Star Wars Galaxies: Anatomy of a PR Disaster
Developers of the niche field of Massively Multiplayer Online Games would kill for the kind of press access that LucasArts/Sony Online Entertainment's Star Wars Galaxies is currently getting. The New York Times? Christian Science Monitor? Wired? All in one week? Blizzard Entertainment's mega-hit World of Warcraft aside, the media still barely knows MMOGs exist. So this massive exposure is great, right? Well, let's look at the headlines:
- NYT: For Online Star Wars Game, It's Revenge of the Fans
- Wired: Star Wars Fans Flee Net Galaxy
- Christian Science Monitor: Dumbing down virtual 'Star Wars' may backfire
- Yahoo! Games: When Galaxies Implode
This is beyond bad press -- this is a disaster for a struggling product in a marketing niche that depends on positive word of mouth to generate subscribers willing to pony up $15 a month. Star Wars Galaxies isn't at the end of its road yet, but it doesn't seem too early to slow down past the wreckage and take a look at how two massive corporations with one of the world's most popular intellectual properties managed to run through the guardrails.
I started playing SWG in January 2004, sticking with it for more than a year before time constraints, other distractions and frustration with the game's ongoing bugs had me seeking greener pastures. But I can't help following the continuing drama surrounding the game. In addition to nostalgia -- I still have an attachment to the online friends and experiences I had playing the game -- there's also fascination with the wrong turns that continue to be taken. In that sense, I almost understand peoples' fascination with the Jerry Springer show. Almost.
Swarthmore College professor Timothy Burke and a kajillion commenters at the academic group blog Terra Nova provide an analysis reflected in the mass media coverage. Essentially, SWG was doing decent business for a massively multiplayer online game -- at one time it was among the top of the field, and was estimated to have about 200,000 subscribers. Before the launch of World of Warcraft, this made them a gorilla. Compared to WoW's worldwide subscriber base of millions, this made them just another monkey. A big monkey, but a monkey nonetheless -- this despite the fact that, Jar Jar Binks notwithstanding, Star Wars isn't just any popular intellectual property, it's a worldwide phenomenon. This was supposed to be the game that broke MMOGs into the mainstream, not a competing property that was unknown outside of computer gaming circles. And, thanks to a lack of content and persistently unaddressed bugs, SWG was shedding players.
LucasArts apparently pushed for, and Sony Online Entertainment implemented, a massive overhaul to the very structure of the game in order to attract newer, younger, more casual players. SWG had been a complex virtual-world game, where different players interdependently fought Rebels/Imperials; crafted and sold munitions and starships for the combatants; and built virtual homes, businesses and cities. A new action-game combat system removed the value in player-crafted goods, removing the value of the crafters' economic game. 32 mix-and-match professions that players could combine to customize their play experiences were reduced to nine isolated "iconic" character classes. SOE had long fielded complaints from fans about how many players had managed to acquire "Jedi" characters in a game set between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. At a time when Jedi were supposed to be rare, there were an awful lot of them running around. Now Jedi were one of the nine starting professions -- anyone and everyone could be one.
Their existing customers were not amused.
The changes themselves were questionable, although it's hard to argue that something drastic was needed to keep the game viable. (While SWG on its own merits could be considered a success, its revenue had to be split between two companies that maintained a large development team. It needed to be bigger.) Where the companies shot themselves in the foot, however, was in the public rollout of the changes. MMOGs aren't just computer games; they're managed communities. MMOG developers aren't just game publishers; they're service providers.
So here's what Sony and LucasArts did to make themselves a case study for the industry, and to direct the media coverage toward the bad reaction to the game rather than the game itself:
Never Write Off Your Existing Customers: The so-called New Game Experience was announced on November 2 with no warning, and was scheduled to go live two weeks later. Although SWG had an extensive "correspondent program" that attempted to streamline communication about game development and player opinions between Sony Online Entertainment and the customers, the changes came as a complete surprise. (The story was first broken at the gamer site f13.net.)
What this suggests to me was that folks at LucasArts and Sony were concerned enough about player reaction to the changes to try to postpone a negative reaction, but not concerned enough to try to sell the changes. SWG senior director Nancy MacIntyre of LucasArts in the NYT: "We knew we were taking a significant risk with our existing player base, but we felt so strongly that we needed to make these changes for the sake of the game's long-term future that we all held hands, LucasArts and Sony, and went forward." There was no real attempt to hold the customers' hands.
LucasArts and SOE may have thought that such an effort would be a lost cause; they knew they were taking the game in a direction unlikely to please many of their current customers. What they clearly did not plan for was a furor that would lead to account cancellations and, worse, rapidly spreading word of mouth, with disgruntled players only too happy to contribute to the toxic buzz in the media. By treating their existing customers as loose cannons rather than engaging them in the redesign process, LucasArts and SOE fueled the backlash they feared.
