Friday, October 06, 2006


This is a repost of my thoughts from Raph's site:

Mohanbir Sawhney (from Morgan Ramsay’s post) wrote: “As consumers have become increasingly empowered and demanding, marketing gurus have preached the benefits of customer-relationship management”

When I think of game forums, I’m reminded of my hometown, where a Home Depot and Lowes were bulit facing each other, their parking lots hardly separated, in a secluded lot (no other stores adjoining either)…a real showdown. The Home Depot was the first to be built, and everyone and their mother was a Home Depot customer for many years. They were heavy on customer service. Then the Lowes opened up, offered far less customer service and stole roughly half of Home Depot’s customerbase anyway. The general consensus among people in my hometown was that you’d get more service at Home Depot, but Lowes had the more inviting environment.

Again, “consumers have become increasingly empowered and demanding". Perverse consumer power creates an uninviting environment. It’s the perception (be it real or illusory) of power that makes flaming a viable customer option. Customers don’t ask for service anymore, they demand it. Afterall, they’re always right, as the saying goes (that saying dehumanizes customers and portrays them as commodities, by the way). Dramatic and selfish demands are generally rewarded, and so such behavior becomes more common among customers. Little “Mom and Pap” shops are more inviting, not just because they’re small and you can develop a personal relationship with the store owner, but also because the owners of such shops demand reasonable behavior and expectations from their customerbase. Yes, they lose some customers this way, but they gain more and have stronger customer loyalty. American consumers in general have been cultured to become selfish brats, but it’s not impossible to reculture them with the obvious appeal of a civil atmosphere.

Listening to your customers should be done privately, not among a crowd of people who should have been accosted for their vile behavior and perhaps even kicked out of the “store” long ago anyway. Have an easily noticeable and inviting feedback form on your game’s website. Inviting means more than just nicely rounded letters and a big “howdy!"; it means not asking for the player’s blood-type just to submit some simple feedback. In fact, you don’t even need to verify that the feedback is coming from a player, because you can likely tell where it’s coming from and anyone who shapes your reputation is a concern, customer or not, as Raph said (though playing defense against unreasonable accusations is often not productive).

If you don’t respond, then at least there’s not a flurry of flamers getting the customer riled up and disallowing that feedback from sinking into history; and the customer is encouraged to practice faith in the company. If you do respond (with something other than the typical robotic garbage most CS reps and systems churn out), then you’ve established a personal relationship…an impression that’s infinitely more difficult to create through a forum, because forums aren’t one-on-one dialogue.

A smart CS program would even keep a Gmail-type record system of previous conversations, allowing CS reps to quickly search for and review feedback from persons of the same email address. If you can create the illusion that you actually remember your customer from a previous engagement, then you’ve taken a large leap into a rewarding CS relationship.

In short, I think game companies should not sponsor regular forums of their own. They’re unnecessary to a strong CS program, they’re difficult to enculture; and, most importantly, they encourage players to think of themselves as part of something like a union, set distant from and often against the company, rather than a valued customer with a one-on-one relationship.

[and in further response to that discussion...]
Obviously, forum discussion has its advantages over live discussion in-game. But the developer benefits from forum discussions equally on a fansite forum as on a company-operated one…and without needing to identify himself or herself as a developer, which may seem beneficial at times.

An “us and us” mentality (as opposed to "us", the developers and "them", the players) is not beneficial. It does not help to essentially approach the player for design help, rather than simply listening and responding on an individual basis when approached (email and phone).

For one thing, this discourages players from enjoying the game as it is. When a player feels empowered to change the game, that player is no longer free to simply “play” and instead adopts a critical mentality, which diminishes both the degree and longevity of enjoyment. When I played EQ (my first MMO) and was still ignorant of the degree of interaction between developers and players, I was far less critical of my gameplay experience than I was later with SWG. This had a significant impact on my ability to lose myself in the game and my overall perception of the game’s appeal. Players should feel separate from designers.

