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The coronavirus pandemic is full of lessons on how to manage companies, big and small. When countries worldwide went into lockdowns, billions of people had to adjust to how they worked and lived.
Maximum Games found itself in a position in which some of its biggest retail partners were shutting their doors, while also trying to figure out how to establish workflows, expand presence in digital storefronts, and help employees make it through what’s been a trying year for almost everyone.
I always learn something useful when I interview Maximum Games CEO Christina Seelye, techniques or tactics I can often apply to my own work as a managing editor of an online publication. And her main takeaway from the pandemic is something we all should think about when it comes to overseeing teams, be they in games, retail, or any other sector.
“What the pandemic taught us is we had to think about how someone’s whole life was going. We had to think about what was happening with their kids and their parents, who was ill in their family, whether they had a smaller house and were feeling a little cramped. Or they’re frustrated work-wise because they can’t connect with the rest of their team that they want to connect with,” she said. “Empathy became a much more important skill and a much broader environment in which you had to be empathetic.”
I talked to Seelye about running a midmarket publisher during a pandemic, from dealing with selling games to making them. We also chatted about the effect of working during the pandemic has had on women, and how managers can help them.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
It’s not just Target and Walmart
GamesBeat: How well is Maximum riding out the pandemic?
Christina Seelye: We’re doing great, actually. It’s been an interesting year.
From a business standpoint, it was scary at the beginning, because a huge piece of our revenue still comes from physical retail. With all of the closures last year, we had some moments of panic. But our company motto is “adapt or die.” We say that in emails all the time. It’s very much part of our DNA.
We made some moves early in the year, in 2020, to set us up for success regardless of store closures or openings in different regions. We were able to navigate pretty well through. We did have declines in physical retail, obviously, because a lot of stuff closed, but our digital sales increased quite a bit. We reprioritized where we were focused on the retail side. Mass merchants, dot-coms, that area of the business continues to do very well. People are at home and they want to play some video games. It worked out.
GamesBeat: When it comes to retail, what have you learned from the pandemic that you want to carry forward after and make it part of your business model?
Seelye: There are some things that we learned that we’re going to continue. The importance of a lot of content being available on retailers’ dot-com sites is becoming increasingly more important. We’ve always done a lot for creating press awareness for our games. Now we’re doing a lot more working with the retailers so that they have high quality screenshots, trailers, copy, lots of information and content on their dot-coms, so that when their customers, when a Wal-Mart or Target customer, or the global equivalent, goes to those retailer sites, they have a lot of quality content there to get that information. That’s one thing we’re going to continue. We prioritized that over the last year.
Another thing that we’re doing is broadening our retail reach. Instead of only focusing on the big guys, we’re also focusing on some of the more regional stores. We found that during the pandemic, people were going to a lot of regional stores for a combination of grocery and entertainment. They only wanted to make one stop. Those multipurpose retailers that are more regional in nature, we had a second-tier retail focus this year.
GamesBeat: Did it surprise you that those second-tier stores were important?
Seelye: It’s been one of our “claims to fame,” or whatever it is, that we always did prioritize not just the big guys. Because we’ve been so strong physically, in physical retail, for so long, we’ve had long-standing relationships with those guys. But to be honest, the Tier 1 retailers take a lot of work. Sometimes, just by the nature of how the salespeople approach their efforts, they tend to focus on the big guys. This reinvigorated that for us. We never didn’t prioritize them, but we added- – look at what these guys can do. When shopping had its change, they were important. To make sure that we’re giving them their fair due, their fair shake, that’s important.
GamesBeat: Based on your research, do you expect the way people have shopped during the pandemic will change things in the next few years? Will people adopt these habits?
Seelye: The crystal ball is murky on that topic. In talking to our customers, what we’re seeing is the same type of behavior that we’ve had in the pandemic, we’re continuing to see it right now. We haven’t seen a big shift back to what the sell-through trends were prepandemic. But I think one of the rules is that it only takes about three weeks to establish a new habit. It’s been a year now. New habits are pretty well-established. My gut says that we will keep this same type of shopping moving forward. And I think that we’ll see a lot of dot-com business continue to happen, where they shop at a retailer and have it delivered. There will be a lot of curbside still happening, because people have found that to be convenient. Some of these pandemic innovations that took place, those preferences will continue. Which is why it’s so important to market a bit differently.
