In any other industry, companies communicate with their buyers via customer service departments, scheduled mailings, surveys, some social media, and forums. Maybe a PR firm pushes out news releases and does crisis intervention. Companies that have repeat customers probably have a more developed customer following. They likely get more and better feedback, but they might also avoid the potential for “groupthink” to which the games industry is so vulnerable.
The games industry develops that sense of ownership within its customer base using leaderboards, heavy-duty community building, ambassador groups, testing, unofficial fan blogs, fan groups, and more. There’s a culture here that supports and encourages players to interact and communicate amongst themselves. So as the developer or publisher, it shouldn’t come as a total shock if you wake up one day and find that the natives (otherwise known as your customers) have become just a bit restless. And if they raise a big enough stink, the smell will permeate just about everything you do for the next little while.
Publishers especially invest a lot of time and money in community building, but I wonder if they give enough weight to the quality of the conversation that is happening. Maybe they’re overlooking the fact that they can control what they send out, but they can’t control how it is perceived, or how it will come back to them.
The whole Mass Effect 3 dust up shows what happens when you settle into just releasing titles and forget about the fact that you’re communicating with players. I mean, some player filed an FTC complaint over the ending of ME3. I definitely think BioWare may have been caught off guard at the response.
At first, I thought, ‘That’s absurd,’ says McCraken, “players asking for that kind of a change. But I have pondered this a bit, and I think it’s a new type of storm nobody recognized: players as a group who banded together to talk with a single voice, back to the developer. I think this was very unexpected, and we need much more of this.
I believe this ‘storm’ represents something inherently positive. Players both want and expect to communicate with game developers directly. They want to express their side of the conversation in a way that’s almost unprecedented. And I, as a game developer, welcome it.
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon … the mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives.” There are some specific factors that set the stage for groupthink. Among them would be high group cohesiveness, insulation of the group, and a lack of impartial leadership. What I find really interesting is that the situational context for groupthink includes recent failures and moral dilemmas. Did BioWare set itself up for the backlash? Is there a mindset here that should have been checked?
McCraken believes there is definitely a mindset that needs adjustment:
 You cannot view new mediums with old-medium lenses. That is to say, we shouldn’t be thinking about games using book or movie analogies. They no longer track. They’re remote, woolly thinking at best — disingenuous at worst. I think this frightens many who want to hold onto that static media element that games have had up until now. Game gets released. People play it. The end. The implications of that changing scare the absolute hell out of game companies. Studios, no matter the size, need to better define the conversation they’re having with their players. I think a good way to sum this up might be that developers and publishers need to talk to players, instead of talking at them. One is communicative and respectful. The other is dismissive and leads to the kind of surly attitudes players have about game companies. I also think, by and large, that players need to be approached gently, on some level. They’re tired of being offered food with one hand, and slapped with the other.
While publishers and developers are communicating with (or at) the players, developers are also having conversations among themselves, both with media and with publishers. What I’ve noticed surfacing in these conversations lately are some strong veteran voices who believe that industry leaders need to do a better job of supporting risk-taking and new ideas as opposed to pushing negativity. I’m not sure if it’s so much a competitive attitude of “We’re all full up here; go find somewhere else to make a living,” as it is a case of puffed-up, self-perceived intelligence. Either way, this kind of thing is destructive to industry organizations that I believe work hard to keep impartial leadership intact and avoid cascading groupthink.
Acton, who leads #AltDevBlog and speaks regularly at industry conferences, believes in holding the power-brokers to higher standards of communication. His “every person can be a game developer” focus oddly comes from a personal philosophy of inclusion and the need for humans to be creative, rather than the technical aspect of game dynamics. Says Acton:
The conversations that we have as industry participants with educators, health-care professionals, parents, and even kids, needs to be one of promoting the ability to create and then taking it a step further by showing the way. If we can’t get past tromping down the dreams of our own professionals, how can we hope to inspire others? No one in this industry can absolutely know for certain what can or cannot be accomplished in art, design, tech … any of it. That’s the wonder of games. So why not embrace that wonder and keep it alive?
In the end, communication involves at least two parties in the conversation. Simply put, if you are pushing out communication, you are “talking at” your customers and/or fellow professionals. They have two choices: ignore you, or talk to you. Which would you rather have happen?
Mary Kurek is a professional networker in the games industry, connecting developers, talent, and vendors to business leads and publicity opportunities. She is a nationally endorsed author, business columnist for IGDA, and Casual Connect writer. http://www.marykurek.com http://www.twitter.com/gamemarketing http://www.linkedin.com/in/marykurek
More from the May issue of the IGDA Perspectives Newsletter: Writing
- For Games Writers, Brevity is the Soul of … What Was it Again?, David Midgley
- Merits and Flaws: The Power of Contradicting Traits and Abilities, Tobias Heussner
- Fixing Games Communication, Mary Kurek
- IndieSpective: Writing from the Start, Robert Madsen
- Game Design Aspect of the Month: Where’s the Fun?, Steele Filipek and Jeff Gomez
- Welcoming New Staff: James Baldwin
- GDC: A Heartfelt Thanks