How EA's 'Silent Treatment' Pushed The SimCity Story Into The Background

from the PR-takes-the-Fifth dept

The SimCity debacle that exploded all over the web in March has quietly faded into the background. EA’s claims that the game was always meant to be a quasi-MMO and that servers were handling a majority of in-game calculations have become a lot less incendiary now that servers are handling the load competently. The outrage has faded, replaced with pockets of disgruntled users, most of whom are upset with advertising-as-DLC and major updates that make the experience worse.

Why did this fade so fast? One reason is the attention span of the web (heavily generalized, and I am including myself in this “web” group). With a million other things begging for attention, the flames sputter out and the pitchforks go dull. But there’s more to this than the net’s lack of focus. EA itself helped extinguish these fires by doing nothing more than shutting down its outgoing communication. John Walker at Rock, Paper, Shotgun dives into this “non-story” created by EA’s PR team’s decision to simply drop the discussion.

When RPS first broke the story [that servers weren’t handling most of the calculations], only a few other gaming sites picked up on it. It was a big story, unquestionably, so why was it left alone by so many? That breaks down into two parts. Firstly, and most importantly, the story was based on an anonymous source. We of course know who the source is, and verified it until we were very comfortable running the story. But that wasn’t possible for other sites – they had the choice of running the story based on a “rumour” from RPS, or not at all. And that’s understandable – repeating rumours is often the gaming press at its worst, and with no means to verify our story, repeating it could have been risky. It could easily have led to legal threats being thrown all over. Which brings us to the second part – they needed some sort of confirmation, or at the very least a response, from EA to offer ‘balance’.

Not reporting the story couldn’t be immediately dismissed as capitulation, being in the pocket of EA, cowardliness, etc. (Not that it excludes it, of course.) What most sites would have done was immediately fire off an email to EA and Maxis asking for them to provide comment. We, of course, had done the same. And here’s where the power of silence played its first part.

EA and Maxis simply ignored all those emails. Sites may have received a, “We’re waiting for a response,” from their regional PRs, but that was it. And so if you’re running, and you’ve decided you can’t run RPS’s anonymously sourced story without giving EA a response, ta-da – no story on GamePow. And EA knows that.

EA’s decision to go silent makes perfect sense. Anything it had said about SimCity’s failings had been directly contradicted by players’ experiences. Anything that wasn’t instantly refuted by modders poking around in the code was couched in spectacularly clueless PR speak that gathered instant derision. At some point, EA wisely decided to cut its losses and simply freeze out the gaming press.

When RPS attempted to get a response from EA on its debunked claim that its servers were doing most the calculations, the freeze set in. On March 12th (the day the story ran), Maxis claimed a response would be arriving “shortly.” Another non-response about the pending response arrived the next day. Walker and RPS didn’t hear from anyone at Maxis for the next four days.

Then on the 16th March, Maxis’ Senior Director of Worldwide Communications, Erik Reynolds, tweeted me out of the blue.

“No response was my fault not UK PR folks or Maxis. Not a PR tactic, just had to unwind the complex issues and gather right info”

Reynolds then tried to dodge making a statement by claiming EA didn’t want to keep repeating the same information it had been handing out since last year’s Game Development Conference (where it claimed the internet connection would only be needed to boot the game, at which point players could take their games offline). Walker pointed out that EA’s story had actually changed several times since the GDC. At this point, the Maxis spokesman shut down communication, apologizing for the lack of response, but never actually bothering to respond.

EA/Maxis played it smart by simply refusing to comment on the stories. Once the (disastrous) PR efforts were shut down, all gaming sites could do was report their own observations without comment from the game’s producers. Love or hate EA (most of us tend towards the latter), it realized something many entities that have tangled with the internet (and lost) haven’t: if you don’t give writers any ammo, they’ll stop shooting.

Silence is a powerful weapon in the industry. The mad truth is, when it comes to gaming controversies, if you ignore it it will go away. This article is a fairly futile attempt to not let it, and to make sure our readers know that EA and Maxis never spoke to us, never responded to any of our questions, and never sent so much as a statement.

The corollary to the Streisand Effect is “the only way to win is not to play.” Many entities fail to realize this. EA figured it out. All it had to do is sit back and let the internet entertain itself by pouncing on month’s old statements and regurgitating the most recent missteps by the PR team. Many of those in the gaming journalism field still strive for accuracy and balance, but in doing so, they play right into the hands of recalcitrant developers and PR teams.

Silence is by far the most effective means of spreading silence. With a press so frequently under the spell of the belief that one must offer ‘balance’ to report anything, stories will simply go unreported if one side refuses to comment.

