Game Marketing Tips, Analysis, and News

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Crowd Marketing

ArenaNet, the studio that develops Guild Wars, just fired two employees because of a furor that erupted in social media. The Verge covered it well; essentially, an ArenaNet narrative designer was tweeting about how she writes narratives in Guild Wars, and a streamer politely offered some commentary about how he’d like to see things done – and then the whole thing exploded as the narrative designer got angry at this, heated messages were exchanged, the issue became popular on Reddit, and then the designer was brought in to talk to the CEO of ArenaNet who fired her. He also fired another long-time developer who had come to her defense. Now the issue has become politically charged, and while outrage is spread around and amplified some important lessons from this incident may get lost.

The issue is much more complex than that simple summary above, of course. If you’re interested check out the articles on the incident, and especially read through the tweets that precipitated everything, and form your own opinions. I’m not sure if there’s clearcut right and wrong here, but there are important things marketers and game developers should learn, and that’s what I’m going to focus on.

Stepping back a bit, it’s certainly true that many companies expect or encourage or even require developers to interact with the community. Sometimes those interactions don’t go so well, which shouldn’t be a surprising outcome for people whose expertise does not lie in public speaking or community management. Community management is extremely important – it helps keep the audience engaged with your game, it’s a way to learn from the audience, and it’s a good way to try and deal with problems that occur. Like all tools, though, community management can be harmful in direct proportion to its power and utility.

How do you prevent a situation like this one from developing? By hiring good community managers and making them responsible for interactions with the audience, and by preventing anyone in the company from posting to social media or forums on behalf of the company. Employees (and contractors) need to put a disclaimer on their social media profiles and on the email signatures – Opinions expressed by me are not those of the company (there’s better language out there, but this is the gist of it). This is true even of small developers – if you only have a couple of people, figure out who’s better at talking to the public and have that person do it.

It’s great if you want to have other members of the team interact with the community, but the community manager should help with such interactions and oversee them. The community manager can then step in if things get out of hand on either side of the interaction. Here, it looks like the narrative designer got angry out of proportion to the commenter, and then matters escalated from there. (At least, that’s what it looks like from a distance – I’m sure there’s more to the story.) If a good community manager had been overseeing this, the escalation could likely have been defused before really bad things happened (like people getting fired, and large numbers of people getting upset with ArenaNet).

Was the CEO’s response appropriate? Perhaps, but I’d want to know the full story (including the company’s policies, if any, and what had been said before to the employee) before rendering a judgment on the CEO’s actions. Certainly the heated response to a polite inquiry seemed far out of proportion – and the continuing explosion of the developer was unnecessary and reflected badly on the company.

What’s important for other companies is to learn from this and try to set things up so it never happens to them. Marketers (and developers) need to realize that marketing isn’t entirely under their control now – and that’s a good thing. When you’ve got a strong message, an audience can help spread that if they’re treated right. But don’t delegate that responsibility to people that aren’t ready for it. Establish policies for employees about communicating with the public or the press. Have someone skilled at community relations and public relations available to step in and help as needed (even a small developer should know some PR-savvy person they can call in to help when the situation gets nasty).

Keeping your audience engaged with your content and your company is important, but leave it to people who are skilled at dealing with an audience – and who can keep their cool when provoked. Sure, sometimes you will get complete trolls attacking, but that’s when you really need to know how to deal with people like that. Pouring gasoline on them and setting it afire may be emotionally satisfying in the short term, but it’s probably not the best way to win the hearts and minds of the largest audience for your games.

Monday, June 4, 2018

VR, AR, and the Market That's Still Virtual

Last week saw the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, bringing together a number of companies and people interested in XR (the catchall term that covers Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR)). While there were big companies like Microsoft exhibiting, there was a distinct lack of companies aiming at the consumer space -- like Oculus, Vive, or Magic Leap. The two companies with the current largest market of AR-capable devices -- Apple and Google -- were nowhere to be found. This show was not focused on consumers.

