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Lack of clear guidelines around user-generated content, coupled with poor customer communications, is a dangerous combination, and it’s one that people across many industries can learn from.
One of NCsoft’s (SEO:036570) veteran properties, five-year-old massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) City of Heroes, recently introduced user-generated content. This was promptly followed by players hyperoptimizing UGC to maximize rewards per minute, and thousands of customers joyfully pushing buttons for exceptionally quick rewards. NCsoft let this situation continue for a month, with no communication to customers about the fact that they felt such hyperoptimized play was abusive, before issuing a patch and an announcement: players who “abused” the system could have their rewards removed, and lose access to the characters they used. (In an MMORPG, characters can represent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of play, so this is a serious threat. The real-world cash value of optimized characters is significant, too, although such sales and transfers are against the EULA.)
Revocation is an incredibly bold move, since CoH is facing the imminent release of Champions Online, a competing superhero MMORPG designed by the same team that originally created CoH. This kind of retroactive punishment of customers is highly likely to lead to subscriber cancellations; the friends-and-family, community-oriented nature of RPGs tend to create a domino effect with such exoduses. The “abuse” was widespread, possibly encompassing the majority of the playerbase; thus, it’s a major gamble to take.
What’s fascinating to me is NCsoft’s choice to stand on principle, over revenue (or alternatively, the belief that standing on principle may lead to a short-term revenue hit but better sustained long-term revenues). Few companies, especially public companies, tend to be willing to take such stands, particularly when the core of the issue is really one of poor communication to customers.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about scaling and friendly failure. The same principle that applies here: It’s not what the limits are. It’s how well you communicate them to your customers in advance of enforcing them. It applies whether you’re a gaming company, a cloud computing company, a network services provider, or an entirely non-tech company.
If you are providing an environment with user-generated content, expect that it will be abused, sometimes in subtle ways. Even in a corporate environment, there are potentials for abuse, particularly if the company gives employees goals or bonuses to work towards for completing UGC. Human nature being what it is, people optimize; in the work world, they’re careful not to optimize so much that they think they could get fired over it, but again, the boundaries are gray and hazy. Clear communication of what is and isn’t acceptable, in advance, is necessary.