Wednesday, November 12, 2014

PR Nightmares (and they're not Rifts)

For the past few weeks I’ve been silent, and what I have posted has been about Trion Worlds’s inaction on the part of the customer support, community management, and in general public relations teams to try to keep the customerbase of Rift updated on the issue that occurred three weeks ago.  Now it may seem like a long time to hold a grudge, but truth be told it’s no longer a grudge about the rollback, but rather the lack of Trion to actually take the complaints seriously, and to treat the paying players (really, all the players) as something of a money faucet.  Generally speaking, the anger at this point that is still simmering amongst the Faeblight denizens is that the company does not care, and looking back on many of the posts and what-not, I have to echo this sentiment.

Before I go into the actual posting, I’d like to take a moment to congratulate Turbine for their quick response today when the Dungeons and Dragons Online authentication server issue happened.  In under an hour the server was restarted, and the players were kept updated as to the cause, the status, and the final resolution in a timely manner.  Not once did anyone feel like there was an issue that they were being ignored or kept in the dark, and Turbine’s Twitter, Facebook, and forums kept the players in the loop.  Dungeons and Dragons Online doesn’t look as pretty as Rift, it doesn’t play as well as Rift, and in general feels like a lower-quality game than Rift; however, Turbine has continuously shown a good customer support team when it comes to PR (their in-game support is a bit lacking).

Now, I’m going to go into the root cause of the issue, but I’m going to touch on some secondary issues as well.  Let’s get those secondary issues out of the way first.

Rollbacks happen

Yes, they do.  Unfortunately, sometimes servers shit the bed and hardware problems occur.  There is very little that companies can do to prevent this: it comes with age and the like.  Server maintenance and downtime generally focuses on the software side, and that can help mitigate the problems that can appear when hardware problems happen.  I don’t think anyone is ever going to complain about scheduled downtime, because it’s a necessity in MMOs (CCP Games has recently begun doing minor updates and patchwork without bringing the Tranquility server offline for daily maintenance, but this is not the norm).

I ended up asking around and doing some research to find out what could have theoretically happened to the servers that would cause the need for a 25-hour-plus rollback of the servers, and the people I talked to were dumbfounded.  After all, it is simply something that doesn’t happen unless you have a huge clusterfuck happen, the starts align, and a virgin has been sacrificed by a competitor to Aule.  Properly maintained, software and databases don’t implode like they did, especially if you have multiple redundancies in effect to do so.  What happened to the databases for Rift (specifically, the Faeblight server) appears to show the redundancies and multiple “save points” on different servers does not exist.  And since we are told Faeblight is not on any type of architecture different than the rest of the game, that can only lead one to believe that safeguard is not being used for any shard in Rift.  That is a dangerous gamble, as we saw with the rollback: you risk hours—if not days—of information when something goes wrong.

So, how often do rollbacks happen?  Minor ones are actually more common than people think: usually it’s only minutes or hours at a time (more the former than the latter), and while specific amounts are unknown, it’s safe to say that each game has rollbacks of different servers at least every month because of :reasons:.  Major ones—rather, ones that require 6+ hours of rolling back—are nigh unheard of.  Not once that I can think of has there been a need for a game company to rollback servers for more than three hours, otherwise there would have been a huge uproar on the internet about incompetence when it was picked up on.

Now given, there were rumors of a five-hour rollback in 2013 when it came to Star Wars: The Old Republic.  In truth, I haven’t found any actual corroboration from EA/Bioware concerning it, but given that SWTOR is a half-assed game thanks to the efforts of EA, and how shifty the company is, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Just to make sure I was correct in not knowing of any major rollbacks with regards to WoW, I asked a friend of mine who works with their customer service department.  She can’t recall any, and as she put it, “If that ever happened to Blizzard, it would be everywhere.”

We can all agree.

Reimbursement Not Required

One of the more common claims by apologists is that the company does not have to give you anything.  By a strict reading of the EULA/ToS, you’re correct: the company is not bound legally or otherwise to provide you with any type of reimbursement for a failure of the game.  In fact, should the game die a day after you pay for a year-long subscription, the company doesn’t even have to give you a refund, pro-rated or otherwise (though good business practice is to do so, especially if your company has more than one game.  It gives the consumer a sense of honesty, and customers like being able to trust a company).

