Publishers and developers would do well to heed the current woes Infinity Ward is enduring with the PC community and take away some learnings from it. Here's some observations to that effect:
1. Rumour control
When you're sitting on what many tip to be the biggest game of the year, there's bound to be plenty of stakeholders with a view on an appropriate comms strategy for the product. But not too many would agree allowing negative rumours to fester and propagate is a good idea.
IW has been reasonably vigilant in this regard up until lately, assiduously "smashing" more prominent rumours before they got traction. Then suddenly they vanished off the earth when rumours specific to the PC version started flying about.
Item 1: A retail catalogue listed the PC version as coming out later than the "global" launch of the game (November 10th). IW's community manager/creative strategist Robert Bowling gave the distinct impression his hands were tied, communicating via Twitter to tell followers he was waiting on official word. Official word...that the game was still coming out on time? The message only served to cause further speculation until Bowling was able to confirm - 10 days later - the PC version would not be delayed.
Item 2: Bowling issues a interview to a community podcast advising a major inclusion - the IWNET service. He adds dedicated servers - a long time fixture for PC online FPS gamers - will be done away with. Once again the internet starts melting from irate gamers anxious about the fate of MW2 on "their" platform.
This occurred last weekend, and it's easy to underestimate the effect with which this move affects the PC gaming population. Good crisis management hinges not only on being able to have a plan, but sometimes also being seen to have a plan.
Instead, up until a few hours ago there had been no official statement from Infinity Ward nor Activision, no confirmation from IW the comments were actually Bowling's, and no clarification of their import. The first "close to official" response to the furore came from an alleged direct Twitter message from Bowling to a member of the community saying the petition was being taken seriously.
It doesn't matter whether you're talking about Modern Warfare 2 - as close to a "sure thing" as we have this year, or a game which will struggle to pay the bills - allowing damaging speculation and rumour to persist without a prompt, professional response is damaging to your brand, to your product, and to your relationship with the people you profess to have as your customers.
Doubtless there would have been constraints surrounding the flow of information, but that's what a sound pre-plan is for: to ensure an orderly dissemination of info in such a way that damaging speculation is kept to a minimum.
2. Twitter is good, but it's not a substitute for *everything*
Infinity Ward's not a fan of tradition PR, as stated in Bowling's comments made at the time IW founder Grant Collier departed for a special project role at Activision:
"With our Community focused efforts expanding even further in the future, that PR-type position is no longer required at IW, as we’ll be spearheading more tangible, personal means of getting information out to our players...Essentially, this means we plan on doing much less of the traditional PR that ends up being a one way street"
This is well and good - the community manager role now is a critical part of the marketing mix for any game with aspirations of building a lasting online audience. However it needs to be seen working in sync with existing PR efforts - in this case those of Activision.
There's no denying the efficacy of twitter as an ad-hoc engagement tool for a community manager, but when it starts becoming the official source of record for pivotal announcements or the "go to" channel for official information - that path is fraught with danger.
Which brings us to:
3. Present a unified front
Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick is manna from heaven for games press looking for a villain. He's a terrific wartime general - uncompromising, results-oriented, and quotable. His executive persona in his current role suits the current economic climate, while in times of plenty would likely play havoc with his HR department.
However polarising a figure he may be, and as entertaining an idea as it may seem at the time, it's probably not a great idea to mock the CEO of your corporate owner with a captive media audience, as Infinity Ward did in their MW2 multiplayer hands-on event in Los Angeles.
Along with subsequent (and widely published) quotes from IW founder and co-head Vince Zampella that Activision were very reluctant to embrace the "Modern Warfare" direction Infinity Ward wanted to head in, it paints a picture of discord and distracts focus away from the star of the show - the game.
While disagreements on direction are expected, these are discussions that should be kept internal when you have a monster title being launched in a month or two. Infinity Ward need Activision's support just as Activision needs the quality product IW will deliver. If there's a breakdown in trust between the two entities, it should be resolved behind closed doors.
The theme of unity extends to dialogue with media. IW should be vigilant in guarding against irresponsible media coverage which seeks to exploit their product to engage in traffic generating exercises at their expense. It doesn't take much looking to find high profile games outlets trading on the oldest of chestnuts - platform wars - and in doing so causing a greater divide between PC and console camps. The catalyst for the latest spate is comments from Infinity Ward's representatives, and it's a poor move to allow it unchecked without clarification or correction.
Fragmenting this market doesn't do IW or Activision any favours in the long run. Rival's fortunes may wax and wane, but with PC gamers being notoriously partisan, all platform alienation accomplishes is resentment and a resolve to go to the 'opposition' - sooner or later.
4. Take your customers seriously - know their values and who they are
You can't embark on a (laudable) endeavour to focus your communications strategy around community and then expect to make unilateral decisions without serious repercussions. The IWNET move by Infinity Ward is the kind that will need community support to prosper.
I'm not saying IW is thinking PC owners threats to walk away from the game are hot air, but their rationale for introducing the product is being dissected and torn apart as I type this by countless PC gamers online. Even worse, comments made by Zampella and fellow IW head Jason West essentially palm off the concerns being expressed by the PC community.
The issue at stake is this: for a major new shift to be introduced successfully you need to be able to demonstrate real benefits to the end user. Blizzard is still navigating these treacherous waters with its move to cut out LAN functionality from StarCraft II - but at least their stated rationale makes sense, even if some PC gamers chose to dig their heels in. Blizzard explained their position, provided the reasoning, and provided effective boundaries for the discussion.
In contrast, Infinity Ward's stated benefits of their proposed system leave them open to a lot more questioning. Claims have been made which paint the company in a bad light - especially admissions on the level of cheating within the game - but then users are expected to take a leap of faith in a new vision which in the absence of proof to the contrary runs a strong risk of playing in real, bandwidth terms worse than the existing ones.
Even more dubious - the charge by one of the founders that the criticism is commercially motivated by some operators. Even if this is true - it suggests IW aren't taking the concerns of actual gamers seriously because they could be shills.
IW know their audience, yet appear to be ignoring the likely consequences of taking rash action in favour of a predetermined course. Game franchises who trade heavily on community engagement need to be seen to be collaborative and accountable on major moves within their products. Having to justify a vision you have slaved long and hard for might be utterly galling if you're an insider who has helped build it, but if you wish to take the community route and enjoy its benefits, the driving force behind it is trust based on the notion of consultation.
This is what it all adds up to. Infinity Ward's dialogue with gamers and media over the past few weeks or so - a critical period - is best described as whimsical and capricious. It's been stunning to observe it in action, akin to a slow-motion trainwreck.
IW's free pass and goodwill - the perception that the heavy hand of Activision controls the message - seems to have been dissolved amongst the cryptic twitter messages and delayed explanations. Perhaps this is the byproduct of trying to control the message too much. I can't help feeling if IW have been given this much free rein they might as well institute regular, consistent channels of information for everyone - preferably in addition to twitter and blog posts.
Possibly the worst possible outcome of what has transpired to date is for the current damage being dealt to Infinity Ward's brand from one section of their market to be forgotten when Modern Warfare 2 starts sending sales records tumbling. In that lies the seeds of complacency and a gradual demise.
Rather, IW should embrace the opportunity to learn more about their customer's values - all of them - and take some PC-specific cues from the likes of Valve and Blizzard (to name two). They should ignore the more vitriolic extremes and instead focus on making sure the silent majority - the masses who read, play but do not comment online - feel their concerns aren't being ridden over, roughshod. Community engagement does not have to equate to surrending control of your creative vision - but it does require a sound plan and the flexibility to listen to all your stakeholders.