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SimCity’s Social Media Crisis [CASE STUDY]

ImageThe SimCity series of games began in 1989, originally released on the Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS-based PCs.  Between ’89 and 2003 three sequels followed, along with countless spin-offs and adaptations.  Notably, SimCity was the origin of The Sims; the fifth highest selling game franchise of all time. The decision was made, by publisher Electronic Arts (EA) and developer Maxis, to reboot the series.  What would have been SimCity 5 was released two weeks ago simply as SimCity.  Unfortunately the launch has been anything but simple.  Over the last two weeks they’ve faced technical failures, a reviewers’ revolt, criticism from their customers, and ultimately the resignation of their CEO.  Let’s look at what happened, how they responded, and whether they could have done anything differently.

EA’s pre-launch actions

EA announced it was working on a new SimCity at the Game Developers Conference in March 2012.  They revealed a trailer where the camera soared along a river, over mountains, and passed skyscrapers and smokestacks.  It evoked the grandeur of the enormously scaled city-building games of the past, and left its audience very excited indeed. The next information dump came at the Electronic Entertainment Expo; a glitzier event attracting far more interest from mainstream media.  Lucy Bradshaw, head of EA’s Maxis label, described the new SimCity as the “deepest, richest, SimCity experience ever” and debuted new footage of the game.  When the world’s game journalists gave out their “Best of E3” awards, SimCity received 23 nominations.

Town planning: SimCity's social media crisis - EA and Maxis celebrate a successful E3

Managing consumer expectations

Within the marketing and community management departments of a game publisher, you’ll hear few phrases more often than “expectation management.”  It’s the fine balance of saying enough to whip your audience into a frenzy of anticipation, without letting them get so excited that they anticipate something you can’t deliver. SimCity’s trailers pushed every button and ticked every box.  They had everything fans wanted from the SimCity series; chiefly, buildings as far as the eye can see.

One of the most common complaints about the finished product is that the cities are smaller than expected.  The game’s creative director since confirmed in a tweet that the new cities are smaller than those available in 2003’s “SimCity 4.” It’s interesting to look back at the first footage of the game, having now seen the finished product.  What was interpreted as one huge city stretching along the banks of a river was really eight of the game’s smaller cities, connected by bridges and roads.  EA hadn’t misled its audience – in retrospect that first trailer represents the final game well – but gamers had developed a false expectation.

It wouldn’t have served EA well to tell its fans upfront that SimCity had been scaled down.  ”Smaller” implies “worse” .  There are, however, benefits to the new SimCity’s zoomed-in approach and EA might have been able to manage expectations while highlighting the positives.

Planning the digital distribution of SimCity 5

Digital distribution overtook physical retail as the main method for buying PC games in 2010.  One of its perks is that in most cases buyers are given access to their games at midnight on the day of release, meaning they don’t have to wait for the shops to open before they can get their game.  This is great for the consumer, but it has caused problems for providers who weren’t able to handle millions of gamers all hitting their servers at midnight on release day.

The solution is pre-loading.  About a week before a game’s launch date, customers who have pre-ordered are allowed to download the game’s files in advance.  This spreads out the load on servers over a seven-day period.  It’s good for the customer, good for the provider, and is standard practice for massive releases like SimCity.

EA decided not to allow preloading for SimCity.  General Manager Lucy Bradshaw has since conceded that this was “dumb.”  “A lot more people logged on than [EA] expected” and many legitimate buyers were unable to access their game, as EA’s servers failed to cope. The lucky ones who made it into the game faced another problem.  The new multi-player-focused SimCity requires a permanent connection to more of EA’s servers.  Even after the problems with downloading the game had been mitigated, players struggled to get onto SimCity’s servers to play the game.  Thirty-minute queues were common, leaving customers staring at a “server busy” message instead of playing their new game.

Town planning: SimCity's social media crisis - Server queues

This added insult to injury for the SimCity fans who questioned whether SimCity needed to become an online game at all.  EA could have delivered an offline single player mode, but perhaps they chose not to in order to use the always-on server connection as an anti-piracy measure.

This appears to have been confirmed by two disgruntled EA and Maxis employees who separately posted an open letter to EA’s executives on Reddit, and spoke to respected PC gaming blog Rock Paper Shotgun.

Yep, this social media crisis has everything.

Prepare to launch

Demand could have been anticipated and preparatory measures could have been taken.  EA has since added more server capacity, but it could be argued that demand would overstretch the hardware.  While SimCity was a hotly anticipated game, a launch of this scale wasn’t unprecedented. Anyone planning to launch a product or service can learn from this.  Research before your launch to ensure you have the resources to meet demand.

Social media monitoring can help measure the level of interest in your launch, and help you predict the right volume of resources. We can give credit to the folks manning the Twitter account for EA’s “Origin” digital distribution platform.  They pulled an all-nighter to keep customers informed of the issues they faced on launch night and put up with a lot of angry tweets.

Big brands sometimes become paralysed during a crisis while they get umpteen departments to sign off on copy.  You then end up with an approved statement that is robotically copied and pasted to anyone with a complaint.  Fortunately it appears that @OriginInsider was allowed to think on their feet and respond personally where possible.  You can see how busy they’ve been. Whether SimCity is a single or multiplayer game is a design issue.  It’s a creative choice, and customers know that they can buy it or not.  It’s the piracy angle that makes it a hot button issue.

Always-on DRM, such as EA’s mandatory server connection, is designed to prevent piracy but has a history of hurting no-one but legitimate buyers.  Without it, technical problems could have been avoided, and frustrated customers would have had a lot less fuel for their complaints.

