Remember myspace? It was huge, once. Just like the music industry, it had a good few years to work out how to monetise phenomenal demand for its products & services on the web and, despite a head start that should have seen it luxuriating in cash and ivory back-scratchers, it failed. myspace will probably get another shot under new ownership but is now back in 18th place on the starting grid, with Facebook, Soundcloud, Last FM, Spotify, Bandcamp & others now way ahead. Like Friends Reunited before it, it has somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory. How the hell did that happen?
There are lots of reasons, but I’d like to look at it from the point of view of communications. What myspace did brilliantly at the beginning was connect fans to bands. That may sound simple, but think how things happened before – you could buy a band’s music, you could see them at a gig (and maybe grab a quick autograph), you could read an interview with them in a mag or paper. If you joined a mailing list or fanclub then, once a quarter you might receive a badge, a limited edition EP, a “letter” (written by a press officer) and that was about it. That was as close as you could get.
And then came the digital age. And communications needed to be quicker and there needed to be more to fill the ever-increasing spaces available. Whilst some bands need to retain an air of mystique (some bands would certainly not benefit from the fans knowing too much about what kind of people they really are), others rely on emotional and personal connections with their fanbase. Along came Artic Monkeys, who seemed to just be natural communicators, and suddenly “myspace made them famous.” This was just a myth perpetuated by people who didn’t really understand what was going on. They were just a great band with a penchant for communications. it’s just a medium. If you have good content, it works; if you don’t, it doesn’t.
But then the music industry saw what was happening and all the people who stood to lose from direct communications between bands and fans stepped in; suddenly, it was de rigeur to have your press officer running your myspace page. You could tell because everything they posted had lots of exclamation marks!!!! At the end of everything!!!!!!!! Cos, like, that makes a 35 year old PR seem down with the kids, right?!?!?!?!
Gone were the real connections between human beings, and back into the land of the glorified press release we sailed. Churnalism of the worst kind, dressed up as humanity. A certain kind of fan wants a certain kind of connection – and this opportunity was lost, frankly. Now, watch those Twitter accounts for more of the same.
What does this have to do with gaming? An awful lot. The games industry is structured not dissimilarly from the music industry: first, there are the artists who actually develop the games; These artists are then often signed to a larger publisher who, in turn, are signed to a global distributor that is responsible for getting games into the shops all over the world and the multi-million dollar marketing budgets that support it. But then there comes a problem. Those giant distributors are used to controlling the communications – they want consistent PR and marketing messaging and they (often) want it globally. That’s too simplistic a view, in my opinion. The way the US market views first person shooters may be rather different from how the Japanese see it. But with the interwebs being, y’know, global, any discussion / comment / sneak preview / beta material is going to end up in every market in minutes. That doesn’t suit the old-fashioned “command and control” mentality.
Think, then, about games consumers. They range from the “buys a couple of games a year” Call Of Duty guy (this century’s equivalent of Mondeo man) to the hardcore FPS / RPG devotee who needs to be the first to get 100% completion, write a walkthrough and post it on IRC. Like any market, the needs of each segment are rather different. The latter has no real interest in what the likes of EA, PlayStation or Activision have to say, just like your average indie-consuming Camdenite doesn’t care much what Universal Music have to say. The kind of communications controlled by the big boys is what ends up in mainstream magazines and newspapers. They talk the language of the consumer-at-large, the mainstream thinkers. And that’s fine. But when they try and communicate with the hardcore, they almost always get it wrong – they just speak different languages.
Media like Twitter have opened up new possibilities but they require a different language – one spoken by the “artist,” who is closer to the market in mentality than a corporate communicator can ever be. Take recent EA release “Bulletstorm.” It’s a decent enough game, but one of the gameplay features makes a traditional multiplayer “deathmatch” mode impossible. To your mainstream COD player, this is what multiplayer is all about, and it was a likely barrier to purchase. And early on (I’ve been following this one since the beginning) fans were expressing concern about the lack of a deathmatch mode. After all, what is more satisfying than killing complete strangers? I’ve been hugely impressed by the way Polish development team People Can Fly and their direct publishers Epic have communicated over the last 18 months or so. Sure, there’ve been the stunts, the E3 stage and all manner of mass comms. But underneath it all Adrian Chmielarz (PCF) and Cliff Bleszinski and others from Epic were talking direct to the fans on Twitter and through their various blogs all along. At every stage of development, you got the feeling that they were listening and that it was affecting the way the game was being developed. By keeping the core happy, the buzz on the game was far more positive than if it had been left to a mainstream communicator – this was not a straightforward title and it was treated accordingly. Expectations that took a year to form ahead of release were well-managed.
Meantime, look what happened with Blizzard, who make Starcraft & World Of Warcraft, two of the hugest games in the universe. Last year – seemingly out of nowhere – they announced an end to anonymity on forums and games. People would have to post under their own names or not at all. No doubt some would think this is a good idea, but you could talk to any gamer in any forum in the galaxy and know that people cherish anonymity – gaming is (partly) about escapism; we’ve all been the kind of heroes on screen we could never hope to be in real life. And so, their asses got handed to them on a plate. Aside from a mass scream of alarm, various Anonymous hacks led to Blizzard board members seeing their home addresses (and more) posted online as an example as to just why anonymity is a cherished thing. Big fail. But if they’d floated the idea properly amongst their market first, they would have known that it was preposterous and it never would have happened.
And this is the difference – where all communications used to be one way (“Here’s something amazing! It’s available over there! Go buy it!”), the two-way traffic engendered by digital communications & social media has changed everything, not just because of the change in direction but because of the speed of communication itself. It propagates like crazy. Today’s games consumers are not just purchasers, they’re market researchers, developers, ideas guys, marketing evangelists and players all rolled into one. They don’t “get” the game on the day of release, they got it a year before.
You only need to look at the film industry, which – for years – has used previews, film festivals and film-lover networks as a matter of course.
Where Sony hung onto crucial information whilst the PlayStation Network crumbled around them they missed a load of crucial opportunities: the chance to capitalise on the goodwill giving people a free online experience gets you; the ability to harness the power of the crowd in solving their problems; the chance, perhaps, to coax the likes of Anonymous to help track the culprits who brought down their gametime (instead of pointing the finger – again, nobody in their right mind would think this was an Anonymous thing). And now they’re stranded in a very leaky boat.
We used to talk about communications planning in a purely tactical way – “Here’s the new product, what we gonna say about it? And to whom?” But that doesn’t cut it any more. Communication networks for talking with the consumer should already be in place, so whatever new game comes along, the guys with the wallets at the ready are helping shape it from day one. Some games lend themselves to such communications by their very nature – Sports Interactive’s Football Manager series relies on globally-produced data from fan networks to make the game so realistic, so it’s no surprise that they communicate so effectively across everything from forums to Twitter and all points in between. Likewise Gabe Newell at Valve. You look at these guys and think “they’re one of us…” And, indeed, we are one of them.
So whilst myspace’s sun sets, unknowing if it will rise again for a new dawn, communicators in the games industry take heed: if you’re thinking in product lifecycles, you might well be the next dinosaur headed for extinction. Your fans are out there and they’re clamouring for attention – just don’t think that a press release alone will satisfy them.