A few days ago I posted a comment on Kotaku to this article, which discusses a bit of a PR fiasco game developer Infinity Ward has found itself in after announcing that it’s new FPS Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 would no longer support dedicated servers for PC gamers. The comment was lengthy enough that I’ve decided to repost it here, but first some context. (note: original comment appears near the end)
Call of Duty is a multi-million dollar franchise published by Activision and developed by Infinity Ward (IW) and Treyarch, each developer taking turns to put out a new game every year. Originally Call of Duty was a WWII first-person shooter, and was an instant hit when it launched. To freshen up the brand, IW released Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2007, which went on to be one of the biggest sellers in gaming history. That game put IW on the map, and a sequel was inevitable. Because the game is multi-platform, however, it had to appeal to two very different audiences—console owners and PC gamers. The main difference between the two is that PC gamers tend to be more hardcore and expect greater freedom and control over the gameplay, while console gamers range from hardcore to casual with plenty in between.
COD: MW was loved by PC gamers because it allows them to host their own dedicated servers to run matches. It also lets them to modify what options are enabled in ranked public matches, up to 64-player support (only 18 on consoles), the ability to lean, and most fun of all map creation and game modding, which lets the gamers change the game rules and graphics in almost any way they want.
an AWESOME Star Wars mod
The buzz for COD: MW2 was huge the moment it was announced, and honestly that’s no surprise. Robert Bowling, former community manager and current creative strategist for IW, was leading the communications charge in what started out with great promise. He was already on Twitter and was writing his own blog, and MW2 had its own Twitter and news site as well. They had even set up a twitter site tracking #MW2 comments, and posted questions for fans to respond to. The latter had some problems, like tracking any #MW2 comments and not ones related to the questions being posed, but it let users vote up the best comments in an attempt to keep them relevant.
All in all, a great start.
So what went wrong?
On October 17, 2009, with less than a month before the 11.10.09 launch date arrived, Bowling announced during a webcast (around the 1:39:00 mark) that IWNet would be implemented as a match-making service for PC gamers—and the end of dedicated server support. He called this making multiplayer more accessible to the PC community, but it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t see the serious backlash from the hardcore PC gamers coming.
This was not the end of the announcements, either. Soon after PC gamers discovered that everything that made the PC version unique was being taken away from them—no more leaning, no more modding or mapping. No more console for granular control over game settings, and perhaps worst of all, no more 64, or 32, player matches, meaning larger game clans, essentially the sports teams of gaming world would have to split up if they wanted to play. And, without dedicated servers, they will face greater lag issues and greater difficulty connecting with only the players they want to play with, since IWNet will do the matchmaking for them.
At this point IW and Bowling had already made one big mistake in their PR campaign—they didn’t engage the small but passionate demographic of their gaming community early enough. Fine, everyone makes mistakes. The problem then is how they continued to ignore the PC gamer audience. During an open online QA hosted by Best Buy—good idea, by the way, gives direct access to the game developers—IW game designer Mackey McCandlish and weapons artist Ryan Lastimosa deliberately and arrogantly snubbed the PC gamers participating in the event with unfortunately classic examples of terrible PR responses. For example:
Q: Is there a console in the PC version of the game, so we can change our field of view from the Xbox’s default 65 FOV to 80 also can we tweaks the weapon damage for each gun, removes perks, graphical debris, breathing sway, also thru console like we where [sic] able to before or is this all gone? Vince-IW: We would like you to play the game the way we designed and balanced it.
And even worse:
Moriarte: Ignoring IW.net, is the PC version a direct port of the console version? Mackey-IW: No, PC has custom stuff like mouse control, text chat in game, and graphics settings.
To suggest that “mouse control, in-game text chat, and adjustable graphics settings” somehow makes the game more than just a port of the console version is not the best choice of words.
Bowling, meanwhile, wasn’t doing much better, suggesting that the number of hardcore PC gamers was so small as to be meaningless when it came to game design decisions. He also called MW2 “their most feature-rich PC gamer yet,” despite all of the features that had been removed, and called the hardcore PC gamers “a very vocal community [that is] all online.” Ouch.
The great and tragically ironic climax to all of this is that Bowling himself declared just a few days later that he doesn’t think “any developer should not have control of how their game is presented or marketed or communicated… and they should take control of that a lot, lot more.” I might agree with you, Mr. Bowling, but I would add that whomever is handling it be someone with some level of competence.
IW has the tools, but they don’t have the skills, the experience or the wisdom to engage with its community in a way that respects the many, many opinions they’ve received.
What should they have done? What should they be doing right now?
I’ll let my original Kotaku comment answer the first question:
The problem, and the great irony here, is not that IW has jacked the PC version--it's their total arrogance in going about it. I'm not condoning the jacking, but they really needed to at least try to make their audience understand their reasons for doing so, and in this they've failed completely. I find it ironic because IW was JUST saying how important it is for developers to handle their own marketing, and so far they're doing a terrible job of it! They seem to be totally clueless--Bowling especially--about the importance of showing a little humility to their fans, especially when they make changes that they KNOW will piss people off. No, the end-user is not always right, as some are saying here. But that doesn't mean you ignore them! Just because IW doesn't need to worry about the money they make on PC game sales doesn't mean you dismiss those gamers voices--in essence IW has told PC gamers they are 2nd class to console gamers, their opinions are insignificant. There's almost no faster way to destroy your brand. If I were IW here's what I would have done:
1. Pay special attention to those who are complaining--show them you're listening and understand their feelings.
2. Make sure I'm engaging them on public platforms, Twitter, Facebook, developer blogs, whatever.
3. Explain the reasons for jacking the game, and BE SPECIFIC. None of this "game balance" crap, that is PR nonsense designed to deflect, condescend, and offend. Your real reasons might not make the complainers happy, but at a deeper level they'll appreciate your honesty AS LONG AS YOU ARE BEING RESPECTFUL. You're worried about piracy? Ok, say so! You've actually received a lot of feedback from other PC gamers who find the game too hard to play because of cheating? Say that too, but HAVE PROOF to back yourselves up.
4. Make it clear you are flexible--let people know you're monitoring the community and are searching for ways to let people enjoy at least some of the things that made PC gaming special, like mapping and modding.
5. Finally, take a page out of Valve's book on L4D2--they handled their PR crisis beautifully, and look at what happened: complainers came away more than satisfied, and sales are up 4x over the original game! Seriously they won on all counts and still managed to make the game they wanted to make.
I find it so effin funny that IW thinks they know how to communicate with their audience, when they clearly have no idea. Sorry, I mean when they clearly don't care. Methinks they've been watching one too many episodes of Madmen. Get a clue, IW--MW2 might sell like hotcakes, but your reputation has suffered tremendously. I was looking forward to getting this for PS3, but maybe I'll wait awhile.
And as far as what they should be doing now is making it very clear that a lot of the details about how IWNet will operate are not finalized and that there is room for change and that they are listening to user feedback from everyone, whether it’s hardcore or casual gamers. And drop the arrogant holier-than-though attitude, be apologetic and promise you’ll do better in the future.
You screwed up on this one, IW, not the gamers.