Last spring, there was a zombie mod for a game called Arma 2 that gained popularity. The mod, called Day Z, gained enough support and buzz that a developer from another game called War Inc. posted on the Day Z forum and asked the users if they'd be interested in a more fleshed-out zombie survival game similar to the mod. Eventually, after checking out forum comments, Hammerpoint Interactive (whose parent company is Arktos, the makers of War Inc.) announced an upcoming zombie game called "The WarZ." Fans of Day Z criticized the Hammerpoint Interactive developers for ripping off the successful mod, and Hammerpoint responded with a reputation management no-no: by banning critical comments from their forums.
In October 2012, an alpha version of The WarZ was released. There was plenty of hype and anticipation surrounding the game, as well as promises from the developers that The WarZ would debut with some pretty cool features (image via Gamespy.com):
When the alpha version launched, it shot to the top of Steam, a popular online store for downloadable games. However, The WarZ's quick ascent was matched with equally swift criticism. A lot of users noticed the gameplay and overall aesthetic of The WarZ was suspiciously similar to War Inc., leading many to suspect the core functionality was a sloppy copy/paste job.
Some gamers were disappointed; others were called a homophobic slur by The WarZ executive producer Sergey Titov (another obvious reputation management misstep). Because of the vocal backlash, the beta version of the game was delayed. Many customers started to demand refunds and were met with threats of getting blacklisted from purchasing games using the same service as The WarZ. The WarZ even updated their TOS to disallow anyone who accepted it from requesting a refund (hey, check it out, yet another reputation management landmine). And in still another head-smacking move, developers "accidentally" banned a lot of legitimate players after purging a bunch of hackers from their gaming environment.
When the beta version of the game finally debuted in December 2012, many gamers noticed a lot of features that were promised a few months before the release were either suspiciously absent or severely watered down. Max players per server appeared to be 50, not the 100 that were promised. The multiple "areas between 100 to 400 square kilometers" became only one area around 100 square km. Needless to say, an epic zombie survival game was promised but not delivered. Once again, developers banned anyone posting critical comments about the game. Gamespy published a bizarre interview with Sergey Titov, who refused to acknowledge the false or misleading game feature information that had been posted on Steam.
After constant scrutiny, a forum post was published with a lame half-apology to players who "misread" the Steam page (that post has since been removed). The next day, Steam had understandably had enough of the never-ending onslaught of drama and controversy and removed The WarZ from their site, no longer offering it for purchase.
If you don't follow online gaming and were a bit lost after reading that whole ridiculous saga, basically the whole thing boils down to numerous reputation management failures from which the following pieces of advice can be derived:
- Don't blatantly rip off someone or package something you've already done as a brand new offering. Your customers are a lot smarter than you think.
- If you see criticism or comments you don't like, instead of frantically trying to erase all evidence of those negative comments, maybe you should first explore why they were posted in the first place. Sweeping them under the rug and ignoring them entirely shows your audience you don't care about what they have to say.
- Don't bully your community. Seriously, that's a no-brainer.
But perhaps the biggest failure came from the age-old saying, "Never oversell and underdeliver." At the end of the day, Hammerpoint Interactive hyped a bunch of awesome game features to get the gaming community excited, but when they finally launched the game, they didn't actually deliver anything that was promised (or if they did, it was an extremely watered-down version of what gamers had come to expect). If customers fork over their hard-earned money expecting something you explicitly promised to them and the end result is drastically different and underwhelming, you're pretty much guaranteed to receive some backlash.
I know there's always pressure to deliver something amazing, especially if you're trying to time a release with something that's pop culture relevant (in this instance, the current zombie craze brought upon by the Day Z mod, The Walking Dead TV series, and the forthcoming World War Z movie starring Brad Pitt). But if you're in a rush to push something out in conjunction with something that's been popular or newsworthy, you have to be very mindful of what you promise to deliver. The same goes for any big release or announcement, really--you can't whip your fans and customers into a frenzy and then promptly burst their bubble by offering up a half-ass version of what they expected. And worse, you can't turn around and blame your customers for "misreading" or "misinterpreting" the features or functionality when it's your fault for cutting corners or just plain lying to them.
As a brand, you have to constantly manage your audience's expectations. It's a tricky, oftentimes thankless endeavor as there's always going to be something to complain about. But you do have some degree of control over what you trumpet out to the masses. It's always better to undersell and overdeliver, or at the very least be transparent with your customers and inform them of any delays or setbacks. That way, they won't feel like Charlie Brown after Lucy snatched the football away from him just as he was about to kick. They'll learn to appreciate your communications with them and trust you're a company that sticks to its promises instead of growing jaded and losing faith in your brand integrity.
*credit to r/gaming for the WarZ timeline of events*