Heady Times for Robots
Mechwarrior Online, published by Infinite Game Publishing (IGP), and developed by Piranha Games Interactive (PGI) was not a splashy AAA title with a huge marketing budget when it was announced in November 2011. It was going to be free to play, and used a grassroots strategy of exposure to the press, targeted advertisements, and the strength of the battletech/mechwarrior brand to get the word out.
I've mentioned it on the podcast before, but as a huge fan of giant stompy robots, particularly of the Battletech variety, I will never forget the moment when I first saw the banner ad, attached to the Penny Arcade Report article about modeling the mechs, and found out that I could be part of the closed beta. The ecstasy was palpable. Finally, a convincing, online multiplayer, beautifully and lovingly rendered modern Mechwarrior! I had been waiting for this moment since my mid-teens, when AOL cancelled Multiplayer Battletch: Solaris. I had prepared for this moment by reading the mostly god awful licensed novels, filled with the sort of fetishistic descriptions of lasers melting armor that George R.R. Martin reserves only to describe comestibles. I could not throw my $60 at "The Founders Program" fast enough.
|An example of when you can, pretty much completely, judge a book by its cover.|
I was not alone in my revelry. Indeed, I was exceeded by the individuals who volunteered to make it rain to the tune $120 to become "Elite Founders" within the ranks of IGP's independent kickstarter-like funding program. Indeed, they made 5 Million fucking dollars off of it. The times were heady. Mech Romney was not only president, he was a king. The enthusiasm was grand. Communities were popping up, with ridiculous vim and vigor, wanting to stomp around in robots, pretend they are the great houses depicted in the works of great literature mentioned above, and shoot mans in robots-erm, excuse me, Mechs. The forums were frothing with joy. People were loving it. I was screaming about how awesome the game was on the podcast. To sum it up succinctly, I had never seen a more enthusiastic pre-launch community for a game. Like I said, heady times.
Off With Their Heads!
I'm telling you now: This community is now in open rebellion against PGI. Hostility is set to maximum. Accusations of "LIES!", boasts of "Holding PGI Accountable" and outright jabs at the competence of the developer occupy the permanent and public banners that represent forum user signatures.
What caused everything to change? Find out after the break.
So, for those of you who don't believe me, look at this shit. It's a forum thread, containing an
apology rambling quasi-apology, from PGI CEO Russ Bullock on the most recent issue of contention within the game, the addition of third person view. The particulars of the firestorm are beside the point, I'm sure a new controversy will brew up any moment, and this one will seem like old hat. It's certainly happened in the past. I just want you to soak in the vitriol.
Soak not only in the vitriol of the fired off text of one post, or even a series of posts; we've seen the "uninstall" threat a million times in a million different games, with a million different patch notes. What you're not seeing, (unless you have a forum account), and what really stands out to me, are the people who have devoted signature space, normally reserved for self aggrandizement, unit advertisement, or a really funny joke, to openly criticizing PGI. This, to me, represents a sort of permanence of hostility, notable not only for its boldness, but specifically for its target. Indeed, we're not dealing with "Warlocks are OP, Blizzard Please Nerf." We're dealing with "Blizzard, we hate you with the core of our soul."
Here's my favorite:
|A bold statement to make in an official forum.|
What has brought this about has not just been mistakes, which will happen for any and every developer, and the community, particularly one as enthusiastic as the MWO Community, will almost always forgive. Instead, what has brought this to a head is what can only be described as a disingenuous method of dealing with the community by PGI.
