The (Sometimes Dangerous) Power of The Video Game Community | Gaming News

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As gamers, we have more than ever before. Is that always a positive thing?

In the ‘90s and early aughts, the relationship between those who made games and those who bought and played them had a very clear beginning and end. Publishers and studios would work together to push a game out, consumers would buy the game (or rent it, which was often the case), play it, and that was essentially that. There was no Beta, no external feedback, and little transparency from behind the scenes. The game was done, the transaction made, and you liked it or you lumped it.

In 2018, that relationship is much more opaque. One of the biggest trends in video games over the last ten years has been the shift towards a model that focuses on player retention and games as a service, and as a result, consumers have more power than ever before. If we’re spending significant money on a gaming experience — particularly one that is continually evolving in an effort to keep us along for the ride — we need to be able to have a voice in what that experience is that we’re committing to, lest it exist in a bubble.

The most successful game companies now “put communities at the centre of their strategy and daily operations,” according to the most recent market intelligence report from Newzoo. Community managers increasingly play a central role as they facilitate this back and forth between a game’s makers and its audience.

The most successful game companies now “put communities at the centre of their strategy and daily operations”

This change, alongside the astronomical rise of social media, has broken down traditional barriers, and game makers — as well as authors and filmmakers and everyone in between — now have a direct line of dialogue with their fans. Brand accounts are now personable and quirky, trading in clap-backing and memes to stay relevant in the social media landscape. Everything and everyone is speaking directly to the consumer. “Hey buddy,” they’re saying. “We’re just like you.”

The audience itself is more multifaceted than ever before. Newzoo’s report notes that communities have broadened significantly since the advent of streaming and YouTube, and the notion of the ‘gamer’ has been replaced by ‘games enthusiast,’ which is more than just a gamer or a reader. It encompasses influencers who create content around games, streamers, and the ‘lean-back’ viewing of peer-created content or eSports. There’s a multitude of ways to consume gaming content beyond simply playing the game in your living room, and publishers are scrambling to adapt to this in any way they can.  

Game-making isn’t pure creative art.

Independent game maker and former BioWare employee Manveer Heir notes that listening to loud voices in your audience makes sense because game-making isn’t pure creative art. “It’s creative capitalism at the largest studios, and games have to sell,” he said. “You cannot divorce the two and a good creative must be mindful of the audience as they create. Romances for Garrus were added in Mass Effect 2 in part because customers ASKED for this.”

“This is a positive version of how this goes.” But there’s a negative version, too.

The Risks and Rewards of Transparency

Listening to your audience is vital, but there is such a thing as listening too hard. It can be overwhelming for studios when an empowered audience clamours for a feature to be added or removed en masse, particularly when said audience doesn’t necessarily know what’s best for the game they’re criticizing. “Live games are sustained by the purchasing power of their players,” another AAA developer developer, who we’ll call Mark, told me. “Many decisions affect a game’s revenue, but those big feature sized decisions could make or break a product, could cost developers their jobs.” 

Listening to your audience is vital, but there is such a thing as listening too hard.

Unrealistic demands and the proceeding anger when they’re not met can arise when the audience doesn’t have a sound grasp of the intricacies of video game development; often, they simply have no idea how long things take. “To a lot of them, adding a feature to a game is a week-long effort,” a developer working in the AAA space — let’s call him Andy — said. “But most feature requests involve code and many other asset creation disciplines so it’s more like a month-long effort than anything else.”

This is especially an issue for studios trying to carve an identity with a new IP if they try to please everybody. “If the studio is looking to build a player count and establish a major IP / franchise, chances are they’re going to be treading very lightly in the social media waters to get as many people invested in their IP as possible,”  Andy said. He warns that taking too much feedback onboard has the potential to turn a clear and unique idea into a muddy soup. “This gives the audience a solid chance to push their requests through and make demands no matter how reasonable (or unreasonable) they may be.”

There’s a counterpoint to be made that more transparency, not less, is the answer to these issues. Transparency on a more intricate scale leads to a healthier conversation between audience and developer overall, Andy said. Studios don’t need to reveal everything they’re working on, but an openness around processes beyond bullet point PR releases and back-of-the-box hyperbole goes a long way to preventing fans from taking marketing buzzwords, assumptions, and rumours as facts.

