Friday, September 9, 2011

Anthropomorphization of game companies

I was reading various blog entries on my newsreader, as well as comments on this blog, and it struck me how often people use phrases like "Blizzard hates talent trees", or "Ubisoft should respect their customers more" when discussing game companies. I probably fall in the same trap often enough. But the fact is that "Blizzard" or "Ubisoft" are not persons, but companies. They don't feel or hate or do anything else which would require a personality. Maybe one or several persons working for that company expressed some opinion somewhere, but the company itself has no feelings. In most cases the feelings or motives attributed to a company are not shared by everybody working for that company. Sometimes *nobody* in the company feels or thinks that way, especially when considering the wilder claims of some people how this or that company is out to ruin a certain market or product.

Of course this anthropomorphization of companies is only natural. I'm happy that Blizzard invited me into their Diablo III beta, and not so happy that Bioware didn't invite me to the SWTOR beta. But of course "Blizzard" didn't invite me, somebody working for Blizzard did. I doubt that "inviting Tobold into betas" is part of the official company policy. And as far as I can fathom, "Bioware" doesn't hate me, they just haven't even started the European beta yet (and cancelled the September beta weekends in the US, which to me suggests technical problems). Even if Bioware sends me a beta invite some day, it would be hard for me to tell whether they did that on purpose, because somebody in the company thought it was a good idea to get bloggers on their side, or whether it was by random chance due to my pre-order and sign-up for the beta. If some company treats me better than another, it is either a small company with a deliberate "marketing via bloggers" strategy, or a bigger company where some individual employee just happens to like my blog. "Bioware" doesn't "hate" me, on a company level they aren't even aware that I exist.

On a related note I had to laugh when I read yet another conspiracy theory claiming that Blizzard launched the Diablo III beta to divert attention away from SWTOR. Again, "Blizzard" is neither a person nor a monolithic entity, so there is serious doubt that every single Blizzard employee feels threatened by SWTOR. And even if there are probably *some* strategic thinkers working for Blizzard marketing, the Diablo III beta launch is more likely to be related to a presumably planned end 2011 release date than a strategic move to cause problems for any game with a similar release date. Launching games "when they are ready" works both ways, Diablo III simply is ready for that stage of the development cycle.

The discussion gets downright useless when people use arguments of morality on an anthropomorphic image of a company. Companies aren't "good" or "evil". They can, like Google, have a mission statement encouraging employees to not be evil. Or they can have company policies with different degrees of taking morality into account. But while there are questions in the life of a company that require a moral decision ("do we use a cheap sweatshop as sub-contractor for our goods?"), those questions are few and far between. If a game company decides whether to use DRM, and in which form, that is a business decision, not a moral question. It is based on technical aspects ("does the DRM work?"), and marketing aspects ("do we make more money from people who buy our game because they can't steal it than we lose money from people who don't buy our game because it does have DRM?"). And somewhere in that company some manager is paid for making this sort of decision. You might agree or disagree with their decision, but in the end it is that manager who decides, and that often based on data you don't have access to. I am pretty certain that there are cases where always-on online DRM protection is both the best technical solution, and has a positive effect on profits. That makes it a "good" business decision, but not in the "good or evil" sense. You can have influence future decisions of that type by refusing to buy a game with DRM, but ranting about how "evil" that company is for not letting you steal their game isn't going to get you anywhere.

The biggest danger for any company is becoming so big and self-absorbed that nobody high enough placed in the company's decision processes is considering the tendency of the public to anthropomorphize the company. Perception *is* important for a company. While the company isn't in reality "evil", a few bad decisions can make people perceive it as such, especially in situations where that company holds a monopoly or dominant market position. In spite of their "don't be evil" motto, Google is on a dangerous path towards being perceived as the next "evil empire" of big IT companies. Facebook already went from being everybody's darling to having every move regarded with suspicion. And even Apple is learning that people's perception of it changes when markets are concerned in which Apple dominates the competition. Nobody can please everybody all the time, and the more customers you have, the more likely are you to make some of them angry with some decision. MMORPG companies are very much at risk here, because they effectively sell something approaching a life-style to their more committed customers. But sometimes the reactions of players to some nerf or other game design decision are downright silly. Game companies aren't persons, and even if you'd consider them as such, it would be unlikely that they were involved in a conspiracy to ruin games. The wildest claims in the MMORPG blogosphere tell you more about the mental state of the blogger, than about how companies really work.

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