Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Interactions with and by the community, Part 1

First, a bit of history

Bioware built a strong PR hype machine based on the strength of their games. The Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age: Origins, Knights of the Old Republic, and the first two Mass Effects are all strong RPG games. They delivered content that their fans loved. Bioware could be cocky and swagger because they had shown they could deliver results.

The first crack in the Bioware PR machine came with Dragon Age 2. While the developers naturally wanted to do something different to stretch themselves and expand their new franchise, the fans generally wanted Dragon Age: Origins, only better.

The second crack was the launch of SWTOR. While it wasn't said explicitly, you could see that the Bioware devs were gunning for World of Warcraft. Wow was on a slow decline at the time and Bioware was touting their Fourth Pillar (storytelling), while building a game that hewed closely to the Wow MMO model[1]. The problem was that folks expected a game that was Wow, only better with more or, at least, equal content. The endgame content wasn't there and Bioware didn't grasp just how fast folks would level to get to endgame. After all, Wow has conditioned people to sprint to endgame, that leveling is a nuisance designed to reset gear/teach new skills, that the endgame is the 'real' game. Try as they might, Bioware's PR couldn't keep people paying a monthly subscription, The game crashed from a high of 1.7 million paying subscriber down to roughly 500,000 paying subscribers. The Wow challenger had basically dropped to EQ1 (at it's height) numbers.

When Bioware had to consolidate servers – the initial rush caused them to create too many new ones – it couldn't be PRed in the mind of the larger potential playerbase as anything other than a failure of the game. And who wants to commit serious time to playing a failed game? Which was terribly ironic given that EA continues to support Ultima Online after two failed attempts at a sequel.

Then we have the Mass Effect 3 ending major fracture. From a developer being quoted in a magazine as saying Bioware wasn't going to have 'A, B, and C' endings to the trilogy, to their continued statement of how many awards they had received, Bioware had a real disconnect with their paying customers and fan base. The majority of normally silent customers displayed they annoyance with the endgame as it existed. These customers sat on the normal forum trolls and gagged the white knights. Most of them are working adults so they dismantled and explained all the stock PR steps Bioware tried to use to shut up their customers.

In the end, the bulk of the fans 'won' as they forced Bioware to create a new ending. (Whether you liked the new endings is a different issue). Bioware's PR machine was not only de-fanged, but ME3 became a target for studies on how to screw up a major franchise right at the finish line. That hubris is still alive today.

The consequences of these PR mistakes would be pretty strong. After a face-saving amount of time, Bioware's two founders left. While these events may not be the sole cause, they certainly had to be a factor. After all, it is common for American CEOs of subsidiaries to resign after a series of bad events. It is also common for the parent company to pull a broken department (perceived or otherwise) back into the corporate structure.

Hopefully, this (wordy ^_^) reprise of Bioware's PR gaffes shows some of the reasons why their current SWTOR PR is lacking. Some of it is from them being gun-shy with their PR because of self-inflicted wounds. Some of it may just be the fact they have to work through more levels of corporate management to say things. Certainly any Star Wars related property is going to have to get the blessing of Lucasfilm and Disney.

[1] That was actually a good idea. Many of Wow's systems work well for an MMO shooting to be a major, mass-market game. Don't reinvent the wheel if you don't need to, when that wheel is successful.

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