Ten Ton Hammer confronted several industry insiders on MMO marketing practices that have long chafed players, sometimes using quotes from the players themselves. Has word-of-mouth made traditional PR and marketing obsolete, or worse: prone to deceit just to get games noticed? Is pre-launch hype important for a game with a potential ten-year (or even longer) lifespan, and if so, is there such a thing as too much hype? Why is marketing used to gather feedback for features that aren't necessarily "final," and what's with the "box promises" that aren't made good at launch? Through their responses, you'll find that perhaps the industry has turned a corner.
In today’s games market, opinions spring up overnight and word-of-mouth spreads rapidly. If we’re willing to accept that the purpose of PR and marketing isn’t to deceive and bilk us into buying games on impulse (and that’s a monster-sized benefit of the doubt for some developers), what’s the role of marketing in a post-Twitter world?
Put simply, exposure. “Marketing exposes your product to the core audience - then IF your product delivers the goods, players use word-of-mouth. But someone has got to tell the core audience that the game exists and why they should play it.” explained April Burba, former NCSoft all-around community manager, developer, and producer (currently a producer for an unannounced project).
Michal Adam, PR Director for Hi-Rez Studios (indy developer of the massively-multiplayer shooter Global Agenda), has a tough road to hoe, since she can’t call upon the resources of a publisher. For her, exposure is all the more critical. “We just want everyone to know about Global Agenda. The main message of our marketing is that we’re doing something different.”
NetDevil PR Director Grace Wong faces similar challenges with the team’s current project: Jumpgate Evolution. “News does spread quickly, but it spreads about only a few things at a time. To get your voice heard in a competitive space that moves quickly is very difficult,” she explained. “Good marketing is all about getting the core strengths of your game into the hands of the people who are most likely going to respond to it.”
Over the last several years, we at Ten Ton Hammer have noticed a trend to put more emphasis on direct representation of games by the studios that make them over third-party PR firms and publishers. Since the answers we get straight from developers are often more detailed, honest, and hassle-free (they’re gamers, we’re gamers) it’s an encouraging trend for us, and we believe, our audience. Case in point, we contacted five third-party PR firms that we work with routinely to comment on this piece. None responded.
Marketing an Incomplete Game
For our first topic up for debate, should PR and Marketing initiatives be used to promote and even gather feedback about aspects of a game that aren’t yet “final” - i.e. are reasonably tested and (in all honesty and likelihood) will make it in for launch? Michal thinks not. “I would never do that. We’re so careful about what design ideas we put out there, that unless we’ve tested something and we’re satisfied with it, we’re not communicating about it. That goes back to expectations-setting.”
She noted that the most massively multiplayer side of Global Agenda, the “campaign game” (i.e. a grand strategy map where large player organizations vie for control) is one of Hi-Rez’s most closely guarded secrets. Players know that it exists, that it will be in for launch, and some of its most basic principles, but details won’t begin to emerge until later in testing. That’s by design, according to Michal, even though it’s potentially one of the most marketable and innovative sides of the game.
But April notes that sometimes timing and marketing objectives can interfere with your best laid plans. “PR and marketing campaigns can be planned and start a year or more before a game is released and, obviously, they want to put your best features forward to generate interest in the game. They usually have to market things that aren't fully tested yet or they wouldn't get to market much. It's an art form as a producer to line up development and marketing - it's part of why there are producers.”
We’re reminded of one of the more classic marketing mishaps in recent memory every time we run a live Q&A session with the Warhammer Online team. The top question is at least as inevitable as the Chaos city: when are the other cities going in? Players have a long memory for features removed prior to launch, and removing four of the six racial cities is still a sore spot for some players.
However, Ten Ton Hammer member Chilidawg cited EA Mythic as one of the two companies that have done a great job with PR in his opinion. Much is apparently forgiven since EA Mythic made a big effort to communicate the changes prior to launch: “Mythic was good at communicating with its community on the announcements of removed classes / locations and other features as they were nearing launch, as well as weekly announcements about what areas they were fixing and bringing into the game.” Honesty seems to be the best policy: EA Mythic was rewarded with 1.2 million in retail box sales in the first two months.
Bottom line: while it may be best not to discuss game features until you’re absolutely sure they’ll be in the game, should you have to start ripping out features, it’s best to be open and honest about the changes you’re making before launch, lest you creep towards the dim, dark, dirty realm of...
Marketing students learn that false advertising falls into two broad categories: price manipulation and deceptive advertising. Price manipulation is often practiced by unscrupulous retailers which use hidden fees and surcharges, cost-plus pricing, hidden fees and surcharges, and other methods to inflate prices beyond their advertised norms. In a recent class-action lawsuit involving the makers of Final Fantasy XI, the plaintiffs allege that Square-Enix failed to disclose that playing the game required payment of monthly fees, penalties for late payment, and other fees and adjustments that, if proven, fall into the realm of price manipulation tactics.
