The Dangers of Feedback Firestorms

Last week should have been an awesome week with prepurchase starting (and presumably, release getting closer), a metric ton of information about guild halls, and full details of exactly how big the patch that went live today is.

Instead, it turned into a nightmare of botched PR, hate and shaming on ArenaNet’s developers, and a viral level of outcry spreading from reddit to the same group that hosted the initial reveal of guild halls and prepurchase during E3 in less than a week. A literal firestorm of negative feedback.

And based on Monday’s post, the outcry worked. People are calmed down now, and most folks’ “fix list” has been accommodated.

But regardless of its effectiveness, it sets a dangerous, and ultimately unproductive precedent. I am going to show how first firestorms aren’t new to the Guild Wars 2 community, how these firestorms hurt everyone involved, and ways to keep a raging inferno from engulfing the studio.

A Brief History of Combustion

Yes, so each color is purchased separately…”

These words led the quote in a short GuildMag news post, and people weren’t happy. Though most feedback was constrained to a few threads on reddit and on the official forums*, it was loud enough an outcry that developers worked overtime to change it before the feature pack went live.

*This is my memory talking, I could be wrong.

You want to deliver the news?”

A.k.a., the last line that fans of Super Adventure Box and dungeons wanted to read in GuildMag’s interview with Matt Wuerffel and Devon Carver not even 4 days after the commander tag mob had marched out in force.

But unlike commander tags, ArenaNet did not change course. Dungeons and SAB remain a sore point among the community (see: the April 1st protest for SAB).

A lot of newer players had trouble with the interface”

Gaile Gray’s explanation of the fixed gem-to-gold exchange rates took an unliked feature and turned it into a massive firestorm. Kinda like the double-down from Gaile that made the prepurchase firestorm (already in full swing) even hotter*.

*I must stress that I am not picking on Gaile Gray specifically. Her role as Forum Communications Team Lead puts her in the unenviable position of giving the straight line from ArenaNet, whether the community likes it or not.

And once again, massive outcry changed ArenaNet’s mind and custom gems-to-gold exchange came back in with a later patch.

What Is Laid Waste

Looking at the results of these firestorms (a 75% success rate), it’s too easy to go all Machiavelli with “ends justifies the means.” But what the end results don’t show is what firestorms do to people while they are still burning hot.

Torches and Pitchforks

ArenaNet loves to brag about having the best community in MMOs. But when a firestorm kicks up, those kind-hearted, considerate people throw that out the window and end up demanding whatever needs to be changed as a massive, uncaring mob. Mobs condense all of the varied opinions, perspectives, and approaches of otherwise reasonable people into a narrow set of demands.

While on the surface that sounds great for getting the absolute crux of people’s wants and desires, it also means that the mob has compromised. If the mob’s exact demands are heeded*, very few people will be perfectly satisfied, because the nuance of most people’s desires was boiled away in the seething mass of the mob.

*This assumes that the mob isn’t divided against itself when it comes to the demands, which also works against trying to respond to a firestorm.

Melted Civility

The same mob that is unhappy turns any of their hatred at a company decision onto the company’s employees, even ones with absolutely no say in the decision. Developers last week were getting slammed with hate and insults because they were associated with ArenaNet. Tirzah Bauer put it best:

They did nothing to deserve a heaping helping of hate. Yet, because the mob wants to have their demands met, consequences be damned, developer feelings are irrelevant. And the same people who would in other circumstances never consider insulting a developer have been whipped up by the mob’s rage to do exactly that.

Burning It All

During a firestorm, otherwise good decisions that players liked are ignored in favor of finding a breadcrumb trail of bad decisions that prove that the cause of the firestorm wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. Even the brief history I led with can be considered this, even if the specific firestorms don’t have much bearing on the pricing and perks of an expansion.

The taint on a company’s image this creates is the most lasting effect of a firestorm, continuing long after the ashes have stopped smoldering. People remember those negative patterns, and it stacks up against ArenaNet when they consider whether or not to support Guild Wars 2 going forward.

The Catch Fire-22

The biggest problem with a firestorm is that once started, there are only two options: heed or ignore. And both have their negative effects that only get worse with time.

If Heeded…

…people start assuming that’s the best (or only) way to get unpopular decisions changed. They summon up the pitchforks immediately, even if the decision isn’t one ArenaNet is committed to and would quickly change with some constructive criticism. The firestorm starts up, because in the past that was the only way to change ArenaNet’s mind.

