Managing Fan Expectations - An Interview with Vanguard Founder Brad McQuaid - Page 2

Updated Mon, Nov 02, 2009 by Shayalyn

It’s Not Just the Fans...

When it comes to keeping player expectations in line, it’s not just a game’s fans that a dev company has to concern itself with,

EverQuest made Brad McQuaid something of a gaming celebrity.

but the company’s own team. Todd “Nino” Masten, the man behind the oft-acclaimed music in Vanguard, was notoriously vocal about the game on the Fires of Heaven guild forum, to the point where he once admitted, “I've been strongly encouraged to stop posting here and will likely get lectured or have disciplinary action taken against me for this.”

Although team members working on a game in development are usually just as enthused, if not more so, about it than the people responsible for marketing the game, many dev companies keep most of their teams, with the exception of community managers and PR representatives, off forums to avoid letting anything but PR-approved commentary get out.

“I can certainly understand why most developers and publishers keep non-PR people away from the message boards,” McQuaid commented. “They don’t want to have to put forth the extra effort of media training a bunch of their people. They also don’t want any one person identifiable with their product--they want the consumer to think of the company, not, say, the lead designer.”

But McQuaid and Sigil’s upper management, with a few exceptions like Masten, were not quick to silence their team members during Vanguard’s development, preferring to let them have their say when it came to interacting with the fan community.

“My philosophy has always been to put the extra effort [of media training for staff members] in,” says McQuaid. “I want to see employees earn some name cache. This might not benefit the company directly, but I think it helps the industry overall. Look at movies in our society. I think the public benefits in knowing who produced a film, or who is starring in the film. If we only knew about the film company behind a movie I think that would be a disservice.”

McQuaid’s thinking is perhaps a bit outside the norm, however. While fans certainly do seem to appreciate the opportunity to communicate with a game’s developers one-on-one, the growing belief among dev companies seems to be that staff should work silently in the trenches. The voices for any given MMOG are often those approved by the game’s public relations and marketing team. Written interviews often pass PR approval before being returned to media outlets, and impromptu communication with fans, outside of fan events, is generally hard to come by.

There seems to be a growing cynicism among MMOG fans that most of what they hear about an upcoming game amounts to nothing but PR spin.

“PR spin is another form of hype,” says McQuaid. “But the hype is only bad if you don’t deliver. So the key is to hype the
"Marketing and PR are important parts of a product launch. Hyping a game is crucial, just as long as your game lives up to the hype. So I think the problem isn't necessarily with getting people excited, it's with not letting them down."
features of the game that you are confident you're going to deliver on.”

It’s a sound philosophy, but it seems a tough one to follow. Fans have grown accustomed to hearing about promised features, or classes, or even races and starting cities, which inevitably don’t make their way into the game by launch. And despite the reality that a development company only pulls out a promised feature when dire circumstances demand it, these fans can be less than forgiving.

Sales people have a creed: Under-promise and over-deliver. But to disillusioned fans, developers sometimes seem to do the opposite--they over-promise, yet under-deliver, leading to disappointment. Is it possible to prevent this scenario?

“I think sales people are often less attached to the project,” McQuaid insists. “As a developer, you pretty much fall in love with your game. You pour your heart and soul into it. It’s very easy to drink your own Kool-aid.” And again, he insists that the key to avoiding this scenario is to never promise something you can’t deliver. “Easier said than done, of course,” he adds.

This One Time, On the Official Forums...

In the past couple years, some large MMO titles, including Vanguard and Warhammer, have launched without official forums. Players often criticize this move, claiming that the lack of official forums means developers are refusing to acknowledge the inevitable crash that happens when stratospheric fan expectations meet with the reality of the live game. Is this fan argument valid? Or are there compelling reasons for games to launch without official forums? If discussion forums are a tool for managing player expectations, how do developers keep expectations in line without them?

“I think the ‘logic’ behind not having official forums is that disgruntled players are more likely to rant and rave on an official site than elsewhere,” says McQuaid. “But this philosophy is a two edged sword. Having been involved in projects where both philosophies have been adopted, I now think that having an official site does more good than harm.”

Keeping Hype Under Control

Hype is essential to the success of any MMOG, but building excitement for a game without over-hyping fans is an art few development companies seem able to master. Inevitably, fan expectations soar and the launching game faces the daunting task of living up to them. In the end, is it possible for a developer to keep the hype factor from spinning out of control?

“I think we can control it to a degree, but not completely,” says McQuaid. “Marketing and PR are important parts of a product launch. Hyping a game is crucial, just as long as your game lives up to the hype. So I think the problem isn’t necessarily with getting people excited, rather, it’s with not letting them down.”


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