The problem is that in the past, Trion has done admirably with regards to reimbursing people for mistakes.  When the chat server issue was prevalent earlier this year, every player received three bundles of +160% vials, and they got these if they made new characters for a specific frame of time.  Likewise, when Patron-status players found their “patron buffs” not working for a handful of days (three, I think) each one got a stack of seven bundles, and once again new characters made during a specific timeframe on those accounts also received the same number of bundles.  So it truly is no wonder that the players not only of Faeblight, but the other affected servers as well as the playerbase-at-large expected better than what we got.

What the players got was a temporary 48-hour buff to non-quest experience gain, and 750 credits if you either (a) spent credits during the affected time, or (b) were a “paying customer”.  That, unfortunately, didn’t stack, so you didn’t get 1,500 credits if you filled out both parts of the criteria, and many Patrons pointed out that the buff didn’t affect them.  More to the point, this buff was during a set time, meaning many players couldn’t take advantage of it.  Also, since the credits were given unequally, it was impossible to determine what a “paying customer” was, as some Patrons received the credits and others didn’t; some people who bought Collectors Editions of Nightmare Tide received the credits, and some didn’t.  it made for unequal treatment, and the question of “What constitutes a paying customer’?” was never answered by a Trion employee.

Now you can imagine why after this was announced a week after the rollback had occurred, and the playerbase had been kept in the dark about what was allegedly going on, that said playerbase would rightly be angry.  It may seem like entitlement, but the playerbase had become accustomed to being given a very good reimbursement when something went wrong.  To many of us, this seemed like a slap in the face.

So then, what is the problem?

This is one of those questions that everyone will have a multitude of answers for.  The two chief concerns are Trion’s lack of communication during the entire ordeal, and Trion’s lack of giving a shit when the players say something.  This has not exactly been something new, as it has been happening for some time prior to this event.  For example, on 09 August Daglar responded to criticism of the proposed auction house changes with the following:

“I never want to see someone leave the game over a change, however the nature of the game is change.  We will make changes, sometimes ones that seem moronic to specific players (or even most players) that have the potential to make people stop playing.  We will make changes none the less.”

This was widely touted as Daglar saying that even if the majority of players disagreed with the changes, if he would want to continue on even at the expense of lost revenue he would push on.  I can see where people get that, but I also see that, while poorly worded, Daglar is saying that they cannot allow a vocal group to dictate the direction of the game.

The problem being that Daglar admitted in that very post that even if a majority of players found the change to be counterintuitive or “moronic”, he’d still go along with it.  Because fuck you, it’s his game to be the executive producer of, not yours you unwashed heathen.

Now, this is the beginning, as far as I’m concerned, of a very frightening trend.  But even going back further, my own experience with Trion’s customer service/GM group has been lackluster.  As I posted to my YouTube account, I had a ticket in on people who had been harassing me consistently for over a month.  Even after getting in touch with Ocho, the Community Manager most frequently seen, nothing happened.  As Ocho told me that he would talk to Daglar et al. about my problem, I thought things would be fine.  Two weeks after I finished my chat with Ocho (and a full four weeks after my ticket was initially submitted), I eventually updated the thread I had created, explaining my frustration with Trion’s lack of customer service or taking harassment complaints seriously (my ticket had had a GM copy-paste a form response to my ticket about a week prior with no response after I responded to it).  I had been in the process of editing a YouTube video I had done on Trion’s failure to take such things seriously when a GM magically contacted me in-game to talk about what had been happening.  In true form, they hadn’t read a thing from my ticket, despite it being stupid amounts of specific (listing dates, times, locations, and chat channels that the harassment had taken place in; specifically, the constant use of the term “pedophile” to describe me was mentioned).

That has, however, been a problem with free-to-play games: they put public relations on the back burner a lot of the time, and instead focus on the here-and-now.  Only when things explode and they need damage control do you see how competent your PR/community teams are.

