Ahhh. It’s been far too long ladies and gents. Our last Game Dev Insight was well over a year ago and thanks to the miracle we call ‘organization’, I’m so happy to share a fun little sitdown I had with Marcel Hatam about his personal history in the gaming industry, the intricacies of being a ‘Brand Manager’ in games, life at Ubisoft and more. Marcel is an International Brand Manager at Ubisoft Blue Byte working on Anno, an incredibly storied franchise. With a hand in places like BioWare, Crytek, Blizard and more, he’s had the privilege to work around the world. Keep on scrolling and enjoy our chat! If you have more comments or questions, feel free give him a follow or tweet on Twitter at @Com_Raven.
Hi, Marcel! Thanks for carving out some time to have a chat with me.
Marcel Hatam: Thanks for having me, you know how much I love chatting about games with you!
Absolutely! So getting right into it, how long have you been in the games? What was your first official role in what we now call the ‘video game industry’?
MH: Thinking about it, I find it hard to believe that is has already been a little over 7 years since I was a bright-eyed and hopeful German Community Coordinator at BioWare. It’s crazy how time flies when you enjoy what you are doing!
It sure does. I can see you’re a big BioWare fan! We’ve got something in common there. Did you specifically target them or was it an opportunity that sprung into your lap so to speak?
MH: It’s probably fair to say that they have been one of my favorite developers for the past 20 years, yes. Starting out as a German kid with no professional experience in games, I think it would have been more than just a little presumptuous to specifically target working at BioWare. “Dreaming of maybe one day” would be a more accurate description. After I finished university, I applied at many places all over the German industry. As coincidence (or the Force?) would have it, I was at Gamescom that year and watched a presentation for SWTOR [Star Wars: The Old Republic], during which my later boss mentioned that they are hiring for some community roles. I asked him afterwards if there was any point in applying without previous paid experience, and he suggested that there was no harm in trying.
I recall playing Gears of War 3 co-op with a friend when an unknown number from Ireland called me. That was a crazy moment…
I imagine it was. And what were you doing before then and what pushed you towards working in games? Was there a catalyst, so to speak? Was there something about video games that drew you in?
MH: I started gaming late as we only got our first PC (for “school”, naturally) in 1997 when I was 13. I decided soon after that I would love to work in games, but since I did not have much talent when it came to art, math or design, I was not sure how I would ever be able to achieve that. I think my ultimate goal back then was to become a writer for one of the many German gaming magazines we had at the time.
So, starting during my later school years, I did a lot of volunteer work for a variety of websites, with the most notable one for my later career probably being the Admin for StarWarsKnights.com. Back then, we were the biggest fan site for BioWare’s original Knights of the Old Republic game, and I had my first interactions with industry people when I got to do an email interview with Casey Hudson, which was awesome.
I also did a lot of volunteer work in the hobby gaming sector, like running national and even European championships for some of Wizkids’ miniatures games like HeroClix and MechWarrior.
And after BioWare?
MH: My next gig right after was again with EA, this time as Global Community Manager for their Origin platform. I learned a lot during that wild ride. Between new EA titles, some third-party releases and new content for games like Battlefield 3 or Mass Effect 3, we pretty much had a new product launch to promote every other week (at least). After that, the third time finally proved to be the charm, as I managed to find my first gaming job in Germany, with Crytek. I joined as an Online Marketing Manager for CRYENGINE but pretty much worked on all their products to some degree during those three and a half years. I have especially fond memories of Ryse: Son of Rome, as I had been an Xbox fan since 2002, so working on an Xbox One launch title was awesome. During my time at Crytek, I also transitioned from my previously community focused roles into the more strategic role of Brand Manager for CRYENGINE.
After Crytek, I fulfilled another career dream of mine by briefly working at Blizzard Entertainment on World of Warcraft Esports, with a team of incredible people. Finally, a year and a half ago, I landed here at Ubisoft Blue Byte Mainz as International Brand Manager for the Anno series, with our current project Anno 1800 being close to shipping on April 16th. Exciting times!
Early congrats on that too! Wow. So, you’ve been all over place. Is Blue Byte officially a part of Ubisoft or is it some form of partnership?
MH: Yes, we are part of the big international family of Ubisoft Studios. Ubisoft Blue byte consists of two separate studios. Ubisoft acquired the original Blue Byte studio in Düsseldorf (best known for the Settlers series) in 2001, while our studio here in Mainz joined the company in 2014. It feels special to work at a company with so much history, as we celebrated the 30thanniversary of our studio last year!
That’s an enormous amount of time for any studio, congrats on that too! There are a lot of Anno series fans out there looking forward to Anno 1800. How’s that been? I’m assuming it’s the studio’s biggest project yet.
MH: That may depend on how you count [laughs]. In terms of lead projects, it is our most ambitious project here in Mainz, as we have a team of around 60 developers working on Anno 1800 for three years now. That makes us the biggest team here in the studio.
However, as you know, one of the strengths of Ubisoft as a company is what we call “co-development”, where several studios from across the globe collaborate on a shared project. While we are not the lead studio on these titles, Ubisoft Blue Byte Mainz is contributing to some of Ubisoft’s biggest titles, such as Rainbow Six Siege and Beyond Good and Evil 2!
