This article is part of our series on SimCity. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of GamingExcellence.

We probably should have seen this coming: EA, the publisher everyone loves to hate, and Maxis, a developer with a reputation for “cut corners” products (cough: Spore), were standing on the edge of a cliff with SimCIty, a beloved nostalgia property that came out of E3 with some serious buzz behind it. So when the game dropped, it required constant online access, which was apparently being facilitated with servers that fell off the back of Fred Sanford’s truck. The internet freaked out, and a backlash ensued that EA handled… poorly to say the least.

There’s been a lot written about the fiasco, so I’m not going to cover the same ground. But what I thought would be interesting to do is to put myself in the shoes of an EA PR person. Why would I do in response to this mess? Working in TV, radio, and live events, I’ve had my share of disasters that required navigating.

So how would I handle this mess? Here goes:

1) The message is “We’re fixing it”, not “We’re sorry.”

The difference between “We’re sorry” and “We’re fixing the problem” may seem subtle, but it’s really not. “We’re fixing it” means something is going to improve. “We’re sorry” is what you say to someone when their parakeet died. Look at the Mass Effect response of “Wow, people are pissed. Okay, we’re going back to the drawing board. Expect a fix in the spring”. Mass 3’s ending is now a water cooler discussion, not a source of outrage, and the response was applauded as a real dialogue between gamers and developers. Meanwhile, Spore is still synonymous with evil in many corners, because the core complaints were never effectively addressed.

“We’re sorry” doesn’t change anything, but it does give the angry hordes an opportunity to kick you when you’re down. Furthermore, if SimCity has really been the unexpected success they claim, no one in their right mind believes that Maxis is sorry about that.

And no one gives a crap if someone in an entertainment job feels bad about anything. As far as most of the world is concerned, we’re genies born of smokeless fire, living in gilded lamps, plotting the downfall of man. People only want to associate with us when we’re forced to grant them wishes. Fixing the problem is granting a wish.

2) Don’t focus on what you can’t do.

Someone at Maxis made the mistake of saying the game can’t be shifted to an offline mode. CAN’T. Apparently it has something to do with the region code being on the server, instead of on the client. This is not a discussion to be having now while the game is breaking the internet.

By getting into a debate about whether or not you can make it available offline, you’re reminding them that it’s not at all the game they wanted. Once people are actually able to play the game properly, many will forget about that issue… unless constant online play tops out their data plan.

Another problem with saying “can’t” when it comes to software is that it just seems patently dishonest. It’s software. You CAN do anything with software in a perfect world, and people who post on forums like to consider themselves undiscovered tech geniuses. They don’t, however have experience in the real world of game design.

Maxis is right that the immediate focus needs to be getting the game working the way it’s supposed to work. A real debate over whether to include an offline mode will probably only happen if there’s a SimCity 2… or 6, depending on how you’re counting.

3) Show real empathy.

Empathy is huge when you’re dealing with an angry mob. It’s very hard when dealing with angry gamers, because the emotions are powerful, and they’re nasty. When a game disappoints, it’s screwed up the one part of someone’s miserable life that didn’t previously suck. Your job in PR is to relate to that mindset. Yuck.

Lucy Bradshaw, Maxis GM, failed miserably at this on her EA blog. First of all, she used soccer-mom-approved words like “dumb” and “crummy”, reminding everyone of Ben Croshaw’s immortal Zero Punctuation clip about who plays The Sims.

But then Bradshaw’s second post a day later showed signs of strain, which undermined her message that things were improving. The line ““almost everyone who cares is busy building cities and making friends in SimCity”, written when many people still couldn’t fully access the game, was the moment when someone should have taken her computer away. It was a “dumb” and “crummy” thing to say… God, I could never work for Maxis if they forced me to use the word “crummy”. Are there cookies involved? No? Then call me when there are cookies.

When there are no cookies, the public wants to know you’re as frustrated by the lack of quality as they are. Bradshaw’s word choices didn’t go far enough. If senior managers are restrained in their speech by fear of shareholder wrath, leave the public responses to community coordinators and PR reps who have greater license. Unfortunately, even the community managers couldn’t manage this mess…

4) The information you do provide must be clear, consistent, and complete.

