The New Coke Disaster, or: Forums Are Dangerous

Do you know the wikipedia feeling? The one where you just want to look up who was king after Queen Victoria, and an hour later, you end up with 40 tabs on topics such as the Permian–Triassic extinction event, the Hagia Sophia, homosexuality in the Batman franchise, and the New Coke disaster?

Actually, I already read the last article, and it got me thinking. If you want to, go ahead and read it, too. If not, I’ll give you a short summary. Keep in mind I am both too young and too not-having-been-born-in-the-USA to have any firsthand experience; all I know about this comes from the wikipedia article, but seeing how it doesn’t seem to have any edit wars, I’ll take my chance and consider it correct information.

During the 70ies and 80ies, Coca-Cola slowly fell behind its main competitor, Pepsi Cola, in market sales. Management decided that it was time for drastic measures, and they changed the famous Coke formula. They did in-depth research and consumer testing, and came up with something that fared much better in tests that both their old formula and Pepsi.  Despite a botched press conference, their “New Coke” sold very well. But then, a very vocal minority, who claimed that Coca-Cola had sold out their identity, entered the stage. This proved disastrous, because they spearheaded a huge backlash against Coca-Cola, the movement gained momentum, and in the end the company had to revert their stance and return to the old formula because they feared they’d lose market share.

What does that have to do with MMOs? We all know that those games live and die by their perception. Many bloggers may have no love for WoW (maybe not any more), but there’s no question that the game is still very popular, and a lot of people still enjoy it, and will say so if asked. On the other hand, negative perception of a game launch can be disastrous and gain such momentum that the game will be doomed forever after. Warhammer Online and Vanguard are two examples of what can go wrong (disregarding for a moment the problems they had even without that at launch), and Gordon at We Fly Spitfire talked about that just recently.

Behold, the Warhammer Online or Vanguard of the early 80ies.

To influence perception and gain momentum, people need a platform for communication. In Coca-Cola’s case, the press was interested to cover the stories, simply because it was a huge company, and the “secret formula” had been (and sometimes still is) such an interesting marketing ploy that abandoning it made for a story in itself. In the case of MMOs, you won’t see TV coverage in the evening news. But you’ll have other channels of communications. Of course, there are blogs. But let’s not overestimate our importance. (Actually, I’m not in any danger overestimating my personal importance, I think. The page hit numbers tell me exactly how insignificant I am!) The reach of blogs will in many cases not be enough to create momentum, just as in Coca-Cola’s case, a couple of news stories in a local Atlanta newspaper wouldn’t have changed anything. But there’s other channels of information: forums.

I’m talking mostly about official game forums that are hosted by the game company, and the huge fansite forums. These are frequented by a lot more people than blogs will ever be. And they add to their huge reach another phenomenon: Happy people are silent. Angry people complain. So you now have a platform just waiting to disseminate angry negative thoughts about a thousand things small and large in your game. If your current customers read this on a regular basis, they will probably eventually start feeling negative about things in your game to. Oh, and you better hope no potential customer tries to check out the state of your game via forums.

The analogy here is that in both cases, you have a very vocal minority. They are still passionate about your product (because disillusioned people just silently walk away), and they will start a crusade about whatever they consider wrong. Coca-Cola drinkers, especially proud Coca-Cola drinkers from the south, considered the formula change shameful. MMO players, especially proud players of class X, or PvPers, or RPers, or some other subgroup, will rage against perceived unfairness, or losing something they consider vital. And unless you take measures, you’ll soon be drowned in thousands of posts full of negativity, and it makes those forums a very unhappy place.

There are several ways for game companies out of this. The first one is to not care. It doesn’t make your forums fun, and leads to exactly the problems I described. The second one is to heavily moderate forums. This can lead to its own kind of backlash if people complain about overshooting moderation, or what they call “censorship”. The third one is to simply not have any forums at all. The risk in that case is that people will congregate somewhere else, where the mood can be just as bad, but you lost all chances to control it at all via moderating. So none of these really work.

What is the bottom line? Forums are bad, stay away from them if you want to stay sane. There’s not much to do about it, either. Finally, there’s the fine print: after Coca-Cola reintroduced the old formula, their sales started to rise again, not only recovering, but surpassing sales numbers for New Coke at its peak. Maybe comparing forum rages with the New Coke disaster is not such a great comparison after all. But I liked it and it just came to my mind and never left after I read the article.

Finally, there are other topics in the MMO domain that seem to have some similarity to the New Coke Disaster. Would SWG have been more successful if SOE had reverted the famous NGE? I can’t say anything about it, I never played the game. It sounds like a cute “what if” topic though. Or: did Blizzard fall into that trap with cataclysm? Most of the old world as we know it is gone, replaced by “New Azeroth, now with less running and faster leveling”. But this post is already long enough; I’ll think about that point and maybe make a post about this at a later point.

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