Subversive Puppet Show

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Subversive Puppet Show is a blog made by Jason Mical, from Fallout P&P fame. He just ended a three part series of posts about public relations in the world of Web 2.0 and word of mouth, with some interesting thoughts and a few examples from the Fallout 3 scene:

The language used in the post on the Fallout 3 blog is telling: the two reporters / community members were “intrepid ninjas,” and their operation was, in the words of Fallout community manager Matt “Gstaff” Grandstaff, “Very sneaky indeed.” It’s important to note that Brother None, in announcing the interview, doesn’t use language to denote that he was being sneaky at all – but he does note (quite importantly) that while he and the other community member were allowed into a demo, a NMA member who registered as a member of NMA was not.

There’s a lot of things to learn here, not the least of which is: in an information vacuum, community members can go to great lengths to get information being kept from them – and to actively seek out engagement with company representatives. Brother None and the NMA crew were certainly within their rights to do this, just as Bethesda is within their rights to react to it in any way they choose (and it seems that the interview kind of forced Bethesda’s hand on community interaction, which in my opinion is not a bad thing – see an interview with Pete Hines about community for more information.) Another thing that one must keep in mind is that even members of the most traditional media can be bloggers, and what appears on a personal blog is not subject to the same standards as a press site, let alone a traditional media publication. Rather than rattle off a list, I will simply mention that to my knowledge no blogger or community member has been successfully sued for libel or slander over something written on the Internet (feel free to correct me in the comments if I’m wrong, and I’ll update.) Even though a community member may be a reporter (or in my case, a marketing stooge) they’re still community members with opinions, passions and a love for the product.

It’s clear that Bethesda is doing a lot of things right insofar as community interaction. Proof positive of this is their dedicated Fallout Community Manager, Matt “Gstaff” Grandstaff. One of the most impressive online gaming-related campaigns I’ve seen recently was the frenzy whipped up by 2K for BioShock, and I’m not the only one: the Hollywood Reporter did a great article on it.

The first part can be found here, the second here, and the final installment here, really worth a look.

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16 thoughts on “Subversive Puppet Show

  1. You know, I always wondered where the entitlement from fan sites comes from. The definition of fan is merely that you are a devoted follower or admirer of something, but I’m not necessarily sure that fan sites should feel entitled to be included in the dissemination of information. The Fallout fan sites have been critical of Bethesda intentionally not including them and how the information presented, but my first thought is that I don’t really see this type of behavior in other consumer driven markets. Just because you bought a Mercedes and tell you friends to go get one doesn’t mean they are obligated to invite you to the factory to look at their next concepts. Just because you brought friends to your favorite restaurant doesn’t mean you are entitled to watching the chefs cook in the kitchen. The bottom line is that the product either reflects the things you appreciate or it doesn’t, and you let them know buy supporting the product or not. There isn’t anything else that should be expected from a company in terms of consumer interaction. That isn’t to say it isn’t welcome or helpful with sales, marketing and goodwill, just that it’s funny when fan sites get to chattering about how they should be included something.

  2. And I think your post reflects well on the point made by the blogger above.

    The feeling of entitlement isn’t the relevant side of the corner. That’s to say, it’s relevant only in as far as companies know how to deal with it.

    A gaming franchise is an up and down rollercoaster, but unless you’re Bethesda and just forget your old fanbase to create a new one with every instalment of the series, usually a franchise has to run on its fans primarily. That’s your sale base, that’s the sales should be able to calculate into your sales projection as “already made.”

    Imagine if Blizzard chuckled at the Koreans and their entitlement around Starcraft. Maybe they do, that doesn’t matter much, because at the same time Blizzard knows this feeling of entitlement is not something to chuckle over or scorn, but rather is one of the more powerful marketing tools, if it’s on your side.

    Entitlement is a secondary question, and it’s pure folly in a competitive industry to let your hurt ego get in the way of analysing what you can use and what you can’t. I’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that Bethesda is smarter than that.

