Launch issues leave EA in dire need of crisis management

Many of us have fond memories of playing SimCity, building networks of roads and utilities, adding amenities and ultimately destroying it all via alien invasion. Now, fast forward ten years to last Tuesday, when the latest incarnation of the wildly popular game was launched.

“Always online” leads to trouble

As part of the “always connected” model being picked up by many game manufacturers, Electronic Arts (the studio behind SimCity) programmed the game to only be playable while connected to the Internet, regardless of whether players were actually taking their town online or not.

This decision quickly became the focus of an intense crisis, as players who had waited a decade for a new iteration of their favorite game discovered that EA’s game servers were clearly over capacity, leaving many unable to connect and play at all.

No comment, no refund

EA sat silent for nearly two full days as negative sentiment built up in living rooms and across the web, a major crisis management no-no, only to announce on Thursday that it would not be issuing refunds to anyone who had purchased the digital download version of the game, a decision that left a huge percentage of purchasers unable to play their game or get their money back.

This decision, apart from upsetting an already-raging player base, also caused retail giant Amazon to stop offering the digital download version of SimCity, a move that undoubtedly cost EA in sales.

Crisis management, 3 days late

On Friday EA finally got its crisis management in gear, posting an apology from brand manager Lucy Bradshaw that was clearly crafted to show a human side of the company. Here, she describes what went wrong with the servers:

So what went wrong? The short answer is: a lot more people logged on than we expected. More people played and played in ways we never saw in the beta.

OK, we agree, that was dumb, but we are committed to fixing it. In the last 48 hours we increased server capacity by 120 percent. It’s working – the number of people who have gotten in and built cities has improved dramatically. The number of disrupted experiences has dropped by roughly 80 percent

Another choice quote:

And to get us back in your good graces, we’re going to offer you a free PC download game from the EA portfolio. On March 18, SimCity players who have activated their game will receive an email telling them how to redeem their free game.

I know that’s a little contrived – kind of like buying a present for a friend after you did something crummy. But we feel bad about what happened. We’re hoping you won’t stay mad and that we’ll be friends again when SimCity is running at 100 percent.

Where’s the compassion?

EA did a decent job of capturing that human tone in explaining the situation and apologizing, not to mention adding the always-popular freebie, but, like so many crisis management efforts we discuss, this one lacked any display of compassion for those affected. Inserting a couple of lines acknowledging how frustrating it must have been for players (or, more appropriately, attempted players) would have gone a long way towards reducing the sky-high level of anger among EA’s customer base.

Adding that dose of heartfelt compassion is absolutely critical to putting your audience in a state where they are receptive to your crisis communications.

A slippery slope

Now, is EA going to crumble because of this one incident? No, the company has been a dominant figure in the gaming industry for many years, and it will take more than one botched launch to tear down an organization with roots, and pockets, that deep.

However, are there (formerly) loyal customers that are angry enough that they’ll spend the rest of their days telling people what a horrible company EA is? Absolutely.

While EA will go on, that trickle of reputation loss can create a very slippery slope. Grow too careless of how your customer base feels, and one day you could find yourself without anyone to sell to.