We used to market a lot with retailers on shelf space and real estate within the store. You wanted to get end caps. You wanted to have visibility on the shelf, things like that. A lot of that visibility work that we do now is around content and placement on dot-coms and marketing in that way, so it’s easy to curbside pickup. People still like having a physical copy of a game, so we’re still seeing a lot of demand for physical, even during the pandemic.
GamesBeat: Did you change any of your tactics when it comes to your partnerships with stores like the PlayStation Store or Nintendos eShop?
Seelye: We treated the different platforms — well, I’ll call them platform partners: PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo. We approached them in the same way we approached working with different retailers, which is regular line reviews, regular communication with different marketing tactics we could use on those stores. Instead of approaching digital in a more passive way, where you just throw it up there and see what happens, we’re working with those more like channel sales partners instead of just a platform partner. That’s doing a lot more promotional work, a lot more tying when we’re putting stuff on sale to when that platform partner has some kind of curated sale that they’re doing as well. Our digital sales strategy got a lot more strategic. The other thing we did — we’ve always done this, but more purposefully this past year. There’s a lot of places to sell your game digitally.
In the same way you kind of get lazy on the retail side, only working with the Tier 1s, you can have that same approach digitally as well. You focus on the main guys. You’re working with Steam and Microsoft and Sony. But there are a lot of places to sell your game digitally, and this past year we leaned in on a lot of those places. We have good partnerships happening with GOG and Humble and other places where there’s a different way to generate revenue digitally. We’re also looking seriously at how we’re managing subscription promotional opportunities, what those new revenue opportunities can be for the game. I’ve said this before, but our job as a publisher is to focus in on getting the best commercial result for our games and our studios. Making sure that we’re monetizing all of the different new ways that you can play a game is our goal and what we focus on doing.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you had to work a lot harder the first couple of months. For companies like Maximum, is that just the general nature of things? Or do you think we just weren’t prioritizing how we do our business?
Seelye: Mostly, it’s prioritizing how you do your business. It’s very easy — it’s that 80-20 role. 80 percent of your revenue is going to come from 20 percent of customers, so you end up paying a lot of attention to that 20 percent, and you forget there’s a lot more out there. We don’t want to leave any money on the table. We want to make sure we focus broadly on all of the different revenue opportunities that we can potentially get. You don’t want to leave 20 percent of your revenue opportunity on the table. A lot of it is just human nature. You focus where you get the biggest bang for your buck, for sure. But what we did during the pandemic is take a look at where else we could be generating money, where else we could get a good result, and add that to the portfolio of what we’re working on.
GamesBeat: You mentioned subscription. Maximum has a huge catalog these days with lots of smaller games, older games, what you might call Double-A games. Have you thought about looking into a monthly subscription for Maximum?
Seelye: It’s a good idea, and we’re looking at that. We’re running the model on how that would look. What we do know about gamers, though, is they’re looking — they’re already participating in a lot of subscription models. They might have a Humble Bundle, a Game Pass, other things from other companies that are larger and have more resources to put toward that. Right now, we think the best solution for getting the best result for our games is to participate in those other offerings that they’re already doing. They just make more sense financially. They also make more sense for the gamer, to not have to do a bunch of different subscriptions.
We’re in a bit of a cycle right now, with how all of these different subscriptions are going to work. We went through a huge consolidation — let’s look at what happened on the other side, in TV. We went through everybody just having cable, and everything was consolidated into cable. Now we’re going through a different thing where you’re paying for subscriptions to a lot of different things. Right now I’m paying for everything from Hulu to Netflix to Apple TV to Disney+. I’m paying for a bunch of different subscriptions. We’ll probably go back into some kind of consolidation on traditional entertainment. This is something that ebbs and flows.
You see it in exercise. We used to have everything in one club. Then it all diverged into Orange Theory, cycling, a bunch of different subscriptions to our exercise preferences. The same thing within games on those kinds of subscriptions. Right now people are participating in a lot of different ones. We believe that our best result right now is to participate in something that’s existing versus creating another one. And I do think those will consolidate at some point.
