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The Free Zone: How Well Do Publishers Listen?

Column By Richard Aihoshi on October 22, 2013

In certain circles, it's popular if not de rigeur to paint MMOG publishers as emotionless, uncaring corporate entities driven solely by greed and the desire to increase their bottom lines. According to those who advocate this point of view, pretty much the only thing they think about about is how to siphon every possible penny from their customers by any and all means including misdirection and even outright deception. What's more, we're told they never listen to their users. Or to anyone else, for that matter.

If you happen to share this perspective, I strongly doubt if anything I write in this column will nudge you toward change your mind. That's fine; you're certainly as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine. The only person for whom I can assume my personal system of values, beliefs and preferences is valid is me. Accordingly, I'll settle for saying that I don't simplistically regard all publishers as either devils or angels.

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For one thing, they're not all the same. Each has its own blend of abilities, strengths and weaknesses. What's more, the balance among these isn't necessarily constant. As a result, the reactions I see in two similar instances may vary quite a bit. This can happen for many reasons. To cite just a couple of examples, policies can and do change, and they can also be interpreted or enforced differently on separate occasions.

When it comes to the matter of listening, it's important to remember that listening and agreeing aren't the same thing.  The former can happen without the latter. When this occurs, it can feel like neither occurred. From there. it can be a short step to claiming you were ignored. This may indeed have been so, but it isn't the only plausible possibility. If I don't get something I asked for, the reason isn't necessarily that my request fell upon deaf ears. It may also have been considered and refused.

Like anyone else's, my opinions are often built upon subjective judgments. In this respect, there are times when I agree with the vast majority of users, and others when I stand nearly alone. No matter where I fall within this range on any specific matter, except when there's universal agreement, there are other valid viewpoints. One of these can be the publisher's.

This brings me to a mistake quite a few people make when they want to be heard. They represent themselves as speaking for large proportion of the player population or even for everyone, and/or they act as if no other position could possibly be legitimate or reasonable. Somehow, they believe or at least hope that doing so will give them greater credibility. Ironically, what tends to happen is the exact opposite.

This isn't hard to see if you think about it by putting yourself on the other side of the table. How often can a player validly lay claim to the role of spokesperson for the entire player base of a game or even a large majority? Almost never? Never? So, if someone approaches you in such a manner, would your natural reaction be to believe that person actually represents many others simply because he or she says so? Or might you be skeptical of both this self-portrayal and then of how important the position the individual espouses is?

There are also various other scenarios where we're listened to but don't get what we want. Publishers have limited resources, which means they not only have to prioritize but also pick and choose what can be done with the available personnel and budget. So, something can be fairly significant, but if it's not absolutely critical and would be costly to implement, it may not happen soon or even at all.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying or even suggesting that all publishers are good listeners all the time. I like to think I'm generally a good listener, but I'm definitely better at some times than at others, on certain topics than on others, when I have fewer pressing matters on my plate, etc. Companies are like this too. In an ideal world, it wouldn't be so, but in the real one... 

Admittedly, my feelings in this area are influenced by my experience managing a customer service department. Even though that was a long time ago in an unrelated industry, I'm familiar with being unable to fulfill consumers' requests for reasons I didn't expect them to accept as completely satisfactory, or even that I couldn't completely disclose.

It isn't difficult at all to find negative opinions about how poorly publishers listen to their users. What's more, I've had occasion to feel ignored myself. On the other hand, I can also say that I've experienced quite a few instances where I believe my requests, suggestions and complaints were properly received and considered. Actually, I have never found any company to be nearly as bad as the exaggerated image outlined above. So I can't help but wonder why some people seem to think continuing to present it is worthwhile or likely to be productive. 

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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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