Midnight in Salem, OR Her Interactive’s Marketing Nightmare (Part 2)

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:

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 10.59.17 AM.png

Amateur Sleuth Blog, “Birding and Birthdays”

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.

Some Takeaways

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.

Some Recommendations

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.

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Midnight in Salem, OR Her Interactive’s Marketing Nightmare (Part 1)

Today, I’d like to introduce you to a company that I’ve admired for a long time, but has recently had a dramatic change in marketing style. For the next couple of posts, we’ll be doing a case study of Her Interactive, a company that has moved from an open, small, but dedicated family of people to a company that seems as if it is under lock and key. A company that has changed tactics from a warm, straightforward, and communicative style to one that is filled with legalese and vague non-answers. Today, we’ll be coving who Her Interactive is and how they got to where they are today.

Founded in 1995, Her Interactive is best known for its extensive library of Nancy Drew point-and-click adventure games, released twice yearly since 1998, for a total of 32 games. The games are generally very well received and they have sizable fan communities on Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, and the company’s forums. According to Business Wire: “As the number-one PC mystery franchise since 2004, unit sales of the Nancy Drew series have exceeded those of Harry Potter, Myst, and Tomb Raider.”

What makes this so remarkable is that the company is tiny, somewhere between 25 and 50 employees, and while some work, including music and early animation, has always been outsourced, most of the major elements like the game design and writing were done in house. Not only that, but head writers were incredibly accessible.

One player took to emailing Her to ask questions about the games’ development and clarify plot points. Not only were questions answered by the company, the emails were passed around the office for several people to chime in on, and the head writer would take time to give thoughtful and careful answers to each question. In response to questions on the 28th game in the series, The Ghost of Thornton Hall, the writers noted,

“In many ways [Ghost of Thornton Hall] is a very dark story – but we are a company that designs for ages 10 and up. Our goal in this particular game was to design a game that would engage the younger players, but really scare the older players. That’s why you have to connect some of the dots on your own as a player. This is not an approach we will always take, but in this case we wanted to deliver on the promised scares – but only for the players who wanted to look into the darker parts of the Thornton family saga.”

If you have some time (and aren’t worried about spoilers/aren’t going to play the game), I recommend reading through the whole email because I think it really underlines the care and attention this company gave to its fans.

Beyond emails like this, Her has a strong social media presence on Facebook, as well as profiles on Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest. On their Facebook page, material is split between promotional material for upcoming games (including game trailers and teasers, character profiles and concept art for upcoming games, giveaways, and trivia questions) and fan-generated material that has been shared with the page. Fans share enormous amounts of fan-created material…

…including costumes, pumpkin carvings, cookies and cakes, artwork, pictures of their game collections, and live-streams of themselves playing the games.

The tone of their marketing material has always been open and warm, and you can see that very clearly in the comments Her receives on their posts. Not only that, but fans continue to write essays and lengthy comments about what these games and this company mean to them. There was, for almost a decade, a very trusting relationship between fans and company.

That is, until 2015.

Read Part 2

An Open Letter to Museums

With the long awaited death of 2016 and the start of the new year, I have some thoughts I want to share regarding the state of our country, especially with the impending inauguration of our next president.

Deep divisions came out into the open during this election. It seems our communities are more insular, and our echo chambers stronger, that we don’t engage with world views we find distasteful, and that we shut out those with whom we disagree.

There can be no doubt that the President-elect’s campaign stirred up resentment that was built during the last 8 years, all of which came to a head in the election and its ongoing aftermath. If we are to heal the gulf that grew between us, if we are to combat the hate that was revealed over the course of this election, if we are ever to live in a peaceful world, we must start to see each other as people, not simply “the other.” We must be able to look into each others’ lives, and we must be able to debate honestly, openly, and constructively. And I believe we have the institutions to do so, if we choose to use them.

