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PR Disaster Watch: Destiny Edition

June has not been a good month for game company PR departments. Or maybe it has been an excellent month in demonstrating the necessity of their existence in the face of designers with a bad case of verbal diarrhea. But while I have been focused on ArenaNet and Blizzards’ debacles, the true disaster that is Destiny’s expansion, The Taken King, has slipped me by. Until now.

The story is more or less the same, as if ripped from an identical playbook: an expensive expansion, and an even more expensive version with includes content that the player already owns. The deal this time is with Destiny’s Collector Edition, which includes the base game and prior expansions along with emotes exclusive to this package. There is no way to purchase these emotes individually, and no value whatsoever added if you already own everything already released to this point. So, basically, Heart of Thorns 2.0.

What elevates this to another whole level was this interview with Luke Smith, Bungie’s creative director for the expansion. I highly, highly recommend you read the entire thing because it is comedy gold. Or you can simply read this exchange, and despair:

Eurogamer: I get that it is big but it is also the same price as the base game. That had four areas rather than one and more missions than the Taken King. Why is it the same price?

Luke Smith: All I can do is answer that with the same thing I just gave you… We’re really comfortable with the value we’re giving to players this autumn. I believe that once we begin to share more, players will be even more excited. And for existing players it also comes with the Founder’s pack with a new Sparrow, shader and emblem.

Eurogamer: Just not the emotes.

Luke Smith: It doesn’t because they come with the Collector’s Edition.

Eurogamer: Final question on prices –

Luke Smith: Is it also the final question on the emotes?

Eurogamer: I’m not going to mention them again. I can’t get them.

Luke Smith: But you can if you buy the Collector’s Edition.

Eurogamer: I’m not going to buy the game and the two DLCs all over again.

Luke Smith: Okay, but first I want to poke at you on this a little bit.

Eurogamer: Poke at me?

Luke Smith: You’re feeling anxious because you want this exclusive content but you don’t know yet how much you want it. The notion of spending this money is making you anxious, I can see it –

Eurogamer: I do want them. I would buy them –

Luke Smith: If I fired up a video right now and showed you the emotes you would throw money at the screen.

Eurogamer: What I’m saying is that fan frustration is not because they don’t understand the proposition. It comes regardless of how cool the exclusive content is. The frustration – and mine as a fan – is that the method of acquiring it requires me to re-buy content I bought a year ago.

Luke Smith: [Long pause] It’s about value. The player’s assessment of the value of the content.

I would like to imagine that the “long pause” moment included a return to sanity for Luke Smith, the awakening from a fugue state. Or just a realization for how unconscionably stupid he was just moments prior. I say this because he would finish the interview with a somewhat rational approach to the nature of time-sensitive content and the noting that one cannot go home again.

In any case, Bungie’s now-existent PR department rang up Eurogamer at 9am the next day to update everyone that there will be nameless Veteran rewards forthcoming with the expansion, that will be “even better” than the ones found in the Collector’s Edition. Which really makes you wonder about all those Veterans who already “threw money at the screen” over exclusive emotes, and if they can get refunds of said Collector’s Edition.

Or not, at least according to Bungie community manager David “Deej” Dague, who says in the updated post:

“The Collector’s Edition is mostly sold out, so the people who found that stuff valuable jumped at the chance,” Deej added in a separate post. “You’ll likely see it sold on eBay for much more than what we’re asking. But that’s not the point. Right?

Right.

I suppose the takeaway here, besides the entertainment value of all these high-profile face-plants, is that players are going to likely (successfully) call bullshit when they see it going forward. And a large part of that is going to be any expansion being released without some sort of added value given to the very people that made a game or franchise successful enough to warrant an expansion in the first place.

Is that player entitlement? Or is it a renegotiated business transaction with more favorable terms? I dunno, maybe haggling indicates a deep, moral failure on the part of the buyer. What I do know is that all current and future Destiny players are better off today than they were two days ago. And that’s enough for me.

Edit: Also, apparently you get an exclusive quest in the expansion if you buy a can of Redbull. You can’t make this shit up.

Players and Relationships

If you have not been following the latest high-profile MMO PR disaster, the short version is that ArenaNet is selling their latest expansion for $50, and bundling in the base game.

That’s it. There is no long-version.

While Tobold (as always) decries player entitlement and Ravious wants us to think of the children, what is lost in the shuffle is perhaps why the “Don’t preorder the expansion” became the top-rated thread in the GW2 reddit forum (indeed, the top 3 are currently about this issue). Specifically, because ArenaNet failed Relationship Rule #1: it isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it.”

In many ways, MMOs are relationships between players and the developers. It is a business transaction first and foremost, of course, but rarely are MMOs successful without fostering a sense of familiarity and engagement over the long-term. There are feelings of investment, especially considering the game you are playing continues to be in active development. “The devs are listening,” and hey, they sometimes do in fact change things based on feedback. You as the player feel in the loop.

That is why feelings run so high over “betrayals,” real or imagined.

Objectively, there isn’t anything wrong with ArenaNet’s actions. The expansion was going to cost X amount, they chose $50 as the baseline, and that was that. The decision to bundle in the base game was obviously made at the financial level, as there are likely some costs incurred in stocking store shelves with two boxed products, one of which requires the other to function anyway. Plus, there might not be a way to purchase just the base game anymore, basically upselling new players who might not even play long enough to get into expansion content. All very straight-forward business decisions.

Subjectively, though? I agree with subtext many players are reading into the situation, if for no other reason than a corporation (and the developers) should know better by now. First was the (intentionally?) misleading statements that the expansion would require the base game to play, a subsequent sale of the base game, and now the base game is bundled with expansion for free. Then the introduction of a new class without a free increase in the character slots available. Are players entitled to free character slots with a MSRP of $10 apiece? No. Does it look suspicious as hell to not include them? Yes. I would feel the same way if SWTOR’s expansion included five new buttons to push when they already charge money for additional hotbars.

Tobold suggests you cannot win with the kind of players that complain about these things. This is incorrect. In fact, it is very easy to win in this scenario: either sell the expansion as a standalone for $40, or include a free character slot for anyone who purchases Heart of Thorns and already has a GW2 license. Bam! You win the moral high ground. Hell, if ArenaNet is worried about losing all the extra money their current scheme generates, they could tie these elements to the preorder prepurchase prepay only – they would likely recoup their costs on the interest generated between now and whenever the expansion will actually be released.

MMOs are social games, and companies need to manage social expectations in the same way you would in relationships. Or choose not to, I suppose. In which case all your carefully spent millions of dollars in advertising will run directly against a bunch of jilted lovers who will trash talk you in public for weeks for free. And while there will always be some people you cannot please, you damn better make sure that the narrative they present is as crazy as they are.

Because if they have a point? You’ll never hear the end of it.