Series Info...Biting The Hand #29:

Here We Go Again…

by Jessica Mulligan
July 9, 2002

Wizards of the Coast launched the virtual version of their collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering Online a couple-three weeks ago, at the end of June 2002, and, as any old hand in this industry could have predicted, they’ve already had their first instance of massive card trading fraud.

Apparently, a player using the in-game handle of God Gundam was trading booster cards and a lot of them; various player reports quote 1,100 to 5,000 in his trading window and one made an estimate that the player in question had over $15,000 worth of trading cards in his account. One poster on the official Magic Forums said he talked to WOTC customer service and was told a player was using stolen credit card numbers to purchase boosters and then trade them. Others have posted they first received the same story and then were later told there was not yet an official explanation. And another poster on July 7 postulated that it was a loophole in ordering cards online with a coupon number that resulted in a zero charge, which he reported via email a half-hour before the lock-down began to occur.

The end result is that any player that performed a trade with God Gundam or, apparently, received a card in a trade with some other player who had done so, had his/her account locked on Wednesday, July 3, late in the day. I say apparently because there was little official information coming from WOTC; the players made the inference by comparing notes and posting their deductions in public. We’ll come back to that point.

All this happened just before a four-day holiday here, upon which US players immediately pounced with rumors that deactivated accounts wouldn’t be reopened until after the weekend. With no official explanation forthcoming in a timely manner, nor any timely response to the message board posts from upset players, the rumor mill was left to crank out whatever it wished on this matter. There was also much speculation about the time and money spent on buying and trading cards and whether the innocent victims of the fraud would be SOL for that cost when and if their accounts were reactivated.

Eventually, WOTC did post an in-game message that some accounts had been deactivated and an investigation was in process. About 20 hours after they began locking down accounts, they started sending out form letters to the affected players and unlocking some of the accounts. Around 24 hours after the start, an official from WOTC posted a generic message on the forums in a thread separate from the complaints. The company apparently began unlocking more accounts, although some message board posters were complaining on Saturday, July 6th, that they were still locked out of the game. Deactivated players also started receiving private emails with undefined promises of some form of compensation for the hassle.

So, the good news is that WOTC can track each virtual Magic trade, either each individual card and/or the fact that a trade happened between two players and, in case of fraud or l33t hAxx0r activity, can and will lock down the affected accounts. This is something that Magic Online players should have reason to cheer about; there is a means of remedy and the will at WOTC to use it. The bad news is that WOTC’s customer service and community relations team dropped the ball in a big way, so instead of cheering about the action, players are already complaining about poor customer service and speculating about whether the game and their investment in it is secure.

As an example, note this post clipping from one player (clipping unedited, so expect some misspellings):

I am trully disapointed at the total lack of CUSTOMER SERVICE - there was alot of talk about this kinda stuff during the beta testing, and wizards assured everyone that they had it under control... EM YEH RIGHT !!!

The thing that is most frustrating, is that no one that was affected even recieved an email, just to explain what was happening. That is just bad buisness sense period. Now they have anger customers not to mention to extra strain it puts on their own customer service department, anserwing calls about the whole situation...

I really need to rethink if this is going to be worth it, worried that if I trade with someone, my account can be suspended, or I have the potential to lose what I have paid for...

There are kernels of truth here. The frustration of the players, the extra cost of phone calls to support versus cheap emails, the implication of bad business sense that it projects… these concepts are not cloistered, unknown Mysteries to the players (although spelling checkers do seem to be). If you read some of the other message board categories associated with Magic Online, you’ll find a few similar messages, plus unrelated postings dating back several days in several threads wondering where the moderators are, why they don’t post, etc.. All this points to something we’ve discussed before, but which continues to be a problem in this industry: If you don’t manage the expectations of the players, the players will have unreasonable expectations.

With six years of recent examples of similar customer service and community relations faux pas made by other publishers in their first forays into the world of subscription-based online games, you’d think rookie online game companies would learn the proper lessons and be ready to deal with them. What is astounding to me is not that some player committed credit card or other kind of fraud or exploited a bug in the game or billing software; that such would happen is a given, especially in a game that requires so much real-world money be spent to effectively compete at the upper levels. That kind of temptation is just too much for some people, whose need to be acknowledged as a Grand Poobah is far more important than the self-respect needed to, you know, earn it or something bizarre like that. It is just a matter of time before every online game is graced by such a person.

