Another thing that is apparently big in the gaming world are conventions. I am not even remotely joking here. Each year, Minecraft has a big gala event where fellow gamers congregate to hold discussions about gameplay and (of course) challenge each other in one massive community battle. Because this is a once a year event and because Mincraft is just the coolest of cool games, tickets sell out pretty quickly. That means many disappointed gamers are left without a chair once the music stops.
‘But not so fast’, says one enterprising fan. ‘If Minecraft can generate this kind of buzz, why can’t I hold my own convention? I’ll simply rent some space, order balloons, put up some projector screens and a bunch of computers, and invite everyone to come. I’ll charge $50 a day (why not, it’s Minecraft and people LOVE IT). Kids are happy. Parents are happy. Everyone wins.’
This is what Mojang, the maker of Minecraft is facing now. Somebody set up a website affiliated for an event called “Meeting of the Mines for Minecraft”, to be held in Orlando, Florida last December. Sponsors were listed as Nickelodeon, Red Bull, and Play N Trade and people were charged $50 for a one-day pass. The event was originally scheduled for December 2013, but the organizer changed it to March 22 and 23. March 22 came and attendees showed up at the doors, all dressed in custom-made costumes and raring to get their Minecraft on. Another disappointment as the venue said the event wasn’t even scheduled to take place that day. When the attendees arrived on March 23, they found an event that was so underwhelming and disappointing (the event itself only lasted for a few hours) that many demanded refunds. At least so far, the refunds haven’t been issued and the organizer has stiffed suppliers and vendors at the event by issuing bad checks, failing to honor grandiose promises of great prizes, and generally excelling at dashing dreams.
I think its pretty clear that people are ticked off at Meeting of the Mines and probably hold the group in a less-than-favorable light. Rightfully so. But how does this event impact the Minecraft brand? Consumers knew going in that this was not a Mojang-sponsored event. There appears to be no attempt by the event sponsor to use Mojang’s goodwill, apart from simply putting on an event centered around Minecraft. But is the clear disclaimer that Mojang was not affiliated with the event sufficient? After all, Mojang is apparently pretty lax about letting others use its trademarks, so long as there is no funny business going on with a user acting as a competitor. Take the following quote, for instance:
While we do take protection of our IP and brand seriously, the popularity of Minecraft has made it impossible to see everything that is done with our name. When we see something done wrong with it, our approach is usually reaching out directly, instead of through lawyers, to give people a chance to explain what they did and why. Often times it’s just people in the community doing things they didn’t realize were wrong, and we give people a chance to fix it. Sometimes it’s obvious that things were done intentionally, and we take a harder approach when it’s obviously not someone who is part of our community, but rather a company or person trying to take advantage of the community instead. There is a big distinction in our eyes and we treat those things very differently.
If Mojang pleads the 5th and really didn’t have any notice, certainly one of the sponsors would have known something was up. Sponsors of events have just as much of an interest in protecting their marks from being used improperly in connection with an event. If consumers have a bad experience at the event, this could reflect negatively on the sponsor. The lead “sponsors” of the event were Nickelodeon and Red Bull, those are pretty big names and they likely have robust trademark enforcement teams that go around the internet searching for improper use of the name. Play N Trade proclaimed its vigilance in protecting its own I.P. and claims that it “consistently checks Google and social media to make sure [their] logo has not been used without permission.” (I am assuming that Red Bull and Nickelodeon were not in fact sponsors of this event and that assumption is based on the belief that Nickelodeon and Red Bull are very discrete in the types of events they sponsor, perhaps only favoring officially sanctioned events sponsored by an actual game developer, for instance).
What is the damage to Mojang? If consumers do not associate the event directly with Mojang, there is no danger of Mojang being linked up to the event and the reputation of Mojang and Minecraft as an awesome developer and game remain in-tact. But a company’s reputation encompasses so much more than just the events that the company sponsors directly. Goodwill (the term that trademark attorneys use to refer to the accumulated associations, marketplace reputation, and general image associated with a particular name) is generated and supported by interaction between a brand and consumers. When a consumer has a good experience with a brand or sees it constantly in the marketplace across different channels (say, like in a store and on the big screen), they draw a line between a particular identity and the origin of that identity. The association may influence future decisions, such as the decision to purchase a product bearing a particular name or attending an event where the brand is used prominently. In the consumer’s mind, if an event brands a particular name and the consumer has had a great experience at events bearing that name in the past, they are likely to have a great experience at other events bearing the same name. This is how the event organizer of Meeting of the Minds capitalized on Mojang’s goodwill and how it could potentially damage Mojang’s reputation. The internet, with its numerous avenues of promotion and other drivers of interest compounds the problem.
To accumulate goodwill, a brand owner has to work really hard to ensure that consumers only receive the brand experience that the brand owner intends. And this goodwill can be accumulated regardless of whether the brand owner itself puts on an event or whether the brand owner sponsors the event.
Perhaps for this reason, Mojang announced it is revamping its procedures regarding brand usage by others. One change it is looking to implement is developing guidelines for community-run events. This is a start, but why didn’t Mojang have these policies going forward? Unfortunately, this is a common trend among smaller companies that enter the marketplace with a product without plans for scaling up a consumer-base. In Mojang’s case, it could have been a case of too much growth too quickly, as its game spread like wildfire.