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Jessica Merizan Interview (Mass Effect 3)

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Mass Effect 3 is finally here, wrapping up the saga of Commander Shepard and his (or her) battle to save the world from the Reapers.  You’re probably waist deep in playing it, but we’ve got some more information to share straight from one of the game’s sources — community and social media manager Jessica Merizan over at BioWare.  We managed to sit down with her and chat about everything Mass Effect, including her time with the game and how much BioWare-related swag she owns.  (Quite a bit, actually.)

So stop playing for five minutes and read on…

GameZone: How long have you been working with BioWare on the community manager front?  Any pros and cons from the job? Advice you'd give to up and coming community managers?

Jessica Merizan: I’ve been working as BioWare’s lead Community and Social Media Manager for over seven months now. My professional relationship with BioWare started last Spring doing costume commissions with the company I co-founded, Crabcat Industries, and consulting work about events, since my master’s dissertation focused on video game fandom and pop culture conventions like San Diego Comic Con. My background is in Anthropology and I consider myself to be a very social person, so going into the field seemed like a natural fit. Even though most companies are starting to employ community managers, it’s still a relatively new discipline, so there’s a lot of learning and figuring out what works.

People who are interested in becoming community managers should take their online presence very seriously. The job isn’t just about deleting inflammatory comments on Facebook (although that’s one of the joys!) or posting the newest update on Twitter; community managers have to know what’s going to be the next big thing in social media and anticipate how people will be using the internet to discuss the product you represent. It’s also important to be able to keep calm in less than ideal situations. The one time you lash out at a customer — even if it’s because they’re being immature and you’re having a bad day — might be the comment that haunts you in your career. Ultimately, the thing I pride myself on in my job is building rapport with people who purchased BioWare games, delivering accurate information and participating in conversations with them. It’s about creating a multi-sided dialogue. The fans have to trust you, otherwise you’re just another puppet whose strings are being pulled a large faceless corporation.

GZ: How long have you been a fan of Mass Effect?  Since the very beginning, would you say?

JM: For whatever reason, I have a very vivid memory of my first time playing the Mass Effect. I was a sophomore in college, procrastinating on a term paper, and I spent hours customizing my character — female, A-line cut fiery red hair, who was the daughter of Alliance officers and the sole survivor of a horrific mission. It was a great game and very different from anything else out at that time. That being said, it wasn’t until Mass Effect 2 that I became really engrossed in the lore and background of the franchise. My friends and I dressed up as characters from the game (I wanted to be Miranda but I couldn’t psych myself up to wear that bodysuit, so I settled with everyone’s favorite reporter to punch Khalisah Al-Jilani) and aspects of the game became entrenched in my lexicon. The series was just beginning to break out into the mainstream, so it was very exciting to meet random people who were also fans. You’d have long conversations about who they romanced, favorite parts etc. That’s still the best part of the games I think, the conversations you have with other people about them.

GZ: What do you think has been your favorite moment from the series?  Or can you pick just one?

JM: There are way too many. I think moments like the suicide mission from ME2 make you feel the responsibility of the entire galaxy relying on you making the right move. It’s a nice break from the daily grind in real life. Virtual unreality (or hyperreality) is my savior. It’s been a long journey, and no one’s coming out without scars…

GZ: How thrilled are you by the output coming from the community over Mass Effect 3?

JM: I feel very fortunate to be part of this whirlwind that surrounds Mass Effect 3. More people know about the series, and it’s getting coverage by mainstream media. And standing between the development team and the community, I can see the passion of both. People in the media mistake our fans as being angry and impossible to please, but that’s just not true. The fandom is filled with passionate people like myself who sometimes react before having all the facts, but that’s just because we all care about what the series stands for. It’s not just a video game, it’s part of how we define ourselves as a subculture. It’s understandable for everyone to feel like the stakes are high, because that’s what the developers have set up for us to feel. Whenever work gets stressful, I think about how exciting it will be when everyone has the game in their hands and we see a resurgence of Mass Effect memes, fan art, quotables and more. That’s what keeps a lot of us going.

GZ: Do you own any cool Mass Effect goodies?  An N7 hoodie, perhaps?

