Learning from EA's botched SimCity launch - 10 tips to avoid alienating your customers

By Jon Bains

March 15, 2013 | 6 min read

There are many well-documented reasons why apparently solid businesses find themselves disrupted in the modern age. How you handle it is a crucial test of character in the eyes of the customer.

All is not well in SimCity

Alas, for some inexplicable reason, businesses have a tendency to abuse their online customers in ways that they would never imagine elsewhere.

What's the story?

Games giant EA has faced a public outcry over problems with the launch of one of its most anticipated new titles. Forget Tornados, Alien Attacks and Godzilla - it was a DRM-inspired server overload that destroyed SimCity.

If you hadn't heard, the first new iteration of SimCity in over a decade was launched in early March. Customer expectation was stratospheric, and for EA it would finally allow them to compete in the social gaming space with the ailing giant Zynga. As a result, unlike every previous incarnation of the best selling 'how to kill time on a train/plane' game, this version requires you to be permanently online to play. Saved games are 100 per cent in the cloud and by design (i.e. a feature) you have a substantially smaller playing area but can grab resources from neighbouring cities. On paper it's pretty cool - why build a power plant if you can just buy energy from next door! FarmVille basically.

Prior to launch it was getting pretty good reviews, however on the day EA massively underestimated the server capacity required for what was a predictably popular event.

They are currently approaching 2000 one-star reviews on Amazon.

In order to keep things up and running they actually had to turn off some of the key social features, rendering much of the necessity to be online totally redundant.

When irate customers tried to get a refund on their digital purchase they were refused, and in one instance of poor customer service, the whole thing went viral. In total contrast, if you bought it on disc you were fine!

EA made a strategic decision to make what is ostensibly a single player game online-only (Activison/Blizzard did the same with Diablo 3). They did this to prevent piracy and presumably to compete in the social gaming space, where they had little traction but there is a huge audience. In doing so they destroyed the user experience.

But what does this have to do with me?

Your current customers are a remarkably informed and militant bunch these days. They recognise manure even if you call it salad.

Typically, tech start-ups understand the online dynamic (if they don’t they tend to just disappear) - however it's still a very common occurrence in legacy businesses.

So, how do you know if your grand scheme to increase average revenue per user (ARPU) is going to backfire?

1. Your focus is purely on short-term gain. Recently a major mobile player said 'people don't need unlimited data as only 25 per cent hit their cap' - ignoring the ridiculous coverage charges and royally pissing everyone off

2. You spend 5 minutes on the strategy and 5 months on risk analysis. If it’s that contentious it's probably a bad idea

3. In terms of customers you calculate 'Acceptable Losses' or use the phrase 'Get Away With'

4. The behaviour you are trying to encourage is counter intuitive and obviously inward focused

5. Anything that involves taking legal action against engaged customers

6. You decide to charge for something that was previously free, but add no additional value

7. On the same note, you assume that because something was popular when it was free, it will maintain its user base when made premium

8. You penalise one class of customer because they aren't the core target audience (This also happened to Microsoft recently when they arbitrarily decided to up the price on the home edition of Mac Microsoft office)

9. Your strategies involve closing you off from the rest of the world because you deem yourself more important than your customers (The entire publishing industry it seems)

10. You didn't ask your customers what they wanted

Take a wild guess on how many SimCity players would forgo an offline single player experience to have a very limited multi-player game?

Well over 70,000 didn’t wait to be asked and (signed a petition against this very thing.

Uncommon Sense

Obviously the commercial realities are more complex than outlined here and sometimes you just don’t have a choice. However we all know it is far easier to retain customers than to recruit new ones, and there is nothing less sexy than sweaty desperation. They are the proverbial bird in the hand, dog with the bone, the bee's knees and your arbiter of Kwan. They already give you money! Regardless of how ridiculously engrained in their psyche (e.g. Apple maps, Facebook 'frictionless' sharing and the current Google Reader debacle), trust can be lost, and sentiment quickly turns and becomes extremely public. And your biggest asset becomes your worst nightmare.

If any of this sounds familiar we’d love to hear from you. What challenges has your business faced which involved conversations like those outlined? What is missing from the list?

If your answer to the question ‘How much do you know about how digital can help your business?’ is “Not enough”, our workshops are for you. They provide business leaders, senior marketers and strategists with a jargon-free exploration of the impact that digital is having on both marketing and business, and tools and tricks to help you keep up. To find out more and book you place click here.


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