Never Assume That Your Customers Don't Read The Times: This one's a corollary to the previous lesson. Carolyn Hocke's complaint in Wired was typical of the player reaction to the changes: "It's now a shoot'em-up game for adolescents, not at all conducive to our play style." LucasArts' MacIntyre was surely aware of this likely reaction -- through attrition, the SWG customer base was now consolidated into a mass of subscribers who were comfortable in a complex virtual world. And yet MacIntyre said this to the Times: "We really just needed to make the game a lot more accessible to a much broader player base ... There was lots of reading, much too much, in the game ... We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat. We needed to give people more of an opportunity to be a part of what they have seen in the movies rather than something they had created themselves."
Let's leave aside for the moment the content of the quote, which Jeremy Dauber of the Christian Science Monitor called "as close to a direct definition of philistinism as anything I have ever read." For players of virtual world-style games, "something they had created themselves" was exactly the carrot that led them to renew their subscriptions. MacIntyre's statement announced LucasArts' intention to seek a new, younger demographic of players -- presumably a demographic unlikely to read the Times. The current players did, however. The already strong meme, "Sony's dumbing down our game," was confirmed. Thanks to the Times article, so was the implied follow-up message: "Sony and LucasArts don't want us."
In addition to marginalizing her existing customers, MacIntyre told a newspaper with an educated readership that the new direction of the game was repetitive and passive, not creative. Somehow she didn't recognize that this would not likely be regarded as a "plus" among Times readers. Meanwhile her comments spread like wildfire on the official and unofficial Star Wars Galaxies forums, where a suspicious clientele was already upset.
The Morale Will Not Improve After A Public Beheading: About a week after the New Game Experience was announced, some players with connections to Sony Online Entertainment claimed that Diane "Tiggs" Migliaccio, director of community relations for Star Wars Galaxies, had been unexpectedly fired. Her separation from SOE was subsequently confirmed by Sony's director of global community relations. Bound by an nondisclosure agreement, Migliaccio shed little light on her separation on her blog other than to indicate that it was a surprise. Sony -- properly -- would not divulge any details either.
The reasons for Migliaccio's separation are no one's business but hers and Sony's, of course. However, as director of community relations "Tiggs" was omnipresent on the Star Wars Galaxies online forums. Her job was frequently described as a communications facilitator, helping to bring customer concerns to SOE as well as sharing developer information with the players. Players variously regarded her as a shill for SOE or the one developer who listened to them. Her abrupt departure made her a martyr among a playerbase whose already high hostility had just been turned up to 11. Forum moderators from other SOE games had to be called in to help manage the message boards. Mass deletions of threads, both hostile to the New Game Experience and demanding explanations of "Tiggs"'s departure, and banning the most strident or obnoxious opponents, followed.
The timing of this highly visible key personnel change could not have been worse. If there had been any way for Sony Online Entertainment to avoid or postpone it, they should have. Instead, SOE ratcheted up the anxiety and frustration of players in a way almost unrelated to, but feeding into, the crisis.
The New York Times would never have covered the Star Wars Galaxies revamp if they hadn't found a conflict brewing that was far more interesting than a feature list on a press release. Now LucasArts and Sony Online Entertainment must contend with not only a skeptical gamer press famiiar with its troubled history, but a very public airing of their dirty laundry and a steady stream of exiting (or staying and howling) customers warning everyone within earshot that the game is bad and its producers untrustworthy. If Star Wars Galaxies does indeed increase its subscriber base to sustainable levels, it will be the result of a massive effort to overcome the bad buzz. It'll require outstanding technical execution on the game developers' part to overcome expectations, but (more dauntingly) the creation of an entire new community. In the October 2005 issue of Game Studies, Swarthmore professor Burke wrote:
We have reached the odd point in the history of MMOGs where managers aggressively combat the spread of negative news as this is considered (accurately, I think) to influence the decision of other subscribers about whether to continue with a game. It is almost like the old idea of the “mandate of Heaven” in the political history of China: when a game is perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be bleeding subscribers, it starts to actually bleed subscribers, and a snowball effect gains speed rapidly. As one commentator at the website Terra Nova observed, this is part of the unresolved tension between subscription multiplayer games being both “a publishing industry and a service industry."
MMOG developers who are watching the SWG drama and wondering whether they can "fix" a game and retain their playerbase should take a note from Rich Vogel, former executive producer of Star Wars Galaxies, whose talk at the Montreal International Game Summit was reported by Gamasutra (emphasis added):
Vogel says MMOG owners do well to admit their mistakes. “Win over your community so that they are forgiving of you when you really screw up,” he said. He also gave some advice about distracting the players when making a change to the game, not answering controversies that arise, as it just feeds them, and not taking too seriously the forum rants of hardcore players, who don't represent the silent majority. You can get feedback from the quieter majority, however, by simply administering surveys. However, the hardcore, verbal players are the people who generate word of mouth marketing, Vogel admits, “so keep them happy, too.”
The key is to engage your customers, not avoid them.