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An ‘epic’ example of crap PR

It always amazes me the number of businesses who use the Internet without really understanding how it has changed everything in business, not just the bits they find useful. The entire balance of power has been shifting towards information rich customers for years now and one of the things about this shift is that people’s tolerance for a company’s behaviour when things go wrong has also changed dramatically.

It has always been the case that when things go wrong, the single worst thing any company can do is to make a customer feel he is being ignored. In many ways, even a half-arsed press release is (just) better than none at all, but frankly the days when a press release drafted by a PR professional whose job it is to pretend everything is all right are long gone. That approach never worked, only now the fact the PR Emperor has no clothes (and in truth never did) is impossible to hide. Customers are going to tell each other just how much they hate you, if indeed they do, regardless of whether or not you participate in the discussion because companies can no longer frame the terms of the debate. This article is an example of that, in fact.

And so I was amused by a fairly trivial incident: a purchased a copy of the Epic/Microsoft games studio shooter Gears of War for the PC. Cool game. How do I know? Because I have repeatedly played the first two to ten minutes of the game before getting a wargame-g4wlive.exe crash to desktop. And judging from the number of screaming customers on the Epic forums, I am far from alone in experiencing this.

Now the truth is, games these days are bloody complex things and it is rare to get a major game released without some significant kinks, so far be it for me to criticise Epic for releasing a bugged game… it happens and is probably an inevitable fact of life.

Also I have no doubt that Epic has an army of coders working to fix the (many) issues that people have reported and most likely they will solve them all soon. Looking at their forums, both Epic and Microsoft developers posted early comments and that is exactly the correct approach. If people know for sure that someone is on the problem, it is amazing how much slack they will cut a company and in many cases, dealing frankly with the issue and frequently acknowledging there is a problem makes people empathise rather than criticise.

But after the initial surge of developer input, the forum started filling up with often highly irate and typically semi-literate gamers cursing and howling because they had become convinced that as the first attempts to patch the game had not helped a great many people, the companies had just banked their money and written the game off. In truth I think that is highly unlikely at this stage and it is an avoidable self-inflicted wound to have well paid programmers working to fix what may be a difficult problem but because your inept PR department does not make that clear on a daily basis, customers whose game is about as useful as a prismatic beermat are left incandescent with rage at being ignored (as they see it). Crazy corporate behaviour.

Interestingly, posts to the forum filled with F words and imprecations about the marital status of the developer’s mothers when they were born, seem to be generally left on the forum. I posted an invective-free article urging Epic to get themselves a new PR director and the post was taken down, which I must confess I find vastly amusing. So no prize for guessing which department is responsible for the Epic forums then.

15 comments to An ‘epic’ example of crap PR

  • I’m a software developer, and I’ve always made a point of total honesty with the client, to the point of calling them to tell them there are problems, even if they don’t know about them, and what’s caused them. (It also helps they, unfortunately, have my direct-dial – no opportunity for PR types to muck it up.)

    The result is they’ve never got upset over a problem, and always accept my word on it. Which is nice.

  • And that, Charles, is very obviously the correct way to handle such issues.

    Even games forums, which always have a particularly high jackass to human ratio, can be (largely) mollified if they just don’t feel abandoned.

    No doubt when the game is successfully patched, much will be be forgiven (it really is a cool game), but the burst blood vessels on display now were pretty much avoidable.

  • Gibmeister

    Oh bro, I fuckin’ hear you!

    I have the same problem with GOW and oh christ, its really annoying. I’ll be checking tonight for another patch (PLEASE!) but why for all that’s holy can’t we be kept in the goddamn loop? I already played it on xbox (yeah, I’m a fan boy) and just got it for the PC for the extra content and the chance to actually kill that Big MoFo, but getting it working is making me crazy!

  • JJ Stone

    I had a different set of crashes with Gears and only got it working earlier today with the latest patch, so a timely article for me :-)

    This sort of thing is so frustrating, but at last I’m not getting these strange C++ crashes.

    It is a cool game, but you’re right about the PR.

  • a.sommer

    And that, Charles, is very obviously the correct way to handle such issues.

    Kind of. For big-ticket software with a limited number of customers, that kind of thing is doable… but for relatively inexpensive code distributed to tens of thousands of people, the “let-the-customers-talk-directly-to-the-guy-who-wrote-the-code” approach isn’t practical. The basic problem is that time spent informing and mollifying pissed-off gamers is time the programmers can’t spend fixing the problem, and the more customers the programmer has to talk to, the less time he can spend fixing it.