This is why some sites have devolved into little more than dumping grounds for press releases. This is all some companies are willing to throw the public’s way, a strategy that buries controversy and ensures a “united front” of “journalism” that skews in a favorable direction. Walker says he has written this article to point out how EA froze the press out and got away with it, turning an antagonistic situation into nothing more than internet background noise. It sold over a million copies of an intentionally broken game and is now using its lack of interaction to pave over the ugliness in its recent past. Allowing a company to gloss over its failures with a finger over its lips is unacceptable. Here’s Walker’s advice to game journalists who are used to seeking comments before going to press.

[Seeking comment] effectively boils down to asking for permission to run a negative story about a company. Journalists need to pull their heads out of their arses and start having the integrity to run stories they know to be valid, and then asking the corporation for comment.

This doesn’t mean publishing every wild rumour and running irresponsible articles based on little more than hearsay. What this does mean is that journalists should be confident enough in their own efforts (and research) to run unfavorable pieces without feeling a confirmation from the subject’s PR team is needed before the post can be considered valid.

This is just as true with the non-gaming side of journalism. If the subject has refused to comment, state as much and move on. Silence is an effective weapon but it can be turned against those who wield it in hopes of muting criticism.

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Companies: ea, maxis

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Comments on “How EA's 'Silent Treatment' Pushed The SimCity Story Into The Background”

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Ninja (profile) says:

It’s a quite clever strategy indeed. But it will not be the last time we’ll see EA screwing up their customers. There’s only so much damage a brand can take before it starts hurting. While they may no9t bleed to death they’ll feel the pain (I’m sure SquareEnix could tell us a thing or two about it). And of course all past screw ups will always be remembered when they do it wrong again. The question to be asked is: how much of a negative load can they hold till they’ll be forced to either rethink their strategies or go belly up and die?

This article also highlights a very important issue. If anything, the news outifts should be condemning EA’s lack of response and action and pounding really hard at them. But we saw that happen when Blizzard screwed up with Diablo III.

As for me, I didn’t buy DIII, I earned it. And from the looks of it there may be an expansion on the moves that may re-introduce the necromancer. I’m not buying it. I wonder how much it takes before the internet gaming zombies wake up and start doing the same? Personally, going without the content stopped affecting me. Is it a trend? Should those companies be worried? I don’t know, I’ll pass that along to my kids for sure so maybe in the future the answer will be a loud yes.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re:

As for me, I didn’t buy DIII

I was a very big fan of everything Blizzard until Vivindi-Universal bought them. Warcraft III and BNETD destroyed them in my eyes, and I discontinued purchasing anything from Blizzard. No Diablo III, no World of Warcraft (and that was probably the best decision ever, given my history with EvE.) Someone came along with a perfect tool for those who wanted to play Blizzard games with their friends, and the company trounced on them because they bypassed DRM (for the record, everyone who played on the BNETD server with me bought their copies when they were released, and some of us multiple times.) I’ve never even had an urge to pick up DIII off the discount bin.

EA has completely destroyed the Command & Conquer series with DRM. I bought C&C Patriots, which wouldn’t install because I had the wrong CDROM drive. The only way I could play it was to download the nocd crack and break the game I legally purchased. Then came C&C3, which I bought, and had the same problems with. The game would play for a while, then I’d get to one level where everything would blow up before the game started. Found out that was a DRM feature, but unlike Patriots, they wanted you to get into the game before it would happen, so you’d go out and buy the game. I had already bought the game, so I downloaded the nocd crack, and voila, game worked fine.

At some point, EA lost me in their DRM battle. I now buy all my games from GoG (and sometimes steam, when I know that it is only Steam DRM I am purchasing.)

What will be interesting is when all this is said and done, how many people did what I did with DIII? How many people would have bought SimCity 5, but chose not to because of EA? I was interested in SimCity 5, as I have 1-4, but the moment I heard DRM and always-on, I wanted nothing to do with it. How many “lost sales” did they lose by being douches?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

What did WC3 do wrong? The game wasn’t loaded with DRM, you could play offline, you could play via LAN, it had great online support, was well-balanced, it was the best RTS I had ever played (and probably still is).

I agree, though, about everything since. I tried WoW on a friend’s free trial, was done with that before my one free month was done. Tried SC2 on another friend’s free trial. Was done with that within a week. Purchased D3, but don’t really regret it. I actually played a few hundred hours before getting really bored and stopping. Am I happy with it as a Diablo game? No. Do I feel like I got enough entertainment out of it to justify the price? Sure.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

What did WC3 do wrong? The game wasn’t loaded with DRM, you could play offline, you could play via LAN, it had great online support, was well-balanced, it was the best RTS I had ever played (and probably still is).