I keep harping back to 2012, when the EvE online “Monoclegate” scandal broke.  This is for a specific set of reasons.  Chief among them is that it’s very simple for me to recall accurately, because I was at the forefront of the protests.  But it also served as a terrific primer on what not to do when it comes to PR, and how a gaming company—even one as big as Blizzard Entertainment—can make huge mistakes, and mistakes snowball, they don’t add up.

The initial thread started pretty much told us that CCP Pann, the CM they sent in to play early damage control, was simply biding time until the company could come up with a response they thought we wanted to hear.  At this point, the players were not happy, and CCP Pann disappeared, ostensibly because her daughter had gotten sick and she needed to be rushed to the hospital (I can neither confirm nor deny this is the actual excuse, and if it is not true it is a poor excuse when you realize someone is out of their depth.  More to the point, a few months later CCP Pann was among the people from the community team fired after Monoclegate happened, and the CEO blamed the players in interviews for “having” to fire them).

History lesson: “Monoclegate” coincided with the release of the NEX Store in EvE Online, similar in nature to the RMT shops found in free-to-play games.  The primary issue was the leaking of a CCP internal newsletter called “Fearless”, whose cover prominently featured Michael Douglas’s character from the movie Wall Street and the title “Greed is Good?”.  Reading the issue, the players were able to see internal discussions about adding special forms of ammunition and ships that could be purchased with real-life money, effectively turning EvE Online—a game with a subscription model—into a “pay to win” game at the same time, thus causing the backlash.  The phrase “Monoclegate” was coined because CCP Games attempted to play it off as people being upset about the prices of in-game clothing items costing more than real life clothing items, rather than the fact that they refused to actually respond to the primary question: Was CCP going to make EvE Online a pay to win game while still mandating a subscription?  This came to a head when an EvE Online developer posted a developer blog posting equating purchasing a $90.00 (they claimed $70.00, but the math was wrong on their end) monocle in-game with purchasing a $1,000 pair of “designer jeanes” from a “Japanese boutique”.  In the end, with thousands of accounts being cancelled every week, CCP had to take the issue seriously; the fact that many gaming publications were making a big hoopla about it also aided in making CCP take notice finally, but it was weeks after the start, and the hate and discontent had been allowed to fester.  To this day, hugely disastrous PR decisions are equated to “Monoclegate” when it comes to CCP, and I draw that distinction when it comes to other gaming companies doing the same thing.

Either way, the entire debacle was a PR clusterfuck, and even CCP admitted as such.  They didn’t listen, they made mountains of out of molehills, etc.  In the end, some cosmetic changes were made to the game to acknowledge how widespread the protests had been, but there was nothing else major that was done.  In the end, the players got what they wanted: answers to their questions, and a sense that now CCP would listen to them.  To this day, it’s been pretty decent, and even though they’ve started to slip a bit lately, they haven’t completely gone over the edge yet; but just in case, our pitchforks and torches are prepared.

To sum it all up, Trion has screwed the pooch, and screwed it royally.  They took things for granted that they shouldn’t have, and they’re trying to bury their heads in the sand, playing the old “if I ignore it it will go away” game.  Unfortunately, customers are not that quick to forget—or forgive—slights like this.  This means that money is going to stop flowing, and Trion is going to have to show the players that they care again.  Trion allowed this to snowball exponentially and they still haven’t fixed the problem: they’ve locked the thread they created, they’ve ignored our requests, and they’ve been slow to respond.  I’ve been trying to have a discussion with Ocho, and understanding he is probably busy I’m still not going to wait for weeks between replies.  When he replies, I’ll update, because I don’t want to throw them under the bus without giving them a chance to respond; but I have to go by what they have said and their actions and base my suppositions and determinations off of that.

As for myself: my monthly subscription was cancelled and went to Dungeons and Dragons Online.  Quite frankly, I’m probably going to start playing World of Warcraft again when Warlords comes out this Thursday (though I may be a week or two late to the party).

Finally, Happy 239th birthday to the United States Marine Corps, who celebrated it this past Monday!  Here’s to 239 more years of spreading hate and discontent to enemies all over the world!

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