“I’m all for making things more transparent so that people understand that it’s not just machines making a game but real human beings that have goals, and that features take time and aren’t just tied to a switch that can be turned on at will. I’m expecting this trend to rise and hopefully, in the next couple of years, we can reduce the toxicity and instead encourage intelligent dialogue on how developers can make better games.”

A Shift In History

It’s no secret that toxicity in the video game community is a big problem, which doesn’t make the choice to move towards transparency an easy one. Even Blizzard’s Jeff Kaplan, who holds the industry standard for open dialogue with the Overwatch community, admitted as much in a post on the Overwatch forums in 2017.

“Because we are open with you and do not hide behind an anonymous handle (like all of you have the luxury of doing), we often times get personally attacked and threatened,” he said.

“Most great developers I know just love being heads down making or playing games. The ‘public speaking/posting’ part of the job is downright scary and intimidating. It often feels like there is no winning.”

It’s not always easy to establish a positive relationship with your audience when a subsect of them takes the message that they are the most important figure in the creator/consumer exchange too far, especially as precedents are set.

In 2012, a group of unhappy consumers began a charity drive called “Retake Mass Effect 3” in order to convince BioWare to change the ending of its RPG, which they believed didn’t offer a satisfactory culmination of player choice and consequence — basically, any sense of closure. As their voice grew in volume, BioWare began to listen. The result was the Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut expansion, which included new cinematics in an attempt to offer said closure.

Manveer Heir doesn’t think changing the ending was necessarily a terrible decision in and of itself. “When I saw the breakdown of the logical inconsistencies of the ending, I was like, ‘Oh, those should be fixed,’” he said.

But the message BioWare inadvertently sent was a powerful one. It told customers BioWare cared about them and their opinions, but “it also told them that they have the power to force change, and some customers (not all) have decided to start abusing that sort of power,” Heir said. “There’s always been an element of toxicity online, and of course, this element infects fandoms, and sadly I think this sort of signals to certain toxic types of people that demanding change to a game and vocally going after developers is a legitimate tactic to get what you want.”

Retake Mass Effect helped lift up the velvet rope that once stood between gamer and game-maker. 2014’s GamerGate strengthened the idea that mob-mentality and harassment could get results, after targeted women (and some men) were driven off of social media and out of the industry. “GamerGate felt like an inflection point in many ways,” an anonymous game developer that we’ll call Stuart said. It created a much more hostile environment and empowered some of the darkest corners of the internet to weaponize their numbers and harass people into silence, hiding, or unemployment. “It can be hard to speak out after something like that,” Stuart said.

Every controversial AAA release of the last several years has brought with it fan petitions, demands for refunds, and overwhelming distrust directed at those behind the games. Sometimes, these actions are born from valid complaints. EA was rightly criticized in 2017 for including a pay-to-win system in Battlefront 2 that gave the edge to players who were willing to spend money on loot boxes over those who weren’t. The negative PR around EA’s fumble reached such a fever pitch that nowadays ‘loot boxes’ are dirty words across the gaming landscape, and have become regulated under gambling law in multiple countries.

And yet, the campaign to get rid of the loot boxes was, questionably, aimed directly at reactionary parts of society: worried parents and the hungry, uninformed mainstream media, ready to spin the ‘video games are bad’ message at any opportunity.

“Disney is promoting #gambling to children in new Star Wars video game,” read a widely-shared PSA written by a Redditor. Though Battlefront 2’s loot boxes were indeed morally shady, the campaign was born from an at-all-odds mentality designed to incite widespread furor that a family-friendly company could be selling your kids slot machines. Battlefront 2 became the devil, and innocent children were its victims.

“The biggest change to the audience/developer relationship is that it’s become news,” Walt Williams, the writer behind Spec Ops: The Line and the single-player campaign in Battlefront 2, said. What was once a matter for community relations can now become an issue of public opinion that dominates the discussion around that developer. “Then everyone starts chiming in on one side or another, regardless of their association with the studio, game, community, etc.” 