There isn’t anything wrong with it. I still play it, though it does have DRM in the form of a CD key. BNETD was a server platform, coded by volunteers reverse engineering the BattleNet communications protocols that allowed anyone to set up a BattleNet like server to play Blizzard games. The user had to type a CD key on installing the game, but the game would play fine if the user didn’t type in the key associated with their game (thus there were a lot of Serialz for the game.) Battlenet verified the CD key and allowed the user to play online. Since BNETD didn’t have this functionality, people who didn’t have a valid CD key were allowed to play on BNETD without issue.

In February 2002, Blizzard filed a DMCA request to take down BNETD because it violated Blizzard’s sacred copyrights. They later sued BNETD, which BNETD lost. Nevermind it had perfectly legal uses, Blizzard shut down BNETD because it was in direct competition with their service and because it couldn’t include the CD checking capabilities of their system. PVPGN replaces BNETD, and apparently Blizzard/Vivindi-Universal hasn’t gone after PVPGN yet (probably because it supports their older games which they have already moved on from.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

WC3 and SC2 got many things right when it came to competetive play imo. As I’m making this comment 35k people are watching the first games live on Dreamhack open Stockholm. The prize pool is ~20k euro and if previous dreamhacks is anything to go by then there easily be 6 digits viewers tomorrow. ๐Ÿ˜‰

(Also WCS got a 1.6 mil dollars price pool :x)

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Agreed. I just play D3 because I earned it. When it was unveiled that it would be online only I decided not to buy it. Then they had that promotion where you’d subscribe to World of Warcraft for 1 year and get a free license of D3. I was having a lot of fun at the time and I got the subscription. Fact is I didn’t regret it for most of the period. In the last 2 months after a while playing Pandaria I got completely fed up of those fucking annoying dailies. I don’t have the time to play a game that makes me play the same content daily. I have 1, 2 hours per day to play at most. During Cataclysm I could play with a lot of characters and even go through old content because the game allowed casual play. Now I can’t. And thus I’m not paying anymore.

D3 is incredibly fun and they did fix the insanity that was Inferno difficulty (which was only a problem because of the lag spikes and other issues that come with the always on requirement). But I’m not spending a cent in any other expansion. As a matter of fact I’m not buying WOW expansion. I’m very interested in the outcome of this expansion, story-wise. I’d love to see Hellscream getting his sore arse kicked but I’m simply not being able to unlock the latest raid because of the daily quest restrictions (I must do them for reputation). Ruined the fun. In this specific case I don’t mind since they can’t please all and maybe their audience is mainly composed of 14-yr-olds indeed but when it sums up with the always on drm from D3 it gets very annoying.

Arsik Vek (profile) says:

There comes a point, in any argument that runs long enough, where the best thing you can do is shut up. That it’s the best thing doesn’t mean shutting up is a good thing, though. A company interested in maintaining a good relationship with its customer base (EA has demonstrated that it is not one of these) should not let things get to the point where fans look at anything coming out of the company is either a lie, wrong, or meaningless pacifying.

out_of_the_blue says:

And you're TRYING to fan the fanboy flames again!

“quietly faded into the background.” — Because it’s not much of a story for adults. Yes, you 14 year olds think it’s vital, but most have gone on to the fun of playing.

Here at Techdirt this minor item got big play because the major audience is male gamers 18-24. But guess what? Just as I predicted, despites this “debacle”, EA goes on pretty nearly unaffected.

PS: missing comma, should be “tweeted me, out of the blue.” I’z famous, ya know.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: And you're TRYING to fan the fanboy flames again!

Yes, you 14 year olds think it’s vital, but most have gone on to the fun of playing.

I’m nearly 3 times that age, Blue, and yet I am still interested in it.

PS: missing comma, should be “tweeted me, out of the blue.” I’z famous, ya know.

Nope. You can put a comma in there, but it isn’t necessary. Commas show “breaths” in written language and are rarely necessary. They certainly aren’t necessary at the end of a sentence, because the reader will take a breath at the period anyway. As someone who likes commas, I wouldn’t have even used one there.

Not everything is about you blue. Actually, nothing is about you. Get some help, your delusions of grandeur are showing.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 And you're TRYING to fan the fanboy flames again!

One two three and four.

I said rarely necessary.

But riddle me this, Batman; which of the following is the most correct use of commas and why?

1. One, Two, Three and Four
2. One, Two, Three, and Four
3. One, Two, Three, and, Four

I suspect if you asked three different grammer nazis, you’d get three different answers.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 And you're TRYING to fan the fanboy flames again!

I would prefer 2.

