Last week, I introduced you to one of my favorite companies, Her Interactive. This week, I want to walk you through what’s happened with the company in the last two years.
Soon after the release of their most recent game, Sea of Darkness (2015), Her announced they would be moving to a new game engine from their older homebrew system in order to add additional features that fans requested: better graphics, more characters, more environments, etc. Fans were told that the next game, Midnight in Salem, would be “coming soon.”
From their August 2015 Letter:
“One of the major limiting factors that prevents us from implementing many of these changes is our current proprietary game engine. Thus, we have made the exciting decision to move to a Unity-based platform for our games. However, this move will affect our development schedule resulting in a delay in the release of our next game, Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem. At this time, we can’t confirm an exact launch date, but we hope it will launch sometime in 2016. Even though we have started the process of adapting our games for this platform, it’s not something we can do overnight. Working on Nancy Drew: Midnight in Salem is a once in a lifetime opportunity for all of us at Her Interactive. We are creating something we are really proud of and we don’t want to compromise on quality. We promise it will be worth the wait.”
Two years later, and not much else has been released. And fans have started to get angry at the lack of information and the lack of a release date.
But it’s not just the gap that’s frustrating fans. There’s a lot happening in the periphery that makes this story interesting, so we need to back up a couple years to put this announcement in context.
In 2013, long-time CEO and Chief Creative Strategy Officer Megan Gaiser announced she would be leaving the company. Gaiser is largely credited with the success of the company and the games, and was considered a warm and open person by fans and employees. In 2014, a new CEO, Penny Milliken, came on board, and it is under her leadership that Her has changed their tactics dramatically.
Around May 2015, just before Sea of Darkness was released, an “undisclosed number of staffers” were let go, including Nancy Drew’s voice actress, Lani Minella. This left the company with almost half as many people and the development team seemed to be hardest hit.
However, Her wasn’t the one to announce the layoffs. Fans only learned about the staff reduction through a combination of comments from former staff on forums, Twitter, and fans poking around the Her Interactive website.
And then, seemingly overnight, their marketing strategy took a 180.
The New Marketing Strategy
Since Midnight in Salem’s announcement, the entire company has seemingly gone into lockdown. Everything from the game’s development to the number of people on staff is suddenly off-limits from conversation.
One particularly bizarre exchange came in the comments of their Amateur Sleuth Blog run by Marketing Assistant Little Jackalope:
Comments like these, with a not-quite-answer, are the rule rather than the exception. And this has made longer-term fans frustrated. For two years, fans have requested the typical updates that come with a new game. In the past, this would come in the form of character concept art, screenshots of environments, teasers, trailers, music, and more. A pre-2015 Her Interactive would likely have included fans in the move to the new Unity game engine, showing testing videos, interviews with staff, concept art, or information on the new interface, but those details aren’t coming.
Fans have been trying to find out any information on this game, but most answers are like the one above: a mix of legalese, obfuscation, and I-can’t-say-s that really beat around the bush.
(And if you think I’m exaggerating when I say all of the answers have been like this, check out this compilation of comments from Her on Midnight’s development put together by some particularly dedicated fans.)
The most consistent response from fans has been one of disappointment. It’s not wrong for a company to be tight-lipped about a new product, or even for there to be long gaps between releases. What makes this story so frustrating for fans is that the model has changed completely. Previously open lines of communication have been on lockdown. Well-known employees have been let go, or aren’t communicating with fans. When you’ve had an impressive and reliable release schedule of two games per year with lots of content in between, the drop-off can seem baffling.
That’s what makes this story so weird. An internal reorganization and an utter lack of information has led fans to speculate on what’s actually happening. Is the game ever going to be released? Are they even working on it? Who is currently working at this company? Are they in financial trouble? Why the sudden change?
All of these changes seem to focus around the new CEO. Milliken seems to have adopted a very 90s-era approach to marketing where the company controls the flow of information. If this is indeed the approach they’ve decided to take, they have failed to take into account the new communication lines fans have built between each other and the relationship the company had with its fans. In an information vacuum, rumors and speculation are bound to run wild. For a company that used to be so responsive, the sudden dearth of information is suspicious and the complete unwillingness of Her to release any new information leads fans to unsavory conclusions about the state of the company.
Midnight in Salem is, to our knowledge, this company’s only project. The old Her Interactive, had they been working on the game, would have released something. The lack of anything beyond some bizarre character concepts and constant notes to “Stay sleuthy!” leads fans to believe that production has stopped.
Her Interactive is a cautionary tale of what not to do when communicating with followers. Drastic changes in communication style leaves followers bewildered. What Her got wrong comes down to information flow. The fan base that Her has built is not accustomed to waiting years between updates, and they are used to knowing and communicating with staff outside of the marketing department. Now, many fans feel left in the dark by a company that felt at one time like a family. There’s nothing wrong with changing tactics, but you have to be careful not to sour the relationship with your followers by changing too quickly.
The second caution here is that we all crave information, and when it’s taken away, we go looking for it. As a company in the 21st century, you don’t have control over the message anymore. Social media doesn’t allow for the 90s-era one-sided communication model anymore. Fans can ask you questions publicly, and failure to answer those questions satisfactorily will only lead to more questions. More than that, follower networks within social media can now rip apart every scrap of information they find and analyze it to death. If you don’t provide sufficient information or interpretation, followers will do it for you.
I wonder, as I read through Her’s comments, if their response comes from a fear that fans won’t like where the company is going. And if that is the case, Her should have more faith in their followers and know that many of them have been with the company for years. Fans like that are not lost easily, and people have been excited to see the company move in new directions.
Bearing that in mind, I have the following recommendations going forward:
First, they will need to be open and honest about what’s happening at the company. Her doesn’t need to detail everything, but if the direction of the company has changed, that’s something fans should be told. If they are looking to become a game distributer rather than producer, as some have speculated, that would be good and interesting information for fans to know!
Second, Her needs to return to its previous style of game marketing, or at very least, increase the amount of material being released. If work is being done, tell fans what it is. If work has been outsourced, tell fans who you’re partnering with and why. If the move from the homebrew engine to Unity is more difficult than anticipated, share some interviews with the developers about the process. Again, fans are not owed all of the nitty gritty details, but the relationship that existed before should be respected, not ignored.
It’s difficult to speculate on what’s happening at Her Interactive, but hopefully they and the Nancy Drew series are still going strong. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing those communication lines open back up soon.