GamesBeat: Was it hard to build up Modus this year, considering this was a newer initiative for Maximum?
Seelye: It’s a good point. The short answer is yes. It was difficult on the Modus side because one thing we didn’t anticipate, but experienced with Modus, is a big delay in games. Moving to a distributed workforce, not just for us but for every one of our studio partners, worked overall. Everyone was able to continue to work and continued their creative efforts on their games. It just took longer. There were delays that people didn’t anticipate in that distributed work environment. With Modus, we had to push a lot of the games we thought we would be able to launch in 2020 into 2021. Even the games we ended up launching in 2020 were much later than we thought we would be able to do. From a revenue standpoint, that was challenging, because we had to move revenue into 2021.
The other thing is just — overall, managing people’s emotions during this time, and the frustration people had in having to innovate on an individual basis, on a work from home basis — being creative people, they really like running things by each other and working together on a project and sharing a screen so we both look at the same thing and talk about it. A lot of that innovation is difficult to do in a distributed work environment. Keeping people motivated and having an innovation mindset while they’re creating a game was challenging through 2020.
GamesBeat: As a manager, to help promote idea sharing, what have you learned that works in a distributed environment?
Managing a pandemic
Seelye: We’re still learning. Not just us, but I think everybody is still learning how to make this work and how to deal with isolation and innovation together. Normally, those two words don’t go in the same sentence. You’re not innovative when you’re isolated. It’s about removing the isolation to the extent that we can.
What we found, honestly, is that it doesn’t necessarily come from the virtual hangout events. That’s what we did in the beginning. We had all of these Zoom cocktail hours or game nights and that kind of stuff to try to keep people socially connected. Which I think is important, but it also created a lot of fatigue, being in front of your computer and doing that kind of thing. What we’ve found is allowing more time for specific work-related brainstorming discussion in a virtual environment, which is hard to facilitate, but we found really crucially important for innovation and problem-solving. One of the things that happens in the distributed environment is that everything is so highly scheduled. We have an hour. We start at 10:30 a.m., and we have a hard stop. We don’t allow for enough time to creatively problem-solve. We tried to break up some meetings to have a problem-solving session next to something that was a bit more tactical check-in kind of session. Being purposeful on creating moments for innovation where people could problem-solve and talk about things more freely and less scheduled. We found that works quite a bit, to have those kinds of environments. Big breaks of time where we can have that instead of trying to say, we need to socially connect. I do think that we, as humans, need to socially connect, but at work, to drive innovation, we need, in this environment–we have to schedule innovation time. And so we started spending more time scheduling those events versus the social events.
GamesBeat: You work with a lot of small teams, especially on the Modus side. Do you have any stories of people sharing their tactics to develop a way to do socially distant game dev when they’re together, but are still following all the protocols to keep themselves safe?
Seelye: One thing that multiple teams are doing, they’re creating what for lack of a better term I call office hours, where everyone is working, but just on Zoom. You’re not actually talking like we are right now. You just have Zoom in the background and we’re working. Or what a lot of them are doing, they’re using Discord. On the business side we tend to use Zoom more and have scheduled meetings, whereas on the game dev side you see a lot more sharing streams and having Discord servers open where everybody is on audio talking. Discord is an interesting platform for shared innovation and working together while you’re not together.
GamesBeat: A local Realtor near me is having people gather in a park, where they’ll sit 6 feet apart and work together. Have you heard of any studios working that way?
Seelye: I know that’s happening with some of our studios, where they’re meeting — one of our studio partners is in Israel, so they’re a bit more free to do stuff now. But most of our studio partners today are still working from home. Our own Modus studio is in Brazil, and they’re still 100 percent working from home.
Supporting women in a pandemic
GamesBeat: How has the pandemic made it easier or harder when it comes to hiring women into game dev roles?
