If there’s one thing anyone should know about gamers, it’s that they’re often passionate fans, and that enthusiasm can quickly turn into abject disappointment, disapproval and outright rage if they feel that someone, somewhere has screwed up their favourite games franchise.
You don’t need to look far for examples of game developers and publishers experiencing the wrath of their communities. There’s the ongoing fallout of Fallout 76’s disastrous launch. There’s Blizzard’s backlash after abandoning its Heroes of the Storm esports tournament. I could go on.
The point is, developers and publishers know that they’re working in a volatile, and often unforgiving, environment. They should know that their communication with their fans and the media must always be clear, honest, rapid and backed-up with a strong argument.
The developer and publisher of first-person shooter, Metro Exodus, are experiencing the perils of confused communication right now, as they struggle to construct a narrative that fans can understand.
So, what’s going wrong with the launch of Metro Exodus, and how can others in the gaming industry avoid similar situations happening to them?
Digital PC games distribution in a nutshell
First, a bit of a gaming primer. For the uninitiated, these days PC gamers tend to have one or more digital distribution platforms on their computer (where they can buy games digitally instead of from a traditional store). The main ones are:
- Steam – the most popular platform, owned by Valve (the game developer behind games like Portal and Half-Life)
- Origin – owned by Electronic Arts, where PC gamers go to access all games published by EA
- Battle.net – owned by Blizzard (the developer of World of Warcraft and Destiny)
- Epic Games Store – Epic is the developer of the massively popular online game Fortnite
While Origin and Battle.net focus on serving their own fan communities, Steam acts as a more general games marketplace, and is a great place to discover smaller developers and their games. However, in December 2018, Epic decided to compete with Steam by launching a platform of its own – offering developers a bigger slice of revenue and tempting gamers with the promise of frequent free games.
Metro’s Exodus to Epic
Three weeks before its release date, Metro Exodus’ publisher, Deep Silver, announced that the game would now be an Epic Games Store exclusive at launch. People who had pre-ordered the game on Steam would still be able to play it, and they would still get all of the post-launch updates. Others who wanted to play the game on PC would have to buy it on the Epic store (the deal would be in effect for the first year after launch).
The announcement caused an immediate backlash that played out on social media, forums and on the comment sections of many gaming news sites. Concerns centred around:
- Needing to download yet another platform and remember yet another login.
- Security issues with Epic. It’s suffered a number of account hacks.
- The lack of an established trusted community at Epic. Being the newest launcher on the market, Epic doesn’t have the user reviews or the forums that Steam has.
- Epic’s ownership. Some complaints have focused on the fact that Chinese tech giant, Tencent, owns 48% of Epic Games.
- Other gamers have complained about the store’s customer service provision.
The general feeling is that the move reduced player choice and made it harder for people to play the game.
The confused response from stakeholders far and wide
The announcement came on 28th January from publisher, Deep Silver, and was swiftly followed by a response from Steam (it called the move unfair). Frustrated fans started leaving negative reviews other games in the Metro franchise that were still available on Steam.
You can see how Metro: Last Light Redux was well reviewed, until Deep Silver made its announcement.
Shortly after the backlash started, THQ Nordic published a Tweet officially washing its hands of the decision.
Koch Media, the organisation being blamed, is the media company that founded Deep Silver. THQ Nordic is the sister company of THQ Nordic AB (the Nordic arm of the larger publisher that owns Deep Silver and Koch Media), but as you can imagine, it was hard for people to make the distinction between the THQ Nordic that owns Deep Silver and the one that has nothing to do with it.
This was swiftly followed by a press statement from the THQ Nordic that did own Deep Silver, and therefore had actual skin in the game. The statement supported expressed support of its sub-group’s decision.
Adding to the confusion of messages, someone who works for 4A, which develops the game, posted their thoughts on a Russian forum. They said, in part, that some people were simply using this as a reason to “pour out their bile” and that if enough PC players boycotted the game the franchise wouldn’t be on PC in the future.
PC gamers don’t tend to respond well to threats, and took to Steam, Reddit and social media to complain about the statement.
The renewed backlash prompted Deep Silver to respond on Twitter, saying:
But this created more confusion among some fans, as it was tweeted from the game’s official account, rather than that of the publisher. It wasn’t until an employee confirmed it was a Deep Silver statement (on a gaming forum), leaving fans and the media to spread the word.
What can brands learn from this?
- Understand your customers. Before anything else, it’s vital that the business understand what its customers want and what they expect as a basic level of service. In the Metro Exodus example, the publisher could have known that there’s a general level of skepticism about installing additional game launchers, and that could have informed its communications.
- Trust your customers. You may be making a decision for the good of the business, but if these reasons aren’t explained, all people are left with is their original opinion of the situation. In this case, many people felt forced into downloading software they didn’t want, in order to play the game they were anticipating. By being transparent about the decision-making process, and trusting customers to understand the logic behind the decisions, the brand has a better chance of creating understanding in its customer community.
- Create a unified communications strategy. While this is an extreme example, there are often multiple stakeholders involved in decisions and their implications. You can’t have one department or business telling the public one thing, while another sends out a different message. Get together and decide on a communications strategy before making your first statement. If you can’t agree on your stance, how are customers meant to agree with it?
- Avoid last minute switcheroos. If you can’t make a decision far enough ahead of time, perhaps it’s best not to spring a last minute change on customers? If the change has to be made, communicating why the action was take is even more crucial.
When brands communicate over social media, it’s easy for messages to be misread. It’s also not always clear what’s an official stance, and what’s simply the opinion of an employee. What is clear, is that by having a clear communications strategy, one that’s communicated across all stakeholders and all of their social media teams, brands can calm their online communities rather than create an atmosphere of chaos and confusion that does more damage to the brand.