JM: I have quite a bit of Mass Effect memorabilia and apparel. It’s awesome to be walking around in the airport or some urban place and a stranger recognizes the stripe on your N7 hoodie or what the quote on your t-shirt (“Humanity First”) signifies. PAX is my favorite place to look around for N7 hoodies and connect with people. There’s a lot of love for Shepard at that convention!

GZ: How avid a gamer are you?  Do you have any particular favorites you keep going back to nowadays?

JM: Gaming is definitely part of who I am. One of my earliest memories is playing the Coleco Vision until one of my rotten cousins broke it by shoving a Lego in the cartridge slot — that was the end of my Smurf and Donkey Kong adventures. I was always a bookish kid and wasn’t ever very good at fighting; my younger sister has always been an incredible gamer but had a short attention span for the “boring parts." I loved the stories and getting wrapped up into another world, and she loved the gameplay and strategy around combat, so we would play together. Best bonding experience ever. I wish that more games had couch co-op abilities, but I guess it severely limits graphics. But yeah, I can’t separate gaming from the rest of my life. It’s intertwined.

I go back and play games like Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Majora’s Mask, SSX Tricky, Fable and even Pokemon Snap (go ahead and judge, it’s an awesome title) which have all aged remarkably well. A lot of games nowadays rely on something that looks cool right now but doesn’t have the substance to hold up several years down the road. I think BioWare games like Baldur’s Gate are awesome because there’s always so much that goes into them to make the experience feel timeless.

GZ: Do you attend a lot of expos to spread the word about games?  Do you have a particular favorite show you like going to?

JM: Conventions and conferences and expos are a huge part of what made me want to work in the industry professionally. Going to a convention is like traveling to a different universe for a few days. You’re betwixt-and-between your life and there’s a crazy sense of excitement that has everyone buzzing, despite getting little sleep throughout the event. Working a con is very different to attending as a fan, but it’s all about meeting likeminded people. San Diego Comic Con used to be like nerd prom for me and my friends, but now I’m getting exposure to smaller events like GeekGirlCon which have even more of a camaraderie surrounding them. If you don’t go to conventions and want to enter the entertainment industry, start going. Save money and find time. It’s worth it.

GZ: As a community rep, what's probably the most outlandish request you've ever gotten?

JM: People are generally pretty cool with me because I try to make people feel like I’m a likeminded individual — someone that would totally be up to hang out and get coffee if the forums were a big town. Whenever I dress up in costume, I get some strange photo-op requests but my day-to-day interactions with the community are pretty laid back. I try to stay approachable and keep a conversation going with people, so maybe people don’t ask me weird things because they know I’ll probably respond with something equally weird right back. There was a kind of interesting forum thread going around by a guy who wanted BioWare to make a character based on me in DLC but that’s about it. And I swear I didn’t create a fake account and write that thread myself.  (smiles)  Although, if any Mass Effect producers are reading this, I’m available. Call me.

GZ: How many hours have you spent taking on Mass Effect 3?  Or have you even played that much of it yet?

JM: I’ve gotten about three full Mass Effect 3 games in during different periods of the development cycle. Two with imported saves and one based on the experience of someone new to the franchise. All very good and distinct. It’s been a lot of fun getting a new build and seeing things get refined in the past few months. I wanted to be an expert on the new game before anyone got their hands on it so I’d be prepared for any question, any problem that people had. However, I’m STILL discovering new things when I talk to different developers or play a scene over again. This game is filled with so many cool details, and it’s one of the main reasons the replay value is so high.  

GZ: Finally, now that Mass Effect 3 is done, what's next for you?  Besides blocking noobs on Twitter, I mean.

JM: My job is really just beginning now that people will have the game in their hands. We’ll transition from our Mass Effect 1 & 2 oriented community to one that welcomes the new game and all the people who have gotten into it. I’m working with other people to try and build a really positive and supportive fandom surrounding our games. There’s a lot of exciting ways that social media is changing and we’ll be working to implement the best tools we have at our disposal to get people more connected and talking to each other. I want to go on some kind of crazy convention tour and host panels where I throw candy at people and force the internet to be a kinder cooler place, but I don’t know if I can go rogue for that long without anyone noticing! For now, I’ll be doing it online grassroots style. Hit me up on twitter @jessicamerizan if you want to join the community revolution!

Mass Effect 3 is in stores now.  NOW GO PLAY.

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Robert Workman
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