During the first week of July in 2016, a mobile game called Pokemon Go that involves players geocaching Pokemon—which uses augmented reality by allowing players to see Pokemon in the real world through their phone’s camera—boomed in popularity, most likely taking its small developer team by surprise. Tens of millions of people worldwide play the game, and many of them took to Reddit and other websites to discuss it, including the fact that it was riddled with bugs upon release, some of which made the game nearly unplayable.
Of course some people immediately gave up playing at all due to being frustrated when the game failed to work properly, while others kept playing and hoped for an update that would fix crashes, freezes, and other issues. The internet was abuzz with discussion of the bugs people found, especially a bug known as the “three step bug,” where the system used in the game to track a nearby Pokemon’s location did not work properly, instead falsely reporting that even a Pokemon that was right next to the player was “three steps” (a distance of about 100 meters) away. The most common outcry about this bug was, “why are they not telling us when it will be fixed?!”
Niantic, a company founded by CEO John Hanke, who wanted to collect a small team to do cool stuff with the intricate global map Google has created, is the company behind Pokemon Go. I don’t know if they expected their project to be so successful. Their previous mobile game, Ingress, where players competed to control “portals” located at various points in the world, was not extremely popular. But Ingress didn’t have a highly popular brand name like Pokemon behind it. People, including myself, have years of memories connected to the Pokemon franchise, and the idea of catching Pokemon in the nearby park is a childhood dream come true. Niantic seemed unprepared to handle the millions of people clamoring for bug fixes and new features.
Not only have they not fixed many of the bugs and other issues mentioned by players, but they haven’t been communicating with their player base about the status of the game, whether or not they are working on bug fixes, or why they choose to take certain actions. The latest update “fixed” the three step bug by removing the tracking system completely. Now players get a menu of “nearby” Pokemon, but no way to locate them other than randomly walking around. There hasn’t been any response from Niantic about why they did this or if they plan to implement a different system in the future.
Here’s where the point of this article comes in: developer-client communication is very important in order to maintain a good relationship. It’s impossible to deliver a bug-free build of a huge application, especially one that is expected to run on multiple mobile platforms. But if you communicate with your users that you’re aware of the bugs, are investigating them, or have a proposed solution, then you don’t have users wondering if you care about them at all, or if you’re just taking their money and running while delivering a sub-par project. As a free-to-play mobile app developer, I don’t think Niantic anticipated needing anyone to communicate with the public about bug fixes or updates. Developers are not notorious for their people skills, and addressing thousands of people can be daunting. Communication is of course key when you’re trying to keep a business running with paying clients, but just because you deliver a product that can potentially be played completely for free by everyone (money is made through micro transactions for in-app purchases of items that help with, but are not essential to, advancement in the game), does not mean you can avoid communicating with your users.
Many have expressed anger toward Niantic that would be alleviated if they’d only explain themselves, or provide some feedback about what’s going on at their company and where they are with fixes. Not everyone cares about having the bugs fixed immediately, but they do care when they feel like the company doesn’t care about fixing the bugs. Even though it’s highly likely that all the Niantic developers are working as hard as they can to fix everything, the players can’t see that and don’t know it. They feel ignored, and that is not how you want the people supporting your company to feel.
No matter who your client base is, communication both throughout the development process and during every version release is the cornerstone to maintaining the client base. It can be as simple as blog posts about work your team has done on the app, tweets about known issues (even if there isn’t currently a plan to resolve them, users like to know the developers are aware of the problem), or if possible, emails about new features or changes when a new version hits production. The role varies from company to company—sometimes developers communicate directly with clients, but often there’s a PR person or intermediary like a project manager. But the important thing is that someone is there to communicate with the users and keep them updated.