No, what is truly amazing is that yet another publisher learned nothing from the community relations mistakes of others and thought it was OK to pretty much ignore the community while in the midst of delivering the Extreme Sanction, to enough accounts to generate what had to be easily foreseen controversy and player anger. Look, when you’re in the middle of locking out a number of accounts, you don’t hold official word for nearly 24 hours after you do it. Sure, you probably want to get them all locked down before you issue a prepared statement; for all WOTC knew, this was an exploit being used by multiple offenders. Why give warning to one or more possible bad guys by announcing early, before you have a chance to identify and scotch them?

But the time to issue that prepared statement was directly after the accounts were locked; we’re talking minutes, not hours. This is the age of the Internet; did no one stop to consider that someone would post about it lickety-split? Once that first post was up, did no one realize that some response had to be made before speculation became the order of the day and the company began to look, well, bush league? If that public statement had been published early Wednesday evening instead of waiting until Thursday afternoon, followed in the same time period by emails directly to those affected, much of the angst, barely-controlled anger and rampant speculation exhibited by public postings could have been averted – not to mention the PR hit taken by the company among paying customers and anyone else who reads those posts.

My intent here is not to dish all over WOTC; I’ve been in their shoes and they haven’t made any mistake here that I and others haven’t made. This is just the latest example of a game company not correctly managing player expectations and it doesn’t seem to matter how much those prior mistakes are bandied about or how much the concept is discussed online or at conferences; it keeps happening. One has to wonder: Why?

Part of it I chalk up to the fact that, until you get bit in the butt, it is a hard concept to understand at the gut level. You may understand it intellectually somewhat and truly think you’re prepared to meet the challenge. Then something like this happens, players are climbing all over you wanting to know what is going on and you begin to understand through the panic that you didn’t really have the concept down at all.

Another part of it is the sheer arrogance that is such a part of the electronic games industry, which is still developer-oriented. If all you have to worry about is developing a product, there is nothing wrong with that; it makes a certain amount of sense in making your good developers feel like modern day wizards and feeding the arrogance. When you have to worry about the service aspect, too, things change, but that is rarely fully understood or taken into account in a proper manner. In a developer-oriented culture, there is little respect for customer service and player relations, because all the kudos, and most of the rewards, go to the developers. After all, how hard can customer service and community/player relations be, really? The tough part is developing the game, right? After that, it is downhill all the way, no?

Well, no, actually. Developing a subscription-based game may not be as easy as falling off a log, but it is only the start; 90% of the work comes after the game launches and quite a bit of that work is pure community relations. Developer-driven companies only truly understand this after being bashed in the face with it a few times. Sometimes, even that doesn’t help; the arrogance of a developer-driven culture can create a sense of outrage against the paying customers, a sort of “How dare they complain after I created this magnificent game for them?” attitude. At that point, the customer base is dismissed as being ungrateful wretches and the downward spiral towards outright war between developer and player begins. This is especially likely to happen when the developers themselves are given (or insist on) the responsibility of direct contact with customers, instead of dedicated customer service/community relations folks.

Either way, ignoring the community in the middle of an incident is a sure-fire way to throw fuel on the fire, as WOTC is now discovering. I’ve seen this so many times over the years that it is becoming old hat. It can be fixed, but it takes time and, all the while, the company is losing good will among the subscriber base and, probably, leaving money on the table as players go elsewhere to play and fail to spread the good word of mouth so necessary to the success of a for-pay online game. The salubrious effects of effective communication with customers is so well understood in other industries, it is hard to understand why otherwise savvy business people ignore it when it comes time to start charging for an online game.

So let’s go over the lessons yet one more time, in the hopes that the online game rookies planning on launching games in the next few months, of which there are many, are listening:

  1. With online games, 90% of the work begins after the game is launched;
  2. If you don’t manage the expectations of the players, they will have unreasonable expectations;
  3. Managing those expectations is hinged on timely, accurate and honest communication.

That’s just the start, of course; there is much more to it that only experience can reveal. Even that much, however, will save a company a whole passel of headaches.

Not that I expect to see much change in the situation. There’s a reason they are called ‘rookie mistakes,’ after all.

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