Vague Patch Notes: The taxonomy of corporate apologies in video games

    
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We're just not going to discuss one vector for whining about this story element. We're not.

Somehow, Bethesda managed to persevere after the Great Canvas Shortage of 2018 to replace the Fallout 76 CE bags that were essentially plastic shopping bags with, you know, the bags they advertised. (A tip of the hat to GreaterDivinity for that bit.) The whole thing is part of a continued black eye over the game, despite the fact that it affects a really, really small percent of the players of the game; it’s easily being held up as an example of incompetence, greed, and grifting.

This isn’t about that, though. It’s more about the fact that Final Fantasy XIV launched its new expansion last year and people were literally unable to progress with the game at all for two or three days due to bugs. Or, more accurately, it’s about why that severe bug was more or less forgotten within a week while we are still talking about making bags well after the initial acknowledgement and apology.

In other words? Let’s talk corporate apologies!

The funny thing about corporate apologies is that you can really break them down into two parts, and each part falls under one of three categories. The first, and arguably more immediately important, is the actual text of the apology, all of which can be boiled down to three lines:

  1. “We’re sorry we screwed up.”
  2. “We’re sorry this happened.”
  3. “We’re sorry you noticed this.”

whoopsie-daisy

“We’re sorry we screwed up” is the obvious one that’s going to make the most positive impression. There’s no hedging with this one; the developers take a black eye and admit that this was their failing. At the same time, it also has the benefit of… well, the developers just admit the mistake. The lack of hedging or excusing tends to go over well with players because while it requires eating crow, it also tells players that their concerns are valid and real instead of minor or pedantic.

“We’re sorry this happened” is the most common response. It doesn’t outright admit fault, treating things as if they were some sort of natural disaster rather than something totally under the control of the development staff (obviously, this doesn’t have the same issues when it is a natural disaster). This in and of itself tends to not make people angrier, but it also doesn’t make people less angry.

“We’re sorry you noticed this” comes up far too often when it really doesn’t ever fit in an apology context. It’s the equivalent of telling your romantic partner “sorry you’re too sensitive,” and it turns away wrath about as well as a magnet turns away paper clips. The problem here not only isn’t acknowledged to be under developer control, but it’s not even acknowledged as a problem at all.

Every company winds up with a certain voice and a “usual” approach, although the vast majority seem to wind up around #2. Naoki Yoshida, the effective face of the FFXIV development team, rarely winds up falling below #1, going so far as physically falling on his knees at the recent fan festival for the aforementioned server issues. Bethesda, meanwhile, leaned hard on #3 with its apology over the bag issue.

But an apology alone is just part of the dynamic. More often than not, especially when the rather value-neutral “sorry for this event” is what we get, the equally important question is what will be done by way of compensation. Go ahead and finish this sentence: “As a token of our apology, please accept…”

  1. “…this effort to correct the issue as close as reality will allow.”
  2. “…this generous but unrelated pile of stuff.”
  3. “…this picture of the development staff looking sad.”

uh-oh, spaghetti-os

All right, no one actually offers that last item, but they may as well. The dynamic should be clear. In #1, the developer is trying hard to make up for the issue in the only way that you can after the fact. Blizzard for a long time was great about this, offering subscription extensions in compensation for server outages. Couldn’t play for a couple of days? You get those days for free. It won’t fix the time you lost, but it’s the closest effort the company can actually met.

The second option – let’s not mince words – a form of bribery. It’s not really addressing the central issue, but it is hopefully giving you so much unrelated stuff that you won’t care any more. A lot of free-to-play titles go with this approach. “Sorry the game was down for three days straight; as compensation, please enjoy two million currency and a free lockbox.”

Sometimes, yes, there’s no real way to address the problem directly other than offering a bunch of additional stuff for free. The hope here is to take off the sting even if the company can’t actually fix the problem.

Last but certainly not least, #3 can sometimes be something with actual value and sometimes nothing of value whatsoever; the point is that it’s as close to nothing as to round down to nothing. To use a random example: It’s like offering $5 of compensation to address not selling a product as advertised. Or just offering an apology without any form of compensation when a game’s online features don’t work at all. Or asking if your audience members have cell phones when they’re outraged by an announcement.

Yes, I realize the last wasn’t really a follow-up from an apology, but it was the closest thing anyone was going to get, and it follows in the same spirit.

baby why you gotta play me like that, i didn't meeeeeeeeean to give you rabies

Back toward the start of the year, we had a Daily Grind asking about whether or not you accept apologies when companies offer them. There’s a diversity of different responses, but a lot of people noted that context is everything. But I don’t think that frequency is really what determines that context; what determines it is what form those apologies take. If a game has a string of issues, but every single one gets an apology of “we’re sorry, we screwed up, here’s the best thing we can do to make this right,” we tend to forget about them.

Sure, we’re aware that they happen, we might even be pretty ticked off at the time… but how many people actually remember the days when World of Warcraft kept having server crashes? We’re aware it happened, but people aren’t still angry about it. People are still angry about the NGE, though, because that was very much in the “we’re sorry this bothers you, too bad, deal with it” vein.

It’s why, well, players and fans pretty much stopped being angry about FFXIV’s server issues once they were resolved. Meanwhile, Niantic still has fans angry about issues in the very earliest days of Pokemon Go, not because those issues haven’t been resolved (they have!) but because the company did such a bad job acknowledging and apologizing that the anger lingered and calcified.