    Then still, the traditional fanbase isn’t very useful to Bethesda mostly because of things Bethesda did themselves (to argue otherwise is short-sighted, I’ve seen the community be swayed to support a game before. It’s not impossible, and to say it is is just making excuses for Bethesda’s inept PR).

    But that, in the end, means Bethesda has the buzz against them. And they do. But they have the hype in their favour. So you could view this as a boxing match between artificial hype and media manipulation vs. negative word-of-mouth and Web 2.0. I’m not going to make any far-fetched claims as to who is winning, but I can safely say that since the media event/E3 hype, the buzz has been growing more and more negative, and every non-console non-asskisser forum I visit has a half or more of the people against the game.

    That should be worrying. To treat that with scorn is just amusingly inept and arrogant. Thankfully, it’s also not my problem.

  3. Oh, and your posts showed you don’t have a lot of experience with consumer interaction;
    Just because you brought friends to your favorite restaurant doesn’t mean you are entitled to watching the chefs cook in the kitchen.

    Yeah you do. Let me give you an example: I’ve worked as a bartender at a dinner cafe for years. I never liked any of my clientèle, particularly, but it was a job. And as a part of my job, I chatted with regular costumers, greeted them in a friendly manner, gave them free drinks on occasion. My boss even drove a pair home once because it was snowing.

    So what…they shouldn’t feel this entitlement just because they regularly drank and ate in the place? I should have scorned them and gone “I always wondered where the entitlement from these regulars comes from”? We were a busy place, we didn’t *need* their clientèle, they represented just a very small portion of our gross. So what? Do you think I could’ve then started treating them gruffly?

    No, they felt entitled to special treatment, and that’s what they got. And on some days they would bring some fans. Eat in with the family. Refer some people to our establishment. It’s all good will, good buzz, good worth of mouth. And we weren’t stupid enough not to recognise the value of that.

    It’s not analogous one-on-one to this situation, but you brought up the example yourself. It’s different per industry, and something like the car industry has different calculations of cost and benefit to make, but even they keep friendly with their consumers, with their regular drivers. But their size vs. consumer number models just don’t make it too interesting.

    Gaming is different, and Web 2.0 certainly made it even more different. I do suggest you read the three posts of the blogger above, because he makes a good argument on the topic (and believes Bethesda is doing it right, no less). Being stuck in the last century in PR models, like you are, is just thundering towards doom.

  4. “Yeah you do. Let me give you an example: I’ve worked as a bartender at a dinner cafe for years. I never liked any of my clientèle, particularly, but it was a job. And as a part of my job, I chatted with regular costumers, greeted them in a friendly manner, gave them free drinks on occasion. My boss even drove a pair home once because it was snowing.”

    I have plenty of experience with consumer interaction- that’s a nice story but that’s not the norm.

    And the big difference in your examples is that the customer and the businesses have a rapport that works together. I’d like to see the customer spite the food and the service, and complain about menu items, the decor and how the restaurant they used to eat at was so much better and see what type of service they get.

  5. …Actually, the people that came to my café did complain and spite about how things used to be better. It was 10-year old company, and as one of the few competent employees left, I would be one of the focal points to complain about the current level of service or the crappy beer we switched to.

    I can’t really talk for your experiences, but the central point remains. You either recognise and use a dedicated fanbase, which is just common sense marketing, or you scorn and alienate them, which is apparently Bethesda’s style. There’s no either/or and right/wrong question here, the fact is that Bethesda has a group of people generating negative word of mouth against their game, and attempts to vilify and dehumanize the Fallout community asides, it’s simple fact Bethesda has done nothing to fix this. Nada, zilch, no attempts to find rapprochement, no talking to the fanbase, no meeting them halfway anywhere.

    Does Bethesda have to? No, but they’re digging their own hole, in a marketing sense and, from a human viewpoint, Bethesda’s arrogance is at least as amusing as that of the fans.

  6. Really? You were unaware that No Mutants Allowed enforced a “do not idly speculate on Fallout 3” rule for nearly a year just to keep people from flaming Bethesda without any info? You didn’t know that community leaders from NMA and DaC have been mailing and trying to get some rapport going with Bethesda since day 1?