There’s one strength that museums have, more than many other institutions, that I think makes them uniquely equipped to help heal our fractured communities. Museums give their communities the ability to think critically about their pasts and about the relationships between the groups that live there. They are narrative centers where we can see the intersections of our lives and they can give us a window into others’ situations that, while different, might mirror our own.

It’s difficult to really, truly, understand what another person’s life is like without actually living it, whether the difference is race, gender, religion, ability, or socioeconomic class. And that, along with a myriad of other reasons, has made the gulf between groups even wider. But there are ways in which we can, and should, share our experiences so that others can better understand what it is like. I plan on highlighting some of the ways this has been done effectively in my next blog post. Progress isn’t made by burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the plight of others. Progress is made when we come to a collective understanding of the experiences of ourselves and the people around us.

So this is a call to museums. Over the next few months, years, or however long it takes, ensure that your exhibits, your classes, your l ectures, your discussion groups and your materials address all of the narratives of your community. Make sure that you aren’t just focused on the one that is most available. How have your communities of color contributed to your towns and states? What is the current relationship between your upper classes and working poor? How do your artifacts and works of art share stories that might not otherwise be heard?

Over the next few months I’m going to take these questions to heart. I am going to look at the ways in which we’ve become divided, I’ll be examining social media’s role in the sharing and exclusion of narratives we find unsavory, and the ways in which we vilify and separate ourselves from each other. And I’ll be looking at what we can do to change that.

What are you going to do?

Which is the real “me”? : A Quick Intro to Code Switching

When you’re out with friends, you’re relaxed, outgoing, confident. When you’re at the office, you’re reserved, quiet, focused. You feel like you’re an entirely different person around your family than when you’re around your friends. You think to yourself, “which of these is the real me? The truest me? How do I know I’m not just pretending whenever I’m around other people?”

I’ve heard this question asked more times than I can count. Usually it’s in jest, but sometimes it’s a deeply rooted fear. They worry that among all of these different “personalities,” their truest selves have been lost; that they are somehow liars who put on an act to gain social acceptance.

If this hits close to home, I’m here to tell you not to worry. This phenomenon, the seeming ability to be multiple different people is called code switching. Code switching is often used primarily to describe changes in speech, but I tend to believe it can manifest in a few ways. Regardless, the result is essentially the same: you appear to have different personalities or mannerisms around different people. How? Here are a few ways:

1. Your style changes Style (and I don’t mean just your fashion choices) is a necessary part of how you present yourself. This includes, but is not limited to, clothing, hairstyle, use of jargon, the way you walk, and the way you carry yourself. Around the office, this might mean wearing professional clothing, standing up straighter, and exuding confidence. When you think about what certain clothing choices say about you as a person, you’re thinking about style. When you adjust those choices based on circumstance, you’re code switching. You may do this on social media too, especially if you use more than one platform.

2. You switch dialects If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably fluent in English, and at least one other dialect. That could be Standard Formal English, perhaps your hometown’s unique style of speech that you only drop into when you visit, or maybe it’s Southern American, or AAVE, or the jargon you use around your work colleagues. All of these could broadly be described as dialects, and the ability to move in between them in different social situations is code switching. If you have a child and switch between “parentese” and adult conversation, it’s the same thing.

3. You switch languages I had a friend in elementary school who we’ll call Jane. Jane’s family spoke fluent English and German at home. Sometimes, if I was unlucky, I would see them get mad at each other, as families do, and if Jane was really frustrated or upset, I would see her switch into German. As an 8-year-old, this both terrified and confused me. While this particular situation might not be the most common, it’s not unusual for bilingual families to switch between one language in a school or work setting, and another at home. Bilingualism is not my primary area of research, but there are a lot of resources out there if you’re interested in this variety of code switching. There are other varieties, of course, but this is just a quick introduction. Next time, I’ll be discussing my personal favorite, code switching on social media. For more information, I recommend the NPR Code Switch blog and this post, How Code Switching Explains the World.