On the other hand, deceptive advertising is an intent to purposely defraud consumers by knowingly misrepresenting a product. It’s much harder to prove, yet fairly widespread in games marketing. “In-game” preview screenshots and trailers that can’t be replicated by the most powerful machines post launch are a common example. But while no game has been found guilty of deceptive advertising in a court of law (at least, in Internet-researchable legal memory), false advertising often takes a subtler form in games marketing.
Box Promise Blues
[Ed. note - The following segment contains player reflections that, as far as we were able to check and verify, bear out the facts albeit with anonymity and a degree of emotion and constructive opinion. We appreciate their candor and insight, but their opinions belong to these members, not the Ten Ton Hammer team.]
Just about every gamer has purchased a game that, once loaded and installed, turns out to be something different than what’s advertised in the adjective-riddled features list on the glossy backside of the packaging. The problem is more severe in online games, which give developers more leighway than a traditional video game to grow and develop the game post-launch. Too often they use it.
“To this day, I've never encountered a more bitter crowd than those that played Age of Conan at launch. Many of them still get their backs up and all sweaty-palmed and twitchy at the mention of the game,” Ten Ton Hammer Managing Editor Ben “Machail” de la Durantaye noted, commenting on the recent reaction in our forums to the game’s latest re-introduction initiative. Much of the visceral response to AoC stems from one hyphenated word on the box: DirectX-10.
There’s no better way to illustrate the feelings of a significant portion of AoC’s launch-era discontents than to hear what they have to say:
From Ten Ton Hammer member Vulturion: “It is hard to separate ‘duped’ from ‘disappointed,’ but the only clear-cut duping was Age Of Conan's DX10... Normally technical stuff wouldn't interest me at all, but I'd just massively upgraded my PC and was looking for a game to push its limits - bought AoC blindly for being the newest MMO touting DX10 graphics.”
From Ten Ton Hammer member yalyss: “Age of Conan was probably the worst offender as far as dishonest marketing, as some people have stated: the claim on the box of DirectX 10 support which wasn't available until a "test patch" in March, claims of a PvP advancement system which wasn't there, City building/raiding support which was horrifically buggy, and the claims after launch of an anti-griefing system, a new zone, etc. all before the end of June, which didn't come out until a year later.”
From Ten Ton Hammer member McMental: “I played it for 5 weeks, and we kept hearing time and time again, next week, the week after at the latest, in an upcoming update 'We will fix it!' Bob the builder jokes aside, we never saw anything real and tangible.” Stormnet continued the thought: “The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth and even with the free 14 day trial I was tempted but didn't go back.”
For Funcom’s part, something of a mea culpa came when Game Director Gaute Godager resigned last September: “I have done my very best making this fabulous game, but I have concluded there are elements which I am dissatisfied with. I have decided to act on this, and as a result I have chosen to leave Funcom. It is time to get new, fresh eyes on Age of Conan, and I wholeheartedly support the appointment of Craig [Morrison].”
Whether or not any or all complaints were addressed in the time leading up to the latest marketing initiative (at the time of this printing, DirectX-10 support is now fully - if not officially - implemented in the public client, though it’s still dubbed “DX10 Test” on the graphics options screen), this is truly an instance where premature (if not outright deceptive) marketing promises clearly hurt an MMORPG’s long-term appeal.
Age of Conan might be the box promise whipping boy, but it’s certainly not the only MMORPG to make box promises that came to naught. For another offender, how about WoW? Chilidawg noted that, “During the beta for [World of Warcraft], player housing was announced as a feature. It's on the box, it's in the original manual, it was planned and gamers were planning on it. For whatever reason player housing didn't work out, and Blizzard notified the player-base that it would be removed from the feature-list well before the game went live.”
Chilidawg continued: “I was OK with Blizzard because I felt they gave player housing an honest effort and made a swift announcement to the community shortly after deciding to remove housing from the game.”
And to close out this segment, Chilidawg put it better than I can: “The relationship between gamers and developers is a good-faith relationship. I realize that developers are ambitious and genuinely believe they want their game to be as great as possible. Sometimes things work out better on paper than they do in reality and plans have to be changed. I can understand and appreciate that...what really upsets me is when I feel that I've been purposely deceived or lied to.”
When the Genie’s Out of the Bottle - PR Disaster Management
Whether it’s a dev quote completely taken out of context, a dishonest reviewer with an axe to grind, or a sudden shift or executive decision that nightmarishly contradicts everything players have been hearing, PR disasters happen from time to time, and to even the most well-intentioned of development houses.