Seelye: A lot of the stats around women and the pandemic take a larger look than just the game world. It’s pretty clear that the pandemic has had more women leave the workforce in this past year than joining it in a long time. It’s been a really rough year for women, primarily because women still bear the brunt of most child care responsibilities. With everyone at home and all the children at home, the ability to work plus distance learning with your children and taking care of everything that needs to happen around the house with everyone in it was challenging. We saw a ton of women leave the workforce in this past year. I actually think this is a good time to encourage women to be in technology specifically, because if you’re in the technology world, you’re pretty set up to be able to work from home.
It’s funny. Women always tend to go into roles that — I shouldn’t make big generalizations like this. But if you head into a role where there’s a lot of caretaking or you have to be there in person, there’s not a lot of flexibility. Women going into tech have the ability to be pretty flexible. Or going into other kinds of roles like writing. Those roles tend to be a bit more flexible. This year is a good opportunity for women to look at different careers they can enter, such as gaming, such as technology, because you’re able to work from home and work remotely. But it was a rough year.
Also, on a larger scale, women tend to start businesses without external capital. They start their own S corps, or they start businesses that don’t require a lot of capital, because it’s hard for women to raise money. Women don’t end up starting tech companies, because the gating factors around raising money are so high. Those particular types of businesses were the ones that were really hurt through the pandemic. We saw a lot of women who focused on event planning completely go out of business this year. A lot of women had marketing agencies, other advertising and service agencies. They totally went out of business this year. Staffing agencies are another ones. Lots of women have staffing companies. Those got hit hard during the pandemic. It’s going to take a lot of focused work to get women back into work and restarting their careers after the pandemic, once kids go back to school on things like that.
GamesBeat: What can managers do to help women either come into the industry, or help those who are already there?
Seelye: Listening. It’s important for managers to listen to what’s going on and what people’s lives as a whole — people aren’t just one thing. They have a lot of things going on in their lives. It could be caring for children or caring for elderly parents. It could be whatever is going. As a manager you need to listen and be as flexible as possible.
The other thing is, focus on the outcome, not the hours. Focus on the product that’s being delivered by these employees and what their contribution is, not necessarily their face time or time in front of the screen or that kind of thing. I also think — we instituted a lot of things that were helpful for women, and for the company at large, like recording our meetings, so that people can look at them at different times. Being specific when a meeting is going to be audio only or video, so that people can set up properly or allocate time properly so that they know how to deal with their homes. We also offered an office space for people who really needed to get out of their house. We could say, OK, following all the protocols, you can feel free to go into the office and work at a desk for half a day or a day if you want to be in there. Even though our office remains closed today, it’s still open for people who want to go in there following the protocols required in our county.
One of our employees had three kids, all distance learning, and had a big girl job where she had a lot of stuff to get done for work as well. During a key point in time in the pandemic, she just brought the kids into the office and they all sat at separate desks, socially distanced. They were able to have successful distance learning and she was able to work. A lot of it is just maintaining flexibility. I’ll tell you what. We’re so grateful we had such an adapt-or0die attitude prepandemic. Going into it, we were used to change being a part of the process. Pivoting wasn’t a new thing for us. Where we started and where we are now are so different. We’re a completely different entity today than we were even five years ago. We have such a culture of, we’ll roll with it and figure out how to move forward. In the pandemic, that served us well.
GamesBeat: As a manager, what have you learned are the most important lessons that you’ll carry forward?
Seelye: Listening and being flexible, which we talked about, those are two of the main ones. I also have increased empathy. I’m going to try to increase empathy moving forward. That’s broader than it sounds, I think. It’s not just empathy for how someone feels. It’s also empathy for people’s overall situation. I don’t think we thought about that in a work environment. All you cared about in a work environment prior to this, or you could tend toward this anyway–you would think of just how they are during the work day.
What the pandemic taught us is we had to think about how someone’s whole life was going. We had to think about what was happening with their kids and their parents, who was ill in their family, whether they had a smaller house and were feeling a little cramped. Or they’re frustrated work-wise because they can’t connect with the rest of their team that they want to connect with. Empathy became a much more important skill and a much broader environment in which you had to be empathetic. You were looking at the whole person. I think that’s great. I hope that after this we continue this path of looking at the whole person, how the whole person and their whole life fits into their work life.
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