Everything I Know About Audience Engagement I Learned From the Master Chief

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 14 years, it’s a relatively safe assumption that you know who the Master Chief is.  In case you don’t, however, he is the protagonist of the HALO series, and essentially the poster-child for Microsoft Studios, and the XBOX gaming platform ever since it launched in 2001.  Since then, the Halo series has grown into an entertainment franchise of epicproportions, enjoyed by gamers worldwide and has a net worth of over 3.4 BILLION dollars.

Now, aside from being an avid gamer I am also a marketing geek.  Specifically, in the province of content marketing, community development, and audience engagement.  When I sit back, and examine my favorite gaming series while wearing my marketing goggles, one can see a long set of examples of how to captivate, and enrage any audience.

In order to bring readers who are slightly unfamiliar with Halo up to speed, the series was created by its original developer:  Bungie at the Mac World Expo in 1999.  (That’s right.  Halo was originally supposed to launch on MAC-OS.)  It wasn’t long after that thrilling reveal before Bill Gates and company (Microsoft) purchased the studio outright in order to obtain exclusive publishing rights to the game on their soon to be released gaming console: the XBOX.

Now, let’s fast forward to 2010.  Not only has Bungie revolutionized social gaming after releasing an additional four Halo titles which changed the way gamers interact, and compete via XBOX Live, but they have also built a tightly-knit online community known as the 7th Column.  From their website forums, Bungie interacted, and communicated directly with their fans, and gathered highly valuable feedback which helped them mold the series into a seemingly unbeatable giant rivaled only by the Call of Duty series.

From their proprietary forums, other fan-created communities were inspired and born, resulting in a massive network of fan creations such as Halo.Bungie.Org, a multitude of fan-fiction stories, artwork, and even podcasts.  I, myself along with some long-time friends and fellow fans created our own Halo-Fan Podcast called Postgame Carnage Report: An M+ rated (not safe for work) show involving a group of gamers who get together each week to discuss their favorite game(s), and share our online banter and shenanigans.

Before long, Bungie’s direct and often meticulous interaction with their fans made them the rival of many competing studios and even inspired how they in turn integrated with their fan communities.

After releasing Halo Reach, (2010) Bungie decided they wanted more creative freedom and the ability to design and develop games beyond the confines of Halo, and essentially bought themselves backfrom Microsoft.  Unfortunately in the divorce proceedings Microsoft took ownership of Halo’s IP (Intellectual Property.)  Many long-time fans were outraged, and from here, is where things get Sticky.

Shortly after the launch of Halo 3 (2008), Bungie’s former community manager: Frank O’Connor left the studio to work directly with Microsoft.  It was later revealed that he was now the “Franchise Director” of Halo.  This at the time, was a decent enough reassurance to the fans that Halo would continue to get the love and dedication it deserved.  Or so it seemed.  Frank went on to form 343 Industries: the new in-house development studio responsible for the Halo series.  They’ve released three Halo titles so far, with a fourth due for release this fall.  Each game was met with an ever-growing sense of alienation among fans as 343 (a name taken from the original street address of Bungie’s first office) began tomess around with the fiction and lore surrounding the beloved franchise.  In my opinion, it was reminiscent of a spoiled kid stealing the keys to daddy’s Porsche 9-11 and subsequently smashing it into a pole.

Looking back to Microsoft’s botched debut of the XBOX One console, it became clear that the company was abusing the power of their brand, combined with the millions of fans who had bought into the previous two iterations of the console, the XBOX, and XBOX 360 (which was not without its flaws, and failures.)  Essentially they had turned the console into a creepy “Big Brother” machine which forbid gamers from lending or reselling their used games using a concept called “DRM” or Digital Rights Management.  The XBOX One would require an internet connection and would “check in” every 24 hours to authenticate games to permit gamers access.  It was an unprecedented move to appease their publishing partners who were jealous over how much revenue companies like Game Stop were raking in via used games.  Essentially, Microsoft simply assumed they could do whatever they pleased, and the fans would just mindlessly throw money at them.

Upon this revelation, the internet exploded.  In the face of seriously ticked-off fans, the company pulled a complete 180 and promised to re-work the console so that fans could use it in the way they were accustomed to.  The result:  XBOX One’s global launch was downsized to exclude key countries, and they were served a near-fatal blow by their main competitor Sony.  If you were to search online for the statistics, it would be clear that Microsoft is still recovering from this epic fail of a product launch.

Furthermore, just when things were seemingly improving with the XBOX One, 343 Industries announced the upcoming release of Halo: The Master Chief Collection.  This game was a 4-in-one bundle consisting of Halo 1, 2, 3, and 4 all remastered in 1080p graphics and a whopping 60 frames per second.  To add icing to the cake, each game was playable in their original multiplayer engines, for the first time on one console.  Obviously, the fans went crazy with excitement (myself included) and pre-orders for the game were selling like candy.

When the Master Chief Collection launched last fall, gamers ran home with their copy, only to find out that the game required a massive 15 gigabyte “update” in order to work, and the online multiplayer component was completely broken, (and still is plagued with issues as we speak.)Players still have difficulty playing together online, and after several patches the game is still plagued with bugs and game-interrupting problems.

So once again, somehow, Microsoft (or rather their studio, 343 Industries) allowed quality, and their fans to take a 5th wheel, in favor of pushing a product out the door and boosting sales figures for the XBOX One platform.  I’m not exaggerating when I say:  “The fans lost their minds.”  In fact, just go to Halo’s Facebook or Twitter page(s) and spend some time reading the replies to any of their recent posts to get a taste of the outrage among fans.  It is worth noting, however, that The Master Chief Collection was, for the most part, developed by a 3rd party developer for 343.  Some damage to Halo’s IP is irreparable.  Some damage to Halo’s IP is likely irreparable.  The franchise will undoubtedly still net decent sales, yet many long-time fans of the series are jumping ship.

So what did The Master Chief teach me about audience engagement?

“He” taught me that in today’s digital ecosystem it is impossible to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers.  Social Media, Blogs, and the internet now empower customers, fans, and the general public with a much stronger voice than ever before.  If we as marketers, and brand “guardians” lose touch with our audience, or even start to ignore them we should be bracing for a digital lynch-mob.  I plan to remain optimistic about my “favorite” game-series, but I can’t help but fear the worst for the future success of the franchise.  Countless fans have expressed that they would have been more than happy to wait longer for the game to release in favor of being presented with a completed, and bug-tested product.

For my colleagues entering the field of marketing communications or ANY discipline within the realm of business:

Let the Master Chief’s lesson resonate with you.  We are no longer talking “at” consumers.  We must endeavor each day to talk with our audience.  To involve them every step of the way.  Whether you’re marketing soft-drinks or skin cream this story should serve as a paramount example of how the very same customers you depend upon for success, can (if abused or ignored) eat you alive.

Leave a Reply