Square Enix inadvertently caused controversy by failing to communicate early.
Call it the tweet heard ‘round Eorzea.
In the time it took for Final Fantasy XIV producer Hiromichi Tanaka to call out the “foreign media” on Twitter, we instantly realized that Square Enix still hasn’t mastered the art of communicating with customers outside of Japan.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Square Enix’s biggest problem is a failure to control its message – more on that in a bit.
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The catalyst for Tanaka’s tweet was confusion over the surplus and fatigue system in Final Fantasy XIV. Soon-to-be players are desperate for answers about this new system, and why shouldn’t they be? A system that restricts experience points in any way, shape or form seems to go against the very core of the Final Fantasy franchise.
It’s safe to assume this system has a purpose. It’s also safe to assume (probably) that Square Enix wouldn’t implement such a potentially unattractive feature if they felt it would drive away scores of potential subscribers.
Which means, when all is said and done, that we probably don’t need to worry about this. In fact, an explanation of this system from Final Fantasy XIV director Nobuaki Komoto posted on the North American beta site confirms this system isn't as rigid as players originally feared.
Unfortunately, the playerbase was left to grasp at straws because Square Enix wasn’t proactive enough to answer our questions ahead of time.
Seems like only yesterday I was writing a lengthy editorial criticizing the Final Fantasy XI development team for ninja-nerfing a job and then ignoring the cries of the playerbase. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In the wake of that editorial, Square Enix’s community representatives posted an apology on our forums and vowed to be more vocal on community sites.
To a certain extent, Square Enix kept its word. The company’s North American community representatives did make themselves available for interviews on specific topics. They also worked with premier sites to promote special community events and contests.
However, Square Enix clearly didn’t go far enough.
While we (the Western media) spent the first portion of the FFXIV beta bound and gagged by the Non-Disclosure Agreement, the Japanese media enjoyed a wealth of interviews and information straight from the development team. This is not a new trend. Much of the breaking news from Final Fantasy XI also originated from the Japanese media. Even with this surplus and fatigue issue, Square Enix was much faster to post an explanation of the system for Japanese readers, leaving the Western media to rely on second-hand translations in an attempt to corral the news.
Players who live outside of Japan want more from Square Enix than the occasional opportunity to talk about recently released content patches. We want to connect with the men and women behind the game. We want the ability to pass our questions along to the development team, knowing that in time those questions will be answered. We want to hear about changes to the game before they happen; otherwise, how do we know our input matters?
Most of all, those of us in North America and Europe don’t want to be referred to as foreigners. We want to be called customers.
That said, I’m going to make another assumption that Square Enix values us as customers. The company just has a strange way of showing it sometimes. I also believe the development team wants to be more connected with us. Why wouldn't they?
Which brings me back to my earlier statement – the rift between Square Enix and its Western customers exists because the company fails to control its message.
The concept of a company controlling its message in the media is simple. By proactively providing journalists with interviews, information and story ideas, companies can set the tone for how they are portrayed publicly. Of course, journalists in the Western media are not content with being spoon-fed story after story. Which is why in addition to providing a constant stream of story fodder, media-savvy companies also make themselves available to answer questions from reporters on a regular basis.
Journalists (and online forum administrators) are busy people. We’re under tremendous pressure to generate content on a daily basis. Companies that proactively work with the media often successfully control their messages and build closer relationships with their customers.
On the other hand, companies that shun media contact often find themselves on the wrong side of the public relations discussion. While writing for a newspaper a few years ago, I wrote a holiday fluff piece about a Starbucks Coffee where hundreds of customers had bought java for the people in line behind them. A couple days later, I called the same store to write a small, equally positive follow-up story. My call was immediately transferred to the company’s corporate office, where media flaks refused to let me speak with anyone at the store I was writing about. Not only did Starbucks kill its own positive story, but the company inadvertently reinforced its image as a faceless coffee behemoth amid a sea of smaller, neighborhood coffee houses.
Square Enix faces the same kind of problem. The company has a reputation for having poor customer service and a strong preference for its Japanese customers. Even if Square Enix does place a higher value on its local customers (which wouldn’t be wrong or surprising, given the large number of Japanese subscribers for Final Fantasy XI), the company should do everything in its power to portray itself as not playing favorites.
Also, by failing to proactively engage its customers around the world, the company has encouraged its customers to seek answers to their questions elsewhere – even if that means running with rumors from random Internet message boards.
The leadership at Square Enix is on the right path. Nobuaki Komoto's explanation of the surplus system on the North American beta site -- which includes an apology for the delay in information -- seemed to arrive much faster than would have been the case a few years ago.
Yet there's still plenty of room for improvement. Translators could facilitate periodic Web chats between the development team and premier site administrators. Questions could be e-mailed, translated and e-mailed back with a relatively quick turnaround. Square Enix could also allow its North American community representatives to answer media inquiries.
The bottom line is this: Square Enix must get better at controlling its message, or risk alienating its share of the MMO market.
Imagine if the development team had issued a full explanation of the surplus and fatigue system before implementing it into the beta. There would have been no shock or confusion when testers noticed their experience per kill dwindling. None of the premier sites or gaming magazines – either Japanese or American – would have used information that wasn’t confirmed to be true.
No confusion, no rumors, no angry tweet from Tanaka -- and no backlash from the community.
Square Enix can let this keep happening for another eight years, or the company can enjoy a more quality, connected relationship with its customers around the world.
I know which option I'd choose.