Can a video game developers over or under-communicate with their fans?

In today’s world, “communication” is a big deal if you want your business to thrive. The internet and social media have made it possible for consumers to communicate directly with businesses of all kind, and as a result, they expect those companies to respond. This is particularly true of game development companies. Things like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and even Snapchat have made it possible for game devs to hold an almost constant conversation with gamers — a strategy that has worked out well for most smaller or indie developers who need their fans to help them get noticed.

It’s also worked out really well for non-gaming-centric businesses. One of the most well known entrepreneurs of our time Gary Vaynerchuck (popularly known as GaryVee) the CEO of Wine Library and Vaynermedia is a huge advocate of keeping the lines of communication open with… well… everyone, as a business practice — even encouraging business owners to make use of apps like Snapchat and more recently Music.ly. Of course, this advocation does come with caveats, most specifically, the need to use these platforms in the “right” way.

 

For the most part, GaryVee’s pretty big on the whole being open with consumers thing, and will tell any business that they really need to demonstrate an appreciation of their consumers. In the new age of the internet, business is a two way street. In GaryVee’s businesses — liquor sales and marketing — sharing information with his consumers is part of the strategy.

That said, one does have to wonder how much communication is too much. Is there a point at which being too open with the consumers can do more damage than help?

The answer, quite possibly, is “yes.”

Over the past few years we’ve had several cases where members of development teams have elected to communicate openly with their communities, causing a bit of mayhem as a result. One of the more recent — and honestly tamer — of these incidents would be the recent backlash over Blizzard electing to change the pose of one of the Overwatch characters, seemingly in response to a post on their forums.  As we all know, it all turned out rather okay in the end — and it actually seems like Blizzard might have had a good giggle at everyone else’s expense, but it could have ended differently and all because of when and where the developers elected to announce the plans for the change.

Tracer butt pose pinup model
Tracer’s new “pinup” pose

In a more drastic case, one-time president of Sony Online Entertainment (now Daybreak Games), John Smedley, was let go from the company after he put hackers on blast on twitter, resulting in the company being targeted by those same hackers. Of course, this wasn’t the first time Daybreak/SOE had been targeted by hackers, and Smedley had been a target himself. In fact, that’s why he started tweeting the things he did. But that said, that attack in particular, and his being asked to leave the company might had been avoided had he not made the hackers the public target of his ire.

John Smedley
John Smedley

 

Generally, things don’t get to quite this level, but gaming is pretty rife with developers communicating plans to the community only to change something later, resulting in players sometimes feeling lied to or slighted in some way. The problem is that with things like game development, things don’t always go as planned. Some things may not work as the developers thought they would, technology restrictions can get in the way, or there can be financial issues. If these plans aren’t communicated to the fan base early on, then there’s no real issue when they have to change. However, when they are announced early in the development cycle, may players take them as absolute promises and become upset when the developer doesn’t come through.

Of course, the downside is that not communicating with fans early and often and often can lead to the project being forgotten in the constant storm of information about other games being developed at the same time. And of course, there are those PR-scenarios in which a company keeping quiet can cause fans to assume the worst.

Nintendo

The truth is we have some developers that don’t really communicate at all. This is very common with companies like Nintendo who recently was the subject of controversy after firing an employee. While there were a lot of working parts to this event, one of the biggest factors was that Nintendo generally doesn’t offer more information than deemed absolutely necessary– about anything. So when they were more or less silent on the issue of why the employee was fired — other than to say she’d been holding down a second gig that was in breach of contract — it was easily assumed that Nintendo was hiding the fact they’d done something wrong. It didn’t just affect their consumer base, it also had an impact on their relationship with third party game developers.

So the question is… is there a point at which developers need to learn to just keep quiet, and are there ones where they should maybe say a bit more? It’s a tricky question — especially for the larger AAA companies. Smaller companies of one to twenty people can benefit greatly by being open and chatting with their fan base. It keeps them engaged and wanting to help.

Even with larger companies, communication with consumers is a key component of doing business, but they likely need to be far more strategic about it. One stray word by one of hundreds of employees can cause a whole host of problems. That’s why larger companies often have an approval process for things like tweets. There will be bigger companies who manage to get away with being just as open as the smaller ones — particularly those that grew their company based on that openness and just kept it that way.

For most companies it’s a pretty precarious balancing act… And they’re not always going to get it right one way or the other. For older companies — those that predate the internet and the whole social networking thing — it’s probably even more difficult to get right. The trick is definitely figuring out what things developers should comment on and when. In the meantime. Silly YouTube videos are always welcome.