Overall, the AWE show continues to draw a good crowd and some interesting speakers; the XR market for hardware and software, though, doesn’t seem to be growing much. The AWE show, judging from the exhibitors and the various sessions, is mostly about the various verticals that constitute the enterprise market. That actually seems like a smart decision to me, because the consumer market for XR is pretty much going nowhere fast. VR headset sales have consistently underperformed, and the installed base of even the largest is still just a few million. AR is in the hands of hundreds of millions of people, between ARKit and ARCore, yet almost nobody is using it – even in one of the poster children for AR, Pokemon GO. (That app is a good touchstone for how smart someone is about AR – ask them how important Pokemon GO is. Sure, it’s done very well for Niantic, and helped generate press for AR, but the use of AR in the game is completely cosmetic and can be toggled off easily; it adds nothing to the experience or the gameplay.)

At least on the hardware side, there’s good progress. The hardware continues to get better – faster processing, better displays, lighter, and cheaper – but it’s still hard to see what software is going to drive hardware sales. It’s the classic market development problem for hardware and software – the hardware doesn’t sell without the software, and no one writes the software unless there’s a good hardware base.We are getting to the point (still a couple of years away) where a good pair of AR glasses will be like slipping on sunglasses – at which point the market could explode, if the price was right and there was software people really saw a critical need for.

Digi-Capital's Tim Merel said he thought Google’s AR assistance for Google Maps walking directions was the first really critical use for AR he’d seen for consumers. I’d also nominate furniture placement, like Ikea’s app – I spoke with one of the guys doing that app, and they have plans to make it even more useful. So we are making progress towards useful consumer software for XR, but it’s slow.

Major companies exhibiting at the show included Microsoft, Qualcomm, and Sony. Interestingly Sony was not showing PSVR, but instead some enterprise stuff so unmemorable I can’t even recall what it was. Microsoft was focused on HoloLens and commercial uses. Yeah, who’s going to drop $3,000 for a cool way to play Minecraft? A handful of people, maybe, but not more than that.

One of the potential big players in XR is Magic Leap... but at AWE, it was Magic Leap who? They had no presence at the show, and no mind share in the conversations I was in. Regardless of what miracles can be pulled off with their hardware, they need to have compelling software… at least one thing that people will pay a lot to use regularly. That’s needed to grow VR, AR, MR, whatever kind of reality you’re planning. And I’ve yet to see it. I think it will happen, but the time frame is indeterminate. Magic Leap did show a little bit of what their hardware looks like, but we still don't know the price or the release data -- nor have we seen what you can actually do with it. Apparently their demos have been impressive enough to get over a billion dollars in financing, so you can't count them out. But don't count them in until you know the price, and get details on how the hardware works -- and see some reviews from users.

As for games, which many people seem to suppose are the killer VR app, and a huge potential market on AR or MR, I think that most people are barking up the wrong tree. Sure, games could be cool, but people aren’t looking at the right kinds of features or genres so far in XR games. Worse, no one seems to be building a game for XR that has billion-dollar potential. I think for a game to make $1 billion or more, it has to have a couple of things: A large enough installed base of hardware that can run it (A hundred million at least) and some aspect of play that keeps people coming back for hundreds of hours of game play. Now, that can be in 5 or 10 minute chunks like Candy Crush, or 5 hour chunks like Minecraft or World of Warcraft – but the game has have that sort of innate attraction (and ideally ways to build revenue over time). Nobody seems to be making games with that sort of potential yet for XR.

I do think that with Apple's ARKit and Google's ARCore making AR easier on hundreds of millions of smartphones, that will provide an easy on-ramp for developers to try out ideas. That will make future AR wearables more likely to get adopted faster. Those developers who are learning how to build AR and VR apps now will be in a good position when that market finally arrives. The only trick is to have your development business survive until the larger market arrives...