We're living in an age where connectivity and communication has never been easier nor more widespread and accessible than ever before. The supercomputers in our pockets present an enormous virtual tapestry filled with thoughts, concepts, notions, and ideas. Consuming information has never been more immediate, and presenting it has never been easier. Yet in spite of this, there've been a number of gaffes, controversies, issues, spats, dramas, and follies to have emerged over the past couple of months, and one factor that has contributed to them all has been a failure to successfully communicate.
Of course, most of the little issues have centred around one topic: the concept of a game or console requiring a permanent connection to the internet.
This week's little drama came to a head with Microsoft Studios' Adam Orth playfully tweeting the following:
"Sorry, I don’t get the drama around having an ‘always on’ console. Every device now is ‘always on’. That’s the world we live in. #dealwithit.”
Whether or not he meant it as part of a personal, jest-filled exchange or not, it clearly struck a chord.
Once again battle lines have seemingly been drawn between creators and consumers: big companies will do whatever the hell they like, and those who object will simply have to learn to like it, or lump it. From the alternative perspective the vocal mob are an impossible to please minority who don't know what's best for them, and are mired in conservative nostalgia.
Companies argue that gamers are an entitled bunch, and they're right. It's a weapon they use to leverage money out of us for pre-orders and Season Passes, to provoke fierce brand loyalty and whip up hype. But the technological age in which we live has made us impatient and cynical. We expect immediacy and transparency, because such things may now be afforded. When things fail to materialise, we bitch and moan and gripe and assume the worst.
And companies only have themselves to blame for that.
Microsoft are coming under fire because they haven't released any information at all regarding their plans for next-gen. The rumour mill continues to turn, public opinion continues to be swayed by whispers regarding incredibly early dev kits. The worry about always-on is that the days of putting a disc in a drive and playing the thing you paid for are gone. Defenders have been speaking of always-on's advantages, but the issue is that no-one is actually disputing those. Companies such as Microsoft and EA are not addressing the real issue, which is one of dictated practice: can I play my game if I don't have an internet connection? Yes or no?
We like choice, we like accessibility, we like to know that we can access the things we've paid for. And it's here that Orth's statement is wrong. Many devices and services do have online functionality, but they also have offline modes. Any game I download onto my phone can be played offline, unless it's a game that specifically requires a connection to be played such as an online multiplayer title. It's the same with my Vita and my 3DS and my tablet. Download once, play forever. Even Steam has an offline mode.
SimCity caused a stir because Maxis fundamentally failed to fully explain their game to their audience. We posited that the immediate backlash would have been lessened by the simple addition of "Online" to the name of the game to set this latest release apart. EA, clearly felt differently, despite acknowledging later on that the game was more like an MMO than anything else. Their failure to communicate that was the first big mistake. Their failure to deliver a game that worked (and still doesn't work properly over a month after release) was the second.
Peter Moore publicly (in a vitriol-stuffed comment on GamesIndustry) slammed the journalistic practice of perpetuating the image of EA as some dark, nefarious hive of corruption and evil following a Videogamer news post that quoted an anonymous source as suggesting that Dead Space 4 was cancelled. This is a company that has (both hilariously and worryingly) topped the list of Worst Companies in America, and looks to be on course for a repeat run this year. Apologists point out that Valve frequently do the same things as EA: they have their own proprietary distribution service that equates to being DRM, in-game microtransactions, they're trying to nickel-and-dime gamers just as much as anyone else.
CliffyB put it down to "being way better at their image control". And then moaned about moaners.
But he missed the point. Image control is important, and the reason gamers have more time for Valve than EA is because Valve appear to (and often do) have more time for them. They're better at communicating with their communities and therefore seen less as a faceless money-grabbing corporation, and more as engaged facilitators and creators. That last point is crucial: Valve create. Yeah, let's not forget the fact that Valve tend to forge paths, whilst EA tend to latch onto popular trends and IPs and squeeze them. Ultimate Team being the phenomenally excellent exception that proves the rule. Yes, EA have been at the forefront of allowing for more diverse experiences (particularly in terms of sexuality) when it comes to games like Mass Effect. But they're also the company that marketed an 18-rated game to kids, staged fake demonstrations, hijacked funerals, and pimped out their booth babes to competition winners. Mixed messages, wires crossed.
Sony's PS4 presentation said very little about the actual console itself but it delivered an emphatic and simple snippet of what Sony wanted to think about their new console. That it's social, will play everything from gorgeous triple-A games to indie curios, and as every developer under the sun seems to be eager to express, easy to develop for. And Shuhei Yoshida came straight out and said that you'll be able to play the PS4 offline, even as he suggested that keeping it connected would be the best thing. Simultaneously alleviating our fears, and allowing us to buy into the connected experience with free minds.
It's a lesson that the larger companies need to learn quickly because buying into experiences is rapidly becoming more and more prevalent. Take Kickstarter, for example. There's no product, just a concept, an idea, a promise and a team. Communication is everything: what's the idea? Why do you need crowdfunding? Who's making it and why should we trust you? Kickstarter has become the Den and made us all feel like Dragons.
As new business models shake off the shackles of the short-term, quick-buck bandwagon jumpers, and initiatives such as free-to-play continue to attract big name talent, with virtual platforms offering up pricing options to developers and publishers alike, consumer power is only going to continue to rise. Given that the games press seems to be fed up with having about as much impact as farting into a hurricane, it's to be expected that the indignation of being made to look like fools when crap games release to large hype might yield some results. The abuse of tightly defined channels of communication is there for the world to see, and things are slowly being done about it. Balances are slowly shifting, but that will take time. And a large site breaking the "rules", most likely.
Bad press for everything from timed reveals to coverage embargoes to late review copies to broken code to poor launches to drastic franchise changes to canned development to studio dissolution to valuations to new hardware, it all comes down to communication. It's no coincidence that the importance of community managers is heavily on the rise; communication has never been more important. These are products and IPs in which the gaming audience is massively invested, both in terms of time and money. Speak honestly and shoot straight. There's much more respect to be found that way.
UPDATE: Since originally writing this piece on Friday afternoon, two developments have occurred, and I'd like to cover them briefly here too as examples of what NOT to do.
- Peter Moore Responds To Consumerist Poll: We want companies to address their issues and take pride in what they do. So on the surface, Peter Moore riding to the defence of his company is admirable. Is it ridiculous that EA are thought of as more evil than companies that are actually ruining the lives of millions? Of course it is. Unfortunately, though, Moore buys into the face value of the pantomime that is the Consumerist vote, and fails to actually address any of the serious criticisms levelled at EA. "We will do better," he says, without explaining how, when, or that he understands why they must.This sort of thing is why EA are in this mess in the first place. And it must be annoying, having to deal with being Public Enemy No. 1 after Bobby Kotick tried so very hard to wrestle away the crown a couple of years back. But perhaps by actually taking action and delivering innovation rather than talking in empty buzzwords and keyphrases, and hijacking the ideas and IPs of others, EA might rise again. The emphasis in "we will do better" is most firmly on the do part of that sentence.And sort your marketing and PR departments out.
- Microsoft Apologise For Orth's Always-On Comments: This could all be behind us now. All Microsoft would have had to do is issue a statement where they actually said something. Instead we get a hollow apology for a personal opinion, a company disclaimer, and a reminder that Microsoft have singularly failed to engage with their existing fanbase regarding plans for the next generation. They distanced themselves from the comment, but spectacularly failed to give any indication of when they might mop up the mess, let alone resolve the situation immediately. Imagine the sighs of relief that could have been. Instead, more fingernails will be chewed.