With that said, a question on many people’s minds is: what exactly is a ‘Brand Manager’? It’s a seemingly key role at plenty of studios, globally. What do you do on a day to day basis?
MH: I think it is fair to say that I spend a good portion of my working hours explaining to people what a brand manager does! [laughs]
I think the exact job description can vary between companies, but at its core, brand management is about the relationship your users have with a brand. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the name “Anno”? If it is something along the lines of “in-depth strategy games with great production values”, I would say that we did a good job! That can be especially interesting with such a storied brand as Anno, which will soon celebrate its 21stbirthday [the first game came out all the way back in 1998, when I was still in school]. It is honestly a bit humbling to see people who have followed and enjoyed your brand for two decades.
So how does that translate to the day-to-day work? A big part of my job is enabling others to do a great job, and to act as a communications liaison between the development team and other people – both our players, as well as other departments such as PR, marketing or sales within Ubisoft. So, if someone on the dev team has any questions about communications topics, they know they can come to me, while our partners in marketing teams know that if they have any questions about any game information or details, I can usually get them the necessary answers.
There is also the strategic aspect I mentioned. Being part of the development team here in the studio helps a lot with our communications planning, as we have to decide when we want to unveil which features, when to do press events or even when to run betas that will give the team the best feedback they can act upon.
There are also other aspects such as working with agencies on assets like key art or trailers, working with hardware partners on potential partnerships, and seeing if there are any licensing opportunities to expand the brand beyond just gaming. Of course, I need to point out that with a company the size of Ubisoft, all of the above are team efforts, where a lot of people from different teams and departments come together to achieve our goals. I am gladly in a position where I can work with many very talented people to make all of that happen, which is a lot of fun.
Do you have advice for someone looking to get into games and eventually land into a specific role like that? It’s always a tricky question to answer because there’s always a different path for everyone, but perhaps you might have some general tips?
MH: It obviously helps to have a passion for games yourself, and to be knowledgeable about what is happening in the industry. Gaming is very tech-driven, so it is constantly evolving and changing. That does not mean that you always have to play all the latest games, but for a communications or marketing role, it is essential that you have your finger on the pulse of the industry- not only where it is now, but also where it will go in the future, and what emerging trends will help shape that future.
As for formal education, it is harder to give clear advice. There are of course many schools and universities that offer marketing-oriented studies, but I personally studied rhetoric and American studies (yeah, do not ask me why). But of course, anything that deals with strategic communication can give your application a big boost.
And I know that volunteer work “for exposure” is a tricky topic, but in my case the main reason that I managed to got my first job was due to my experience and work as a fan and volunteer. But of course, different companies and hiring managers will weigh that kind of experience differently.
What’s something you wish gamers were more aware of in game development? There can sometimes be a lot of misinformation or hyperbole when it comes to games and the public. Is there anything in particular you’d like players to be more understanding about?
MH: I think one of the hardest things for gamers to grasp from the outside are development times, and how development works concerning development builds and what we call “stable builds”. I am not going to mention names, but very recently a high-profile game from another company was heavily criticized by the community, who feared that because they are playing a beta one month from release, that this beta represents the current state of the game in development. In reality, with the polish, stabilization and certification required (especially on console), that beta build is likely 1-2 months outdated, back from when that beta build was branched (or separated) from the main development stream.
In layman’s terms, developers often work on several builds of the game at the same time, and what works (or how polished it is) can vary wildly between them. A feature A that works very well in one build ca be completely broken in another build, which was intended to test feature B (so the state of A is not relevant). We have tried to be very transparent with our community on Anno 1800, so for example people could see that parts of our UI kept looking wildly different between our live streams over the months.
In summary, assume that anything you see featured in pre-release (demos, betas or even trailers) is probably already a bit outdated compared to what the developers are working with on the same day.
That’s a really good point and helps give context to what’s shown publicly. As a last minute pivot; anyone that’s followed you on Twitter for a time knows you’re an animal lover. More specifically of rats. You love them as pets! How did that affinity come about exactly?
MH: That’s a very good question, as rats have an (undeservedly) bad reputation! What happened is that my first two jobs took me abroad, and our flat felt a bit empty for my partner. So she started looking for a potential animal that she could have while being out working during the day. We did a lot of reading, looking for social, noctural animals, and in the end fell in love with rats. A lot of people sadly have this notion of feral plague rats, when the pet variety are in fact super smart, cuddly little guys. And since they love climbing, jumping and have sharp claws, we naturally named most of them after Assassin’s Creed characters!
I actually used to have a few pet rats years ago, so I can understand that love! I think there’s one major question left on our minds here: favorite game of the last 10 years?
MH: Well, that is easy! [smiles] It’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey! And Destiny. Maybe Mass Effect 2? Definitely The Witcher 3. You know what, I am really bad at picking a favorite. But I am super happy that we are at such a great time in gaming, with so many fantastic games coming out all the time, across all genres, budgets and platforms. That is truly exciting to see, and I couldn’t think of any field I would rather work in, to be honest.
Heh. Very diplomatic of you! Thanks so much for joining me today Marcel and providing some awesome insight. It was a real pleasure chatting with you.
MH: Thanks for having me Nate! The pleasure was mine.