If a community manager publicly says that unhappy customers can request a refund, the company has to honor that even if it’s in contravention of company policy. But that didn’t happen here.

EA customer service completely contradicted an EA community manager, and the manager was completely right to say what he did. But worse, customer service then threatened to ban the person who legally bought the game at launch. At this point, SimCity became Lollercoaster Tycoon, and gave the gaming blogs more to write about. Then EA promised “A free game”, which led to speculation about how crappy the make-good game would be. Meanwhile, one communication of “almost fixed” was just repeated a day later, so what got reported is “SimCity: still not fixed.”

Lewlz! When you’re vague, you give your trolls the opportunity to co-opt the narrative. EA will have to respond to the customer service debacle and clarify which games are available for free, providing fresh waves of reporting and more reminders that the SimCity launch was a disaster.

5) Remember that EA has customers, not “fans”.

What you call the people who buy your games matters. A fan is a fanatic that will wildly overpay for access as long as they feel validated. A consumer brainlessly gobbles up stuff for the sake of buying and possessing stuff. A customer wants a good product at a fair price. EA must realize that the mindset of people who will buy their products are customers – they are not mindless shopaholics, nor are they diehard supporters. From the mindset of a customer looking for value, SimCity appears to be little more than a $60 online pass.

EA’s mandate is to make games with sweepingly broad appeal, but a game that tries to have something for everyone fully satisfies no one. The EA games that get the best reviews are the ones with a clear sense of identity. EA then promptly waters down that identity for the sequels. People will not commit their hearts to a company that breaks them over and over, so EA must convince buyers all over again with each new release. A company attracts a fan with hype. It attracts a customer with information. So EA needs to better promote exactly what the hell it’s doing.

This is an undeniable challenge. To borrow a phrase from EA COO Peter Moore, a lot of website journalism is shoddy, “Shoddy” is a much better word than “crummy”, especially when Peter Moore says it. EA’s task is to win over all those thousands of amateurish but vocal websites and game the system. Customers need information, which means those review copies have to go out, and those contacts have to be made, over and over and over again.

6) Make it clear that this is never going to happen again!

We’re in “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” territory with SimCity, and that’s where some of the outrage is coming from. Too many people remember the Spore DRM controversy, so they’re reverting to that script. Most of the world doesn’t give a hairy damn about DRM, but they do care about really angry people and hilariously bad customer service.

This whole thing could have been avoided at so many points in the process: make the game available offline. Okay, don’t make the game available offline, but stress test the crap out of it in a very thorough beta period. Okay, don’t do that either you cheap bastards, but encourage sampling by making refunds easy.

This game had mad hype coming out of E3. This idea that they had unexpectedly high demand is as hard to believe as Anne Hathaway being completely surprised to win an Oscar. In both cases it may be true, but that just makes it worse somehow.

Missteps and mistakes happen, but these are the same mistakes, which are preventing EA from shedding a bad reputation from a decade ago. EA PR needs to set much better expectations and engage their developers with the public, and their customer service wing actually has to serve customers. In short, they need to stop seeming like a panicked, failing company. Their earnings chart looks like a roller coaster, but the general trend is upward.

The problem, overall, is not with the quality of EA’s games. It’s about a disconnect regarding what customers expect to get and what they end up getting. EA has to stop apologizing for that, and actually fix the problem. Fixing the problem means it stops happening. First step: issue a statement about exactly what went wrong, taking full responsibility for the various mistakes, the way EA did after the industry-changing class action suit against the company by its employees.

Next, show you’ve learned from those mistakes. EA’s next big challenge may be with Dragon Age III, which is already starting to suffer from bad advance spin. Dragon Age II was an attempt to attract more customers at the expense of fans, so here we are again, trying to figure out what to expect from the third installment. Quit being so cryptic!

Many beloved games have had rough starts. World of Warcraft expansions rarely work properly right away, and the game has had high profile server outages. League of Legends has also had issues with their server reliability. Skyrim was riddled with serious bugs at launch but it won numerous Game of the Year nods.

It’s too soon to tell if the current SimCity thing is a tempest in a teapot, or an arrow in the knee, but it’s still useful to examine what happened here. It highlights the ongoing struggle that EA has with its brand, as well as a well-meaning but poorly-executed company philosophy.