Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ocean Marketing and Don't Do This 101

So just like the rest of the internet today, I read with slack-jawed amazement about the trainwreck that is Ocean Marketing.  For those of you who don't feel like clicking over to read, here's the story in a nutshell:

A customer ordered a product (an Avenger's themed PS3 controller) from a web-based company called Ocean Marketing. The product was delayed, with very little communication from the provider.  The customer voiced an understandable complaint. So the rep from the company responded with a childish and patronizing attitude ("put on your big boy hat and wait it out like everyone else"), insulting the customer with horrible grammar and bad spelling ("You just got told bitch … welcome to the real internet").  This went back and forth for awhile, and then Penny Arcade got wind of it and the internet exploded.

I've written about stupid PR before and I admit that I'm no expert, but yeesh.  But I have to say, something about the rep's replies did resonate with me.  His reoccurring theme seems to be "Crap happens."  This I can get behind.  Crap, without a doubt, happens to me on a regular basis. Some of it is beyond my control and some it is undoubtedly my fault.  But no matter what, it is the customers who have to deal with it and they will share very little sympathy for your plight.  It is up to you to handle it properly.

So in honor of this internet train wreck, I thought I'd share three of these "crap happens" incidents with you and tell you how I dealt with them.

Incident #1: What, none of your downloads work?!

July of 2009.  I just finished coding Blackwell Convergence.  It was tried, tested, and true.  After a year and a half of work (with a break to make Emerald City Confidential), it was finished.  I uploaded it to Plimus, my store provider at the time.  I tested it to make sure it worked (Ha!), gave it a day to mature, and made the announcement that it was available.  Now I could sit back, relax, and watch the orders pour in.

Not quite.

Due to some technical snafu, half the download links were completely broken.  The affected customers would either receive an email with the mysterious message "download link" with no URL, or they'd receive a link that would disconnect after downloading only ten megabytes or so.  I tried uploading the game, but this didn't seem to fix the problem.  I frantically called Plimus, but they wouldn't answer.  I'd stay on hold for 40 minutes only to be told to leave a message.

The problem was sorted the next day, when I finally got in touch with Plimus and they got it working again.  It took 24 hours to sort out, from start to finish. During that time I hurled countless curses at my computer screen, but not a one at my customers.  Yes, it was a frustrating, hair-pulling experience but I knew not to take this out on the players who gave me money.  This is PR 101 stuff. 

(Incidentally, you can read about how the whole drama played out on our forum)

Incident #2: Dave is an idiot.

In February of 2010, I received a worrying Google Alert about Puzzle Bots.  One of my beta testers had taken the current build (a very incomplete, very buggy build) and uploaded it to a pirate site.  I'm not naive. I know leaks and things happen, but I was very upset to see it happen to me.

There was no way I could discover who actually did it, so I took some precautions.  I dropped all the testers who were on my beta list but hadn't sent me any bug reports yet (figuring that such a person wouldn't be submitting bug reports if they are so morally reprehensible as to pirate a game before it's done).  The second thing I did was add a time stamp to the game.  I knew I was going to release it in early April, so I added a bit of code that would prevent the game from playing after a certain date in late April.  If the game was pirated again, then the game wouldn't be playable.

And wouldn't you know it, I frigging forgot about it.  I woke up that fateful morning in late April to a bunch of emails telling me that their game wouldn't work anymore.

There was no excuse for this.  There was no way to put a PR spin on this.  This was my fault, pure and simple.  All I could do was re-upload a working version of the game, send out an email to apologize, and give everyone a discount code for a future game. I waited for a big mass of angry emails, but they never came.  The customers that did write appreciated my honesty.

Incident #3: Savegames go kablooee

This happened just last week, so it's fresh on my mind.  From the day we launched Gemini Rue, we were faced with a severe compatibility problem that we couldn't seem to fix.  On some Windows 7 laptops, the game would just freeze up on the start screen.  After months and months of banging our heads together, we finally came up with a solution that seemed to work perfectly, but it had one side effect.

One issue with the Adventure Game Studio engine (which we use to make our games) is that when you compile a new version of a game, all your old savefiles stop working.  There was no way around this, especially for the Steam version of the game which applies all their updates automatically.  We knew that uploading this fix would break everybody's game, but we were still receiving complaints from Win 7 laptop users who couldn't play it at all.  We were damned if we did, damned if we didn't.  So I gritted my teeth, applied the update, and braced myself.

Sure enough, people who were in the midst of playing the game were annoyed. Fortunately, there was less than I thought there would be.  I created a bunch of compatible savefiles that they could use instead, and that seemed to do the trick. 

The lesson?

The one thing all of these incidents have in common is that I kept the customers in the loop.  I've learned that game customers (especially customers of indie games) are very quick to forgive if they know you are on top of any problem that arises. With my Twitter feed, Facebook page, and forums, I am always accessible.  These tools are available to everybody, so there's no excuse for keeping your customers in the dark.

And above all, don't do what Ocean Marketing did and treat your customers like an irritating child.


Too long didn't read version: Crap happens.  Stay classy when it does.  Don't mess with Penny Arcade.

Sunday, December 25, 2011