    Sure, we had a lot of forum members flaming Bethesda from day 1, how horrifying. We also spent the 3 years after day 1 mailing Bethesda, trying to get them to open some kind of dialogue, trying to do damage control for them on our own forum.

    We were working on opening dialogue for 3 years. In the meantime, what has Bethesda done? Nothing, zilch, nada. They instated a community manager that I had to mail to introduce myself to (seriously, what?)

    Again, you try to go for the easy way out, the vilifying and dehumanizing the community way. That doesn’t change the objective fact that Bethesda has done literally nothing in response to attempts of the community to work together. The Bethesda company line of “yeah, but they’re really mean!” might be enough to convince the average befriended gaming media, but that doesn’t change the reality of the matter: faced with the choice of scorning the community or responding to several opportunities to open dialogue, Bethesda chose the former. Simple, cold fact.

  7. And just so we’re clear, I’m not trying to pain off the Fallout community as a bunch of angels or the ideal supportive base from a PR viewpoint, I’m saying we are an active community with a lot of untapped potential from a word-of-mouth viewpoint, and that Bethesda has done nothing with this.

  8. The general feeling from the fan sites is they won’t like the game; that I’m not debating, but how you and all the fans support and discuss the product says if Bethesda makes the right decisions on how they have handled communication with you guys. If they sell a crap load of copies and it’s proclaimed as the greatest game ever, then how relevant are the fan sites to begin with? And if you aren’t relevant then why should they go out of their way for for you?

    By the way, I’m not saying you ARE or AREN’T irrelevant, just that the communication with fan sites could mean absolutely nothing in the scheme of how the game sells, or it could mean everything and how that plays out remains to be seen, but you can’t call how they deal with the fan sites a mistake just yet.

  9. Like I said, s001, I see it as a hype slugging it out with word-of-mouth. I’m not making any predictions about it (not right now, anyway), but it should be clear that since the hype’s not unopposed, it can fail.

    Sure it’s an academic issue to call it “a failure” or “a mistake”, but there’s simple question there: what’s stopping Bethesda from doing both hype and using the community? They’re presented with a surprisingly vibrant community whose heads are attempting to get in contact and to establish some kind of rapport, and the choice of Bethesda is to tell them politely to go bite it.

    That’s a mistake by definition. Sure they could still sell a lot, but that won’t make that less of a mistake. A car salesman could still sell a lot if he doesn’t use the opportunity to put a billboard up somewhere for free, but there’ll always be that “what if”.

    Given a cheap opportunity for PR, the logical thing to do is use it.

    Now either Bethesda believes its own dehumanization of the fanbase enough to actually believe we can’t be used for positive PR or they’re too arrogant to do so. Because there’s no logical, positive reason not to.

  10. Thanks for the shout out Briosafreak. Brother None made a really good comment on my blog, and I did a follow-up post about it. Basically, the more I thought about it, the more I agreed that although there are some elements that are “right,” there’s a hell of a lot of room for improvement (I’m being polite of course. 🙂 ).

    http://piratelog.blogspot.com/2007/09/value-of-engagement-appendix.html

    Good discussion here, this is a topic that’s very interesting to me obviously.

  11. So let’s assume Bethesda does a complete 180 and completely opens up to fan sites and gives them every bit of information they want. Then what? You’re giving fans more of something they’ve already decided they will or won’t like. Assuming that no changes are going to be made to how the game is being produced, I fail to see how increased fan interaction makes a difference. Through traditional media outlets or fan sites, the consumer will get the information the company wants them to have, regardless. Would you appreciate more fan interaction? Maybe you would. Does that make you go out and buy a game whose game mechanics and style you’re not crazy about to begin with? Probably not.

    If people see a game, it usually immediately resonates with them or not. It only takes a few screenshots or descriptions of a game for me to say “that looks interesting”. Other than keeping someone interested with information, the last time you have major sway over a buying decision is when the reviews hit. While I thought Bioshocks marketing was extremely cool, and the fan stuff was fun and refreshing, the *only* reason why I bought the game was because the game looked like it would be fun, not because of their PR with the fans.

