This article is part of GamesBeat’s special issue, Gaming communities: Making connections and fighting toxicity.
For developers and publishers, there’s no more important relationship than the one they maintain with gamers. Their community, their intended audience, the consumers of their products — the gamers are all of those things to developers. And maintaining a good bond with them is crucial to keeping their titles in the public eye and having good sales numbers. So how do developers maintain this crucial bond? One of the ways games companies can do so is with careful reputation management.
“Reputation management” is the practice of cultivating a certain image regarding oneself, one’s product or one’s company. In the games industry, that means, among other things, building up a reputation for creating and delivering quality games and supporting the communities built around those games. A company with good reputation management is in a better position to survive various crises, such as a poor game launch or a controversial update.
Conversely, a company with a poor reputation loses goodwill among its audience, if it hasn’t already, and the market will be less willing to accommodate its missteps. It’s also worth noting that reputation management is not a static state — game companies can change their own fortunes. In fact, some of the industry’s success stories come from companies turning their reputations around after a public relations failure.
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How to build a good reputation
There are a number of factors that go into a good reputation: A history of solid game releases, a strong connection with community, collaboration with content creators and transparency about behind-the-scenes decisions are some of the major parts. Combined, these factors are pillars propping up a developers’ good name amongst gamers, and it’s this good reputation that helps generate interest in new games and sustain interest in ongoing or live games.
So what do game developers actually have to do in order to keep their esteem? GamesBeat spoke with team members at Respawn, developer of Apex Legends, about managing their reputation among gamers. They all stressed the importance of offering space for community feedback, and then listening to said feedback.
Karen Lee, Respawn’s global core community senior manager, said, “There are bound to be ups and downs for any game, and for a live game like Apex, we weather and learn alongside the community as we evolve. Making spaces for our players to share their feedback and that they’re heard is important. Whether it’s for questions, venting, or folks raising concerns regarding toxicity or other issues, there are outlets for all of that within the Apex community.”
They also said that it’s important that a game represent the people playing it. Apex Legends has a large and diverse cast of characters for a large and diverse community of gamers. Alex Ackerman, Respawn’s global social media lead, said, “Creating a space where players not only want to gather in the first place, but can also see themselves reflected is, in my opinion, the makings for a game to thrive in the long-run.”
A sturdy reputation can sometimes outlast any problems the studio faces. Legendary developer Rare all but vanished following its acquisition by Microsoft in 2002, with at least one article asking, “Who Killed Rare?” When the company revealed Sea of Thieves in 2015, it was heralded as Rare’s return. Sea of Thieves also did wonders to boost the profile of the then-fledgling Xbox Game Pass.
When reputation goes bad
If a good reputation is built around a plentitude of factors, then it takes a failure of just a few — or even one — to tarnish it. In the games industry, this usually takes the form of a poorly received game release, but it can also be a poor company decision, a lack of transparency or failing to listen to community feedback. Sometimes factors unrelated to games can turn an audience against the developer, but this is relatively uncommon.
As an example, developer BioWare gained a positive reputation following releases such as Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age and Mass Effect. The studio began to lose some of its luster following the rushed release of Dragon Age 2 and the widely panned ending of Mass Effect 3. However, its reputation took the biggest hit when it released the rushed and unfinished title Anthem in 2019. The studio attempted to rehabilitate its image by fixing the game with a project called Anthem NEXT, but it cancelled that effort in 2021.
Similarly, CD Projekt Red’s reputation soared after it released The Witcher III: Wild Hunt but took a hit following the launch of Cyberpunk 2077. The game was teased for years with trailers and then delayed several times. When it finally did launch, its multitude of bugs and quality issues soured what would have been an exciting release day. CDPR’s reputation doesn’t appear to have been irreparably damaged, as the company announced recently that it’s launching a new expansion for Cyberpunk soon.
As stated, sometimes it’s not a game itself that can hurt a studio’s reputation. In 2021, Activision Blizzard was met with a wave of backlash following a lawsuit by California’s Civil Rights Department (then the Department of Fair Employment and Housing) alleging a culture of workplace harassment and misconduct.
Repairing a bad reputation
One good example of a developer rehabilitating its reputation is Hello Games, the creator behind No Man’s Sky. Hello launched NMS in 2016 after years of attractive trailers. However, gamers expressed extreme disappointment when the game didn’t resemble the trailers and was missing several features the developers inferred it would have. This disappointment culminated in an accusation of false advertising, of which Hello Games was subsequently cleared by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority.
Hello Games’ co-founder Sean Murray said in an interview with Gamesindustry.biz that the studio failed to cultivate the correct image of the game before launch: “As a naïve studio, we definitely got excited about our game, people got excited, and we talked about it way too early … . We will be much more understanding of the difference between talking excitedly about your game and marketing it, which is never something we’d ever really done before.”
Five years after No Man’s Sky launched, the reviews on its Steam page were leaning in the opposite direction, from “mostly negative” to “mostly positive.” This was after multiple content updates and additions from Hello Games. It took a long time, but Hello Games managed to repair its reputation following perhaps the most precipitous nosedive in gaming history.
The developer’s initial approach following the extreme reaction at launch was to go silent — Hello Games didn’t release any statements for months following No Man’s Sky’s launch. During this no-contact period, the studio worked on updates for the game. Among other things, it added features such as multiplayer, base-building, visual upgrades and even VR support. These updates, which Hello Games has released continuously for seven years, have played a crucial role in the game’s revival.
At a conference keynote in 2019, Murray said he believed the silence and lack of an apology from Hello Games was crucial to the studio recovering its reputation. “We went about two years without talking to press at all. And we went about three months without saying anything to the community either. That was really hard. I sat down so many times and wrote the perfect blog post that was going to explain everything about the game’s development, and the road map going ahead. But I could see that it didn’t hold credibility with regards to where we were at.”
Why reputation (and community) matter so much
So why does building and maintaining a good rapport with gamers matter so much? According to developers, a good reputation can help your game stand out from the crowd and accrue an audience before it’s even released.
Indie developer and advocate Shahid Ahmad said at a panel at Casual Connect Europe in 2016, “If you’re not working on your reputation, if you’re not working very closely with your tribe, if you’re not putting who you are, what you believe in and where you want to go at the front and center of your marketing, you’re in trouble.”
Transparency is also a key factor building (and rebuilding) one’s reputation. Lee said the Respawn team prefers to address any potential backlash directly with the community: “You may see topics that are more controversial in nature get their own in-depth dev blog, additional supporting tweets to provide insights, or an AMA for players to get additional details.
“At times, these topics do get averted after careful internal analysis and never see the light of day. But sometimes changes might have to happen for the long-term health of the game – even if the direct benefits are not immediately clear. In those situations, we try to be transparent and give our community the info and facts that we’re operating on to get better alignment so that we can continue to grow and nurture the game collectively!”
In the games industry, audience attention and retention are as good as currency. And the way to get and keep an audience is to maintain a good image — and managing one’s own reputation among gamers is how that image is created in the first place.
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