When the News Suppression Pact was announced on Sunday, there was almost a riot. For a moment, some people wondered if a second Forge war was about to start. Were the petition and the coverage it received enough to get our message to Ubisoft, or was it better to put even more pressure? One thing is sure, the debate surrounding the Pact will remain a classic thread.

One of the participants of the debate, Corribus, was very active and supported the SaveHeroes movement and the Pact during a good part of the day. His experience gave him the idea to go back to his old column on Celestial Heavens, Discources of Might and Magic. In the new entry, Heroes V is Almost Here! ... Or is it?, Corribus shares with us his thoughts on the debate, from the original forum petition to the announcement of the delay on Monday.

Discourses of Might and Magic:
Heroes V is Almost Here! …. Or is it?

In a turn of events so huge that it may in fact shake the very ground we stand upon, some very dedicated Heroes fans recently banded together and formed saveheroes.org, an online petition to put Heroes V on hold. The reason: a growing perception arising from those involved in the beta test that there is no way that the game can both make its lingering deadline for release and, for lack of better words, not end up sucking.

But wait, let’s back up for a second. Yes, you read that correctly. There was a petition out to delay Heroes V. No, I’m not kidding. Really.

Now, when I first heard of this, well before it was announced in any “official capacity”, my reaction was probably the same as yours: yeah, right. At this point it was just a post by Valeriy over at Heroes Community asking for people to “sign the petition” by replying to the post with something like “signed” or “I agree”. The petition as it was worded was this:

World-Wide Petition - Save Heroes of Might and Magic 5

Quite a few players have now seen what the Heroes 5 open beta is like and those who haven't can get some idea here. Obviously this is the state of current game development of Heroes 5. There is just over a month left. The game needs to be thoroughly tested, features finalized, campaigns well made, AI improved etc. Then some time to produce the actual game bundles. Realistically, in about one month only partial improvements can be made and we might end up with another half-made game, with questionable follow-up patches, essential game features being shifted to expansions, etc.

This is a world wide petition to extend the development time by another two months so that we can have a Heroes 5 that gives rebirth to the HOMM series, instead of killing it by repeating mistakes of Heroes 4. This petition will be sent to Ubisoft. Let us all have a say for another two months and a well developed game.

I remember when I first read this my initial thought was something like “aww, that’s cute”. Then I “signed” it by replying (I’m reply number 5) and moved on with my life, intent on putting this spurious ridiculousness behind me. But lo and behold, a few days later and it’s a news item on Celestial Heavens? Now this was serious! And then it was revealed that there was a web site, an actual online petition that you could sign. What, had the world gone off its rocker? And then the news appeared on Gamespot and other gaming sites. *gape*

Once it became apparent that this was not a joke but was a serious endeavor by fans to have a say in the ultimate future of their beloved game, the implications of it began to settle in and I thought: what a wonderful topic for my next Discourses of Might and Magic article!

Let me start by saying that, judging from some of the comments on the RT message board, there were many who initially viewed this as a joke, or, more to the point, a giant waste of time by so-called “losers with nothing better to do”. (That’s a little harsh, I think, regardless of whether it is a waste of time or not. And really – to those people I might ask: how do you classify hanging around on a message board and playing computer games? Trust me, the diversions of humanity are founded on wasting time. And really, why shouldn’t they be? It’s not like time is something nature is running out of in the near future.) I’ll get to whether it actually was a waste of time in a minute, but first I think it is worth pointing out to these people, and really to everyone, how this is really the perfect sign of what type of community we (Heroes fans) are. I think it’s quite special that this game has attracted a following by people who care about the direction that the game takes in future installments. I seriously doubt that fans of Halo, or Grand Theft Auto, or even more similar games like Civilization, would band together and actually challenge that game’s publisher to actually take the time to get the game right before putting it out on the market. Is this a sign of the maturity of Heroes fans?