    So the programmers work on fixing the problem, and PR/tech support types try to do the ‘inform and mollify’ thing… and quite often, the programmers haven’t taken the time to inform the PR/Tech support types as to what the current state of things is. So the PR/Tech support types tend to try to come up with something vague and technical-sounding that will convince the customer that the problem will be fixed Real Soon Now (but probably not before the call ends). What they say may not accurately reflect the actual situation, to put it politely.

  • and quite often, the programmers haven’t taken the time to inform the PR/Tech support types as to what the current state of things is

    Indeed, and that is what should get a PR director kicked in the arse because finding that out is his job. Directors need to actually direct things.

  • Lascaille

    Good article, but you’d be much better off asking why it seems to have become standard practice to sell PC games at what is effectively a beta stage.

    Clearly development teams and game studios are able to meet deadlines, console games are largely released only when they are _ready_ – as of course, they can’t be patched.

    Why is it acceptable these days to release PC games in a broken state?

  • I don’t know for certain, but I think part of the reason why I have good client-relations is simply that I always explain what the problem is, and what’s caused it.

    I reason it thus: if you explain what the problem is, the client thinks you think he’s smart enough to understand the problem; admit your problems and the client does not suspect you hide things from them.

    It comes down to this: your customers will (eventually) know when you’re fobbing them off. So don’t. No one expects your software to be perfect, so don’t pretend it is – just demonstrate a willingness to get the problems that arise sorted.

  • Good article, but you’d be much better off asking why it seems to have become standard practice to sell PC games at what is effectively a beta stage.

    Yes and that would indeed be a fine subject for another article (and I think I know the answer), but this was really just me musing about PR in the age of the interwhatzit.

  • Millie Woods

    So how does this brave new world of internet savvy explain why and how Islamic oil is able to hijack our economies with the threat of cutting or limiting supply?
    Why does the nonsense about Saudi’s huge oil reserves persist in this day and age when the fact that the world is full of oil and huge discoveries offshore and in oil sands keep being made worldwide?
    Development cost? The cost of bamkrolling murderous thugs who then use the money we transfer to them to threaten our stability and safety is far greater.
    Use the internet to spread the word that middle eastern oil is a luxury we can’t afford. They need us much more than we need them.
    So put the internet to good use by publicising every oil find and development instead of supinely buying into the myth of ME oil being necessary for our survival.
    That would go a long way toward authenticating the inherent power of the internet to disseminate really useful information.

  • Elijah

    Epic have always been bastards. Oh the days of UT2K3…

  • So how does this brave new world of internet savvy explain why and how Islamic oil is able to hijack our economies with the threat of cutting or limiting supply?

    The short answer? They haven’t. Our economy is quite un-hijacked. But the topic here now is really not Islam.

  • Julian Taylor

    Why is it acceptable these days to release PC games in a broken state?

    It’s been ‘acceptable’ for as long as I’ve played computer games (30+ years) to find bugs, often major ones, in games. Certain games come to mind:

    - Hellgate London (released in an uncompleted state)
    - Devastation (again Epic engined – Unreal2) released with MAJOR flaws which took another 6 months to patch. Comments on Epic forums bring that particular game to mind again.
    - My personal favourite screwup was probably Giants: Citizen Kabuto which was released promising ‘multiplayer mayhem’, but the box actually contained a note from the publishers apologising for the fact that the multiplayer aspect had not been finished and so was not included. It was eventually added as a patch some months later.

    Just in case we think that the likes of Valve (Halflife) and ID Software (Doom/Quake etc) are exempt just remember the total fiasco that John Carmack presided over with Quake 2 which was released too early and did not run at all in its original state.

  • Moriarty

    I sometimes think the need for patches for games is a deliberate ploy by the publishers – they make the original game almost unplayable on purpose, so the inevitable 0-day crack becomes outdated when the new-version patch is released.

  • This PR problem isn’t just for companies but will eventually be one for individuals as well. Individuals like to control their public image as much as any corporation and the internet will undermine that as well.

    The internet turns us all into public figures. We leave data traces every time we use the net and the tools necessary to piece that data together into a cohesive picture become more and more widely available. Look at people used the internet to investigate the “ordinary people” who poised questions at the CNN debates.

    Companies are having to get used to living in a fishbowl and the rest of us will to.