David started his career in computers at the age of 13 when he used his paper route savings to purchase an Apple II computer in 1978. Immediately convinced he had found his professional calling, he completed his high school education 2 years early and started programming and working full time as a computer salesman and installation engineer. Soon after consulting for Atari’s new home computer division in 1981 he met Trip Hawkins who was starting Electronic Arts.
EA was a classic Silicon Valley startup funded by Sequoia, Kleiner Perkins and Sevin Rosen. David joined the startup team behind EA as the 11th employee in 1982 and went on to found the European business unit in 1986 and lead the unit from 1995 where he grew it to $1B in gross revenue and 1200 employees. David became part of the global management team based in California in 2004 after the European success. His expanded responsibility included international growth into Asia and he was responsible for nearly half of the company’s annual revenue when he departed in 2007 to return with his family to live in Europe.
David became CEO of Atari S.A. to complete a childhood dream of running the most famous name in computer games. The turnaround objective was marked by the successful sale of Atari’s physical distribution company, the privatization of the US public entity and the purchase of Cryptic studios which delivered the majority of the company revenue and R&D spending into the new digital economy. David is an active private pilot. In 2007 he was awarded an OBE on Her Majesty’s birthday honours list for services to British business and is Vice President of Games for BAFTA.
You have been in the games industry for some time. And you have seen many trends come and go. From the beginning of your career to today: What has changed most positively in the industry, and what bothers you about the current situation?
At a very high level the most exciting change is the audience expansion. We now have more people, playing more games, in more countries, on more devices than ever before. The ratio of male/female players is closing in on the planet’s average. All great news! This rebalancing and acceleration should continue as we see more diversity in content that appeals to every consumer taste. On the negative side I’m distressed to see how uncivilized players can be to one another. In too many cases it has moved from playful challenge into offensive, aggressive behavior. I’ve seen statistics that show it has driven people into self-harm and depression. This is really not what we all thought about when we played our first game of Atari Pong in the 1970s!
Which key learnings in marketing can other industries draw from the games industry?
Gaming has evolved to a community effort. Joint content creation, sharing tasks like taking down a boss creature, sharing hilarious moments with a wide viewership audience – all of these things show that gaming is more than a single moment or a temporary activity – it has moved into community and lifestyle. That’s a powerful element to marketing in the gaming world and it is a powerful bridge to other industries.
Who are your role models in the industry?
I’ve had a number of role models over my industry career. Certainly, the first one would be Trip Hawkins who founded EA, 3D0 and Digital Chocolate. He was the first real “Silicon Valley” entrepreneur that I met. Trip was incredible in his understanding of the market and how to convince the team to give everything to win. He is a charismatic and exciting person. A more recent example would be the Supercell leadership team. It is easy to mention Ilkka Paananen but honestly it runs deep in the entire leadership of the company. I learned from them humility, a quiet search for excellence, the power of being small and being laser focused.
How did the marketing and promotion of games change in recent years? Where are we headed in games marketing in the next years to come?
I suppose there is the expected use of large-scale indiscriminate media such as big budget TV ads. But more interesting has been use of the community to spread the word. Very laser focused acquisition of users based on spending patterns, the launch of Apex Legends via influencers and the latest trend which basically “the community is king.” Spaces like Discord and video content on Twitch and YouTube create a new place for players to learn from others.
Which social media channels do you see as key for the games industry?
I’d say for the core gamer it is probably reading comments on Steam and Discord. For the mass audience its discovery on places like Bunch or YouTube.
About the current trend on creators and influencer marketing: The trend towards more micro and macro influencers with a smaller reach and less fans, but more authenticity and engagement: How can the Games industry leverage that trend in your opinion?
I agree with the trend you describe in the question. I believe we will see some kind of tools available for marketers to reach “the long tail” of influencers. But in the short term, I think it will be engaging the community to spread the word and using agencies and other experts to help organize messaging through the thousands of influencers that share the fun in playing games.
The media landscape has changed massively in the last ten years. However, PR is still one of the most important communications tools in the games sector. Where do you see PR in the next five years, what will the challenges be?
I think honestly the hardest thing is sifting out who to follow and who you trust. Anyone can now be a spokesperson. The tools for broadcast are completely open and therefore anyone, with any agenda can broadcast to anyone. So, bringing honesty, authenticity and protection is one challenge. From the consumer’s point of view I think the logic of a “brand” – or a shortcut to a set of values, will be ever more important to be able to organize and see information in all the noise!
Bonus question: Which project / topic in your career are you particularly proud of?
I loved the cultural piece of sharing the company values across all the teams and countries. I think seeing a team succeed, getting great feedback from the community and loving what they do is so much fun. It really works when the environment provides a rewarding place to do your best work!
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