Sunday, June 26, 2011

CCP: bad luck and derp

I am employed in the IT sector, and have been building and maintaining a mission critical, internet facing transaction application for about five years now. Back in the day I helped configure the first servers and today I'm still involved in maintaining and expanding the system.

Over the past five years, we've seen intense debates between us the IT guys, project management and the business. We (IT) would demand that existing bugs be fixed first, we would wave with Service Level Agreements and point out we really ought to improve stability and performance, right now. The business guys, on the other hand, would claim that new feature 'x' was crucial in getting the important (read: lucrative)  customers on board; their sales guys were complaining about losing those to competitors who already had feature 'x'.

It's a good thing that our customer base is unaware of the nature of these discussions. Whatever is decided, something's got to give! If we fix existing bugs first, users have to wait for that all important new feature 'x'. But if we build 'x' first, users will have to cope with that sluggish, unstable, buggy part of the application a little while longer..

After CCP's internal newsletter 'Fearless' was leaked to the media earlier this week, one of the first things that went through my mind was: I am just so happy that none of the brainstorming we do at our company, has hit the street like this! It would make some headlines for sure, and could have grave consequences to our company. No customer likes to read how their concerns and interests (never mind the money they are paying us!) are - sometimes cynically - being balanced against someone elses', especially not if they end up on the losing side of the equation.

My point is, that behind company walls each company discusses stuff they would never ever share with their customer base - at least not in the way it was originally phrased or written, for an internal audience only. As such I'm feeling sorry for CCP that an internal piece of communication, intended to get a discussion going, got leaked at this unfortunate time.

A while ago, several of our customers grew increasingly irritated with us, when performance and stability issues manifested themselves more and more (and yes, feature 'x' got built first). Guess who got to go and visit them? Why, yours truly of course! During those sometimes tense meetings I have discovered that it's almost always possible to clear the air by being open. Acknowledge any justified complaints without presenting weak or far fetched excuses, be honest and fortright about what's going on. Of course you have to strike a careful balance, you can't disparage the company or your own colleagues - but be as honest as reasonably possible. Almost always, the relation between the company and the customer will improve as a result.

In this area, CCP has shown remarkably little competence over the past week. After 'Fearless' leaked, they could have disarmed the whole ticking time bomb within an hour by simply restating their previous promise - done only a week ago - that microtransactions would not be allowed to disrupt existing gameplay, and that this opinion piece was just to get an internal discussion going. Even an announcement of when we could expect an answer would have helped, but all we got was silence. They waited for what, more than two days? And then they published a dev blog which totally failed to address the most pressing issues. An astounding case of self inflicted PR wounds, if you ask me; I cannot for the life of me come up with a sane reason to explain CCP's behaviour in the past week. No mature company would act like this, faced with a looming public relations disaster of this magnitude.

Sometimes we tend to forget that companies like CCP and Second Life's Linden Labs are still quite young, as an organisation. I wonder how mature they really are? They grow rapidly, venture cash pours in, offices abroad are opened, staff comes and goes, and at the same time they get go cope with a large, critical and vocal user base within a few years' time. It's hardly a surprise that, under these circumstances, a derp of epic proportions occasionally happens. But, in times of turmoil and massive customer dissatisfaction they will quickly learn the lessons they need to learn - the hard way - or they will not survive. Like my father says: 'growing up sometimes hurts'.

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