Whenever Eurogamer has a piece related to Origin (EA’s digital download service) one can expect a torrent of comments from readers flogging the service with a passion. Among the cries of ‘You cannot trust EA’ and ‘I only installed it because I had to for Battlefield 3 and Mass Effect 3’ there are countless comments commending Steam for the excellent service it provides and practically adoring Valve. It seems that, more than any other consumer, gamers are defined by brand loyalty. Hardcore brand loyalty to be exact. It’s not enough to buy products from a particular brand. Gamers have to criticise any other brand that is not their preferred choice.
A quick look at any forum or message board paints a singular picture: individuals who are objective about brands are few and far between. Most people stick to their preferred brand like their life depends on it and they become vicious should anyone say anything remotely critical about it. Let’s conveniently forget that Steam sucked royal ass when it was first released in 2004 (What? I have to go online to activate Half Life 2 or otherwise I cannot play?!). Never mind that Origin today is magnitudes better than Steam was a few years ago. Don’t dwell on the idea that having only one service is not at all a good situation for consumers.
This holds true for various ‘brands’ in gaming: the aforementioned digital download services, hardcore first person shooters (Battlefield vs Call of Duty), gaming consoles (360 vs PS3), MMOs (WoW vs everything else) etc etc. Why does this happen?
Here is some marketing talk:
‘Customers can manifest their loyalty to a brand in many ways: they may choose to stay with the provider, and they may increase the number of purchases or the frequency of their purchases or even both…’
I did not study marketing in any way shape or form so I can only speculate on the reasons for this. It is realistic to acknowledge that in many cases brand loyalty occurs because the consumers are satisfied with their purchases. When I used to play WoW exclusively it was because I did not have any interest whatsoever in trying out a new MMO. WoW was satisfying my massively multiplayer needs so that was that. Limited resources (mostly time and money) may be another reason for brand loyalty. I only have an Xbox 360 cause frankly if I bought another console I would still have difficulty finding time to play games on it. This kind of reasoning clearly explains loyalty, but there is another part.
More marketing talk from the same source:
‘….(customers) may even become advocates of the brand, concerned by playing a powerful role in the decision making of others, thus reducing the brand’s marketing communication cost’
The entertainment industry has coined another word for ‘advocate’: Fanboy (or fangirl if you happen to be a lady). It’s quite easy to understand why someone would stick with one product in certain circumstances but why on earth would anyone go on a personal crusade in favor of that product and against competitors when, at face value, there seems to be no gain for them? I believe it all boils down to personal investment. A look at all the examples I listed previously should illustrate my point. All of the ‘brands’ I mentioned require a significant investment of time and/or money from the player who decides to take them seriously. MMOs in particular require a strong investment of both from serious players. A good MMO is prone to making you invest more in the game which in turn makes you more likely to stick around since moving on to other things would trivialise your previous investment. The advent of competition, while objectively a good thing, is subjectively a negative for people who have invested much in their game. Competition may take away players (and therefore revenue) from the community and this jeopardizes their investment as a whole. Their preferred game may fail! It may be shut down!!! When you think about it it’s no wonder that players are so passionate about their games when the stakes are so high for them.
In this environment competition is seen as a threat, not just by the company managing the brand but also by the consumer making use of the product. This would definitely explain why fanboys are so prevalent in the gaming sphere. Moreover, fanboyism is profitable for brands so they tend to encourage it whenever they can. The great console battle of the 16 bit era was built on the creation of fanboys with marketing departments subtly crafting the us vs them mentality. An army of fanboys are a big investment since they reduce marketing costs in the long run. It does not help that youngsters and adolescents seem to be more prone to mindless brand loyalty. The industry has learnt to capitalise on this fact and we often see protracted public feuds between industry bigwigs. Who can forget the banter between EA and Activision prior to Battlefield 3’s release?
It is important to be conscious of this fact since I believe fanboyism is, in the long run, detrimental to the industry as a whole. It undermines competition and stifles growth. It also leads to a situation where one or two brands rule while everyone else tries to catch up. Gamers need to understand that if they spent 3 years enjoying a game then that is a good enough investment right there and it is ok to move on and try something different. More importantly we should all shed our marketing trousers and don our consumer pants.