For a new job I am starting, I recently had to watch three and a half hours of workplace training videos from the late 80's/early 90's on every topic from how to greet a customer to how to handle dangerous chemicals. This three and a half hours included the time I spent fast forwarding through bits when the HR manager left the room. Judging by my interactions with her in the past, I don't think she'd blame me in the slightest.
Regardless, one of the videos caught my attention. It was a corny one about a guy in a diner, saying he loved the diner because they treated him like a guest in their home rather than just a person they took money from. Given CCP's recent apology letter to their own playerbase, it got me thinking: do game companies treat their players as guests or as customers?
It's important to draw a distinction here for MMO companies: Most game companies only have to get you in the door to buy the game and then their job is done. Patching is sometimes done through Xbox Live or PSN but typically once they have your money they don't need to worry about the experience too much. This is the main reason we have shitty movie tie-in games: The companies know they will make a profit even if the game is garbage. MMO's, however, need to be able to retain players in order to make profit. And here's where the distinction in my title comes in: Customer or Guest?
Customer service, of course, is a big part of this distinction. After all, if late 80's training videos are to be believed, companies distinguish themselves the most in how they handle a problem rather than when everything is going good. So let's take a look at CCP's apology letter, shall we?
Everything before the section entitled "Incarna" is pretty much a flat out admission of what everyone knew who was keeping up with the fiasco. Taking personal blame onto himself is a bold (possibly arrogant in some lights) move, but not at all uncalled for given the playerbase's reaction. Some of us have already lost faith in the CSM and their effect on EVE, which makes the past few months seem like CCP could do nothing but wrong. I'm aware he addresses this concern at the end of the letter, but the apology is a lot of "I'm sorry" and not enough of "We're going to fix this."
Which is why I raised a brow at the second half, the section Incarna to the end. He doesn't actually give a new direction, or really reassure players that things are going to be going the way they want. This in particular popped out at me;
"Visual self-expression in a virtual setting is a core psychological component of gaming; most people need to see their avatars, or something vaguely humanoid, or else they don’t connect with the game. We were behind the curve and it needs to be addressed for the sake of EVE’s longevity."
Regardless of the response they got from Incarna, Hilmar here isn't apologizing for pushing the game in a direction that players were unhappy with. He's apologizing for not doing it right. Not a single person I have ever read or spoken to about EVE has said anything about wanting more personal customization, or a better avatar. Sure, they were cool, but then they launched into epic stories about pirates and corporations backstabbing each other and making millions on the market. EVE has never really been about what you see. It's been about what you do.
If I was an EVE customer right now, I'd feel like that apology pretty much set me on rails. Sure, I may be a passenger on the train and want to go somewhere, but the conductor is doing his best to convince me that where he was going is way better than my destination. If I had to answer the question in the title, I'd say I was being treated like a customer. The company needs me to spend money there to keep things going, but they don't necessarily want to do things the way I'd like them to. Nothing wrong with that, I can always find another company, but CCP doesn't seem to want to let their customers leave while they steer the ship in a different direction.
(Edit: Anjin has informed me that Hilmar's apology was paired with Zulu's announcement of features coming out this winter. This paints a far better picture for the direction the company is going, and renders my opinion in the above paragraph fairly void.)
But being treated like a guest doesn't mean they are going to do exactly what you want either. I don't go to my barber to get a great served meal, and I don't go to EVE to play dress up with an avatar. I have a favorite diner and City of Heroes to fill those shoes. Treating your playerbase as guests in your home, in your world or universe that you've created, means taking what they love and expanding on it, or giving them more of it, or improving it. World of Warcraft noticed that many people enjoyed the lore and boss fights in raid, but didn't have the time to commit to a raiding group. So in WOTLK, they made it incredibly accessible, cutting out the middle man (Heroic Dungeons) and letting players step up. Now, they are adding in an Easy mode for raids so that casual players can see raid content, and guild groups can do Normal and Heroic modes. Whether you agree with the changes or not, they are expanding on the things that they know a good portion of their playerbase will enjoy.
I think I'll stop this post here, for now. In the next segment, I want to address player's role in influencing company decisions and how it relates to the Customer/Guest idea.