Over the weekend, there has been a small hubub regarding an indie game, Dark Matter, that left quite a few customers less than thrilled. The story, as found on Kotaku, has riled up a fair number of gamers. The PC game, available on Steam, was originally a Kickstarter project that did not meet funding goals. The game was worked on and released regardless, however, this is where things get dicey.
The game became a scaled back affair, and was less ambitious than originally planned. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. However, the issue arose when users would be playing the game, seemingly nowhere near the end, open a door, and then get greeted with:
Even the most ardent “glass is half full” types would call this underwhelming at best.
The game description on Steam makes no mention of this being an episodic title. It does not mention that it is an incomplete work, or that the user cannot access everything promised (such as in game items or achievements), despite the fact that there are several of these missing from the game (presumably existing in the portion of the game that has not been completed yet).
So to sum up: The game isn’t complete, it ends seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and people that purchased the title are less than happy.
For me, the bigger problem is what the company did next. Erik Schreuder, CEO of Iceberg Interactive released a statement. It can be viewed in its entirety HERE. The key points though, are:
“The idea was to make it a larger, more epic title, with significantly more levels and selling at full price ($30).”
“The idea was then formed to make Dark Matter an episodic series, with episodes selling at a budget price of $14.99.”
“We would like to stress that the game is exactly as described on Steam (including that it contains 14 levels) – it is simply not true that the game is unfinished, or unplayable. “
“There are presently something like 5-9 hours of absorbing and highly entertaining gameplay to be had.”
“We still feel , like many gamers have also posted, that the game offers value for money and is an enjoyable gaming experience throughout.”
“It is true however, that at present, the end of the game may cause confusion and is not satisfactory. We sincerely apologise for this, as it is not of the standard we would expect.”
“We are working to offer a more conclusive and satisfying ending to the game as we speak and expect a fix to appear as soon we are able to.”
Breaking down the statement into 6 bullet points, and keeping them in order, the mistake becomes clear. The first 4 points deal with what *their* issues are, and why the title is still of value. Only after that do they even address the fact that they made a mistake, that they can see why the user is unhappy, and what their plan of action is. So for customers who feel cheated and/or dissatisfied with the product they bought, they are reading this from top to bottom, and seeing excuses, followed by blame dodging before they even get to anything even remotely resembling a claim of accountability and their plan to make things right. Top it off with the fact that their response introduces elements not present on the product page (i.e. there is zero mention of this game being episodic) and their statement actually gets worse. This is a terrible approach to customer support and ensuring that you will retain customers. All this will do is make the customer even more unhappy, and generate even more negative word of mouth than already has been created. By putting out a statement like this, you are making a bad situation worse, when the reality is that this could have been an amazing opportunity for a small independent studio that had little to no word of mouth traction. I’m am no blurb writer, but imagine if their statement regarding the whole kerfuffle had read more like this:
“Hi all. There is no real explanation here. We goofed. We realize that a lot of you are unhappy with the ending provided, and we understand that. As gamers ourselves, we can see that we lost focus on providing a clear and compelling transition to the next episode. We also failed to properly communicate that this was going to be an episodic game, and for both of these items, we are truly sorry. I am personally taking full responsibility for these mistakes, as they were mine and mine alone. They never should have happened, and I promise that they never will again.
Right off the bat, I can tell you that we are feverishly working on an update to give a much better and more satisfying conclusion. We are also in contact with Valve to see what else we can do to make this up to you. Our plan is to offer anyone that purchased Dark Matter and is unhappy with the ending either a free copy of the next episode, or a free copy of another game from our roster. We made a mistake and we want to make it up to you.
Our team here has put together what we feel is a terrific game, and one that we are proud of. This is a very strong and talented group, and I hope that you will give them the benefit of the doubt, as their efforts have been amazing. I don’t want to bore you with excuses, we know we messed up here, and we are determined to make things right. We have a lot of faith in Dark Matter, and we hope that you will continue on with us as try to make the best episodic game we can.”
The idea is to accomplish the following: 1) Accept accountability. Admit that you are in the wrong. 2) Don’t offer excuses. The customer doesn’t care *why* things went bad. 3) Give them the immediate plan of action. This should be direct, and to the point. 4) Give them a longer term plan of action. Let them know that you are planning on making this up to them. 5) Connect with them. Re-establish that you admit fault, but that you believe in your product and your team.
I think that something like the above (which could be written considerably better, admittedly) would have created a completely different dynamic. Instead of having the ire of the gaming community, you create an opportunity to prove that you are accountable for your actions. You show that you care about the customer, and that you are decisive in the face of adversity. It also gets people talking about your company and your product, and gives you a decent bit of PR. You essentially take a very negative situation, and create something positive out of it.
I think that there is a fairly universal truth here, not limited to just game companies or publishers. Any team, within any organization, can see opportunities like this. Even if you are something of an internal service provider, you can take situations where you lose, and turn them into a win. By avoiding playing the blame game, by not making excuses, and by offering something of yourselves to turn the situation around, you can help your group take ownership, and make a partner happy.
A lot of the time, our first inclination is to get defensive. To push back at criticism and not acknowledge our failures. To make excuses. To try and pump up what we did right, in hopes that it overshadows what we did poorly. I think it’s important to fight these urges, and to objectively look at the situation. It’s very true, that often we will face unwarranted or underserved criticism. But it’s equally true that we will also fail to see the issue until another clearly points it out. This needs to be seen as both a challenge and an opportunity. This is something that I have often struggled with, as my first instinct is to try and amass evidence proving innocence. At the end of the day though, this doesn’t solve the root cause. Conflict will happen. Mistakes will happen. Your team will miss, and your partners will get upset. How you deal with that situation will set the tone for future dealings. Even if you are just two branches of the same company, you can take the opportunity to win them over. It’s hard, you have to swallow a lot of pride, and you will likely take a hit. But at the end of the day, you can prove your value, you can cement a business relationship, and the group as a whole will likely look at you in a more favourable way.