Warner Bros. has really been pushing Middle-earth: Shadow of War like few games have been pushed this year. And by that, I mean it’s been pushed in a way that has built a spectacular fortress of bad PR and internet controversy. The pro-consumer sections of the gaming community have been angry about Shadow of War on multiple occasions, mostly within the past few months. Thanks to the bizarre business decisions on the part of Warner Bros., will Monolith’s sequel to its original surprise hit have trouble following suit?
Things got off to a pretty good start for Shadow of War. People loved the reveal of the expansions to Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System, particularly with all the personality injected into the orc units players will be able to add to their armies. Meanwhile, the playable demos showing up at events like E3 really showed off how visually impressive the game is. The sheer scale of moments like fortress sieges really had people salivating for more. But it didn’t take long for the public perception to take a nosedive.
Enter the microtransactions. Shadow of War is introducing the Market and its own variations of the gaming industry’s favorite new vice, loot boxes. The single-player and yet undetailed multiplayer component will both use this content, in the form of random orc recruitment and various upgrades for the player. This is not a good look for such an involved RPG, essentially coming off as a pay to win mechanic in a mostly single-player game, therefore devaluing the overall investment needed to get the same content without paying.
Then the brand deals started showing up on the heels of the Market, featuring awful junk food like Totino’s pizza rolls. Buy Totino’s products and get codes for in-game currency! Buy Totino’s products and enter to win a Xbox One X bundle! This stuff is fairly innocuous, just see things like the Destiny 2 Pop-Tarts and Rockstar that nobody gave more than a bemused chuckle. But paired with the Market and added fervor from YouTube pundits such as Jim Sterling and TotalBiscuit, and the outcry against the game only worsened.
Finally, the ultimate nail on the goodwill coffin hit. During the development of Shadow of War, one of the game’s producers passed away. He was a loved presence at Monolith, and the developers opted to honor his memory in the form of a DLC orc for player armies. Of course, it was determined that this DLC would come at a cost, with a portion of the total earnings (not all of them) going to help fund the family’s related costs. That may seem fine to most people on paper, but the fine print caused a huge uproar.
The fine print, in tiny text wherever Warner Bros. advertised the memorial DLC, said that donation money only applies in the United States. Moreover, it only happens in certain parts of the United States. Of course, the DLC is purchasable anywhere. So as far as anyone can tell, for everyone else in the world and country who purchases that DLC, Warner Bros. gets to pocket all the cash. The outrage that followed this discovery prompted the publisher to release a statement ensuring all the money is going to where it’s advertised to, but without an explanation of how that contradicts the fine print in the company’s own promotional material.
That’s a whole lot of bad juju surrounding a game that otherwise was a source of a lot of hype from the gaming community. The first game cleaned up when it came to critical reception and awards and sold pretty well too, despite its position as fairly new and unproven blood on the scene. A lot of people who would have otherwise been happy to promote the game have instead heatedly campaigned against it, and comment sections are ablaze with consumer rage. Will this end up hurting the game’s bottom line? There’s precedent for PR nightmares causing sales to crash and burn, but there’s also precedent for tons of people buying the game anyway. Time will tell, as Shadow of War has barely a month until release, which isn’t a lot of time for damage control on this scale.