When I was a kid my Dad was a wholesale travel agent. That meant that it was his job to travel around the world and find locations and services that he would bring together and sell to other people as a package tour. One thing he always pointed out to me was that travel was a “service business”, and that all the bells and whistles in the world didn’t matter if there wasn’t someone there to make sure the customers had the best experience possible, and to take care of problems when they didn’t.
In the years after my father first explained the concept of a “service business” to me the kind of high class travel packages he dealt in were history, vanished by cheap, deregulated airline seats that made it easier to fly first and ask questions later. The great destinations were still there, but individuals were more likely to pick up a guidebook and hammer together their own vacation that go on an expensive package tour that might cost twice as much, and give them only half of what they were looking for.
That history is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I’m obviously not the only one.
Back at the dawn of the internet your relationship to the game was entirely built around the object that came in the box, whether that was a disc, diskette, or a game cartridge. And the customer service experience was owned by the retail store where you purchased the product. Most of them were pretty awful at it, but at least you had someone to talk to and even exchange the product with if things didn’t go to plan. And the chain of connection to the developer was a long one that passed from you, to the retailer, to the distributor, to the publisher, and they to the person who actually made the game.
One of the more surprising side effects of the internet has been the total disintegration of the multiple layers of middle-men that once stood between the player and the creator of the product. These days it isn’t that difficult to find a forum where you can leave your individual opinion on a product, or send an email directly to the developer. If nothing else you can show up to Amazon and join in a massive demonstration when it turns out that the DRM that is supposed to protect the product from pirates is protecting it from being played instead.
But whether it’s what we play, or how we play it, some companies are beginning to figure out that even though they are now directly responsible for dealing with their irate customers, that relationship is becoming as important as the product itself, and that if you treat them with respect, and give them what you want, it’s possible to thrive, even while other people are claiming that the apocalypse is just around the corner.
Businesses as diverse as Netflix, Vivendi, Steam, and iTunes all managing to make a tidy profit by defining their core of what they do around an ongoing relationship with the customer rather than simply focusing on the end profit, or trying to use DRM to redefine their software so that they can get back the control they’ve “lost”
For older media such as movies and music that’s a one way experience. Once the product is consumed the relationship is over, or at least reset. You want more movie? Then rent another one. Games are more in-depth experiences, and between multiplayer, co-op, product updates, user created and downloadable content, there are numerous points where you are directly in contact with your customer. The gameplay experience ends up simply being another point along that service chain. And social games push us even further out, demanding that the platform provides every user with appropriate, dynamic, and safe relationships that allow blur the lines between users and content creators.
Like every great challenge the rise of the service business also an opportunity. In this case it’s about leveraging the service equation to find new and innovate from the expectations of the customer. If the user comes into the experience knowing that they’re getting into a relationship, and looking to find out what more you have to offer, it’s a win for everyone.
Andrew Mayer is a Social Gaming and User Experience Consultant with over seventeen years of experience in the games industry.