The Soapbox: The real cost of breaking trust with gamers

    
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There’s a quote going around these days in gaming spheres about trust being like a broken vase that can be fixed but will never be the same – and with good reason. Even though most gamers don’t really need to concern themselves with the whole Unity debacle directly, I think everyone grasped how easy it would have been for gamers to grief developers under Unity’s original proposal. Gamers could’ve just punished developers they were mad at by simply uninstalling and reinstalling games to charge them money. No matter how you may feel about a single dev group, the idea that a company would open the floodgates against all devs in such an obvious way immediately painted Unity’s leaders as out of touch and untrustworthy.

And honestly, gamers are good at forgiving, if not forgetting. Activision-Blizzard, Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Riot Games… just the list of problematic companies in our industry could fill an entire article. Their games will still sell, no doubt. But betrayal always has a cost, even if it’s not immediate. Players may not buy that next game at release, or they’ll skip one altogether, or they won’t pay the subscription fees, or they won’t make any in-app purchases, or worse, they’ll simply pirate the games. And all this assumes the game/IP is any good and worth the forgiveness. Any mistake – from a bad quote to greedy monetization – and all the past mistakes are dredged back out into the light, so anyone who missed them before can see the heap of dung the company was hoping would stay buried.

The media are part of this cycle too.

Popcorn appropriately.

As some readers may vaguely recall, we held back an impressions piece for Overwatch 1’s Nintendo Switch release. At the time, it just felt icky, as Blizzard was neck-deep in its Hong Kong drama, just one entry in what was already a growing list of controversies even Wikipedia can’t keep track of. And when Overwatch 2 came out, despite being approved to cover it, I decided to pass on an impressions piece, not just for the Switch but in general.

It wasn’t just the connection issues and DDOS attacks or that some characters were so broken they got taken out for a bit. It was that Blizzard didn’t ship the product it had originally promised: a PvE “cooperative, narrative-driven game.” That was not the game I saw in beta, and the announcement that the originally pitched base game would be delayed immediately made me suspect Blizzard was pulling a bait-and-switch. I figured long before the announcement of such that OW2 was just more of the same Blizzard BS.

I was right, but hardly alone in that suspicion. I have friends who were high-rank players in the original Overwatch and got burned out by that. Just as I do, they still enjoy some of the shorts (one of the lead cinematic artists is an old friend), and they hoped PvE content would allow them to enjoy the IP again with other players instead of against them. I know plenty of people who like the look and story of Overwatch but just don’t do PvP. They enjoyed it from the outside, though. Even after all the drama, there was hope that PvE Overwatch would allow them join in with other fans in an actual OW game.

The fact that it never materialized makes the company that much less trustworthy. Not only does it come off as ethically and morally dubious, but it was unable to even launch a game in the advertised genre.

Of course, Blizzard is hardly the only company that’s willingly sacrificed the trust of gamers. As readers of my Massively on the Go column know, I’ve soured on Pokemon Go’s Niantic after years of controversies – and it didn’t have to be that way.

During a recent Community Day event, I chatted with one of my lapsed POGO-playing friends about some of the company’s recent good moves: a free premium item from a simple quest to help groups evolve the featured pokemon, decreased trade times from sped-up animations and cooldown adjustments, fixes for multiple freeze bugs, and the early arrival of October Event details.

That all sounds great, right? Except Niantic never really talked about any of that save for the October Events, and even that was minimally communicated via infograph alone, with another glaring error that had to be clarified after the fact. Niantic has had major communication issues for… well, forever, often choosing to market and advertise instead of honestly communicating (and we’re not the only media outlet talking about that). It’s only gotten worse in the last few years.

So while there have been some good, recent changes, the lack of discussion, even in advertising, still built some resentment. Why didn’t Niantic tease or advertise this? Why didn’t it talk to press about it? What negative changes is it planning to announce to balance this surprise positivity? Niantic’s history of skulking in the shadows and speaking in marketing hurts its image, and I don’t think it’s just with fans.

Have you seen many major gaming outlets with release reviews of Monster Hunter Now, Niantic’s latest game? ‘Cause I sure haven’t, and I don’t intend to change that on MOP. Again, as both a fan of the MH series and MMOARGs, I still have chosen not to touch the game. Even hunting partners who don’t know about my job here have sworn off even trying the game because of Niantic’s past. A major gaming side that’s done guides for the game has no release review, and no one on that site’s commenting on the game. When even an outlet that’s friendly to you doesn’t want to talk about your game, you should know you’re in trouble. From Star Citizen to Chronicles of Elyriaif you don’t follow through on your word, even before launch, both annoyed fans and skeptical press will remember.

Gaining or losing trust doesn’t even have to involve press, though. Nintendo, for example, has a history riddled with missteps, but its unique nature and stable of popular IPs ensure that Nintendo Directs are like mini-E3 reveals with the concomitant hype. It’s still PR and advertising work, but Nintendo shows and discusses gameplay – the nitty-gritty details of new mechanics – and that style of PR/marketing is a lot more trustworthy. Look no further than the hype generated after Baldur’s Gate 3 Panel from Hell revealed the game would allow for all kinds of open-ended play, including bear sex (obviously NSFW). As press, we can ask good questions and put things in a context, but companies can generate a lot of good will and trust by peeling back the curtain themselves and showing everyone what the game can do, using press to accelerate that message.

Nintendo proves that when you make a mistake as a game studio, people won’t hold it against you forever if you work hard to make amends and then seriously examine and change whatever the problem was. Final Fantasy XIV and Elder Scrolls Online aren’t just industry darlings in our genre because they turned their games around but also because they changed the way they did things. Some of my favorite interviews for this site have been with their devs, and I don’t even play those MMOs. I do often recommend them, though, supporting friends who play those games or attend their events. And word of mouth is everything in this genre – positive and negative.

They’re not perfect companies, but a long span of time between old issues and now is that if they do slip up again, it’s easier for us to forgive. As gamers, we may not forget, but putting in the time and effort to change your ways pays off – literally. And if, instead, you choose to put that money into PR and marketing that barely even apologizes for mistakes your fans and employees warned you not to make? Well, you probably deserve the reputation you have, along with the work required to repair it.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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