. . . If I may, allow me to offer some points, from the perspective of someone who has done marketing, community and now (some) development.
First, hype is important. In fact, for a small developer, hype can make or break you, as you said. But hype is actually just as important for the large developers as well. Of course, I agree, that hype should be backed up with actual content…but it is extremely important for a marketing department to “talk up” the game and make it sound like it is the best thing since sliced bread. Like it or not, that is what they are paid to do. It’s not the marketing professional’s job to make the game be that good, that’s the job of the developers. See, marketing folks can only talk about what they are told. If a developer tells the marketing department that their game will have laser guided yo-yos, and that the laser guided yo-yos will be the best laser guided yo-yos ever, and the marketing person feels that laser guided yo-yos will be a selling point (based on market research, focus groups, past experience, etc.), s/he’s going to use it in the prerelease hype…and it’s up the developer to fullfill that obligation. If the marketing department downplays the game or its features, prospective players will immediately assume the game is trash. The marketing department also has to make sure the press is excited about the game. Getting on the cover of a gaming publication can affect your bottom line significantly…and the magazines will only put games on their cover that they think players will want to read about…and the way to get players to want to read about it is hype.
Having said that, I personally feel we (the industry) are announcing these games too early which can lead to the problem you highlight about developers talking to players. This point here…”Either hire a professional marketing department so players aren’t nervous about your product due to poorly managed comments from the team, or keep quiet unless you can tell the players something about your product with no less than 100% certainty.”
But here is the problem, the catch 22. Players ask questions on the boards. They want answers to those questions. Developers, if they cannot talk about a system until it is 100% finished, have to say things like “We’re thinking about that.” or “Hey, that’s an interesting idea, thanks for the feedback!” Players hate that. And actually, so do developers. Players also hate when developers talk about systems in vague terms and of course hate when they talk about a system that does not come to fruition or is not exactly as the developer described. See where I am going? Players also want to know what we are working on next. They want to know what’s in store for them in the next 3+ months. But these games are not that cut and dry. Things changes, priorities shift, and designs get put on the back-burner for other, more pressing systems. You’ll notice we haven’t put anything in In Concept recently. There is a reason for that…and it’s not because we aren’t working on anything, we most certainly are.
I think the key to avoiding the issues you talked about is actually good Community support, working with marketing. I think in the last two years, the developers, working with OCR, have cut down significantly on the misinformation we used to see three years ago. It’s about having a consistent message and getting people to understand that posting on the boards is a skill, one that must be taught, practiced, and refined. Anyone can write a post, but it is far more difficult to write an effective and appropriate post. Anyone can swing a bat, but it takes skill to actually hit the ball. That doesn’t mean things will go off flawlessly, but the effort has to be made.
I honestly believe that many of the “broken promises” are due to the complexity and the dynamic nature of these games, rather than some desire to trick players. Believe it or not, every system that was “promised” in UO (alchemy, necromancy, name change deeds, etc.) were systems that were actually being worked on in some form, some were even on test center. I’m sure the same is true for other games as well. But then, as is often the case, something changed, the designs weren’t balanced, and/or priorities had to be reevaluated.
The MMOG industry is not the only industry to make changes like this though, but it is so apparent when it happens because we talked so openly about our designs. And again, if we don’t talk about the future systems, then players think we are ignoring them, or worse, they think nothing is going on at all. Catch 22. We’re working our tails off on lots of stuff for UO right now…we just aren’t talking about it yet…and if you read the uo.com boards, you’ll see tons of posts asking what’s next, what is that status of this, etc.
Those of you who followed UO2 probably know that I kept pretty tight restrictions on what the team could and could not talk about once I took over OCR. Many of the systems were being redesigned and frankly, talking about them would have been inappropriate at that early stage. I know many of the developers and the players did not like that decision…but I stood by it, and with the hindsight of now knowing what happened, I still stand by it. Because, again, this gets back to the distinction between community and marketing. While marketing HAS to hype the game…having your community department (and thus, your developers) control the hype is a recipe for disaster. Developers want to hype their game (heck, it drives me crazy not to talk about the scenario stuff we have planned for the future, so I now know first hand how it feels) but it’s not their job to do it on their own, on the boards, whenever the whim strikes them to post. It’s up to marketing AND community to create the plan for the prerelease information, and to coordinate with the developers on how (and more importantly who) to do it and for everyone to stick to it. Community takes more control of information once the game is actually released, but even then, press hype and the like should be handled by marketing.
I do think there is a middle ground however…and I think those of us involved in this aspect of the industry are workings towards that.
Jonathan “Calandryll” Hanna
Designer, Ongoing Content