Worse still, it delegitimizes any and all other forms of feedback or criticism*. If the community is convinced that only by mobbing social media with a need for a fix will a fix actually happen, then all other avenues are a complete waste of time.

*Full disclosure: Yes, that includes me.

If Ignored…

As the sheer scope of the prepurchase firestorm illustrated, ignoring for even a few days causes things to escalate faster than Ron Burgundy can tell you that. After being whipped fever-pitch the day after the firestorm started, ArenaNet went utterly silent on prepurchasing.

Lightning-fast, scads of MMO and gaming news websites picked up the story of people’s vehement dislike of the prepurchase options. And sided with them. ArenaNet’s public image was burnt to a crisp in mere days, with MassivelyOP issuing the well-reasoned statement “…what ANet does next will color the expansion’s launch months from now.”

Ignorance is not bliss in firestorms, and if they reach a high enough intensity, heeding the mob becomes the only intelligent option*.

*I conjecture the reason the dungeon/SAB firestorm didn’t go anywhere is because both audiences are relatively niche compared to the Guild Wars 2 community as a whole. The other three cases here (commander tags, gems-to-gold exchange, prepurchase) affected everyone. Fewer people to be unhappy makes it easier for the firestorm to burn itself out.

Avoiding a Smoldering Landscape

Looking at this bleak state of affairs, it’s clear that firestorms are bad, regardless of what happens as a result of them. So what to do?

The Spark in the Dry Field

The root causes of a feedback firestorm are broken trust and poor communication between the developer and the community. I covered this at length when speaking of ArenaNet’s communication policy.

Aside from more exhaustive reveals (good thing), poor communication and interaction still happens. Else, how would prepurchase options that immediately kick off a firestorm have gone live? And because communication has not improved, the already broken trust hasn’t healed either. This prepurchase firestorm broke that trust even further.

The best way to avoid firestorms is to be out in front like forest rangers, prescribing burns (small bits of “bad news” due to business reality, design priorities, etc.), rather than letting the overgrowth of distrust cover the ground, waiting for an errant match (the prepurchase, in this case).

No matter how much “bad PR” results from such prescribed burns, they are minor, and offset by greater transparency (and thus greater communication, and greater trust) between ArenaNet and the community. Rather than having an entire page of “prepurchase is garbage,” coating the subreddit for a solid day, it’s the occasional “I ain’t happy” thread here and there.

Battling the Flames

So what happens if the attempts to avoid firestorms doesn’t work? What if one sparks in an untended area of the community?

Admit the mistake. ASAP.

This is what did not happen with the prepurchase. After Gaile’s ill-fated clarification about the price of the expansion, ArenaNet went silent about it. Only on Monday, when the full response was being posted, was a word said.

Silence is implied ignorance when facing a mob of angry people. And confronted with silence, the mob will shout all the louder, drawing more attention from others and increasing the inferno’s raging.

Admitting the mistake defuses the mob, letting reasoned voices poke out to give solid feedback on what they don’t like, and how to fix it, rather than the screams of “I no want!”*

*I’m not saying that people don’t do this already during the worst of a firestorm, but it’s easy to get drowned out amongst the number of voices being far less articulate.

Baring the Embers

Simply admitting the mistake isn’t enough. Fixing it in some form is still required. Dig down to the root causes of the firestorm and figure out what will work for the vast majority of players. Then implement it.

And after the ashes have ceased smoldering, go back and figure out what caused it in the first place, to prevent it from occurring again.

ArenaNet definitely did do this with the community response on Monday. But only after the firestorm had been allowed to continue unabated for a solid week.

Conclusion

Firestorms are bad. Period. No matter the result, they hurt everyone involved and break the trust that companies need to be successful in the cutthroat world of business. And at the root of these severe breakdowns in communication is a broken trust that customers (the community) have with the company (ArenaNet).

I cannot stress enough how important mending broken trust is. In a world where social media can praise or vilify someone en masse in mere minutes, trust, and the good will that comes from it, are paramount. Ignoring the rift only ensures that it will grow wider with time. The prepurchase firestorm is a prime example.

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One thought on “The Dangers of Feedback Firestorms”

  1. Very nicely said! Ordinarily the term “focus groups” sounds like a cuss word to me, but maybe something like that wouldn’t be all that bad for ANet. Most of the developers probably have essentially fanboy levels of love for their game (like me) and therefore can never see things like this coming. My reaction to the firestorm, for example, went something like this: “There was a standard edition? Oh! I didn’t even check to see what that had in it!”

    Like

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