[Gamasutra senior news editor Kris Graft talks to Good Old Games' management amid the aftermath of the monk fiasco, and ponders the axiom, "any publicity is good publicity."]
"There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary." -- Brendan Behan, Irish poet
If there's one lesson that the video game industry can learn this week, it's not to piss off the hardcore 1990s PC gaming fan that gets his sub-$10 DRM-free retro games through digital distribution platforms.
And if you try to make amends dressed as monks, don't be surprised if some pockets of the internet go from Bruce Banner to The Incredible Hulk.
We can thank digital distribution website Good Old Games for this valuable lesson, as this past week, management for the CD Projekt-owned company decided to turn the technical necessity of shutting down the website for a couple days into a marketing stunt.
I sincerely hope that the guys at GOG can eventually look back and laugh at their admitted missteps in this ploy, but I can just imagine the meeting:
GOG Guy 1: "Well we have to shut down our service- and community-focused website for a couple days to launch out of this two-year long beta -- let's just pretend we're closed for good and drum up some press."
GOG Guy 2: [Deletes boring ol' GOG press release.] "Sounds like a great idea!"
Maybe it really was a great idea, maybe it wasn't; we'll look at that in a minute. (Although this whole fiasco has left me wondering what would happen if Google or Facebook pretended to shut down for a couple days. "Psyche!")
GOG.com co-founder Marcin Iwinski and managing director Guillaume Rambourg found some time to speak with me following the monk apology. They both were still referring to each other as "Brother Guillaume" and "Brother Marcin."
But even though they were willing to make fun of themselves, Rambourg described a "stressful" environment that he said came from both the GOG.com relaunch and the public relations shitstorm caused by the marketing scheme.
"I think we underestimated the fact that users were so much relying on the platform to access the game they had purchased," he said in a phone call from Poland. "We clearly underestimated this risk."
"I think more and more games are becoming internet-dependent," he added. "...We simply misjudged the fact that our users possibly were not fully aware of the fact that you can come back and enjoy the games many times."
Even though in hindsight many of us can look back at the ballsy marketing ploy and judgmentally scream "What were you thinking?!", I can totally see why GOG might have initially seen this as a harmless joke being played not on fans, but with them.
All of GOG's games are DRM-free, so you don't need to be connected to the service to play them -- once you download the files they're yours. And even though GOG's "closure" was announced, the company did say that it would return in the same week with some unspecified solution to let users re-download their games.
If anything, it's a great argument for DRM-free games, because in the event that GOG were to shut down for real, you'd still be able to play the games you bought from the service. So a little joke would entail no harm, no foul, right?
Well, not completely. On the web, purported GOG users claimed they were really angry because they couldn't access their games for a couple days. I'm not sure why this is -- the games I bought off GOG I downloaded to my hard drive. Maybe a lot of people bought games and didn't download them, then when they finally got a hankerin' to play the games they bought, they went to GOG.com and saw that the website was down? I suppose that's one possible scenario...
I think a more likely reason for the furore is that people -- users and the press -- were upset because they felt like they were being jerked around, that they were the butt of a joke played by a company that's supposed to be about service and community. But the people that are truly upset, the ones that are promising never, ever to return to GOG, are in a niche of a niche -- a very vocal minority. Rambourg agrees.
"Looking at the traffic we are having right now on the site, I think it's fair to say that [the people who are upset are] a minority," he said. "But they're a very important minority. People get pissed off when something happens to something that's important to them. So of course we are more to blame here but I think we'll be able to convince them to come back."
So the big question is did this stunt work? I believe that this will be successful in making a new audience aware of GOG.com -- I've seen a few people comment that they had never heard of the website before this week. And they drummed up this publicity at pretty much zero financial cost (not too sure how much the monk getups cost, though).
Talking to Rambourg and Iwinski, I can tell they love their customers and love the games, and wanted to spice up what they feel is a "boring" industry. I can also tell they meant no harm or ill will. But with its antics, GOG management risked alienating the press and its user base, many of whom supported the company in some shape or form since its inception in 2008. Iwinski reiterated in our phone interview that GOG wanted to play a "game" with customers and media, and implied that it was kind of customers' fault that they didn't "get" the joke -- probably not the best thing to say when trying to win back trust.
And I think that GOG underestimated the fervor of its supporters by thinking it had to stage such a stunt in order to break through the noise. The new website has some slick new features, and the release of Baldur's Gate and its expansion is great news for old school PC game fans -- the announcement could have stood on its own. Surely there was a better way to fight for publicity?
As a member of the press, I admit I was a bit annoyed at first. I felt like marketers were trying to jerk me around, and when it became clear that it was indeed just a stunt, I did a literal facepalm. But I can't help but applaud the sheer balls that it took to actually initiate such a preposterous marketing ploy, and now that it's over with, I just want to tell people to lighten up.
In the long run, Rambourg thinks it'll pay off. "This will show we're gamers, we're passionate about what we're doing and we're not dead serious. ... Generally yes, I think it will have a positive outcome."
...crap -- this is the third GOG article that I've written up this week. They got me.