And it’s why a lot of people – even those who never expected a bag of any sort from Fallout 76 – are pretty mad about how that entire debacle was handled. There’s an art to the apology, and if a soft answer turneth away wrath, a dismissal invites wrath to move in with his buddies resentment, ill repute, and contempt.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

Next week, it’s time to talk Libertarian reforms, G. K. Chesterton, and badge currency!

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kjempff
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kjempff

Possibly this is tied with management culture, or well said in another way ..responsibility culture. There is this fear, and rightfully so, that anyone admitting failing at something, can loose their position and not only just their current job but a dent in their carreer. Of course it is silly to think anyone is perfect and that you aren’t allowed to make mistakes, but such is the culture in workplaces. People with positions of responsibility are reluctant to admit mistakes, and the higher you go which means more costly mistakes the willingness to admit a mistake dissapear.
In some cases with modern management philosophies, the company culture allows and recognize that ALL people make mistakes and the only way to deal with that is to break down the very authoritive and controlled responsibility patterns so that responsibility is shared. That makes people more secure in their positions and more likely to recognize and admit mistakes and problems early on, so it can be corrected before itgrows big.
Yeah anyways, admitting and publicly admitting a mistake is not easy because a company is not an entity, it has to come from a person, someone confident enough to take the blame, and those people are not common in the old company culture.

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Robert Mann

I give it a little wider range, in both cases. For example, in the first category I might include “We are sorry we did not find this issue before it went live” and “We are sorry that we have to bother talking with you, but since we must…” The first is between the neutral and the falling upon a sword styles, and the latter is actually a general indication that they know they want to pass off the blame (and is between neutral and the not-our-fault styles).

I also tend to look at the responses with the inclusion of “We promise we will make it better (and nothing happens) and “There’s not a lot we can do to actually fix this.” Which don’t really fit quite so nicely in the scale, but the “We promise” is actually the most common there.

I accept any sincerity in the apology (up to the neutral, depending upon situation and context/tone) and the only thing I want in the later part is trying to make as good as possible. Anytime a company does that, they have my support. If they do not, they will reap a net loss to my support which may escalate into going onto my personal blacklist where they can only expect the following response: “You shall not see a dime!”

Ernost
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Ernost

I wonder if culture plays a part in this. From what I’ve seen, the likelyhood of a developer issuing a proper apology is Eastern>European>American, i.e. Eastern devs are far more likely to do it than Americans ones, with European ones falling somewhere in the middle.

Xijit
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Xijit

The funny thing is that when it comes to management grade apologises (as opposed to developers apologising), that scale runs in reverse.

If something critical hots the fan big time at an American publisher, it is the CEO of the entire company up on the stage saying “ok, we screwed the pooch.” But you will never, ever, ever, ever, ever see the CEO for an asian company take the blame for shit.

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Robert Mann

That’s also part of the culture differences, and something driven from the same ideas actually. In Asia, a worker is expected to honorably protect those above them if they do something wrong. In the U.S., the buck goes to the highest level by default. And the entire reason is respect, and where it is given.

In Asia, bosses treat their workers with a code of respect (in general). That is, they have a system of how they should act, and it includes treating their workforce like valued people. In the U.S., on the other hand, respect is about position and wealth above anything else… so we tend to get a lot less of bosses caring well for workers, and in turn workers couldn’t give less of a care if their not-so-respectful boss who doesn’t give them raises but takes a huge raise has to take the fall.

An interesting consequence of the culture of business, I daresay!

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Robert Mann

It probably does, especially since the business cultures in each place are so profoundly different with regard to honesty, respect, and how important profit is compared to the first two.

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rafael12104

Great article. Thank you.

*sigh* How appropriate that you should publish this now given recent events.

I feel like the “We are sorry, but we don’t give a shit” apology seethes underneath many of the given responses irrespective of the category.

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Schlag Sweetleaf
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rafael12104

LOL! And the perfect song to boot!

Zeras
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Zeras

FFXIV shows what a game company is capable of when they do the right thing .

Unfortunately, too many other game companies are driven by the money (or lack thereof) behind them to where most apologies or admission of fault is nothing more than a form-like letter used to give their customers hope that one day in the future things will be better.

That leads to a lot of their customers sticking around long enough to make the developers think the frustration level was simply a vocal minority so they shift their focus from fixing the game over to what will generate the next round of money for them such as expansions, DLCs, cash shop items, etc.

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MolleaFauss

“we’re listening” = “we would love to take your feedback into account but it clashes with our business plan”
“we value your feedback” = “we need to understand how many people we would piss off if we were to do this”
I’ve also a few other but they don’t come to mind now.

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Khalith .

The corporate apologies and the results of games like Fallout 76 is why I actively encourage all my friends and people I know to do a few things:

1. NEVER pre-order.
2. NEVER buy a game without checking out reviews/gameplay footage.
3. NEVER buy collector’s editions until you’re sure the reviews/gameplay convince you to buy it.
4. NEVER get on the hype train. This might be the most important one of them all.

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Ironwu

FFXIV has set the bar for an apology. They pulled the game from the market for a year. Fixed it. And gave all the original purchasers the new game, stuff, and time.

No other MMO company has even come close to reaching that high standard of behavior.

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Vincent Clark

Great article, Eliot. Humility can go a long way, but for some reason developers tend to lose sight of who is actually paying their salary (i.e. the people playing their game).

Players are hard to please, no doubt. But the fact that people joke about “Raubahn Extreme” and shrug it off says a lot about the relationship Yoshida has with the player base and how much respect he has garnered.

It’s a shame more developers/companies don’t follow his example.