Last week during the notable first of April shenanigans, The Secret World poked fun at the fact that female outfits in games (including TSW) are stereotypically skimpy while males get adventuring gear. The item store offered the "Gender Equality" clothing pack: full scuba gear for females and a mankini for males. As hideous as I think the mankini is, I appreciated this obvious jab at stereotypes, not to mention the fact that Funcom listened to players who've requested revealing attire for their male avatars. But then with no real explanation given at the time, the makinis were yanked not only from the store but from players' inventories as well.
Funcom really stepped in something this time, and by not adequately coming clean, the stench is going to follow the company with every step. Yes, an initial flimsy explanation was offered, and four days later we finally learned more, but the story seems incomplete and the damage is still being done. What really gets my goat is this blunder is a big smudge on the company's reputation, which in turn will adversely impact this game I love more so than missing deadlines and delayed content releases. And the game doesn't need more stacked against it! The fact is, Funcom needs to come completely clean and make real restitution to have hopes of repairing the damage to consumer confidence.
Look at the evidence. In the past, Creative Director Joel Bylos made it a point to interact with the community and explain controversial decisions. Yet, when this storm unleashed last week, he and other devs were noticeably silent. The only answer players had for the removal of an item that was purchased was from a forum moderator who simply said that it was an April Fools joke. Can we say missing details?! The silence was telling, and after time passed and no other explanation was forthcoming, my thoughts were that the devs must be muzzled. And often when employees are prevented from responding, it's because they don't agree or there is something major going on behind the scenes. As it turns out, both are pretty accurate.
On Monday, Bylos finally let players know that he was indeed following everything and that a response was incoming. Obviously he wanted to say something. He also acknowledged the reasoning behind the lack of communication: "I have been keeping silent out of a wish to avoid airing internal politics." That's a pretty telling statement and actually understandable because jobs can be on the line in such cases. Then come Tuesday, when we finally got a more detailed response (albeit a still unsatisfactory one), Bylos noted that he made it clear to management he believed the item should not have been pulled from those who purchased it. Having had the opportunity to speak with Bylos shortly before the official response was posted, I can assure you that he was much more upset about the issue than was let on in that official response. Although I totally understand the need for being diplomatic, it would be better for the game if he could let loose publicly; players would see that someone is passionately fighting in their corner. And that would boost consumer confidence and loyalty.
Since management obviously made the decision against the wishes of the team that created the game and the item in question, I think management is the party that needs to own up to the decision and come clean with the full story. I say full story because of inconsistencies between the word and deed that I'll get into below. Oh, and let's not forget, make better restitution!
Beyond the fact that the skimpy male item was removed and the modest female one wasn't (folks have had plenty to say about that!), players paid for the item only to have it taken away. Being refunded bonus points, even ones that don't expire, is not acceptable. Who can blame players for feeling cheated and upset when they use real cash for an item but are just given fake currency in return? Even earned Funcom points converted into bonus points can no longer be used in any other game except TSW. I believe that players can petition customer service to have their actual cash refunded, but it shouldn't be on players' heads to fix management's mistake.
If they don't get what they pay for, consumers should get a refund in the exact payment form they used. Management bears full responsibility for this. Oh, that is a pain to figure out? Too bad -- that's part of owning up to a mistake and making it right. Taking the easy way out with a blanket bonus point refund and making players jump through the hoops to be properly reimbursed makes you look worse, Funcom.
And then who is to say it won't happen again?
Of course, going through and tearing away items that players bought over the course of the game -- be it with Bonus Points, Veteran Points, earned Funcom points, or cash-procured Funcom Points -- would cause even more of an uproar and be a nightmare to deal with. Players would have every right to doubt the integrity of management that giveth and taketh away on a whim. Who would feel comfortable giving money to someone like that?
An alternative is that resources could be put into creating a system where players could toggle an IP-appropriate population skin that would make every other PC show up in a certain costume, much as PvP already does. It could be faction suits, business suits, or whatever. This solution allows people to be as silly as they want (and therefore spend more money in the cash shop to look how they want) while still maintaining the integrity of the IP for those who want only a specific look. Win-win!
Because I can understand the complete nightmare of going through and processing the refunds necessary for removing so many items and the unlikelihood of the development of a world-wide population skin, I believe the best answer for Funcom right now is to make restitution, not just offer a refund. It should return the mankini to all who paid for it and go forward with a renewed commitment to maintain the IP. You can't arbitrarily enforce rules, else you have no credibility. And credibility is a much-needed commodity!
In addition, all affected players should keep the refunded points as compensation for this mess. Anything short of that will leave a stinky stain on the company that will make players think twice about investing in it. The last thing we need is management mucking up the game (I haven't even gotten into the issue of "suits" too far removed from the actual development of the game and the wants/needs/best interest of the community dictating the direction of the TSW.)
Funcom, make this right. You need to clean your shoe off a whole lot better than you have hitherto done if you don't want customers keeping their distance. And wouldn't that be better for the bottom line?
Conspiracies, paranoia, secrets, and chaos -- the breakfast of champions! Feast on a bowlful with MJ on Thursdays as she infiltrates The Secret World to bring you the latest word on the streets of Gaia in Chaos Theory. Heard some juicy whispers or have a few leads you want followed? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and she'll jump on the case!