Vague Patch Notes: Managing the MMO message, volume two: How to shut up

    
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As in close your mouth and stop talking.

It wasn’t so long ago that we talked about managing the message when it comes to fans and the like, but today I want to talk about a more advanced and yet still simple technique. Something so obvious that you would think it doesn’t need to be mentioned, and yet you also see so many developers completely screw this up for no good reason. Something so simple that you can achieve this goal by doing absolutely nothing.

Yes, today we’re talking about shutting up.

At the start of the year I wrote a whole article about the ways to improve your MMO sphere in general, and this was mentioned in there but didn’t get a whole lot of elaboration. But it’s worth addressing once more, both on an individual level and a corporate level (even if the studios who most need this advice are generally indies). You see, shutting up is a valuable tool of response, and while on the surface it would seem to end discussion, it actually can produce a better discussion in the process.

It's all riding rats.

Let me start by explaining my own particular policy. I always read the comments on stuff that I write. Seriously, always. But you may not know that just from looking at the number of comments I write, which tend to be uncommon at best. The reason is that I have a very simple list of reasons for adding a comment to a piece I wrote:

  1. The comment I am replying to brings up an interesting related discussion topic that I feel deserves some additional attention.
  2. The comment I am replying to points out something that was unclear or ambiguous in the original piece, which gives me an opportunity to insert some additional clarity.
  3. I have a really good joke and doing so can be added in a fairly light one-line response.

That’s it. However tempted I might be to add something more for other reasons, I don’t. And the reason for that is pretty simple: Replying to anything gives it an extra sense of importance.

For example, let’s say I write a piece about Final Fantasy XIV and someone decides to take to the comments to inform everyone that FFXIV is an unpopular piece of trash that no one should ever play. This is almost farcically wrong. But popping into the comments to explain that has about zero chance of convincing either the author of the comment or onlookers. If anything, it’s more likely to convince people uninvolved with the game that this is an important accusation the game needs defending against.

Plus, you know, I’m not getting paid to defend this game. I write about the game because I enjoy the game and I have a lot to say about it, and I have ample criticism about the things it does do poorly. So the smartest thing to do is to just ignore it. Defending this game isn’t my job, and I don’t need to give this a veneer of legitimacy.

Tick-tock.

You know what winds up being the worst look for World of Warcraft? When the community managers respond to a negative thread trying to calmly explain why the thing lots of people don’t like is actually a good thing. Heck, lots of people still haven’t forgotten the immortal “you think you want it, but you don’t” with the then-unplanned WoW Classic discussion. Addressing these things badly makes them notable.

What would have been better in that situation? Not talking about it. If you can’t get around someone asking the question in an ad hoc sense, just shrug and say “we’re not currently planning that or talking about it.” I am absolutely certain that would have resulted in fewer people crowing about how right they were when those classic servers actually happened because there wouldn’t be an incredibly tone-deaf quote right there to mock.

Heck, sometimes this is the best option even for people whose jobs actually are defending the game. Remember, if you take the time to defend a game against criticism – even if you’re being paid to do so – you are in some way signal boosting that criticism. You are stating that this is worthy of time and thought and response. Half the time, if you just stay quiet, it’s going to be a better look in the long term.

At one point on Massively-that-was, I actually had a head of PR at a major company basically threaten to demolish my career and reputation because of a critical (but true) article I wrote. You can imagine what effect that had (and still has) on our collective view of that company as a whole.

Speculation.

And to make my point? I bet some of you just scarpered off to the comments to speculate about who it was and what caused it. Even if you don’t mention details, mentioning the concept gives it more attention, whether you want it to get more attention or not.

Writing about this at the state of the year, my focus was much more on writing for the benefit of players rather than the PR side of things. My core content was (and remains) that the best way to make your own life better is to just learn the art of not-talking after a certain point. It’s usually pretty obvious right away if you’re going to have a meaningful and productive discussion in which you learn about other perspectives or just a shouting match, and the latter is best dealt with by silence and walking away.

But today, the advice is more broad. It’s not just about players; it’s also about people working PR, or people talking about their favorite games on message boards (or yes, in the comments). Sometimes, the best response to something that you think is egregiously wrong is just to ignore it.

This can go wrong in the other direction, naturally; witness the wall of silence surrounding any and all discussions of Lord of the Rings Online right now that’s producing a great deal of ill will among players, especially when coupled with charging big money for what is ultimately just a content patch. Look at the games where developer silence has caused problems, like how Pantheon got a drubbing for saying nothing until it was suddenly sort of panhandling. Being quiet at the wrong time can absolutely lead to problems.

Rather, the point is that you should be aware that being quiet is a reasonable and realistic option. You don’t need to respond to every criticism, especially bad-faith ones. Sometimes your best way to respond to something is to just refuse to give it the time of day.

Or, to steal my own analogy from earlier this year: You probably do not feel the need to respond to a small child challenging you to a fight because you’re dealing with a small child. There’s no need to treat every criticism – or perceived criticism – as a personal attack that absolutely must be responded to with the full force of your PR department and/or fandom.

And if you do so, don’t be surprised if people are less convinced of your game’s superiority than of your thin-skinned PR team and/or fans.

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.
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