A White Wolf property is mired in controversy. This signals that it’s time once again to change your batteries in your smoke alarms.
It wasn’t that long ago I was writing a blog called, “The White Wolf Dilemma.” Here we are once again, and much of this is going to be updated rehash of lessons still unlearned. So, let’s start the same way and have at it, then…
The World of Darkness and Vampire: the Masquerade is one of the most influential and prolific intellectual properties in recent history. Drawing influence from vampiric tales throughout history across folklore, film, literature and television. It revolutionized the role-playing game industry and, itself, became an influencer. From television's Kindred: the Embraced to the Underworld films and hundreds of popular creations in between, the World of Darkness is a pop culture juggernaut. The IP has persevered through five editions, an in-game ending, a tangental spinoff universe (Chronicles of Darkness), three different owners (the founders, CCP and Paradox), collectible card games, a highly-publicized failed MMO and four different companies currently producing rpg content (The Onyx Path, Modiphius Entertainment, Hunters Entertainment and By Night Studios). They have even managed to recently move from a developer/publisher model to a licenser model.
With so much success, how is it that every few months, this unstoppable behemoth becomes mired in controversy? The problems always seem to begin with a decision by White Wolf or their affiliates.
This time, the larp license holder By Night Studios was sold to a team of individuals that includes Shane Robinett, a guy with a history of incredibly controversial social media posts and opinions including that America should just shoot immigrants crossing the border and that the decision to cancel a White Wolf larp at a fascist nightclub a few years ago was a mistake.
The fans of White Wolf rebelled. The loudest voices were those who wanted to see Robinett gone for being a “right-wing nutjob” “racist” “white supremacist,” and those who wanted By Night Studios to ignore the “cancel culture” “social justice warriors trying to ruin my vampire” and let him stay because he “did nothing wrong.” These two groups then turned on each other, as they always do.
It’s important to note, By Night Studios is a licensee of White Wolf, they are not the same company. However, the brand is shared and ultimately, that means that By Night Studios’ mistakes reflect on White Wolf, their products and their other licensees.
Recently, White Wolf posted that they were hiring a Brand Community Developer for the World of Darkness (we’ll call it the BCD from now on because I’m too lazy to type all that again). I had a lot of people encourage and ask me to apply for the position, but I did not. I see the position as a risk for me professionally, as I would never take a position in which I was uncertain that I would have the support from leadership to succeed. It is my hope that White Wolf is prepared to trust, listen to and follow through with the decisions necessary that are made by whoever fills that position to do what needs done to begin to heal the fandom.
But what needs done?
Get the House in Order
First, White Wolf must allow the new BCD to be a part of leadership conversations and creative processes in which important decisions are being considered. A good community marketing manager understands the behaviors of people and can generally predict responses and advise on how to navigate the sea of audience opinion. Then, trust the BCD’s assessment and have the courage to change the decisions if they are problematic and empower the BCD to help manage and market the outflow of the resulting decisions. This means hiring a communications professional with brand management experience and not some vampire fan gamer that’s friends with someone who already works at White Wolf.
In fact, it means all hires should be professionals and not some vampire fan gamer that’s friends with someone already at White Wolf. The World of Darkness is a business brand, it’s not just some hobby club. If you’re listing “Studied the Darkness” or some stupid vampire joke thing under the “Occupation” entry on your Facebook page instead of your actual business title, you’re probably not professional enough to be working for an international company.
Second, White Wolf leadership needs to just stop making poor decisions. In this most recent case, the primary owner of By Night Studios was previously Jason Carl, who is currently White Wolf’s Brand Marketing Manager, and a personal friend of Robinett. This means that White Wolf’s Brand Marketing Manager sold a White Wolf licensee to a known problematic individual, resulting in another stain on the already tarnished, struggling White Wolf brand image and fracturing the fan community once again.
Choose the Target Demographic
White Wolf fandom is a messy, broken thing right now. As I said above, there are two loud, vocal fandom groups: the “edgelords” and the “extreme social justice warriors” – both are empowered by internet courage to be aggressive, mean and destructive to the fandom. White Wolf has to recognize that these two groups are contrary demographics and stop inexplicably trying to court both at the same time with the same product – a task that keeps the fanbase fractured and hinders their product, brand and ultimately, sales.
Certainly, the reality is that many fans are a silent majority in the middle. They like some darkness and some safe edginess that doesn’t go too far, while still wanting to make sure the gaming space is respectful and inclusive of others. They get lost in the fight, often tuning out or walking away from the forums because they don’t want the drama. From a marketing and communications perspective, this means the brand loses a touching point with their demographic and that means potential lost sales.
At some point, White Wolf must decide who they are targeting with V5 and W5, and clearly make that known before actively directing and marketing their product with greater focus.
Be Relatable to the Public
Having a professional and relatable image seems like a fairly common sense rule of thumb, but White Wolf hasn’t really had that. The former leader at White Wolf, Martin Ericsson, represented the company on stage, at conventions and in media appearances looking like an interpretation of Dracula who needed a shower and a hair wash. It would have worked great in the 1990s, when most Vampire players were young. The problem is, people of all ages play World of Darkness today. Grown ups just want to play the game and not feel like the people running the company might actually believe they are Tremere.
The new BCD needs to make public appearances in a professional manner that’s not off-putting to the fans. Don’t show up in a suit, but don’t show up in leather pants and puffy shirts either. The person needs to respect the company and understand they are a reflection of it. Jeans and a nice shirt can be really relatable to everyone while still being presentable on a stage.
In terms of communications, White Wolf has handled every crisis in the last few years poorly, possibly founded in their lack of a communications or public relations officer in their leadership team. Currently, the only real “face” of the company is Jason Carl, who is well known in the gaming community and hosts the V5 live play stream LA by Night. Beyond that, there is no clear communicator on behalf of the company, creating a sense of disconnect and distrust between the fans and the company.
The new BCD needs to be someone the fans can latch on to, identify with and respect. It needs to be someone with a positive history in the White Wolf community (or no history in it). It also should be someone that is new to the White Wolf team, so that there is a feeling of changing guard to help usher in the opportunity to get the fandom and the brand in order.
Most importantly, however, the fandom needs to see the company’s mission and values actually demonstrated. They’re well-written words, but just words. The BCD has to police their communications forums in a way that actually interacts with fans and addresses their behaviors in accordance with the decided-upon target demographic and these company statements.
I’ve said this previously, but it needs saying again:
Fandoms are a reflection of those in control of what they are fans of. Gaming companies bear responsibility for their gaming communities. How gamers are behaving when discussing the game, and how they actually play it, are fundamentally influenced by, and based in how, the company interacts with their fans when presenting their product.
White Wolf doesn’t seem to know which fans they want, let alone what they want from them, dooming the company to keep repeating this cycle. They will never be able to course correct anything without making these key decisions and equipping themselves with the people, wisdom and skills to then properly follow through.
The World of Darkness is still one of the most influential and prolific intellectual properties. I hope changes can save it before it becomes history.