Community Warfare: The Phantom Menace
The laundry list is long. There are what would, under normal circumstances, be kind of run of the mill quibbles with a troubled video game. The game was sold, in open beta, on the premise of a major game mode called "Community Warfare." Essentially, this is what you dream of when you dream of a mechwarrior game. Interstellar stakes. Factions fighting over a map of the galaxy, with robots and their pilots dealing the deciding blows with missiles and lasers. A dream is an apt description of the actuality of Community Warfare, but a Mirage is a better one. It is, according to PGI, always on the horizon, but as we keep getting to where the horizon was, we find that there is not only empty desert (filled with new mechs to buy! Sale! Sale! Sale!) but what does appear on the horizon is getting less defined all the time, and looking far less like an oasis filled with the sweet water of interstellar mech struggles, and more like some polluted dump with a sign that says "community warfare" sticking out of the sand, which, possibly, will have someone asking for money at the entrance. Now, MWO is two weeks away from "launch," which, honestly, no one really knows what that means (except that it does not mean anything but a vague "Stage 1" of community warfare that represents nothing resembling interstellar mech combat).
Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain! The Story of a Terrible Podcast
As damning as this is, this strategy of non-communication is preferable to the developers' methods of actually
communicating attempting to communicate. It is much less about a dialogue, and much more about an "opportunity to market" disguised as a dialogue.
Once again, the laundry list is pretty long here, but I'll take two examples. The first is the No Guts, No Galaxy Podcast. I don't believe I have ever publicly bashed another podcast, but if there was ever a place to start, this is it. Seemingly, NGNG started as a genuine battletech fan podcast. The quality of the podcast is debatable (probably better than ours, though), but it was popular enough, and received a surge of popularity as Closed Beta for MWO moved into Open Beta and the community grew. They clearly had an audience who was listening. Soon, you started seeing advertisements for the podcast on the MWO website, and, somewhat remarkably, they would score employees of IGP and PGI as guests. Indeed, eventually, the community manager from PGI became a weekly guest on the show. Additionally, the hosts started popping up in all sorts of interesting places, tutorial videos, mech previews, and streaming promotional streams from the IGP official Twitch.tv account.
The problem is that during this very obvious co-opting of a more than willing PR arm in NGNG, both parties maintained that NGNG is independent, and represents the voice of the community, not PGI. Indeed, since then, it has been revealed that IGP is contracted with the NGNG hosts, but, laughably, the party line is that IGP pays NGNG only for very specific content (twitch streaming), and that this relationship in no way affects the independence or content of the podcast. Yet, week after week, important PGI guests would come on the show, and despite whatever firestorm was brewing on the forums, or whatever concerns would be present about the game (say, for example....where the fuck is community warfare?) the softballs would be tossed up and swatted at with various degrees of success. Yes, I was wondering exactly what you loved most about this game. That's hard hitting journalism.
Look, I'm not arguing with PGI/IGP's decision to use a podcast as a way to market to their fans. Nor do I have much criticism for NGNG's decision to
be shills get paid. It is the theater that bothers not only myself, but the Community as a whole, and is so symptomatic of what PGI views as an acceptable relationship with their community. It is so thoroughly disingenuous, and so incredibly transparent as to not only boggle one's mind, but just plain be insulting. Also, damnit, the podcast is just really bad. It's littered with commercials segments begging for money, as well as irrelevant self-referential segments, the hosts are prone to wildly irrelevant personal interjections, limited humor, and willfully dumb commentary, and all of this on top of being obvious shills. When you combine this sort of plainly bad decision making (NGNG is a great podcast to get our message out there!) with the theater (the voice of the community!), backed up by the insistence of very transparent falsehoods (No, they just pay us for the twitch streaming, we're totally independent, we swear!), you get the PGI/IGP strategy.
Although this is the best example, this isn't the only one. PGI makes a big deal about "Ask the Devs" on their forums, including weekly "Answers" and even a new voting system that allows the community to select the best and most important questions. And of course, all of this sounds like a very lovely public dialogue between developer and community. Except, of course, that it is also theater. Approximately 5 questions are selected from the top 15. In this way, PGI is able to get whatever marketing message they want across, while still under the pretense of dialogue, and ignore those they find distasteful.
