed a high volume of traditional Chinese localisation. Within three weeks we were incorporated in Taiwan and up and running.”

 

To achieve all this, the company is ever expanding, as it must keep up with its clients changing needs.

Kirkham recalls: “There was one case a couple of years ago, when one of our clients here in the UK all of a sudden needed a high volume of traditional Chinese [localisation] and we couldn’t get the capacity in Shanghai. So within three weeks we were incorporated in Taiwan and up and running.”

Of course the company usually expands in a more measured manner than the Taiwan example. Kirkham explains the key reasons behind opening a new office.

“So it’s either on a cost basis, or to give us access to talent, whether they be multilingual or a specific engineering language. We have an expansion strategy for each of our regions, so we already know where we’re going next, based on what we see coming. Now that may change, we’re not signing any leases, but we have an idea.”

The opening of PTW’s new London office in September 2018

In short, the company is planning for the future but remaining as agile as possible in doing so. And Kirkham stresses that the company doesn’t make compromises to its employees’ workspace in order to keep pace with demand.

“I’m very passionate about our people and how we treat our people. If you walk into any PTW or Side [PTW’s audio-focused arm] office anywhere in the world, they look the same. Like when I was in Taiwan recently, I think I looked at two or three sites that day. I turned them all down simply because I didn’t like them, the ceilings were too low or the location was wrong.

“If we are going to open up an office that has an empty shell, we can build it however we want, that’s fine. But there’s been a couple of cases where we wanted to sublease and if I walk into a building where the offices are along the windows and the employees sit in the center, I walk right back out, because that’s not who
we are,” she stresses.

“We’re not about hierarchy, we’re about treating our people right.”

CRUNCHING CLEVER

Crunch remains an everyday occurrence in the games industry, and companies such as PTW are often at the hard end of deadlines that are beyond their direct control, potentially making it difficult for the company to handle such periods.

“There’s crunch periods for every game that’s developed,” states Kirkham. “But we can manage that because we are in many different locations and so we’re able to tap into a big pool of talent. We’re able to go into multiple shifts, we can access our other sites.”

Bringing online resources around the world, working in continuous shifts: that’s something that most in-house QA operations simply can’t achieve.

Emery continues: “An in-house model isn’t built around that. The in-house team is built around: how can we stretch the team we have as much as possible?”

And because of that, he notes: “A lot of the bad press has been around QA.” By comparison he points out that “an outsource company is designed to flex and stretch.”

But even that flexibility has its limits, Kirkham admits: “There are times when our teams have to work overtime. If the client is in a bind or we find a massive issue and we’re up against the deadline, it certainly has to happen, but of course we pay them. But that’s not the ideal scenario.”

APPRECIATION CLUB

A decent office and reasonable working hours are only the hard end of worker satisfaction. At the other end of the scale are softer, but no less important benefits, like being recognised publicly for your work – something that outsourcing is rarely known for.

Emery is forthright on the subject of being credited for work, especially coming from the audio production side: “It is really annoying. There’s no two ways about it.”

He notes times when audio production teams, which worked on bringing a narrative game’s characters to life through key performances, were only credited well below regional marketing partners, which had nothing to do with the production of the game.

“And it has happened many many times,” he adds. “And it does affect the people involved.”

PTW’s staff working from the firm’s new London office

Kirkham is sympathetic but notes that the best appreciation comes from colleagues within the company and from the client itself: “In my experience, the best relations that we have are with clients that treat us like a partner, where they consider the team – and it could be a huge team across four sites – as part of their internal team. There’s absolute transparency between the leadership [here] and their counterparts at the client’s site.”

SERVICE GAME

With live service titles, those working relationships between outsourced services and the core development team run far deeper and for far longer than ever before, Kirkham tells us.

“What we’ve seen on games with longer life cycles is we have several dedicated teams around the world that are focused on a single specific game… forever. We’ve had a dedicated team that’s worked with that particular client for nine years, on the same game.”

She confirms that those PTW teams are fully integrated with their development partners, sharing the same Slack channels and the like, to provide open communication. And the shift to ongoing games has also changed the pattern of demand for PTW’s services: “You’ll have major installments of a franchise, where the testing and localisation requirements can be vast. You then support in-between those with downloadable content and content drops.”

Despite the increasing regularity of such work, developers and publishers are still reaching out for help, rather than building up internal teams to cope, Emery says: “They’re still hitting the same sort of need for additional QA resource – they just need it on more, multiple occasions.”

The increased lifetime of titles and the fluctuations in their fortunes also change the demands that publishers put to PTW’s door, Emery continues.

“Publishers are far more interested in player engagement than they ever used to be and it’s not easy to put the structure in place that will allow you, as a publisher or developer, to [meet] player expectations,” he says. “I think there is an acknowledgement that better support of your players will help better retention. And given the way a lot of the games are delivered these days, player retention is  very important for publishers. Therefore, I think there’s more of a commitment.

“Also, as a game’s life cycle gets longer, [customer support] is really a way to get data from your playerbase back to development and channel it back through with this continuous development loop.”

CHANGING TIMES

As discussed before, change is the one real constant of the games industry. In recent years, QA providers have had to come to terms with challenges such as VR testing.

“We’ve been testing VR for four years now,” says Kirkham. “We need to identify the right people, train them up, and give them breaks every 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the game and how it plays. I think last year we did 50,000 hours of VR testing. That’s a lot of breaks!

“You need more space, you have to invest in technology, even just the simple things like looking at your test cases and updating your bug database, you can’t do that when you’re immersed in a VR experience,” she explains. “So what we do is we have two people: one who does the testing and one who does the documentation. So the person who is immersed doesn’t have to come out of the experience.”

So if you ever think about taking on a VR title, be sure to get some quotes for testing first.

The next big change upon the industry is cloud-based, streaming services. Kirkham is obviously bound to secrecy on that one in these early days, but the requirements to test titles across a wide range of differing connections surely must create more work?

“Yes. More work, different work – every time there’s innovation in the gaming industry there’s always more work,” she smiles, adding: “I’m not complaining.”

“We’ve been testing VR for four years. We need to train the right people and give them breaks every 20 to 40 minutes. Last year we did 50,000 hours of VR testing. That’s a lot of breaks!”

 

FUTURE PROOFING

Advances in technology don’t just come from the industry though, as we find out when we ask Kirkham about how PTW plans to stay one step ahead of the demands of its partners.

“We’re investing right now in R&D and in transforming the business,” she replies. “You look at machine learning, machine translation and AI. Those impact all of our core areas of business. So we’re focusing on that.”

QA is traditionally divided between manual testing and automated testing. Machine learning and AI could provide a perfect middle ground: a tester with the patience of the program but some of the smarts of a real-life person, while machine translation could provide a first pass at localisation before any person
gets involved.

And Kirkham is emphatic that such investment will pay off with real benefits in three to five years, adding that “there’s a big investment in engineering this transformation.”

Emery adds: “Ultimately what our clients are looking for is flexibility. Quality is a given, so is delivery. The advantage that we’re giving them is if we can deliver flexibility that helps them as a business. It helps them focus in other areas. It helps them adapt.”

While new tech is exciting, PTW’s main aims for the immediate future remain somewhat more straightforward. Its key offering to publishers and developers is to strive to be “better, faster, cheaper, in more locations and more languages,” Kirkham neatly concludes for us.

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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