It’s any game publisher’s worst nightmare — you’ve announced or launched the latest version of your big franchise, and instead of widespread acclaim, your biggest fans are angry and disappointed. What should you do?
This is the challenge for Bethesda after Fallout 76 debuted to terrible player feedback, followed by harsh criticism for shipping its $200 Special Edition Power Armor Helmet with a nylon bag instead of the advertised canvas bag. Blizzard is also in hot water after announcing to a gathering of (mostly PC) fans at BlizzCon that the next iteration of the Diablo franchise would be exclusive to mobile — a premise so disappointing to the crowd that one fan asked if the announcement was a mistimed April Fool’s joke.
Both these unfortunate events risk not only harming sales of these new games but also damaging the long-term viability of the core franchise. Escaping this fate will take decisive action.
During my three decades in the games industry, I’ve had to face a number of crises — everything from the Xbox 360 “red ring of death” to having President Clinton hold a press conference and single out one of my advertising campaigns for condemnation (for Namco’s Point Blank). While CEO of Square Enix America from 2010 to 2013, we faced a critical situation after the launch of Final Fantasy XIV. How we addressed the situation provides some examples of how to respond when a big franchise game disappoints fans.
Final Fantasy XIV launched on PC September 2010 to almost universal negative reviews. The Metacritic review stands at 49, which was unthinkable for a franchise that regularly scores in the high 80’s to low 90’s. Realizing the risk to the franchise that defined the company, Square Enix responded with a number of drastic measures, including:
- An apology from Square Enix’s CEO, Yoichi Wada, with the blunt statement, “While more than two months have passed since the official launch of the FINAL FANTASY XIV service, we deeply regret that the game has yet to achieve the level of enjoyability that FINAL FANTASY fans have come to expect from the franchise, and for this we offer our sincerest of apologies.”
- Extension of the free trial (FFXIV had a monthly subscription of $12.99) until the player experience could be improved.
- Reassignment of a new producer, Naoki Yoshida, to take over the project (Yoshida had previously been working on a different project that had been a long-term passion, but he abandoned that work to help save the franchise).
- In-depth interviews with the game team about the game’s issues and a commitment to improve the player experience
- A regular blog (published in Japanese and English) from the new producer with updates on progress of the improved version.
- An internal commitment of key staff and resources necessary to essentially rebuild the game from the ground up.
- Relaunch of FFXIV: Realm Reborn in August 2013 (Metacritic score of 83 on PC and 86 on PS4)
- Legacy players were rewarded with subscription discounts, exclusive items, and had their names included in credit for Realm Reborn.
Here are some of the lessons we learned:
You don’t have a PR problem. You have a trust problem
Fans have come to expect a certain standard of quality and experience from your game. They preordered or bought it at launch because of the reputation of the franchise, only to have been let down. This is not a problem that a PR agency, marketing person, or community manager can fix. Problems need to be addressed directly to the fans by either the CEO or the top creator in charge of the game. Relying on lower-level people is likely to do more harm than good.
EA added insult to injury when the community team responded to criticism for locking popular characters in Star Wars: Battlefront with the excuse that they wanted to “create a sense of pride and accomplishment” for their fans, which created a meme that will haunt the franchise forever.
Admit fault, apologize, and explain
Don’t take half measures or try to minimize the issue. Bethesda’s modest allocation of in-game currency to fans who bought the special edition felt like a slap in the face. The Blizzard producer whose on-stage response to negative feedback was, “Don’t you have mobile phones?” further inflamed fans. (In his defense, this all happened in real-time and was an off-the-cuff remark). What’s required is a direct statement to fans — not investors — that acknowledges the problem and commits to fixing it.Then fix it.
Fast is good, but thorough is better
It took over two months for Square Enix to announce its recovery plan, and during that time the criticism of fans was unrelenting. But the time was spent creating a long-term, end-to-end solution. In some cases an immediate response may be necessary, but history has shown again and again that a knee-jerk reaction can make a bad situation worse. Set up a cross-functional war-room and work until the situation gets addressed. Let fans know you are working on it and ask for their patience along with their forgiveness.
Recognize and listen to your loyal fans
Find a way to reward the early customers who bought the game on faith. It may be unique in-game items, discounts or other special rewards or acknowledgment (the decision to send out replacement canvas bags is a good start). Let your fans be on your side – remember, they are angry because they love your games and they want you to succeed. Forums are not all bands of angry villagers with torches, they are loyal players.
No, really — listen
The FFXIV developers used the harsh feedback provided on outside forums as an independent source of input. This was by no means the only resource used, but it did help inform the decision-making, as did input from all the Square Enix subsidiaries around the world.
Provide a road map to recovery
If the recovery plan will take time, be transparent and keep the communication going. Blizzard can let fans know both why the Diablo mobile game will be a good experience even for PC players, but absolutely must also provide a good roadmap for the Diablo 4 PC game that they’ve been patiently waiting for. Bethesda can be up-front about what they will (and won’t) do to improve the player experience in Fallout 76.
It gets better
Research has shown that recovering from “brand transgressions” can actually improve customer loyalty. Fan response to the Final Fantasy: Reborn was inspiring. Not only was the game itself a business success (Square Enix reported in August of this year that the game had garnered over 14 million registered users over its lifetime), but it created a positive environment that helped Final Fantasy XV launch into a friendly reception.
The recovery plan cost a fortune and took years to execute, but it delivered a positive return on investment in the end, and most important – saved the crown jewels of the Final Fantasy franchise.