Me too, but I’ve been yelled at before for doing 2, because 1 is faster?!? I seem to remember a teacher once telling me (back when I cared,) about how 1 was chosen as correct by MLA, only to have a judge in a court case come along and say that 2 was more correct because 1 added ambiguity to the sentence, as in two could be another name for one, etc..

I like 2, because, I love commas. See, Blue, this is how you properly derail a topic!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: And you're TRYING to fan the fanboy flames again!

You’d be surprised. Gamers with the most spending power aren’t kids, or grown-up kids. They’re middle-aged ladies with lots more disposable income than college students, and the game industry – especially the mobile gaming sector – is shifting their focus towards this, with iffy success.

Assuming that every gamer is a basement-dwelling male is horribly short-sighted and ignorant.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: And you're TRYING to fan the fanboy flames again!

“but most have gone on to the fun of playing. “

I’ll ignore the idiotic attempt at an insult (why are you even commenting on videogame stories if they’re just for 14 year olds in your tiny mind?), but yes I have gone on to play games. Games by companies other than EA. Games that are NOT Sim City. As a direct result of its treatment of its customers.

it’s a shame your stupidity doesn’t allow you to grasp the basic comments being made like this. Now go on, and hope you don’t lost your internet connection and witness first hand what people were complaining about, while you overpay for pointless DLC.

“Here at Techdirt this minor item got big play because the major audience is male gamers 18-24. “

So how does that fit your first idiotic point (and it’s wrong by the way – facts would tell you this if you wanted to read them)? Is everyone here 18-24 or 14? Make up your mind, then you won’t be so hilariously dumb.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: And you're TRYING to fan the fanboy flames again!

Actually I propose a census. TD staff could run an article for that. Techdirt demographics!

Put up a census for TD users with a few targeted questions:

– Gender
– Age
– Country
– Work area (engineering, software dev etc)
– Preferred entertainment type (gaming, movies, music, books, theaters etc)
– Copyright stance regarding how it is today (pro, neutral, against)

That would provide interesting results I’d guess. I think our demographic is quite diversified.

And for starters I’m out of the 14-24 range, I’m 28 ๐Ÿ˜‰

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: And you're TRYING to fan the fanboy flames again!

EA goes on unaffected because the jackasses leading the company don’t care. EA is renowned for being a horribly toxic environment to work in. Consistency is only considered a good thing when you’re not a screw-up like EA – oh, wait, you ARE a screw-up like EA.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: And you're TRYING to fan the fanboy flames again!

Here at Techdirt this minor item got big play because the major audience is male gamers 18-24.

I have pointed out multiple times that that isn’t the demographics of Techdirt. Here is the most recent occasion:

But hey, whatever, Blue. Keep on misrepresenting facts and spewing ad homs all day and then sit there wonder why all your comments get down-voted. No skin off my back.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: And you're TRYING to fan the fanboy flames again!

Even if that were the demographic of Techdirt, he’s lying about it being the main demographic for gaming ( First person shooters, maybe, but even that’s arguable and it’s nowhere near the whole of gaming (and also, nothing to do with SimCity).

At least 2 lies for the price of one, just what we expect from this guy…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Third party fixes have been invaluable to playing Sims games from the beginning. From stomping pedantic behaviors (busking in your own living room – die!) to major game cripplers (clearing junk files in Sims2, story progression issues in Sims3), third parties have always come out with fixes first, if EA bothered at all. EA owes 3rd partiers quite a bit for keeping people playing their games, certainly more than they’d ever credit.

But the radio silence tactic isn’t new for EA. When Securom went off like a stink bomb in a Sims2 expansion, it was the same trajectory: deny, deny, blame, deflect, backtrack (when presented with evidence), declare necessity, offer lame solution that satisfies no one, dust hands and turn off the phones.

That was 2007/8. Repeated for Mass Effect, Spore, etc.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

This is also an indictment against journalists who feel they have to tell both sides to the story. They don’t.

If there’s a story it should be reported, regardless of whether someone involved decides not to respond.

Can you imagine if the New York Times had decided to wait until the government responded to the Pentagon Papers? Or if Upton Sinclair had waited to get the side of the American meat packing industry before releasing the Jungle?

Jay (profile) says:

Re: Journalism in general

The journalism of today is atrocious since most of the reporters are used to being spoonfed stories from the rich and powerful.

For example, in terms of what a politician says, they want access. But when someone wants to give them a scoop, whether it’s Ellseberg to McGovern during the Watergate scandal or Manning to the NYT now, they don’t know what to do with it.

It says a lot when the best thing for people in power is just to maintain silence and it all blows over.

