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Mike Olsen on 20 years at EA and joining Glu Mobile to help shape its new direction

Reflecting on Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes and Dungeon Keeper
Mike Olsen on 20 years at EA and joining Glu Mobile to help shape its new direction

In a career with EA spanning more than 20 years, Mike Olsen has seen the games industry develop firsthand.

Starting out in QA and Production roles for various boxed products across the company, Olsen eventually ended up taking on some of EA's biggest mobile projects.

These included Creative Direction roles on Dungeon Keeper and more recently on Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, which has proven a huge mobile hit for EA.

Now, amidst changes at Glu Mobile since the introduction of new CEO Nick Earl, Olsen is taking his considerable experience to the US firm as its new Senior VP of Studios. caught up with Olsen to discuss his career so far, professional highlights and his new challenge at Glu Mobile. After more than 20 years at EA, why did you decide that now was the time to pursue a new challenge?

Mike Olsen: I had an amazing career at EA. I can’t say enough about all of the mentors, colleagues and friends I made over the course of those 20+ years.

I was fortunate enough to work on some of the biggest brands and most recognised IP in the world across a variety of genres and platforms.

That said, I started my career working in QA at Electronic Arts. Over the years I served in various roles including Producer, Designer, Creative Director and General Manager.

“I liked the challenge of being part of Glu’s pivot in a new direction.”
Mike Olsen

There came a point where I wanted to see how another company operated and liked the challenge of being part of Glu’s pivot in a new direction.

I worked closely with Glu’s new CEO, Nick Earl, for close to a decade while at EA.

I have full confidence in the vision he has for Glu, the culture he’s looking to invigorate and the impact of my role as a Creative Leader at the company.

Tell us a little about your new role at Glu Mobile and how it differs to your previous position at EA Capital Games.

My role at Glu is to build and lead a team of talented, forward-thinking individuals who live and breathe gaming. It’s something I’ve never done before and I’m really excited to curate that group of rockstars.

Nick Earl and the entire Glu team are really embracing a culture rooted in creativity and rallying behind existing and new Creative Leaders like myself in every way.

Glu Mobile's San Francisco HQ
Glu Mobile's San Francisco HQ

Essentially, the company is giving us creative freedom to build innovative products and bulldozing any obstacles that could get in the way of that.

We’ve been given the necessary infrastructure, tools and resources and we’re encouraged to be bold, take risks and not be afraid to fail.

It’s a culture and environment I thrive in - and we get to do it all in a new state-of-the-art facility we are looking to move into in the near future.

The industry has changed a lot in the past 20 years, particularly in the shift from boxed products to live services. How do you reflect on this?

Having worked on boxed products for many years, it’s been very interesting going from the days of needing to put a full-featured, bug-free product (no ‘second chances’ or ‘hot fixes’ back in the cartridge days) into a box and then immediately taking the much needed time to recharge the batteries before moving on to the next.

“The majority of us are playing in an industry where launching is just the beginning.”
Mike Olsen

There’s a tremendous amount of risk involved in that model. Now, the majority of us are playing in an industry where launching your product is really just the beginning!

Running a successful live service is a completely different beast and really changes the dynamic of your team once the product is live.

Ideally, there’s a consistent stream of rapid iteration, failure and ultimately valuable and innovative updates to the product.

The community of players also becomes a big factor in development, as qualitative feedback is integral to those updates.

You led Creative Direction for Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, which has been a huge hit. How does this rank among your proudest moments so far, and what did you learn from the experience?

Great teams make great products and Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes definitely ranks toward the top of my proudest accomplishments.

As you can imagine, working with the Star Wars IP was a dream come true. We had a very talented team and delivered a product that the audience could really immerse themselves in.

I learned a tremendous amount working on Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, especially when it came to running the live service.

That product is truly a living, breathing entity with a community to match, which requires a dialed-in approach to updates.

Another of your major projects was Dungeon Keeper on mobile, which received considerable backlash. Do you feel players generally are now more accepting of free-to-play? Or is there still an anti-F2P sentiment to be tackled?

Dungeon Keeper, while a polished product, was simply the wrong game at the wrong time. That particular IP came with very specific expectations from die-hard fans of the cult-classic PC title.

“For many, Dungeon Keeper was the first taste of F2P and it may have left a slightly negative impression.”
Mike Olsen

We chose to take a risk and delivered something a little different than the audience expected. I think for many, it was the first taste of free-to-play and it may have left a slightly negative impression.

I do believe players are now more accepting of the model, as game economies are maturing and increasingly moving away from what was perceived as ‘pay-to-win’.

It was the first mobile product many of us had worked on and as a result it was a great learning experience.

What are your major ambitions for 2017 and beyond in your new role at Glu Mobile?

Right now, I have my sights set on creating an amazing team to deliver a hit sometime in the coming years that can run as a successful live service for years to come.

My goal is to foster a culture of rapid prototyping new and innovative ideas in parallel and where failing is okay.

Innovation is what gets me out of bed and into work every day and Glu is truly is giving me the opportunity to do what I love. I am absolutely thrilled to be here!