Good Old Games' Soap-Opera Antics Turn "Grand Opening" Into PR Nightmare

Let me tell you about a little game called Arcanum.

Released by Troika Games back in 2001, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura was Troika's manifesto, a sprawling isometric steampunk rebuke to Troika's former masters at Interplay, whose meddling in a potential Fallout sequel caused Troika's founders to seek greener pastures independently.

(Arcanum successfully integrated many of the ideas Interplay didn't like, while Interplay's post-Troika spiral into irrelevance deprived the world of Fallout 3 for nearly a decade. Let that be a lesson to publishers.)

Despite dozens of gameplay bugs (a staple of future Troika releases), Arcanum was absolutely amazing, but as it happened, Troika was too awesome (and honestly, too bug-prone) to exist. Troika closed shop in 2005, and with its closure, its back catalog was seemingly lost.

Dozens of once-great developers have shared Troika's fate, leaving hundreds of classic games at the mercy of IP holders unwilling or unable to take on the costs of updating and rereleasing them. Faced with an industry whose classics won't enter the public domain for decades, what's a nostalgic gamer to do?

Enter Good Old Games, a digital distribution startup intent on filling the hole left by the scorched-earth history of PC games publishing. Launched in late 2008 by Polish company CD Projekt (developer of the inexplicably decent The Witcher), GOG's premise was simple enough: Take the best and hardest to find of disappeared PC games, tweak them to run on modern systems, digitally distribute them DRM-free at bargain-basement prices, and bam! Instant money, right?

Actually, nobody ever really knew for sure. GOG's two-year beta phase saw a steady stream of releases and a near-perfect track record, but the tendency of some gamers to see them in the same way one might see a library—respected but rarely actually used—threw GOG's financial viability into doubt.

So when GOG abruptly replaced its homepage with a short message stating that the service could not go on in its current form (in the middle of a big weekend sale, no less), gamers rightfully expected the worst. After two years distributing a product too good to be true in a market consisting of equal parts piracy and cynicism, the GOG experiment had finally, regrettably, failed.

On a related subject, guess who tried an ill-advised PR stunt last week?

That's right: GOG's shutdown was a hoax, a momentary bluff designed to toy with the user base while the admins fiddled with a few knobs to move things out of beta. GOG's users predictably exploded, and after coming up with the best no-brainer gaming business plan in recent memory and against all expectations making it work, GOG finally found a worthy adversary in its own marketing department.

Despite being the creator (and just as often the destroyer) of a few hundred recent comedy trends, the Internet has no sense of humor whatsoever. No matter how sound your business plan or how beloved your product, never, ever think that you're so buddy-buddy with the Internet that you can prank it without at least some aspect of it hating you forever in response.

GOG's gaffe—that singular misunderstanding of its audience—was a simple but fundamentally dangerous one, especially when compounded by the company's initial silence on the matter. Five minutes' worth of Internet speculation can make headlines; three days' worth of speculation making its way across the most popular gaming blogs and forums can be deadly.

However, it could well have taken the people at GOG that long to realize the enormity of their error. YouTube videos released by GOG during its downtime illustrate a company embarrassed by its own antics, only recently having been made aware that the Eastern European tradition of faking corporate death during a Grand Opening is not something that translates well in the States. Even after seeing GOG trade user loyalty for short-term notoriety, it's hard not to pity them as they come to grips with a self-inflicted Kanye moment.

GOG will recover this fumble. In the grand scheme of gaming PR disasters, anything not involving goat intestines (google "god of war goat" if you think I'm kidding) qualifies as little more than a solid honorable mention, and GOG's eventual response was nothing if not sincere.

But this is not something that will be easily forgotten. GOG's little stunt may have netted it 20 times the traffic to which it is accustomed today, but how much of that is from users scrambling to archive previous purchases? Scaring your customers only works if you're offering them something new, and the industry circa 10 years ago only made so many Baldur's Gates for GOG to throw to the wolves.

In the meantime, there's a copy of Arcanum for sale on Amazon right now—$29.99, with free shipping. That's five times more expensive than GOG's version, and unlike the GOG release, there's no guarantee that it will work with current-generation hardware and operating systems.

I doubt Amazon will get my money, but GOG probably won't be seeing it for a while, either.