It’s hard to make players happy in free-to-play mobile games, and now it’s Scopely’s turn to face the wrath of players after some glitches in its popular The Walking Dead: Road to Survival game. Such player revolts have happened before in games like Marvel Contest of Champions and Modern War, and they hold important lessons for game developers, particularly those who reach millions of players.

Scopely’s game developers apologized, and the company gave players valuable items in compensation. But then another glitch happened again this weekend, and Scopely had to apologize again.

The first glitches came to a head a few weeks ago when Scopely tried something that was more ambitious than the bi-weekly “war” event, in which factions of human players battle it out for a top prize. In the past, the war took place just in a particular region or server. But earlier this month, Scopely and its developers tried to spice things up with a cross-region war, where factions from different places could battle each other.

But the technology didn’t cooperate. Normally, the wait times for matchmaking could take five or 10 minutes. But in the cross-region war, some players had to wait for more than eight hours, and they were helpless in the meantime. Top factions — with players who spend the most money on The Walking Dead — had troubles getting matches, and others scored more points. The Scopely staff responded to complaints saying they could do nothing, as the war had already started.

Scopely apologized and gave players virtual items as compensation, but they complained about the value of those gifts. One of them, Kayla Hebert, posted about her frustration with Scopely, and it received hundreds of comments. She noted how players were going on a spending strike. Road to Survival’s Albert Wei, the game’s general manager, and Scopely senior VP of product Jori Pearsall wound up issuing a rare, lengthy apology.

“You’ve told us that we are not consistently delivering on the kind of game you deserve, and that we not communicating as well as we should about the game, the updates, and the player experience. Your concerns are real. We’ve missed the mark and we need to own it,” Wei wrote.

Above: Player-versus-player combat in The Walking Dead: Road to Survival.

Image Credit: Scopely

He added, “As game makers, we cannot be successful without being passionate about gaming, both as players as well as a creators. As individuals we’ve put literally thousands of hours into [making concepts], creating, and running Road to Survival, and it’s a real hit to the gut to realize that we’re not living up to the bar we set for ourselves. We’ve spent the past days discussing the player feedback with the team and hammering out the concrete steps we need to take to address these issues, not just today, but consistently as the game evolves.”

Wei said the cross-region war was designed to give players bigger rewards and more excitement, but he acknowledged the result was disappointing and inconsistent.

“If this was a one time issue, it probably would not have created much concern, but we recognize that we have under-delivered on a recent series of Wars and events in a way that does not live up to the kind of experiences Scopely should be delivering to our players. So we want to address concrete steps for what we’re going to do moving forward,” Wei wrote.

Wei promised a commitment to quality, with a full review of the company’s testing processes. He also said the Scopely needs to demonstrate a “player-first attitude” in the design of the events, rewards, and features. And he said that the company wanted to keep players informed in a transparent way. And he promised some free rewards.

After the second glitch this weekend, Wei issued another statement to GamesBeat:

We are committed to continuously updating The Walking Dead: Road to Survival with new content and features for our highly engaged audience. Striking the balance between continuously evolving the game and keeping the experience predictable and stable is a common challenge while operating a global live service.”

We recently had technical issues with a new type of player-versus-player (PvP) event that affected a subset of players, which we worked diligently to address at the time. A subsequent PvP event this weekend revealed knock-on effects from the previous fixes that impacted some players’ ability to join the event on Friday, which we resolved within six hours.

We are making the necessary technical fixes as well as procedural changes to ensure the highest quality code goes into production and we will continue to iterate and improve the live experience.  In the meantime, we are updating the community, giving a transparent account of the issues and how we are addressing them. The Walking Dead Road to Survival has been played by more than 40 million players and we thank each of them for sharing our passion for the game.

As noted earlier, a number of players went on a spending strike, meaning they wouldn’t spend money in the game until the problems were fixed. It isn’t clear exactly how many, but it is likely a small percentage of the overall players. The Walking Dead: Road to Survival has had more than 40 million downloads, and clearly there aren’t millions of people making complaints. We only know there are a lot of complaints on social networks such as Scopely’s forums and on Twitter.

We know that Scopely launched the game in April 2015, and for much of that time, players have killed each other in relative peace and harmony. Scopely has made an estimated $168 million from in-app purchases in the game, according to measurement firm Sensor Tower. And such revenue figures further anger the players, who feel like the company should spend that money on them.

Randy Nelson, head of mobile insights at Sensor Tower, noted that since the most recent glitches, the Scopely game has been receiving double its average amount of negative (two- or one-star) reviews, all of which have been focused on the glitches.

Even if it turns out to be a small number of people complaining, the dispute holds lessons for mobile game companies. I have covered player disputes involving games from Zynga, Kabam, Game Insights, Gree, and others over time. Some complaints the players have about Scopely are part of a larger pattern in free-to-play games. They pay money for items, but they see glitches that affect those purchases or how effective they are. This makes them feel like they’ve wasted money, or that the company only cares about taking their money and doesn’t care about creating a smooth game experience.

Above: The Walking Dead: Road to Survival has a big world.

Image Credit: Scopely

Second, when they complain about problems, they get automated responses. In free-to-play games where players number in the millions and customer support represents number in the hundreds at most, this is a common gripe. It becomes even more exacerbated when a single bug affects all players and they all ask for help at once.

Third, the players want more transparency. When they buy an item, they expect it to help them do better. If it doesn’t, or if the company changes the value of the item in some way, then the players feel like it is false advertising. In a related matter, players were upset at Scopely for failing to publish a regular list of events; instead, they have had to rely on a third-party site.

Fourth, the players vent on the forums, but then the company, either seeking to limit the damage or otherwise make the support load more manageable, shuts down the forum where they log the complaints. The players see this as censorship and a violation of their free speech, but the company often bans posts with harsh language.

Jyril Wee, a 29-year-old Singapore resident who has been playing Road to Survival since the fall, said in an email to GamesBeat, “I love the game but I hate the way it is run.” He spent $450 on it so far, and he feels like it was a waste. He still hasn’t started spending money again.

“From my past experiences, every time a debacle as big as this happens, they issue an apology and a few months down the road, when players have forgotten, they commit the very same error again,” Wee said. “As someone on the forum whimsically pointed out, it’s like an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend begging to come back to you, only to reveal their true nature in due time.”

Above: The Walking Dead: Road to Survival.

Image Credit: Scopeley

After the apology about the cross-region war ran, some posters accepted it, and others said they were still upset. Then, over the weekend, Scopely ran another event, and it made some players angry again. The matchmaking system for the new war event wasn’t working right again, and players were unhappy that the event had lousy prizes, considering the investment they had to make in buying things for it.

Fabrice Krol, 37, another player who lives in New York, wrote me a two-page letter on his complaints about the game.

“I can safely say that the constant issues have been progressively getting worse,” he wrote. “It’s as if Scopely never learns from their mistakes and keep making the same ones over and over. The problems range from glaring, technical issues of gameplay mechanics and UI to the extremely poor way they conduct their business.”

Wei had to apologize again and promise that the company would review the event and come up with fixes. Wee said that the prizes were a “total slap in the face.”

He added, “Even as players suck it up and battle it out in war for the trashy prize, they face yet another issue with Scopely’s algorithm. The last cross-region war had players waiting for hours on end to get into battles. This time, players are automatically kicked out of queues while searching for opponents. Worse, some are in actual battles but for some weird reason are unable to participate. This whole fiasco has got the players riled up, yet again.”