James Crowley (structuregeek) (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

That would be The Diecast, a spin-off podcast from Shamus Young and the rest of the Spoiler Warning cast. (Shamus is also a columnist for the Escapist.)

This is actually a great example of what Walker was talking about, as the one episode of The Diecast so far that didn’t feature “terrible SimCity news of the week” had one of the hosts actually Googling for news in mock disbelief that there wasn’t any. The only new story he spotted at a quick glance was EA’s announcement of the SimCity launch for Apple computers. Which is precisely Walker’s point: the strategy of silence made it easier for EA to control PR and lure in more customers for a fundamentally broken game.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Some of us wish...

There’s actually been two to try just that from what I’ve seen.

First you’ve got OOTB’s sad attempts to cover up any action by Prenda, by going into just about every article about them and posting about how it doesn’t matter and how doing stories about them is pointless and blah blah blah. Basically the ‘there’s nothing to see behind the curtain, so stop looking’ argument, with about the same effectiveness.

Then, and I’m not sure if it’s AJ or someone else, you’ve got another person who seems to still think that Prenda is the ‘valiant defender of copyright’ that they pretend to be, and completely ignores all that ‘fraud, identity theft, various other criminal actions’ that they’ve done, and posts accordingly, accusing people of hating Prenda due to them ‘defending their copyrights’, and ignoring the countless other reason people hate them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Some of us wish...

“Covering up” isn’t so much “apologism”; it’s more like trying to wipe the egg off your face when you realise how much shit you’re already in.

As for the second, I haven’t seen anything like that. The only thing I’ve seen from that AC that doesn’t seem to be average_jackass is someone who claims to be gloating over Prenda’s downfall because “against the law”. I’m anticipating something like Brigham and Colette Feld’s posts on DieTrollDie and FightCopyrightTrolls, or John Steele being foolish enough to post from his VPN.

Something along the lines of “If you are against Prenda and its activities, then you are against everything good, righteous and sacred. You are against everything America stands for”. Failing that, a convincing parody would also do, to be heralded as the shining example of everything copyright gone wrong.

TheNutman69321 (profile) says:

As a guy who read about a dozen gaming sites (RPS is not one of them) on a daily basis I have a huge problem with a couple of supposed facts about this story. It seems like RPS is just trying to say “hey look at us we’re so awesome and everyone else sucks” just to promote themselves.
“When RPS first broke the story [that servers weren’t handling most of the calculations], only a few other gaming sites picked up on it.”
Pretty much every gaming site picked it up and reported on it over and over again. They all also had stories specifically linking to the video that proved Sim City could easily be run offline as well. I also don’t agree at all that the story has been pushed into the background. At least once a week I see another story about the Sim City debacle especially after the new update which apparently just made things worse.

TheNutman69321 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Response to: TheNutman69321 on Apr 26th, 2013 @ 10:10am

I’m the idiot? Where in my comment did I say RPS didn’t break the story? Maybe you should go take a grade school reading comprehension course before hurling insults.

The entire points of the article is them saying that no one else was willing to report on it which is completely inaccurate,every site around picked up the story as well and many have continued to report on it over and over again.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

No need to report that to him until we have something to report

Part of this is that there were no further developments. EA couldn’t defend themselves, and they said they fucked up to the extent that EA was willing to admit such a thing (which was minimal). The story died because nothing new happened.

But payback isn’t a conflagration, it’s a dormant recurring virus. Who in the class is going to buy Sim City 6? Or any EA titles for the foreseeable future? How many pre-ordering consumers have been shown the error of their ways? How many day-one purchasers are going to wait until after those vital first two weeks of release to make sure the next game isn’t borked?

Now plenty of shoppers are blithely unconcerned because for them $60 is a drop in the hat, and getting a new release is an impulse buy. But enough of us need to be more conscientious and that is killing the EA sales records, and most EA games have to be release-week blockbusters in order to break even.

Myself, I already swore off EA games since Origin became mandatory, since it is (and remains) malware. (I resented Steam when it came out for being buggy, but it’s since become quite good. And Valve continues to develop it to make it better, so Steam earned my support.)

John85851 (profile) says:

Just say "no comment"

Why can’t reporters just say “We contacted [the company] for their response, but we got no comment”? That way, the story is reported and the company looks bad for not replying to criticism.

But I think the larger problem may be that these companies buy big ads in the magazines and gaming sites. Would EA or Blizzard pull their advertising (and money) if some bad stories were written about it? Or do some journalists use this as an excuse to let the story go? How many journalists have the integrity to stand up to a big advertiser (and possibly their editor or boss) and run a negative story? How many of them think it’s easier to move onto the latest gaming news instead?

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