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Anatomy of a PR Disaster
by Paul Allen on 02/06/14 05:21:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The Background

I'm writing this blog the morning after Interstellar Marines went live in an Indiegala bundle. The premise of the bundle was simple: we wanted to release the two versions of our game as part of a two-tier bundle on Indiegala so we could support their chosen charity. And if I'm being honest we also hoped to earn a little bit of PR. 

The main aim was to support the charity through Indiegala selling copies of our game, with part, or all, of the revenue going to said charity. Bundles of this type do not make any appreciable money for developers, and as we're still early in production, with a lot of features and content not yet implemented, we did not take part in the bundle to increase the number of people playing. That will naturally increase as we add additional content and features. The bundle was about charity. 

At this point I should probably mention we're an early access game, having been greenlit by the Steam community. We have a lot of history behind us, which is detailed in this post if you're interested in learning about our background. 

Bundles have been around for some time, and we'd also taken part in some Steam sales, so we didn't anticipate our community would be too upset by this. Oh my did we get that wrong!

The Bundle

The normal price for Interstellar Marines is $14.99, and the price for the Spearhead edition is $39.99.

On Indiegala the minimum price to buy the first bundle was $1, and the minimum price to buy the higher bundle was $3.99 for the first 12 hours. Plus of course you got some additional games as well.

There was also a miss-communication with Indiegala. We wanted to have the regular version of the game in the smaller bundle, and the Spearhead version in the larger one. They thought we wanted both games in the larger bundle, so that's what they did.

The Community's Reaction

As you can imagine, what's obvious in hindsight happened - the Steam forums erupted with complaints from players who had bought Interstellar Marines at much higher prices and could not understand why we would do this. There were a LOT of posts from community members who felt they'd been betrayed by us. Many posters thought we'd done a cash grab and were in serious financial trouble.

We spend a lot of time and effort working with our community. We have a team of only 10 people, and 2 of us are CMs, so it was heartbreaking to see that trust we'd built up over the years being eroded and degraded by a completely self-inflicted and needless mistake.

Interestingly enough our own website's forums had precisely one thread devoted to this topic, which was a very civilised and relaxed discussion. That is probably because a lot of the people in our website's forum have been around for several years, while the Steam forum has only been there since last year.

Our Reaction

The first thing we did was get together and try to find out what had happened. We all knew there was going to be an Indiegala bundle, but most of us did not know the details of what had been agreed with Indiegala. Had we made a mistake? Had Indiegala? Who had agreed to what?

When we'd gone through that process and realised the mistake was ours, the first thing we did was the most important - we wrote a response on the Steam forums that contained an apology, a request for forgiveness and an explanation of why we'd gone ahead with the bundle. We could have obfuscated and tried to fob off our community, but that's the cowards way out. We screwed up, and the first thing you do in a situation like that is own up to it. The second thing you do is try to fix it.

The biggest complaint we had from the community was that the Spearhead edition should not be on sale at that price. We contacted Indiegala and asked them if they could remove it from the bundle. Understandably they replied they couldn't do it as they'd committed on their website to provide the bundle for several days. Nuts! We asked if they could instead raise the price of the higher bundle, the one that contains the Spearhead edition, and as I'm writing this we're hoping they'll be able to do that.

At the same time we hit the forums. We are active on the forums all day long under normal circumstances, this time though we stayed active through the night, and my fellow CM was on into the early hours. We answered all questions, kept discussions civil, and where they got out of control damped down the flames. I'm really proud that many of our core community members stepped up and helped to answer questions. Several of them had severe misgivings about the bundle, and they expressed that in no uncertain terms. But they also rallied round and supported us. Truly we are lucky with how damn awesome our community is. As a CM what more can you ask for?

Lessons Learned

  1. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Just because we wanted to do something for a good cause does not mean it was the right thing to do. Especially when it ended up upsetting such a large number of community members.
  2. Bundles affect you after they're finished. The Indiegala bundle is expected to last for 2 weeks, and during that time we expect almost no Steam sales. In retrospect we believe Steam sales won't be back at their previous levels for anywhere up to 2 months. That's a long time and a lot of lost revenue for a company our size.
  3. If you've screwed up, admit it and try to fix it. We believe this situation would have been much, much worse if we had not immediately owned up to being in the wrong, apologised, and done what we could to fix it. 
  4. Core community members are godsends. Although several of our core members did not agree with us, they still backed us to the hilt and helped explain to other community members what we'd done and why.
  5. Trust is easily lost. We've lost a lot of respect and trust from our community over this, and it's going to take time to pull that back. In some cases we'll never win it back.
  6. Don't let your forums be overrun. We've worked hard to cultivate a constructive, civil set of forums where members can talk and discuss our game without having to worry about trolls and other ne'er-do-wells. Last night we had to delete several posts and threads, including those from community members who supported us, to ensure we kept that tone.
  7. Keep your chin up and your responses professional. It can be hard when you're in the middle of a situation like this to stay upbeat and not to let the amount of vitriol get to you. 

Conclusion

I hope this blog post perhaps helps others who are in a similar situation, or even better stops you getting into it in the first place ;) This was entirely avoidable, and had we put more thought into the effect it would have on our community we would have avoided it entirely. Still, hindsight is always 20:20 and we'll just have to make sure we do not do it again!

Paul Allen,
Community and PR Manager,
Zero Point Software

 


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