Or is it simply a sign that everyone’s still got the H4 disaster stuck in our collective consciousness? Because one wonders what might have happened if this petition had come out prior to the release of H4. Could such a move have saved that game? Such fanciful musings only last for a moment, though, because it’s obvious that would never have happened, because (A) Heroes III was a monumental success and there was no reason at the time to believe that Heroes IV would have been any different and (B) there was no real beta test so nobody really knew what type of track the game was on before it was published anyway. And even if you allow for the possibility that fans might have actually put forward such a petition, there’s not a chance in Bracada that 3DO would have heeded such a demand by the fans because of its financial crisis.

But back to the petition for H5 – whereas H4 was coming off a success and fans had every reason to be confident, now H5 is basically coming off a failure, and fans have faced the reality that a game can be seriously screwed up if it’s not given enough time to be developed properly. (Because just about every fan out there can agree that whether or not they approve of the way H4 drastically changed the fundamental gameplay of the Heroes formula, the direct reason why the game failed was because it simply wasn’t finished.) So maybe this petition was really simply a reflection of the lack of confidence that everyone feels right now about how this next game is going to turn out. I mean, we all know that this is the final chance – if this game flops, there will be no Heroes VI. So was this petition born out of fear for the demise of our beloved franchise? Was this petition basically a way for the collective fanbase to say, “Please, Ubisoft, don’t screw this one up. Because this is the sudden death round.” I suspect yes.

Now as to whether it’s a waste of time, that’s a whole other issue. Going back to when I first saw this, my first impression was again that it was a cute little sign of how tight-knit we all are when it comes to our game, but really, what’s the point? It’s not like a big company was going to listen to a thousand fans begging them to put on hold a game that is likely to see a few hundred thousand copies sold around the world. Right? I mean, as much as we like to think of ourselves as “the community”, in point of fact I’d wager that we represent probably less than 1% of the people who actually will buy H5. As I’ve tried to stress before, we represent the die-hard loyalists. I mean, we’re always playing this game. Most people who will buy H5 probably haven’t played a Heroes game in years. You think they could give a lick about whether the game is delayed or not? Heck, they probably don’t know anything about it other than the screenshots they saw over at Gamespot or in their gaming magazine of choice. All they know is that the game is going to be released on 3/06 and they’ve got their 50 bucks set aside to buy it, and if the game isn’t on the shelf on 3/06, that 50 bucks is buying something else instead.

For this reason, my suspicion was that there is no way Ubisoft would delay the publication of a major title like Heroes 5 for even 5 minutes unless it was absolutely necessary to do so. And certainly not because some die-hard fans signed a petition. I mean, we’re talking millions of dollars here. Deadlines are everything in the business world – you don’t push them back casually on a whim. Companies are built on quarterly financial reports, anticipated earnings, etc. etc. When a game is pushed back, it screws everything up because actual earnings don’t meet anticipated earnings and share values sink. Investors (who probably aren’t gamers) get ticked and start to dump their shares. Do this once or twice and the company can recover from it, but do it too often and… well, bye bye Ubisoft. So you get the drift. No way Ubisoft pushes H5 back because we ask them to, whether it’s got its bugs ironed out or not. If it installs without a hitch and plays even reasonably well, it ships. We’re just lucky (knock on wood) that Ubisoft will stick around long enough after the game hits the shelves to put out the requisite seven patches. Kind of like what 3DO couldn’t do.

That was my first impression, not my current one. Because there’s another issue that factors into a company’s interests besides making deadlines, and that’s publicity. A petition on its own means nothing, and we could sign them until our fingers fall off and it wouldn’t make any difference. But people love controversy, and it wasn’t long before the gaming sites got wind of the “movement”, aided in no small part to the official website that houses the petition and the collective efforts of nearly all the fan sites. When gaming sites, which are responsible for most of your advertising, start saying things about your product like “fans of the Game, disenchanted by preliminary reports, have signed a petition for the Company to put the release of the Game on hold for as long as it takes to fix it”, you (the Company) finally might want to start paying attention. Bad press can kill the best game before it even hits the shelves no matter how good you stick to the schedule and if anything is bad press, the rumor that your game might be released before its playable certainly qualifies. Remember, sometimes the vocal minority can turn more heads than the silent majority. We do have power, after all.

I’ll close this article with a final thought. Not long after the petition was “made public” it was made known that the release date had been pushed back. According to Ubisoft, this decision was made some time ago, prior to the petition ever being even started, rendering it moot. Basically a waste of time.

