If you follow the world of video games like I do, you’re familiar with Electronic Arts (EA), a wildly successful, publically traded, developer/publisher whose industry prominence has earned them exclusive licenses to some of the world’s biggest brands, including the NFL, UFC, and Star Wars. EA is no stranger to controversy, be it a conflict over pricing or their purchase of smaller development talent. However, in late 2017, the company’s stock took a $3 billion hit after their latest controversy became a full-blown PR crisis, prompting legislative action that equated EA’s business practices to gambling, in addition to a major drop in consumer sales.
While the situation now stands as a shining example of a communication failure, the truth is, things should never have spiraled out of control. Hidden within this PR nightmare are lessons to be learned for communication professionals in every industry on how to better manage a crisis.
Lesson 1: Respect the Information Age
Before we can learn a lesson, we need to understand a little bit about the situation: The entire conflict centered on the release of Star Wars Battlefront 2, wherein EA placed “loot boxes” – a common video game item where players pay for a selection of in-game cointent to enhance play – in order to boost revenue for the game.
While gamers are used to loot boxes, the problem this time around was the relationship between the boxes and the actual game. Players who wished to play popular characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Star Wars Battlefront 2 would find them locked, requiring upwards of 40 hours of playtime each in order to unlock.
Alternatively, players could pay to unlock the characters for $40 each, on top of the $60 cost to purchase the game. Naturally, a fire erupted on popular gaming forums and in the media, with players sharing what they had discovered during the game’s open, public beta test.
The more people began to dig, the worse the situation seemed. Educated players online calculated it would take upwards of $2,100.00 to unlock everything – or, alternatively, more than 4,500 hours of playtime.
What made matters worse was EA’s now infamous response to players justifying the cost: “The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.” The post became most downvoted post in the history of Reddit, a fact that earned EA even more negative press than the initial controversy.
EA now had a serious problem on their hands. With this response, the company doubled down on their messaging, and the facts of the messaging no longer meshed with the information players and journalists had already uncovered.
To be frank, EA’s response shows the company didn’t understand their audience and the concerns of their own customers. Video gamers are tech savvy, informed consumers supported by numerous media outlets and anonymous forums where leaks are a regular, everyday part of reality. Gamers talk to each other. They share information on social media and online forums, and they uncovered this controversy on their own.
EA’s response didn’t work for an informed audience that already felt as if their desires were ignored, and many felt the response essentially told them the way they felt was wrong. It’s not clear if EA knew what was already being said about the situation on popular gaming publications and forums, though one would hope they did. Regardless, the lesson here is simple: A crisis response that fails to address the heart of the issue will only make things worse, especially when emotions are high.
The era of print media – where a copy of Electronic Gaming Monthly came in the mail every month – allowed more control over messaging that simply doesn’t exist today. In the social media age, everyone has a voice, and any official response will be subject to scrutiny. No company in today’s world can completely control a conversation – and attempts to do so will be met with backlash.
The era of top-down, authoritative statements taken at face value are over, as any good PR professional can attest. As such, any response and messaging needs to be shaped for an information age audience, not one from the print era.
Lesson 2: Stay Consistent and Follow Procedure
The irony here is that the statement EA made was never necessary in the first place. Why? Because Star Wars Battlefront 2 was an unfinished game still in the final stages of beta testing, and changes were going to be made based on consumer feedback.
Less than one day before EA posted the most downvoted message in the history of Reddit, EA said it was actively making changes to the game based on community feedback. However, this fact didn’t mesh with their response on Reddit forums. Unfortunately, while EA did in fact make changes to their reward system prior to the game being released, PR teams had trouble getting that positive message to gamers because the response on Reddit seemingly said the opposite of “We heard you, and we’re fixing it”.
It’s vital that communication remains clear and consistent, especially during times of volatility. While it’s hard to resist the pull to respond immediately, taking a step back to prioritize clarity over swiftness is crucial; otherwise you risk a contradiction that could drown out anything positive.
Had the community manager, marketing leads, and everyone else involved with the process of public relations been on the same page, EA would never have delivered a message to the public that was in direct contrast to what they actually planned on doing. In this case, a procedure should have been followed where the important message – that this game was currently unfinished and changes were being made – was the only message the pubic heard.
Gamers wanted to hear that EA was listening, instead of getting a comment on how all of this controversy was actually a good thing. Sadly, that message of progress did exist and was part of EA’s larger roadmap for release, but no one heard it because responses were inconsistent.
Situations like this are why a crisis communication process exists. If an outlined process had been followed, a clear, consistent message from EA would have made its way into media reports instead of a rushed Reddit post.
Further, it seems less likely a clear, consistent message that outlined upcoming changes would have been the most downvoted post in Reddit’s history. Meaning it wouldn’t draw the negative headlines and social media ridicule the statement did, at least not to the same degree.
Lesson 3: Think Ahead
Most of us who play video games grew up in an era where games weren’t tied to a robust online community. Once a game was released, changing it was a rarity – loot boxes, patches, and digital content simply didn’t exist.
Video games were a simple transaction. All of that is changing, and whenever the landscape of an industry beings to change, thinking ahead on how the public will react has to be the guiding principle.
In this case, loot boxes and “pay to win” schemes are universally hated by video game players, often cited as a player’s number one gripe. Considering this, EA’s PR team should have been well prepared for a community backlash, especially considering the (admittedly) extreme nature of these particular in-game loot boxes.
Granted, it’s very likely PR teams had no idea what the game would be like, since games are developed and published by different, disconnected teams behind closed doors. That said, not having well-developed counter messaging ready to go – the least of which includes a statement for social media – is an oversight that stands as a lesson to companies on ensuring every team involved with the sale and distribution of a product is kept in the loop.
If PR teams had known in advance about the game containing loot boxes, not to mention the specifics of the in-game locked content in Star Wars Battlefront 2, then it’s very likely things would have unfolded differently.
Lesson 4: Education Makes a Difference
All of this drama over loot boxes actually has a reasonable explanation, and this situation stands as a missed opportunity for EA to educate the public on the why of digital content.
While admittedly it has something to do with greed considering the specifics of this case, the fact is that the cost to make video games is skyrocketing, with bigger games now carrying a development cost that rivals big Hollywood blockbusters. Yet, while the price of movie tickets has risen with inflation, video game prices have remained stagnant for a number of years. In fact, video games are cheaper than they’ve ever been when you factor in inflation.
As an alternative to raising the price tag of the game, the sale of digital content – including loot boxes – serves as a way to cover development costs and monetize games.
While the way this plays out will be determined by consumer tolerance and choice, it’s important for video game developers and publishers to let consumers behind the curtain a bit. That way players don’t just feel as if they’re being charged for content that at one time was covered under the cost of buying a game.
This situation was a chance for EA to do exactly that. But, once a crisis begins, educating the public isn’t going to be easy. Education should have been done in advance of any release, preferably through media engagement and interviews that discuss the specifics of the economics surrounding Star Wars Battlefront 2 and the larger video game space.
Not just the action but the reaction
With a little education, planning, and respect for the public, many of these PR crises can be prevented completely. Admittedly, even with proper planning, the unpredictable can still happen.
What matters then is how a response is managed. While there’s no substitute for a good blaster at your side, never doubt the power of a Jedi mind trick. The way PR responds can make all the difference, which is why examining incidents such as this remains so important, regardless of the space you occupy.