An absence of a clear border between them also encourages developers to lose sight of their game’s core concept and philosophies, to undermine its essential definition (what makes it “this” game, as opposed to “that” game). It encourages the “customer is always right” attitude, by which can customers sneak into some measure of control and corrupt “The Vision". What people ask for and what actually makes them happy are quite often not the same. An “us and us” mentality discourages recognition of that basic fact, and the repercussions can be great.

Which is not to suggest that the company must think of itself as entirely separate from the players…a sense of community is definitley important. But official forums are the wrong way to go about ratifying that community.

[and still further...]
No, choosing to not directly invite customers into design discussions does not assume that the game is just fine. Instead, it encourages clearer distinction between petty and major customer concerns. If you have developed a semi-personal relationship with your customers, they will not wait until disaster to point out problems or refrain from providing creative and constructive feedback.

How do you create a personal relationship with customers without design discussions, before the customer has a concern (and, in a sense, it’s too late)? You do it the way business owners have done it since the dawn of history: you don’t limit your discussions to business. Modern economic theory has a bad habit of approaching business as separate from social life (which is why “it’s just business” is a common…and false..moral distinction in modern society). Though I have mixed opinions about Vanguard’s pre-beta forums, one certain and significant benefit of Sigil’s CS approach is that the devs’ many friendly (non-business) discussions created and strengthened customer loyalties.

Anyway, when one is encouraged to think of potentials and ideals only occasionally and naturally, then that person can typically enjoy what already is. But when potentials and ideals are considered constantly and responsively, that type of thinking commonly leads to dissatisfaction with the present. Without direct encouragement like official forums, players will continue to help developers improve, but they will do so with moderation, with temperance…without spoiling their enjoyment of the game.

Raph is correct that the border between consumers and producers is increasingly questioned in many industries, but that doesn’t qualify it as progress. Really, one might argue that this trend is more about culture than profit; that it’s merely the economic application of a cultural attitude which disfavors concepts of roles and absolutes.


  1. Interesting idea, what do you think of a game having its own MySpace page? Does the comments and message set-up offer a nice balance between forums and e-mails?

  2. Good question. I think it's a good idea, because the very limited size of comments on Myspace pages encourages general feedback and morale-type comments. It's relatively immune from the drawbacks of an official forum which I mentioned in my 2nd response to Raph's blog (I amended it into my blog...after your comment, I think). And Myspace is a significant community now which includes both gamers and non-gamers, so it's probably good marketing.

    I wonder if responding to Myspace emails might have an advantage or two over traditional feedback avenues. Would the player perceive it as more personal? or different than an official feedback form in some other way?

  3. I think your comments regarding Mohanbir Sawhney's abstract are spot on. The phrase "the customer is always right" actually evolved from the carpet marketplace in India. They will tell you anything until you buy their product. Harry Selfridges, who founded the Selfridges department stores in the United Kingdom, brought the phrase to the Western world and used the phrase as an advertising slogan. The phrase isn't necessarily true. The customer isn't always right, but the notion is more applicable to the retail sales environment than to the services business.

    I also think that players should not feel separate from the development team even if in actuality they are separate. As Mohanbir Sawhney points out, customers need to be "brought in" and "made part of the family". There's no sense in leaving your customers out in the rain. Give them something to do through empowerment.

  4. Interesting, thanks for the history.

    As for leaving customers out in the rain, I think there's a difficult battle of expectations there. Consumers expect to be awarded a great amount of input in some industries (MMOs, movie rental, supermarkets), but not in others (automobiles, electronics, furniture). Who ever asks a car salesman to relay design ideas to his company's management?

    So why is that expectation present with MMOs? Did it begin with forums and other forms of developer encouragement? Or would it have arisen anyway?

    Expectations can be re-cultured (to some extent, at least) by an industry, but it's more difficult for a lone company re-culture its customers. The MMO industry is still young and small enough that consumer acceptance of alternate business styles is very limited. Will this change? Or does the essential nature of MMOs demand these consumer expectations?

    Keep in mind, I still see conflicting views of what an "MMO" is all the time. The industry's only beginning to define itself.

  5. I suspect it'd be more personal, but I'm going to find out in the very near future.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.