For the record, I would like to submit to you exhibit A, an excerpt from the article from Gamespot, which reads:

Little did the petitioners know that the project had already been delayed. An Ubisoft representative told GameSpot today that the company had pushed HoMMV out of the March release window before the beta test even went live. However, the only public indication of this was the game’s quiet absence from the company’s list of releases planned for the current quarter, which ends March 31. A revised release date for the game is expected next week.

This may very well be true, and if it is then either (A) Ubisoft truly cares about its products enough to delay a game to get it right, despite the financial repercussions or (B) Heroes V was really in such bad shape that Ubisoft had no choice. Either way, I think we’re all better for it, because the game can only get better with time.

However, part of me couldn’t help but feel that that announcement was a little too….convenient. This premonition was stoked by an Update on the above article which was:

(Update) The Ubisoft representative has since contacted GameSpot, emphasizing that the game’s delay was not known about before the launch of the beta-testing period.

Now that, to me, smells like fish. Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, the petition actually did turn some heads at Ubisoft because of a fear of imminent bad press surrounding the game? What better way to put an end to the “game will be shipped despite not being ready” rumors by announcing that the game is delayed because it’s not ready? Of course, we’ll probably never know which came first, the chicken or the egg, the petition or the delay, but I wonder whether Ubisoft (or any company, for that matter) would ever admit to acquiescing to the demands of the fanbase, even if it was decided that the fans were right. Better to pretend like it was what you were going to do all along, no? No need to set a precedent.

That’s just a thought, for all you who think the petition was just a big waste of time. But whatever the case, I think we should all be glad that the game’s delayed. It’s just more time to argue over whether the 8x10 battlefield is big enough.

Note Bene: Since I wrote this article, it came out that fan sites had upped the ante and had signed a “News Suppression Pact”. (That title could only be more amusing if the word treaty had been used.) But funny title aside, the pact was anything but funny, as it was basically a boycott on positive publicity for the game. Essentially, the largest H5 sites had agreed to post no news items about the game until a delayed release date was officially announced by Ubisoft. The proverbial gauntlet had been thrown. Initial fan reaction to this move was, surprisingly to me, somewhat negative. Where fans were all-too eager to sign a petition, many of them felt that now “we” had gone too far. It’s a difference, so to speak, between asking and demanding. There’s a strange fear that seems to lurk, that “we might have made Ubisoft mad” or that we might have “damaged our credibility as fans”.

Huh? At this point I will repost something I wrote someone in private about this matter, because I think it’s relevant here:

This was the same kind of stuff people said during the whole Forge thing. The simple fact is that the basic rules of human relationships do not apply to the customer-business relationship. If you are paying for something, you have every right to demand what you want, and if you don't get what you demand, you have every right to walk away. You have the right to resort to threats not to buy the product if it is not EXACTLY what you want. If your threats are fruitful, great. If not, you have lost nothing.

Let us say that there is a restaurant that you used to love, but recently the food has been mediocre. Now let us say that you go into the restaurant and this time the meal is downright awful. I don't think anyone would fault you for telling the chef that if the food does not improve, you will never eat there again, even if the chef was someone with whom you used to have a good relationship. Nobody would expect you to shut your mouth and continue to eat at the restaurant despite the fact that the food is not as good as it used to be. You are paying for the food, after all, so why shouldn't you get what you want? If it was once a restaurant that you enjoyed, then it is worth fighting for what you like so that you may continue to be a patron. If the chef was wise, he would thank you for the fact that you cared enough to inform him ahead of time about the problem so that he could correct it in time to retain you as a customer, when in fact you could have just left and never come back. Within this analogy, those who are criticizing the H5 sites for their pact are the other patrons of the restaurant, who are afraid that, in making a fuss and trying to help the chef improve his restaurant, the chef will just get pissed and throw everyone out and never cook again. But that's an irrational fear, because the chef really can't afford to do that. He needs you more than you need him. He's trying to make a living. You're just trying to have a nice meal, and there are plenty of other restaurants from which to chose.

Therefore I don't see why it is not OK to tell a game company that they had better get it right, or you will not longer be a customer. It's the same situation, and the fans of this game need to start applying the rules that operate for every other business relationship.