Most of our respondents declined to comment on what they’d specifically do when disaster strikes, noting that it’s very situation specific. All agreed, however, that if the disaster is big and ugly enough, rapid and honest communication is key.
Grace explained that the PR team has two jobs in such a situation - getting out in front of public opinion and keeping the developer up-to-date on what the public thinks, and communicating developer explanations to the public. In its former role, PR acts as a community advocate. “If there is a sense from the public that a game has a weakness or a major issue that is damaging its reputation, it's PR's job to convince the developer as to the nature of the issue and to find a good solution.
“Hopefully, the developer will work to resolve the issue at which point marketing and PR has the job of communicating that back to the public. This can be quite difficult to do as people tend to make up their minds quite strongly. Once a negative opinion has been formed, the public may lose faith in what the PR team is saying,” Grace explained. “The best strategy is to make a great game and try to avoid those kinds of problems.”
In any case, communication might be key to stemming the disaster, but as far as containment, too much communication may work against a game. Michal agreed with Grace’s comments, but explained that “there’s a danger of drawing too much attention to something.
Grace continued: “I think that it's pretty uncommon for a great title to suffer major harm from an isolated incident. I remember that Half Life 2, for example, had some bumps along the way. It didn't seem to hurt their score or sales because in the end, it was an amazing game. You can't control information and how it is interpreted 100%; if you are constantly afraid of how something will be interpreted, you will end up missing opportunities. Some amount of risk is involved and we accept that as part of the game development process. In the end great games tend to do well.”
Poaching for Testers
Last March, City of Heroes gamers received in-game messages inviting them to apply for the Champions Online beta. While both games were originally developed by Cryptic Studios, City of Heroes was sold to NCSoft, which had always had a surprisingly predominant role in the game’s development as its publisher, in December 2008.
While instances of this practice have occurred in the past - for example, it's widely known that Blizzard lured beta EverQuest 2 players into playing WoW beta, but through non-official channels (guild sites, community affiliates, etc.) - this was perhaps the first reported instance of a developer working within a competing MMO to recruit beta testers. Cryptic was somewhat contrite when the incident was borne out in the press, but it sparked a new discussion about whether it’s ethical to recruit testers from within another game.
All of our respondents thought this practice was unwise, even if not for professional reasons. From Grace: “Getting people to leave a game they enjoy for another is the most expensive and time consuming kind of customer attraction activity... Aside from the ethical issues, it's actually quite difficult to do. Players tend to be very protective of the game that they enjoy. You're much better off targeting people who haven't found a game they really like... or perhaps, no longer like a game they used to like.” Michal agreed: “I don’t know about ethical or unethical, I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
The Glitter of Hype
Launch day sales might not be the best measure of an MMOG’s true potential. For that, maybe subscriber numbers and retention rates T-plus 3-months are a much better metric. Still, preorder revenues have become a significant source of funding, and in a down market, publishers are ever interested in early returns. Enter hype, that singular intangible force that profoundly shapes game development, marketing, and initial player opinion.
But the glitter of hype has led many a game developer and publicist astray, especially if Eidos is mentioned in your resume. Not once, but thrice Eidos has been called on the carpet with mainstream games media over attempts to control or delay review scores to boost their metacritic rating, with Tomb Raider Underworld, then again with Arkham Asylum, and then again with rumors surrounding the firing of Gamespot reviewer Jeff Gerstman.
Thankfully, Ten Ton Hammer hasn’t had to deal with Eidos since the very early Age of Conan days (not to mention that we’re not big on reviews, since MMOGs are in near-constant flux), but Eidos has made an unfortunate name for itself in many gamers’ minds. Ten Ton Hammer member McMental wrote that he’ll “never buy an Eidos title again, unless it’s absolutely spectacular... we have long since turned away from the good old days. The market forces (pronounced “evil soulless bastards”) rule now.”
That kind of cynicism is partially justified in light of Eidos’s shenanigans, but all of the publicists we spoke with realize that if there ever was a time you could fool all of the people all of the time, it has long passed. “Clever marketing, if the intent is to trick people into buying a game, usually backfires. Players are smart and can spot tricky gimmicks.” April agreed: “I think players are really marketing savvy. They see through overblown promises or gimmicks pretty easily.”
But, as Grace explained, that shouldn’t encourage publicists to be too conservative, either. “That doesn't mean you can't do interesting things to try and build excitement around a game. In fact, when it's done well, like, say, Gears of War, it can really create a lot of buzz for people that may not ordinarily be interested in that kind of title.”
