Paw Larsen is Vice President, Product Management for the popular Overwatch game at Blizzard Entertainment. Before joining Blizzard, Paw served in multiple leadership roles at Epic Games. Having started his career in management consulting, he brings a strategic mindset to his current role.
In our conversation, Paw highlights what makes the games-as-a-service space so unique, including having vocal, enthusiastic customers and a roster of employees who are passionate themselves about gaming. He also dives into the careful act of balancing strategic business decisions with what gamers want.
I think the balance is hard in most places. Our audience, the way we distribute games, and how we engage with our users are somewhat different from most comparable tech PMs.
For good or bad, we get really direct feedback. Our audiences are on all the platforms and they’re very outspoken and passionate about what we do. That can feel awesome when we do things that they really like, and it’s really hard for all of us when we don’t.
Games-as-a-service allows really good games to live for a long time. It enables developers to continue investing as long as players continue playing and spending money in the game. Getting the balance is hard because you want to be generous to your core fan base but, at the same time, you need to make sure you can continue to support the game and the people building the game over a long period of time.
I think this is really out of the Amazon playbook. It’s hard to build a successful business if your customers do not love what you’re delivering to them. That is the foundation for everything. We balance a bunch of different things. There’s the core experience of games, like the moment-to-moment gameplay, competitive matchmaking, and progression, and then there is the business side of what to sell and for how much. You have to make sure it all fits together and feels great holistically.
I think it happens all the time. Some of the most simple things are if, say, we do a feature that’s meant to drive retention. We look at that and see that the retention didn’t change patch over patch or season over season. And then we look at that feature and hypothesize why that work doesn’t do that. Is it a UI or system design issue? Maybe we don’t have enough motivational rewards to chase? And then we try to test that.
That’s literally the bread and butter of what we do. We constantly evaluate and change, which is why, if you like that type of stuff, games-as-a-service is a fantastic place to be. There are some pretty big moments where we do something that drives big decisions and, even on a daily basis, drives all the micro-decisions of putting out a product. We constantly question everything we do, even with things that work well.
Every player has a different way of communicating. We try to get to the root of the dissatisfaction or complaints and understand the essence of it. Sometimes, we have to dig deep because there’s a difference in what the player’s perception is. And when you’re trying to diagnose a root cause, that could lead you into something completely different.
For example, we use weekly in-game “challenges” as a way for players to earn rewards. We were getting feedback that players didn’t feel sufficiently rewarded for their time invested in the game. One of our designers suggested that we simply let the progress of unfinished challenges carry over to the following week and through that minor change, we saw an immediate boost in engagement. You don’t always have to make big changes or launch major features to move the needle.
We have teams and team members whose job is not just to monitor what’s going on, of course, but also to engage. It’s great because, well, it’s more fun when people like what you’re doing. But our team members get in front of our audiences and share our plans and ideas, and celebrate with them when things are going great. We also take the beating if we do something that doesn’t have a positive reception in the community. And that comes with the job.
At least within this industry, I feel you cannot succeed if you don’t engage with your community. We have very dedicated, talented, skilled colleagues who do that. We try to look at the full picture and dissect it. And all game companies are different — just because something works well or is positively received in other games does not mean you can just do that one-to-one. You have to constantly be adapting, listening, and testing things within your audience.
I think it’s multifaceted. Competitive analysis and research for a PM team are absolutely critical because it gives you confidence in decisions and features. At its core, it’s a creative exercise that is very hard and has always been. You have to have a product, product vision, and product execution that earns you the right to be relevant. We have a ton of talented people who do this as part of supporting us and the business.
When I engage with the game, I’m constantly thinking “Why are they doing this? Would I do it differently? What are they trying to achieve?” I’m not a game designer — I want to stress that — but it’s the same if you go talk to a designer. They will immediately talk about how the different game loops and systems are designed and what they would do differently.
Everybody plays games and is really passionate about games, so by default, you get a lot of inspiration from doing that. For example, I worked at Procter & Gamble. Everybody washes their hair, so everybody knows what shampoo is. It makes it easier to relate to shampoo, but it doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily passionate about shampoo. I think that’s a little bit different in gaming. As it relates to competitive intelligence, we get that both from an internal team of experts and from everyone on the team involved in making the game.
Good ideas can come from anywhere. I think one of the most critical things to do if you want to capture good ideas and innovate is to be open to listening. I found, especially as I got older and don’t have as much time or the same breadth of experience that I consume, having younger team members brings that very fresh perspective is a huge asset.
In fact, my daughter had to walk me through why Roblox is such a fantastic platform. I looked at that, and I was thinking, “Wow, that graphic doesn’t look awesome. That gameplay seems pretty clunky.” But she explained that everyone can be together on Roblox because it runs on all phones and all computers. She said, “If we all want to play together, this is actually where we go.” For people like me, there’s a lot of educational value in bringing in new and younger perspectives.
I think of that as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was incredibly magical and working on other IPs and other games in different situations helped solidify that experience. We didn’t have this brilliant plan from day one on how the business was going to run and how the systems were going to be and never expected it to blow up the way it did.
One of Tim Sweeney’s most brilliant moves was enforcing that this was going to be free to play. Because at that time, competitors were still charging money for that type of game, and that just allowed Fortnite to explode. It’s not that the company wasn’t successful, but it was catapulted into a completely different league by doing that. And the phenomena that Fortnite was, the mainstream it went, nobody had seen anything like that before.
That it’s very hard to replicate. There were so many things that made that what it was. From a personal perspective. I got to work with some really smart people, and if they hadn’t been there and didn’t have that drive, it would not have taken off.
I think my biggest personal learning was not being too risk-averse. We were not risk-averse enough for some decisions and went full-speed ahead, and some of those became one-way doors. There was a lot of guts in terms of making decisions. The starting point was always about how we can make this great for players. If players will like and engage with your product, you’re going to be fine, you know?
From a discipline perspective, a big lesson was to continue to experiment and try things. IP integrations were not a common thing. Fortnite pioneered that, and there was a lot of internal resistance against it because a lot of game developers want to build their IP, it’s their world. Why should other things come in and disrupt that kind of experience? But by doing it, Fortnite created something unique, something that wasn’t seen before. That was a very gutsy call, and the right call, and part of why it’s stayed relevant for so long.
AI has always been around — the earliest games ever were single-player where you played against a computer, which is an AI. I’m very bullish on AI and what it can do. I think most people have a pragmatic angle and see what it will help us do. I don’t see it as a doomsday for industry, I think it’s going to create more jobs by far.
I think that is meaningfully going to change how we operate and what we can deliver to players in certain ways, both in experience but also the speed at which we can do it. Still, it’s too early for us to fully understand how that’s all going to play out. I also think there’s enough investment going into the VR space that we will see advancements, though I think it’ll take us by surprise. I think it’s going to be less of that kind of big bang and, suddenly, without us knowing, the metaverse is created.
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