It also must be stated that I suspect that all of this was probably a lot more complicated than the casual fan realizes. But what I do know is that we have turned a corner here and the gaming industry actually may never be the same. Because modern entertainment is built on the premise of “we’ll make it, you’ll buy it, no matter how bad it is.” And that tenet has held true for a long time, for the music industry, the movie industry, and the gaming industry. People complain and complain about how movies these days suck, and yet people still pay to go see them! And how do you get the movie companies to stop making dreck? By banding together and telling the movie companies that we’re not going to pay another nickel until they stop making mindless terrible sequels to mindless terrible movies! Can you imagine – if fans decided when computer games could be published? If gaming companies were afraid to put out a computer game until it was absolutely perfect (i.e., no more of this patching crap) because a discerning public wouldn’t tolerate it otherwise? Where you didn’t have to worry that your 50 dollars would be wasted on another terrible product, where you could actually be confident that when you bought a game, it would be good? What a wonderful world! And what if this was all brought about by this outcry over Heroes V?

Now how’s that for delusions of grandeur?

Nota Bene #2. Alright, I’ve got to get this article out because every day the situation changes, so I’ll make this quick. Now it has come out that Ubisoft has acquiesced to the “pact” and officially delayed H5 (official new date not yet determined). The petition was ultimately able to garner over 2500 signatures according to Angelspit. That’s a lot of fans. Certainly 2500 would be too many for any company to ignore. And I must say, the fact that so many people were interested enough to sign such a pact is quite incredible, regardless of whether it was the appropriate course of action. That just demonstrates what an incredible community we have.

I will add that I think that saying that “H5 is Saved” is somewhat premature, because we will do not know what the quality of the final product will be. But I’m of the opinion that time can only help, and so while it might still be bad, it certainly can’t get worse over extended period of time..

But more importantly I want to dwell for a second on what, exactly, has happened here. I have already read some “conspiracy theories”, either the blatant kind (this was all orchestrated by Ubisoft) or the subtle kind (this was all clever marketing). Indeed, this certainly has generated a lot of publicity for the game, and publicity is usually a good thing. But what turned the publicity to a good thing was the way that the situation was handled by Ubisoft. Certainly, the pact gave Ubisoft the perfect opportunity to postpone the game, please everyone, and come out looking like the good guy. Is that what they had planned all along? Who knows. But as Charles Watkins said, this company is not a monolithic entity and it’s certainly a lot more complicated than the black and white picture that many of us would like to paint it as. Still, it bears pointing out that this could just as easily have turned into a publicity disaster for Ubisoft, if they had obstinately held to the original deadline on the mere principle that they would not cave in to the demands of amateur fan sites. Did we narrowly avoid disaster, or was success predestined? Again, who knows – but Ubisoft’s decision to postpone does not surprise me. I knew this would work from the beginning, not only because it was a great strategy, but because Ubisoft has impressed me for a long time with their dedication to Heroes fans and with their sound business practices.

Which brings me to my final point, and that is: what would 3DO have done in the same position? Would they have “saved” H5? Far be it for me to condense the collapse of a major gaming company into a few sentences, but I feel one of the things that so undermined H4 and Might and Magic IX was 3DO’s peculiar withdraw from interactions with the community at the time. It seems to me that maybe those games would have had a chance (and by virtue of that, 3DO) if there had been more of a dialogue between the fanbase and 3DO at about the time of H4’s release. The fact that Ubisoft has constantly solicited our opinions and worked with us during the development of H5 (and particularly, the month-long public beta test) has gone very much unmentioned or unnoticed by just about everyone here. This is something that was very much lacking during the development of H4. Did this lack of interaction between fans and 3DO during development of H4 have anything to do with the Forge incident? Some sort of lingering bitterness on behalf of 3DO and NWC? Perhaps. And perhaps that’s a wound best left closed. But I’ll open it just a smidgen and say that if that was indeed the case, this is just the sort of pitfall that could have entrapped Ubisoft during this more recent (albeit small-scale) fan-company crisis… and I’m mighty glad that Ubisoft was wise enough to sidestep it.