So how much hype is too much hype? “If you’re communicating honestly with the community, if they know what to expect, there can’t be too much hype.” Michal replied. “If you’re hyping an empty shell, you’re really going to get burned.”
From April: “Players should know what they are buying. It doesn't matter if your game is the best RTS ever, if you market it as an FPS people will hate it because you are not giving them what they thought they bought. If people think that because you are making an MMO it means it's going to be a Diku-Mud style game and it's NOT, you better tell them. Human minds use comparison to understand their world and are quick to shoehorn your product into a pre-conceived notion. If you fit it - great - build and shape their expectations. If you don't? Create and limit their expectations.
April continued: “If I had one piece of advice to give anyone making or marketing a game it would be this: only other people can call you cool. You can't call yourself cool. This also goes for things like revolutionary, genre-changing and other terms like this. If your product really is these things, the people who play it and review it will tell everyone that it is. It all comes down to managing expectations.”
As for a player’s perspective on what is truly hypeworthy, McMental is a purist that thinks traditional PR isn’t always in-tune with what gamers want: “I love in-game video... I love in-game action - fighting, exploring, basically things that give me an idea of what the game will feel like. These things hype me for a release. Endless screenshots and press releases that state things like 'will use Speed Tree,' 'will feature DirectX 10,' 'hires world-famous developer Sid Peter Meiermolineaux' - doesn’t.”
Common sense tells us that it’s harder to deceive someone in person than through the Internet. Likewise, interacting with a room full of fans at a conference can teach you a lot about communicating with fans on the Internet. Global Agenda, working without the media resources of a publisher or PR firm, took a decidedly old-fashioned step that seems to be paying dividends.
“We started by reaching out to local universities with game design or interactive media programs - Georgia Tech, the Art Institute of Atlanta, Savannah College of Art and Design. We have them in to test, and we would work with the professors to make it relevant to what they’re studying.
“Then we went a little more local. One of the nearby high schools had an after-school gamer’s club where students would bring in PCs and consoles and play games together. For five or six consecutive weeks we had them meet one day a week at Hi-Rez, and they turned out to be our main in-studio test base.”
Hi-Rez launched its “Get in the Game Georgia” initiative earlier this year, and has even brought in state economic development officials for testing sessions on Thursdays, which Hi-Rez has come to call “unofficial newb day.” Shortly after the initiative began, the Global Agenda team started seeing registrations from Chicago, New York, California, and then all around the nation. The next step was to work the floor at trade shows and work with MMO niche sites like Ten Ton Hammer.
The grass roots / DIY approach to marketing and PR may not be for the feint of heart, but Hi-Rez feels that it’s paying off. First the schools, then the state, next the nation, and then perhaps Hi-Rez has its own “global agenda.”
NetDevil, a developer that has employed similar grass-roots marketing efforts, likewise puts an emphasis on connecting with players: “Our marketing team is heavily involved with direct representation of the game. For example, they are always present at trade shows, community events, and so on. We received a lot of feedback about our control scheme and made many adjustments in that area. While we had strong visuals even in the beginning, we added quite a bit more variety based on early feedback as well. There's probably hundreds of things like that.”
We asked April about the differences between MMO marketing and mainstream games marketing, plus what makes for excellent PR in our little gaming niche, and her thoughts are a perfect way to wrap up the discussion:
“[Tabula Rasa Lead Designer] Paul Sage used to call it the difference between a one night stand and a long-term relationship. When marketing an MMO you have to feature those longer term attributes and features of the game. MMOs are a major investment of a player's time and they want to know that the investment will be worth it in the long term. PR's job is to keep the game in the news to attract new players (you can trust us, we keep making new content), past players (look at all the new fun you can have with your old characters - come back!), and current players (stick around for all the new stuff!).”
Grace built on that, explaining that good PR is a two-way street.: “Marketing can be many things, but I think that the best thing is if it is a communication tool between the public and the development team. We want to communicate what the game is to make sure that people have the correct impression of the game. We want to drive the core values in such a way to build excitement. However, we also want to listen to the feedback and responses to those messages to see if maybe we are missing something. People know what they like and respond strongly to what they see. As we show the game and talk to people, their comments feed back into the process”
At Ten Ton Hammer, our reason for being is that we believe an open and honest dialogue between players and developers is the best way to ensure that tomorrow’s MMORPGs are as good as they can possibly be. Even through the lens of objectivity, we’re in the information business, and that at times makes us part of the PR process. But no one likes it when their work and the ethics of their profession are examined under a microscope, and Ten Ton Hammer can’t thank Michal Adam, April Burba, and Grace Wong enough for taking the time to talk with us. A big thank you goes out to the many players that responded to our questions with conviction and candor.