This week, EA made a splash on Reddit by posting what would become the least popular comment in the site’s history—with over 680,000 users downvoting EA’s reply to a Reddit thread about the role of microtransactions in the upcoming video game Star Wars Battlefront 2.
A thread entitled “Seriously? I paid 80$ to have Vader locked?” ignited a fierce outcry from users who were unhappy that some of the game’s core heroes, like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, were locked to play from the start of the game. These players were only unlockable through more than 40 hours of game time or by paying extra money for in-game credits to buy the characters.
EA’s PR team were quick to respond, noting that “the intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.”
This response evidently rang hollow for players, with over half a million fans downvoting and commenting to express their dissatisfaction with EA.
While the realm of gaming might seem far removed from the day to day work of our contact centers and marketing teams, EA’s handling of the crisis provides timely lessons for any customer experience professionals seeking to understand, and deliver, what their customers truly want.
The concept of ‘grind’ is a common one to the gaming community. Grinding is the act of performing repetitive in-game actions, or tasks, to unlock a particular reward or feature, and is a game mechanic that causes frustration to gamers – when the rewards given just aren’t rewarding enough given the time and effort to get them.
For Battlefront 2, it would have taken some 40 hours of play to unlock a single character. With matches lasting 15 minutes, that’s a tremendous amount of grind to get what many players considered to be a core feature of the game – the ability to play as a key character in the Star Wars universe.
The mechanic might seem fairer if the game was free to play – but having already shelled out a significant amount of money for the base game, many gamers expected that they would be getting full access to the product they thought they’d paid for.
Companies can learn from this too. If you’re releasing a feature that will only bring rewards after hours of configuration, that’s subjecting your customers to an amount of grind that they likely won’t have perceived when they signed up in the first place. Or if your product or service only operates correctly once the customer has invested a lot of time or extra money into it, be upfront about that to ensure that customer expectations match the reality of your product – or risk the wrath of your fanbase.
Do you listen to your customers? Most businesses would say that they do, and in their response to the Reddit thread EA certainly set out to convince players that they were being listened to.
But despite EA’s response, part of the reason why EA’s comment was so universally panned was because they maintained that Battlefield 2’s hero mechanic was to provide players with a sense of accomplishment and pride. But players noted that these values cited by EA don’t count for much in reality when players can just pay money to unlock a character.
Reddit users were quick to jump on EA’s PR-crafted response, which didn’t offer any solutions to players who were so angry about the issue. Instead, many perceived it as an attempt to deflect criticism to cover what many players saw as ruthless money-grabbing.
If a majority of your customers are unhappy about a feature of your product or service, no amount of PR-speak is going to pacify them – honesty and action will. In cases like these, companies need to recognize when customer complaints represent a real, not perceived, product flaw, and act appropriately.
In EA’s case, a sincere apology coupled with a plan of action could have saved the situation from becoming a PR disaster – although paying attention to user feedback in the beta test stage would have prevented the problem from occurring in the first place.
Shortly after EA’s response, Blizzard was quick to react by posting a video and tweet which underlined their commitment to free-to-play gaming in their upcoming game, Starcraft II.
Number of pay-to-win mechanics in StarCraft II: 0— StarCraft (@StarCraft) November 14, 2017
Free to Play – Now Live! pic.twitter.com/a02OYUCYZU
All of us tend to craft narratives to better understand the world around us. In this case, it was easy for customers to seize on EA’s response, portraying them as a corporate, money-grabbing machine, far removed from the concerns of gamers. And this narrative spread like wildfire on social media.
Blizzard has taken advantage of EA’s crisis to position themselves as a company who care about their players, and who incorporate product features which people like—in this place, free-to-play games with no hidden costs. Gamers were quick to like and retweet Blizzard’s feisty response to the outcry, putting Blizzard into the happy position of looking like a far more customer-focused company.
Even if your company isn’t engaged in tweet wars with other companies, you can be sure that your competitors are assessing how to craft narratives that convince your customers that they’re the better company. In this case, Blizzard saw the evident customer pain in this community, and took advantage of the outcry to paint themselves in a positive light.
Carefully consider what narratives you need to weave that speak to the problems your customer is experiencing. It’s those narratives that will get you traction in the hearts and minds of your customers, and prevent your competitors from harnessing your flaws for their gain.
EA later acknowledged fan’s opinions and announced they would lower the cost of buying heroes by 75%. But for many players, this response was only a sticking-plaster fix to a broader issue—that game developers are too quick to demand hours of a player’s time for far too meager a reward.
In EA’s case, they’d hugely underestimated the amount of time players were willing to spend to play as generic stormtroopers to get to play the franchise’s most iconic characters. This failure was enough to lose them 680k fans in a matter of days and become the biggest PR disaster in Reddit’s history.
And EA’s failure highlights a significant issue within the customer experience field. Too often, customers get tied up in navigating convoluted processes or waiting for support responses, only to find they’re chasing an outcome which feels barely satisfactory. Just like in EA’s case, the ratio of time versus reward is seriously off.
In the world of customer experience today, we all need to consider how much time we’re asking of our customers—and whether the rewards they get from our products or services justify the time they spend obtaining and using them.
Time is finite. You can never get it back. And you can’t give it back to a customer if you waste theirs. But ensuring that your customers feel positively about the time and effort they’ve made to buy into your product or service will always be a winning CX strategy – whether you’re a giant gaming company, a tiny mom and pop firm, or any other type of business.