Friday, June 17, 2011

Failure to Deliver: Duke Nukem Forever PR debacle hilights the rift between industry and fans.

When companies are out of touch: In PR, you're not supposed to get what you pay for.

All out of bubblegum.

The saga of Duke Nukem Forever is a tragedy. If it had simply never been made, and remained an unreachable dream composed of the collective musings of what might have been, it would have been a beautiful tragedy. However the fact that the game was actually made, released, and has invaded the imaginary notions of what Duke Nukem Forever would be. Notions that had built up for over a decade, makes it an ugly spectacle. A crime against nature, a product that was taken too far by someone who was not stopped in time, and now flails around the market place grasping at any source of revenue with its deformed limbs.We all remember that sinking feeling we got when we first saw JarJar show up in Star Wars I-III, and the disappointment of Axel's Chinese Democracy. Like those over-awaited things, Duke Nukem Forever had an impossible task before it, a task that wasn't always impossible, but had become so via circumstances created by egomaniacal managers who chose their own subjective reality over real reality, and were too rich and insulated to be told otherwise by outside observers. A perfect situation to trap the game in development hell for a long enough time for our imaginations to conjure up something so fantastical (or maybe fan-testical) as to be unrealistic in terms of being realistically achievable. It could do nothing but fail as a game to live up to expectations, and yet chose to go ahead and fail anyway.

If you spent a serious portion of your life actually working on Duke Nukem Forever, this realization may cause some distress. The main nucleus of this distress, is that a negative (or at the very least lackluster) reaction of independent media, grassroots ratings, and consumer communities, creates an intense sense of loss. Loss (or even potential loss) is one of the bigger psychological factors in motivation (see; organizational behavior), and it tends to be amplified when the object of that loss is partially intangible, which leads to overestimation of what is actually the subject of such loss. But you accept that in the media business. You know that the mystical intersecting point of pleasing "all of the people all of the time" is like some quantum dimension which only exists on the pages of theoretical calculations and therefore it is unattainable. You know and accept this risk as part of what makes PR and the creative entertainment industry function.

Invasion of the finance majors:

Colleges are churning out brand new business majors even as Lehman Bros. and Bear Sterns vomit the old ones back into the job market. They have to go somewhere. When you realize that these people might be finance majors, the nonsensical behavior of PR firm The Redner Group all of a sudden becomes very clear. Thanks to "consultant addiction" all American businesses have come to see even the most skilled labor as disposable, corp. structure is constantly reformulated for short-term gains, and non-core activities are outsourced to an infinitely expanded professional service market where the "invisible hand of the market" keeps prices low, and employee turnover dangerously high. Although for all I know Redner Group is just 3 guys in a closet in Santa Monica.

Here we have a firm that does PR, and like most modern service firms, is probably dysfunctional from on over-concentration on maximizing short-term goals. The Redner Group sees their activity not as traditional PR, but as something closer to investment banking. They work hard and expend resources, and expect a positive return on that investment. They approach their task as if they were a customer, doing nothing more than buying exposure designed to increase unit sales and brand awareness (and brand equity can be monetized with the right kind of powerpoint presentation). The Redner Group spent money paying its employees and maintaining a distribution database and network for early review copies of Duke Nukem Forever. They don't see this activity as PR, subject to intangible market mechanics and the basics of journalism, but rather they see their efforts as a creation of a financial instrument, backed by a formula based on the resulting discount rate from their activities producing a specific IRR coming from expected unit sales as a function of exposure & reviews. To put it over-explicitly; In the mind of The Redner Group, they are a paying customer of video game media, and they expect specific results which further their goals.

irr can get complicated.

Sidestepping for the moment that this is the wrong way to approach PR; The Redner Group's reaction is normal for an entity with such a mind-set when confronted with such a situation. To add general context: If you went to an auto shop to have your muffler fixed, and they did a shitty job, you wouldn't go back there for an oil change - not as an act of retaliation (that's what lawyers are for), but simply because you want a certain thing and they didn't provide it when you paid them. This is how The Redner Group has approached their function as a 3rd party provider of PR for an entertainment product. This is a terrible thing to do, and it's exactly how you lose clients. Generating press doesn't work like that because game reviewers and other media are not service providers. The implied obligation to help sales of the game was simply a function of The Redner Group's imagination. The twitter threats they issued are unmistakable evidence that there was a fundamental failure to realize that. The implication of entitlement from investment is so apparent here, that it can send no other message that The Redner Group sees media entities and grassroots gaming communities as nothing more than vending machines for advertising metrics. They put in their dollar and pushed the button, but when the wrong item came out, they felt cheated... they felt a sense of loss, and reacted emotionally. The crux of the matter is not that they shouldn't have acted emotionally, it is that they should never have felt that sense of loss in the first place.

Ironically, 2K Games (the company with the most to "lose" in a situation such as this, because of the emotional connection to a lot of hard work that went into making the thing) has not fallen into such a mental trap. This is most likely because games are their business, and they are well aware of how the market works, including the things you should and should not do. I do hope 2K's decision to drop The Redner Group is a permanent one. Old dogs, new tricks, yada yada ...they won't learn. But that leaves the "outsourcing" problem to deal with. A company like 2K Games hiring a full-time PR staff is kind of wasteful when you use those "consultant addiction" formulas of figuring out how much it ends up costing per release. But when you go out and hire outside firms to promote your releases, you risk losing out on access to loyal workers who have built up substantial experience into an arsenal of tacit skills that are simply non-transferable to just anyone.

The solution is that creative companies like 2K and others, need to create the executive position of "Product-Ronin." Kind of a Product Manager on steroids that goes into total immersion at the 3rd party facility. This is one very experienced person who physically supervises and contributes to operations that are outsourced to 3rd party service providers. 1 marketing person from 2K who knows the game industry well, could have stopped this mess before it happened. 1 pro who knows the anime market in the US could have stopped many a terrible dub before it ever got made. 1 person with an alternative perspective could have pointed out that the artistic subtlety in your design goes away when you put this ad on a giant billboard outside:

Oh, no one's gonna have a problem with that image... it's so edgy.

The job of the Product Ronin, is to frequently leave the confines of the home offices and immerse themselves in whatever major 3rd party services that the company is using, and use their tacit-skill set and experience to stop stupid shit from happening. Creative media and entertainment companies need to create this position, and fill it with a trusted, long-time, well compensated employee. Smart service companies will accommodate them and benefit from the experience and knowledge they create there, which they can use to better serve their clients and manage their operations. Dumb ones will think they do a good enough job already.

On a completely different subject; the fading away of Duke Nukem can be seen as kind of a metaphor for the "old world" of male dominated misogynist type gaming dying out and a new global game world where things are quite different. Go talk about that if thinking about turning a brand equity formula into something that produces IRR gives you a headache. ...I know it does with me.


Housekeeping Items:
#1) New Format: As you can see, we're including pull-quotes here and that will be the standard from now on. Additionally, some older articles may be retro-fitted with them, as to lessen the tl;dr factor. If you don't know what tl;dr means, then you fail the internet.

#2) Friday is the new Monday. Posts will now go up on Fridays. Their frequency is still being decided between weekly and bi-weekly.

#3) The final post of each month will be a review of something (except this month where it will probably be July 1). The subject of the review may range from film & television, to video games, books, food & drink, or even special events and travel venues. This is open to suggestions.

#4) This blog has always been link-free and anything here can be reproduced in whole or in part in any non-commercial entity.

#5) I haz a twitter. @The_Angry_Otaku

That's all... for now.


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