    So what I’m saying is it doesn’t matter how you think the PR should be handled, or if you think they are doing a good job or not, if you won’t like the game, and you won’t have an open mind everything is null and void.

    ‘You’ being the general fan, not you, BN.

    This actually raises some questions for me though:

    1. How much information do you need before making a decision to buy a game or not? Do you even care HOW you get the information (as long as it’s reliable)? I’m really curious about that one.

    2. Have you ever thought you absolutely weren’t going to buy a game and you bought it anyway? What changed your mind about it?

  12. I wish what you were saying is true, and that people only purchase games based on cursory glances. But they don’t, more often than not they but it based on hype. Either traditional hype, like Oblivion, or buzz, like BioShock. But I’d wager at least half the sales BioShock has made have been caused directly by its significant hype…

    …By your logic, the PR person’s job would be useless. And that’s a nice dream, a world without PR people is a nice dream much like that of a world without lawyers. But it’s simply not the case and your representation of the gaming market is inaccurate…

    Funny thing about “not an open mind” and “won’t like the game”, that can be true. It was true for F:BoS. Nothing Chuck Cuevas could’ve done would’ve changed the way we were viewing the game, and that really shouldn’t be unsurprising. But I vaguely recall people were saying the same thing about Van Buren too. And except for its early forefighters, like Briosafreak, most of the Fallout fanbase was swayed to liking this game which broke a number of “our cardinal rules”: it had multiplayer, it had a RT mode, no one major involved with the originals was involved with it. By conventional logic, those are things we’ve stated we’d hate years before Van Buren was announced, it were the kind of things the traditionalist fanbase had always ground their teeth about in slobbering hatred, or however you want to put it.

    And yet they were convinced, not easily, but most of them were, barring “the usual suspects” like DarkUnderlord, Rosh and even 4too, who, sad to say, know not what they do…
    So you could say that Bethesda could see the situation as hopeless if their game is of the quality or as divergent of Fallout as Fallout:BoS was. If their game is as true to the series as Van Buren was, which is still pretty aberrant and leaves a lot of freedom, they can freely consider the situation good.

    If Bethesda truly believe their game can’t convince the fanbase, then that says more about the game than the fanbase.

    Also, don’t be confused into thinking I am asking for more information. It is of no concern to me how Bethesda handles their business. They’re not hurting anyone other than themselves with their way of handling PR, while on the other hand all they’re doing is insulating NMA against their game and making it stronger and more reliable in the eyes of all except a handful of anti-NMA forums. NMA is thriving while I keep catching different, completely unrelated gaming and non-gaming forums via NMA’s referrer list that tend to rather blast the game. In other words, I’m not asking for anything, I’m doing fine.

    1. I’m the gaming industry’s worst nightmare. I almost never buy a game right off the shelves as it comes out. I almost always wait a year, maybe two, waiting for the hype and excitement die down and see if the game is made from the right stuff in still having positive buzz down the line. There’s only a few exceptions to this rule, like BioShock, which I bought because I loved the nu-PR that I’ll hope take over the retched state of PR of gaming soon, and because Ken Levine.

    But yeah, usually, the information I need isn’t provided at the game’s release. Hype and the souped-up PR messages that we call reviews aren’t something I’ll ever buy a game on.

    2. No, never. But I never think “I’m not going to buy this game” unless it’s not my genre, y’know, Tony Hawk, MMOs, most shooters. I’m not much of a gamer, and I have very exclusive tastes, so a lot of games I can just ignore beforehand.

    Amusingly, when I try to blank out my mind of involvement with Fallout, I think Fallout 3 would be one of the first games I’d mentally skip. Mostly because Oblivion failed to entertain me even more than Morrowind did, so I consider Bethesda as on a down-hill slide, and because I don’t like FPS gameplay, which this game obviously has. Pity I’m too overly invested, I guess.

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