Here’s a fun little fact: I work in marketing.
Yep, when I’m not writing these articles or giving tours (I’m a tour guide too), I work as a freelance copywriter. It’s what pays most of the bills. I know, I’m surprised too, but apparently I’m pretty good at it. Good enough that I can use it to keep my apartment and support my increasingly expensive gaming habits, in any case.
I won’t pretend that this has given me any special insight into the world of gaming, but it has given me more insight into the world of advertising and marketing. And that's what go me thinking about what I've recently been seeing from EA. And yes, this will be another EA article, but with luck this will be my last one for a while, so, bear with me for a bit. Because when I was keeping up with all the stories surrounding EA, I was caught up not only because I’m a gamer and this is kind of my thing, but also because it was fascinating, from a professional standpoint, to see how badly the company struggled to execute on and defend its own terrible practices.
Maybe "fascinating" is the wrong word... maybe it would be more accurate to say it's validating. One of the things I’ve learned from working in marketing is that companies are full of people with good intentions, who are constantly getting flattened and ignored by the people who outrank them. A good idea can be twisted into something so soul-wrenchingly terrible that you don’t even want to put your name on it, and ‘design by committee’ can make a once promising project and turn it into a dull, boring mush. I'm convinced now that EA is blighted with the same problem.
To break it down, you can think of it like a game of rock-paper-scissors. Developers hate marketers. Marketers hate sales. And sales hates developers.
Developers hate markers because they are super needy and always assume the developers should be at their beck and call. They’re the folk who demand to know as much as they can about a game, and if they don't get that info, they'll be the people who will make grand, public claims about what will be in a game, trusting that the developers can 'handle it'. Meanwhile, marketers hate sales because sales are the more analytical, calculating of the pair, and while marketers can trick themselves into calling themselves creatives and visionaries, Sales is always focused on one thing: making money at any cost. Sales, meanwhile, hates developers because oftentimes they either fail to reach expected goals, or they go over budget, or their plans fall through, and suddenly they’re left with a product they’re sure will under-perform.
And about 70% of the time they all hate their bosses.
I’m sure there are some distinct differences in the gaming industry that separate it from others, but for the tech industry by-and-large, that’s how it goes. And that has a real impact on how things get done. Over at EA, I would wager that most of the developers and even a good share of the marketers hated the loot boxes, but were forced to put it in by sales and their bosses, who are all basically a part of the sales team because they worry about making sure their team gets the budget it needs to stay afloat... which, of course, requires money.
The thing is, while developers could pretty much only shrug and say “okay, let’s get this over with”, Marketers have a trickier job: taking this idea they (probably) hated, and they knew gamers would hate (think what you want about EA, the people who work there aren't all blind), and try to sell it. Their solution to that problem over at EA was to just kind of… not. The loot boxes didn’t really show up in the marketing for the game, and when they did, the outcry was so intense that it immediately became a public relations problem, which took the burden off the marketing team. And I suppose it’s not impossible that might have been their goal the whole time. But that still meant they weren’t doing their job very well.
So we’re going to play a game. We’re going to pretend I switched places with Chris Bruzzo and I was responsible for pitching the loot box thing to players… a responsibility I would put on myself anyway because I would know this would require a steady hand, especially given that EA had, at the time, only barely started salvaging its reputation thanks to the massive success of Battlefield 1 and a series of high-level blunders that took the spotlight away from us and towards Ubisoft and Konami.
In a perfect world, I would use my power to get rid of the system entirely, but in the likely situation I couldn’t make that happen, I would have taken a step back, and after a few stiff drinks, started making plans to re-phrase the controversy that was about to fall on us. See, the thing is, you could always expect there to be some controversy: the inclusion of loot boxes alone would have been enough to accomplish that. But they took it one step further by having them cost money and come with gameplay benefits. So while we couldn’t get rid of the controversy, we could re-frame it and mitigate the problem through some unconventional marketing strategies.
1) Focus less on heroes, more on infantry
Yes, heroes are half the reason people play. But they also require a lot of shards to unlock and would undoubtedly be the center of a lot of controversy, so the objective would be to acknowledge them, but not as the centerpiece of the advertising. Rather, we’d focus on the fevered battles between common soldiers that everyone would more-or-less start with, and only faintly allude to the heroes on offer in the main line of advertising. We'd keep the focus tightly on what was easily attainable, and let those willing to pay enjoy the fantasy of being a Hero. Tying into this…
2) Less CGI cinematics, more actual gameplay
This might seem counter-intuitive but the goal here is quite simple: if the game looks fun to play, people will buy it. Everyone understands the appeal of swinging a lightsaber and throwing people around with their minds, so our objective would be to make the frantic infantry combat look as thrilling as possible: sell people on the cheap experience and make then curious, at best, at the paid one. All without saying that explicitly, of course, but if we can make people think “Hey, I might never buy the shards I need to play Yoda, but being this heavy rocket man looks fun enough to be worth 60 bucks”, then they’d be willing to ignore the controversy.
After all, we can’t convince our most ardent haters to buy the game. That’ll never happen. The goal would be to sell to the undecided people who care, but not enough to make angry internet posts.
3) Own it
Again, this might seem counter-intuitive, but one of the things EA was saying was that while they couldn’t deny that paying had benefits, they argued it wasn’t enough to break the game, and that “skill matchmaking” would keep it from becoming a pay-to-win economy. I would say, “That’s fine to say, so let’s show it”. Imagine, if you would, a video series that shwcased some of the star card powers and their bonuses.
On the surface, it would seem like a sales pitch for all the benefits you could get if you were willing to pay. But if you just extend that video with a section called “counterplay”, which showcases how other players can beat someone with said card… that’s a different ball of wax. That makes the star cards look more like a strategic choice than a straight-up buff, largely because we'd tactfully avoid talking about the straight-up buff cards. We'd re-frames the discussion. And again, it won’t sell anyone who’s absolutely dedicated to hating the game, but for those edge cases, they’ll watch the videos out of curiosity (because they’re the ones who are looking to be swayed one way or the other) and they’ll hopefully walk away thinking the outrage is overblown.
The same strategy could be applied to each class, and ties into “focus on gameplay” thing. We wouldn’t be actively combating the idea of the loot boxes, that’s a battle we can’t win: rather, we’d want to show how each individual, non-hero class plays, make that look as exciting and fun as possible, and show indirectly that star cards, while useful, don’t make or break the game.
Oh, and in a more general sense, I would also make sure a good amount of the advertising goes to non-gaming parents. Make sure that they get their kids a copy for their birthday or for Christmas unaware that their kid might be part of the boycott. Even if they re-sell the copy we’ve still got that 30-some dollars from the physical copy. And I wouldn’t have offered the AMA: while it was supposed to be a move of good faith, in the end people were too mad to see it as such. It just turned into a screaming match and the fact we couldn’t address all the angry posts just gives people ammunition.
But again, I’m not in charge of marketing for EA. So what good is my opinion?