Controlling the public release

Typically publishers send games out to reviewers shortly before the public release and reviewers are asked not to publish their reviews until a set date. When the embargo is lifted there’s a sudden flood of content about your game on the internet and, hopefully, your potential customers get caught up in it.  Mutual back-scratching achieved.

In this case EA wanted more control of reviewers’ experiences with the game.  EA requested that reviewers evaluate SimCity on its own hardware, under EA’s supervision, at EA’s offices.  They balked at this.  EA ultimately backed down and supplied download codes for reviewers to redeem where they liked, but the journos weren’t entirely satisfied. Penny Arcade, an influential site among EA’s target audience as well as within the industry, published a post from its Senior Editor titled “Why you shouldn’t trust our SimCity ‘review.’”

Town planning: SimCity's social media crisis - Penny Arcade says you shouldn't trust their review

Their point was that they couldn’t stand behind their review as they couldn’t replicate the experience of normal consumers.  Reviewers were not playing the game on EA’s final, retail servers, and they were concerned that EA might not be able to guarantee an optimal experience.  With considerable foresight, Ben Kuchera signed off with this: “Don’t pre-order or buy the game unless you’d be fine with non-functioning servers tomorrow.” Though some were clearly wary of how the public’s experience could differ from their own, reviewers scored SimCity very highly.

The game journalism supergroup Polygon gave it a 9.5 out of 10.  That was the day before release.  In light of the rocky launch they knocked their review score down to an 8, citing the game’s post-release instability.  An 8’s still good, but two days later Polygon reduced the score again, down to a humbling 4 out of 10. This was a reaction to EA’s decision to disable some of the game’s features in order to lighten the server load.  A bold thing to do to a product that people have already bought.

Getting the influencers on-side

This is all about influence.  Reviewers are the biggest influencers of opinion in the global gaming community.  If a game publisher can offer a smooth reviewing experience, and a quality product, they can trust that reviewers won’t fire up the internet mobs. On the face of it I don’t think EA’s invitation to review the game at their offices was much of a mis-step and caught some unwarranted flak.  However, readers would have questioned whether the reviewing experience was truly representative.  Penny Arcade may not have realised the influence of their “don’t trust our review” piece, and how damaging it could be to EA.

While reviews are important in many fields, the stakes are higher in the games industry.  Metacritic is a review aggregator that pulls in scores from selected sources and produces a weighted average.  In the games industry, Metacritic scores are sometimes written into contracts as conditions for workers to receive bonuses.  Troublingly, bad reviews of a game built by hundreds of people can hurt the career prospects of each of them individually.  Jobs have been advertised stating that applicants must have been credited on at least one game with a Metacritic score above 85%.

Make no mistake, SimCity’s Metacritic score matters to EA, and it will hurt the company to see it currently sitting at 64 out of 100.  Better technical preparation would undoubtedly have translated into a significantly higher score. The lesson here is the importance of identifying influencers.  Do you know who is shaping opinions in your industry?  Is there a way that you could make them advocates?

Town planning: SimCity's social media crisis - SimCity's poor reviews

Consumers take to the internet

Once SimCity got into consumers’ hands, things got ugly.  The game’s smaller scale and DRM would have caused grumbles even in a perfect launch.  Coupled with the launch issues, server queues, and instability of the game in the days following release, customers felt they had enough cause to riot. They hit the publisher where it hurts, on sites like Amazon. The torrent of one-star customer reviews and requests for refunds led to Amazon suspending sale of the game and advising their customers that they may experience issues when connecting to EA’s servers. EA, too, put the brakes on, putting out a memo to its affiliates asking them to temporarily halt active promotion of SimCity.

Having taken damage limitation measures, EA tried to establish communication with the early adopters and get them back on side.  Lucy Bradshaw has been regularly updating EA’s blog, in equal parts apologising for and playing down SimCity’s problems.

Lucy’s solution was to offer “something special for your trouble.”  After establishing that “SimCity is a solid hit in all major markets” and that the “consensus among critics and players is that this is a fundamentally great game” she stated that SimCity’s early adopters would be offered a free game. The statement was carefully worded; not offering the free game as a refund, but as “kind of like buying a present for a friend after you did something crummy”.  Cute. EA delivered on their promise of a free game yesterday, along with the conciliatory message: “You expect better.  So do we.”

It was a tough day for EA; the free game offer launching shortly after it was announced that EA’s CEO had stepped down.

Town planning: SimCity's social media crisis - EA expects better

Controlling the online conversation

Lucy Bradshaw’s blog posts have been EA’s main voice throughout this social media crisis.  The conversation was happening on far too many platforms for EA to comment on each, so this was its best option for keeping customers informed. The tone of her statements has been interesting, drifting from business jargon to your old pal Lucy.  It’s important to demonstrate your humanity in a crisis, and to address your audience as people, not “users.”  Avoid being too chummy, though: worth remembering that the average Sim City player age is 30.

Comments on her posts suggest that they have had a positive effect on overall sentiment, but there’s still a long way to go.  Though many customers remain angry, EA can rest assured that the game-buying public are an oddly forgiving bunch.  In spite of SimCity’s launch troubles, 1.1 million copies have been sold.  We gamers are fickle to the point of farce.

Town planning: SimCity's social media crisis - Fickle gamers


Join The Conversation

  • Mar 22 Posted 4 years ago Eric Suesz

    Excellent long read about the whole brouhaha. Well researched and well said. Thank you!

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