Not only are they able to do this, but they, indeed actively do. A movement was started up within the MWO community, spearheaded by the Something Awful clan Word of Lowtax, but joined by a good cross section of the entire MWO Community, listing grievances and, most notably, providing suggestions and rallying support for the game, as a last ditch effort to avoid the downward spiral trajectory the whole mess seemed to be on. The thread was pretty quickly archived, or moved to an unused subforum, and a community question (voted third highest in popularity) was thoroughly ignored by the Devs. Not only that, but the cone of silence extends beyond willful blindness to outright censorship. The below post, reasonably worded and posing a thoroughly legitimate question was removed within minutes:
This is just one example, but it underscores the point. The decision making is so poor, the interplay is so theatrical, the dissent is so ignored, and the defense is so irrational, that the community's sense of bitterness is only matched by the absurdity of the entire state of affairs.
When All Else Fails, Be a Dick
And yet, all of this does not fully encompass the problem. Because, to exascerbate the entire situation, it seemed like being a dick was the thing to do. The CEO of PGI, Russ Bullock, recipient of so much vitriol in the thread above, has done nothing but stoke the flames. Whether it be a ridiculous post-implementation defense of the
controversial universally and unanimously reviled third person view which is currently inflaming the community. (To summarize, 3PV is a good idea because I originally didn't like the idea, so if I like it now, it has been thoroughly vetted, because I only have bad ideas when they are my old ideas. The reasons I like it are because at e3, where people have very limited times to play an almost infinite sea of games, if they didn't understand how a mech moved, they left. This is something that we should apply to our user base, who is not in a scenario anything like that. Also, because when I showed my 10 year old son who plays a lot of Wii, obviously a statistically significant representative of our core player base, and also the most important person in the universe, he struggled understanding the core movement mechanics of the game, but 3PV really helped him. Ergo, 3PV is good. -RUSS OUT BITCHES!) Or this masterpiece of public relations:
The arrogance, disingenuousness, and ineptness has the feeling of a sideshow magician who is not only performing illusions that the audience figures out, but the jokes aren't landing either. Each night, he's calling up the same girl out of the audience, a volunteer to saw in half , all the while pretending she's not his assistant, and now, he's feeling rather put upon that he has to pick old tomato out of his teeth.
Why Is This Important?
This seems like a lot of shitlords getting upset about their internets not going the way they want them to. And, that's valid, to an extent. There are certainly more pressing problems in the world. But, part of the reason this is happening is because people care about Battletech and Mechwarrior. The fans are passionate. That's why they showed up in such great numbers and dumped 5 million dollars on PGI, sight unseen. That's why they formed these communities. That's why they are so upset. Afterall, PGI is the only Mechwarrior game in town, so, to the people who feel ownership, to the people who feel passion, they have a duty, and they are disregarding it.
Also, you know what, they made a pretty fuckin fun game, right up until you realize you're on a hamster wheel fueled by buying more mechs, and different mech paint jobs, but never advancing the gameplay. MWO could be great, and the community can't help but feel that PGI, through their ineptness, is standing in the way of that happening.
At a minimum, this is a model. It's a model for exactly what not to do with an enthusiastic fan base, and with a great, proven concept. It's a model that shows that games don't make themselves, people make games, for better or for worse. It is a model that screams at you, listen to your community, they don't always know best, but they still need to be listened to, and their enthusiasm needs to be dealt with.
And that's what's remarkable about this. PGI has consistently confused enthusiasm for an intellectual property that has existed for 30 years or so with enthusiasm for them. They seem to be able to ignore the criticism; stick their fingers in there ear and say "lallalalalICANTHEARYOUlalalalala." They seem to feel the most passionate fans of their game are the bad apples, to be gotten rid of, so the bunch doesn't get spoiled. Strangely, they're running out of apples. In his most recent post, which may go down as an "all timer" and will surely be memorialized in many a forum signature, Bullock artfully manages to overcome some astoundingly incomprehensible poor grammar, to deliver a message of absolute tone-deaf clueslessness that transcends the shackles of the limited english language, to deliver a message of idiocy that we can all feel in our hearts:
In the end I think the community has shown amazing acceptance of our proposed direction of MWO if they feel it would be best for the future of MechWarrior Online and growing this great brand.