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The Free Zone: A Truly Annoying CS Sin

Column By Richard Aihoshi on October 26, 2009

Before I started to write about games and the industry that makes them, one of my jobs included managing the customer service department for a consumer hard goods manufacturer. As a result, I became acutely and personally aware of how frustrating and thankless this extremely vital function can be. The main reason is that the customers' expectations are very high. Basically, they make no allowance for mistakes, issues, delays, etc. This is absolutely fine in and of itself. What's difficult, sometimes even emotionally challenging, is that it tends to mean you receive much more feedback when something goes wrong than when everything is running smoothly.

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Perhaps because of my hands-on experience, I find it particularly annoying to see CS problems that could have been prevented, either easily or with a reasonable amount of forethought, planning and effort. All too many times, the core issue simply comes down to inadequate communication. Companies aren't organized enough to tell their customers what they want and deserve to know in a timely and fully informative manner. Either that, or they don't believe it's important enough to do so. Neither is acceptable, but I hope the former situation is far more common.

Within the MMOG space, this type of issue in both the free to play and subscription sectors. We see it more often in the former, which is to be expected since there are many more publishers and games. But is that the only reason? For instance, is it also possible that because the companies tend to be smaller, they're more likely to be tempted to cut corners in various areas including this communication? Frankly, although I have no proof this has ever happened, which is why I won't state any names, it's hard not to be suspicious at least some of the time.


The ideal.

More important than why, is the fact that the customers (i.e. the players) are forced to bear the consequences. What I don't understand is why companies don't appear to understand that this is a no-win for anyone, themselves included, since poor communication contributes to decreased retention.

A relatively recent example involves an F2P game that was updated with quite a significant change to its combat system. Curiously, there was no obvious reason for this. Apparently, it hadn't been the cause of any dissatisfaction beyond the normal levels of grumbling. So, as far as I could tell, it wasn't a fix designed and implemented to address the players' concerns. If so, it most likely means the impetus came from the development team.

Contrary to the familiar aphorism, improving things even though they aren't broken can be an excellent idea. However, in the context of an evolving MMOG, doing so without seeking input from the players seems like a rather poor way to plan and design. The greater the change, the worse it is to make it without finding out first how much the users actually want it - if at all. Even in the best of scenarios, it's inevitable that some will dislike any substantial alteration enough to leave.


The reality.

In this particular instance, the publisher compounded its initial poor judgment by not communicating what I'd consider an adequate amount of information about the new combat system, either before it went live or after. Some players did make the effort to learn more by spending time on the game's test server. However, it doesn't seem at all satisfactory for that to be the only way to learn more than the absolute basics. In addition, as you'd probably expect, a fair number of those individuals were reluctant to share their newly gained knowledge since doing so would dilute the advantage of having it before the majority.

What distresses me even than this single situation is the fact it's not really difficult to find and remember other examples where communication with the players is poor, or mediocre at best. While it would be an unfair generalization to damn tar the entire industry with the same brush, there clearly isn't an overall standard that forces companies to aim for true excellence.

Do any of them manage to achieve it anyway? I believe some are definitely better than others. However, I don't know how often the degree of difference is enough to constitute a significant competitive advantage. If you've experienced exceptional communication, I'd be interested to know about it, and I invite you to share what happened in the comments thread for this column. Maybe shedding light on some outstanding examples will help to raise the bar so more publishers will realize they are sinning and repent.

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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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