Tobold's Blog
Saturday, September 10, 2011
Anthropomorphization of game companies

I was reading various blog entries on my newsreader, as well as comments on this blog, and it struck me how often people use phrases like "Blizzard hates talent trees", or "Ubisoft should respect their customers more" when discussing game companies. I probably fall in the same trap often enough. But the fact is that "Blizzard" or "Ubisoft" are not persons, but companies. They don't feel or hate or do anything else which would require a personality. Maybe one or several persons working for that company expressed some opinion somewhere, but the company itself has no feelings. In most cases the feelings or motives attributed to a company are not shared by everybody working for that company. Sometimes *nobody* in the company feels or thinks that way, especially when considering the wilder claims of some people how this or that company is out to ruin a certain market or product.

Of course this anthropomorphization of companies is only natural. I'm happy that Blizzard invited me into their Diablo III beta, and not so happy that Bioware didn't invite me to the SWTOR beta. But of course "Blizzard" didn't invite me, somebody working for Blizzard did. I doubt that "inviting Tobold into betas" is part of the official company policy. And as far as I can fathom, "Bioware" doesn't hate me, they just haven't even started the European beta yet (and cancelled the September beta weekends in the US, which to me suggests technical problems). Even if Bioware sends me a beta invite some day, it would be hard for me to tell whether they did that on purpose, because somebody in the company thought it was a good idea to get bloggers on their side, or whether it was by random chance due to my pre-order and sign-up for the beta. If some company treats me better than another, it is either a small company with a deliberate "marketing via bloggers" strategy, or a bigger company where some individual employee just happens to like my blog. "Bioware" doesn't "hate" me, on a company level they aren't even aware that I exist.

On a related note I had to laugh when I read yet another conspiracy theory claiming that Blizzard launched the Diablo III beta to divert attention away from SWTOR. Again, "Blizzard" is neither a person nor a monolithic entity, so there is serious doubt that every single Blizzard employee feels threatened by SWTOR. And even if there are probably *some* strategic thinkers working for Blizzard marketing, the Diablo III beta launch is more likely to be related to a presumably planned end 2011 release date than a strategic move to cause problems for any game with a similar release date. Launching games "when they are ready" works both ways, Diablo III simply is ready for that stage of the development cycle.

The discussion gets downright useless when people use arguments of morality on an anthropomorphic image of a company. Companies aren't "good" or "evil". They can, like Google, have a mission statement encouraging employees to not be evil. Or they can have company policies with different degrees of taking morality into account. But while there are questions in the life of a company that require a moral decision ("do we use a cheap sweatshop as sub-contractor for our goods?"), those questions are few and far between. If a game company decides whether to use DRM, and in which form, that is a business decision, not a moral question. It is based on technical aspects ("does the DRM work?"), and marketing aspects ("do we make more money from people who buy our game because they can't steal it than we lose money from people who don't buy our game because it does have DRM?"). And somewhere in that company some manager is paid for making this sort of decision. You might agree or disagree with their decision, but in the end it is that manager who decides, and that often based on data you don't have access to. I am pretty certain that there are cases where always-on online DRM protection is both the best technical solution, and has a positive effect on profits. That makes it a "good" business decision, but not in the "good or evil" sense. You can have influence future decisions of that type by refusing to buy a game with DRM, but ranting about how "evil" that company is for not letting you steal their game isn't going to get you anywhere.

The biggest danger for any company is becoming so big and self-absorbed that nobody high enough placed in the company's decision processes is considering the tendency of the public to anthropomorphize the company. Perception *is* important for a company. While the company isn't in reality "evil", a few bad decisions can make people perceive it as such, especially in situations where that company holds a monopoly or dominant market position. In spite of their "don't be evil" motto, Google is on a dangerous path towards being perceived as the next "evil empire" of big IT companies. Facebook already went from being everybody's darling to having every move regarded with suspicion. And even Apple is learning that people's perception of it changes when markets are concerned in which Apple dominates the competition. Nobody can please everybody all the time, and the more customers you have, the more likely are you to make some of them angry with some decision. MMORPG companies are very much at risk here, because they effectively sell something approaching a life-style to their more committed customers. But sometimes the reactions of players to some nerf or other game design decision are downright silly. Game companies aren't persons, and even if you'd consider them as such, it would be unlikely that they were involved in a conspiracy to ruin games. The wildest claims in the MMORPG blogosphere tell you more about the mental state of the blogger, than about how companies really work.
Very good point.
Well, this is how people relate to brands these days. And how PR and brands try to relate to people too. Or in other words, if people are more and more likely to do this, it's because they're being encouraged to do it.

Is there really nothing a company could do to encourage you to feel more favourably towards it? (ie. giving you beta slots, supporting a charity you like, being especially good with player information, etc)
One justification for anthropomorphism is that many companies do appear to have persistent personalities. When a bidding war over patents arises no one is surprised when Google starts throwing in bids that are the square root of pi. Likewise Activision are famous for milking big franchises to the detriment of all else.

Perhaps these predictably persistent behaviours that I call a companies personality come from the views of the top execs or perhaps it is some intangible corporate culture. Regardless they are sufficiently persistent that they are useful in predicting how a company will behave.
You can't remove the semantic value form the signifier. Companies are entities. They present as entities. It is not irrational to address them as entities.

On top of that, as mbp says, these entities tend to show consistent behavior over time. This behavior tends to persist in spite of the constant departure and arrival of personnel within the company.

This happens naturally, but in recent times a very large amount of money has also been spent on ensuring it happens. It's hardly surprising that emotions become aroused by the process.
As a company who is visible "out there", you can't prevent this though. and if you can't prevent it, use it to your favor?
One shouldn't ascribe emotions and motivations to corporations. They hate it when you do that.
It's probably Americans who say things like that most of the time.

Over here, Corporations are people. They have free speech, and if the Republican party has its way, will eventually replace government.

Don't be surprised that Americans think of Corporations as people. For all intents and purposes, they are.
Good point.

The other thing problem is that I read forum post similar to "MMO Corp said that wanted..."

Especially for lessor companies without a solid culture and values, that does not mean much. If the designer who likes vertical ships or green armor gets replaced, you may get something different if their replacement favors the opposite. I.e., just because and employee in that role said/felt something a year ago does not mean that the person in that role now feels the same way.
It is partially due to the laziness of commentators and less than expert knowledge levels that everyone has. I can either write
"Blizzard hates talent trees" or
"Greg Street (aka Ghostcrawler, lead systems designer for World of Warcraft), has repeatedly commented about the difficulties and issues involved in balancing talent trees between classes and challenging the players to make interesting choices as opposed to forcing compulsary selections."
The second is more accurate. The first is quicker and less wall-of-text.
In the UK, companies certainly are legal persons. They are not the same as natural persons, but they are regarded similarly for many legal responsibilities.

What if a company has a a history of making business decisions with poor moral outcomes? Sony is a prime example. Remember their DRM for music that covertly installed software onto customers' computers, leaving them open to hackers? Is it not morally reprehensible to store important customer data in an insecure fashion. Even worse then, to delay warning customers to secure their assets in order to protect their own brand?

There must be a point at which the culture is of a corporation is so corrupt that the whole corporation might be viewed as evil.
Mbp hit the nail on the head. Yes company's do have patterns of behavior. You can call them whatever you want to. Anthropomorphozation is as good a methodd to use as any.
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