“The biggest change to the audience/developer relationship is that it’s become news”

Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky became an issue of public opinion in 2016, after the space exploration game failed to deliver on its initial premise. Many of its players had been listening to years of excitable overhyping from both the publisher and developer. But for Hello Games co-founder Sean Murray and the rest of the No Man’s Sky crew, it wasn’t a matter of dealing with some dissatisfied customers and their run-of-the-mill complaints. In an interview with The Guardian, Murray spoke of death threats, bomb scares at their Guildford offices, and sustained harassment.

“I remember getting a death threat about the fact that there were butterflies in our original trailer,” Murray told The Guardian. “You could see them as you walked past them, but there weren’t any butterflies in the launch game. I remember thinking to myself: ‘Maybe when you’re sending a death threat about butterflies in a game, you might be the bad guy.’”

Murray says he’s learned his lesson about being overly excited in his communication to the public before a game’s release, but it was a lesson learned in an extremely painful way. “There’s a smorgasbord of things that the angry mob can do,” he told The Guardian. “It is a crowdsourced thing of how bad you can make someone’s life.”

The unmoderated conversation on social media plays a huge part in acting as a platform for people’s worst, most vindictive impulses. “Game developers having a direct dialogue with gamers is a wonderful thing in the age of social media,” Sofajockey, moderator of the unofficial fan forum, BioWare Social Network, said. “It’s intimate and it’s personal, but it also comes with risk. If a developer says what is perceived to be the wrong thing or said in the wrong way, that becomes the story.” 

“If a developer says what is perceived to be the wrong thing or said in the wrong way, that becomes the story.”

Jessica Price — the Guild Wars 2 narrative designer who was recently fired by ArenaNet on accusations that she verbally attacked a member of the  Guild Wars 2 community after he disagreed with her on Twitter — knows this all too well. Though it’s not unreasonable that ArenaNet pulled Price up on her tweets, there is little doubt that a mob quickly gathered with the sole intention of orchestrating her downfall. ArenaNet listened to that crowd, and in doing so, told the most toxic campaigners that their tactics work.

“Game companies pride themselves on letting players have direct interaction with creative talent,” Price said. “But they haven’t thought through what their responsibilities to their talent actually are if they’re going to have that sort of unconventional working environment for creatives.”

“That puts creatives in the role of customer service reps. And that’s not what we are — it’s not our job to try to make customers happy through direct interaction. It’s our job to make products. If I don’t like the seat configuration in my car, I don’t expect them to trot out an engineer for me to yell at directly.”

“Firing a team member publicly emboldens a lot of people who suddenly feel like they can do this to reshape companies in the way that they like with social media pressure,” said an anonymous AAA game developer we’ll call Mitchell. “And even though that’s unlikely to happen at scale… it sends a terrible message: ‘We don’t have your back. You are on your own. And also, kill yourself on our products while you are here.’ F*ck that.”

Changing the Thinking

The idea that game developers are there to please consumers at all cost is a and increasingly pervasive one, as it rubs away at the reality that those developers are human beings building and making things for the love of the craft. “As far as the consumer goes, they aren’t wrong to want things,” said Mitchell. “But in many cases the lack of separation between them and people who make games turns into ‘You make games for me,’ which really isn’t the case. It can’t be. Devs are just making things they love, or try to love, in the hopes of doing something good.”

The upshot of Price’s story — and Hello Games’ and BioWare’s — is that publishers and studios need to reassess their structures and best practices — or assess them in the first place — around social media and communication with fans. It’s an ongoing learning process, said Walt Williams. “Most companies have probably never had to think about how to do that. “There’s a bit of a learning curve. Mistakes will be made. Unfortunately, a lot of those mistakes will empower a segment of people who revel in misery. It won’t last, though. Studios are already learning. We, as individual developers, will adapt how we interact with people online, and a kind of balance will be restored.” 

“Studios are already learning. We, as individual developers, will adapt how we interact with people online, and a kind of balance will be restored.”

For the most part, Stuart said, audiences are reasonable and rational, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. “In all my career, though, and especially as more games have moved online, we’ve had concrete data that tells us the large majority [of gamers] continue to be engaged, happy players even when there is a vocal group complaining. In most cases, for every angry commenter in a public forum we get magnitudes more fan mail and appreciation directly to the studio, or on the company’s own message boards.”

It’s a point studios need to remember when the mob knocks at their door — there’s a very real chance they’re not representative of what the bulk of the player base wants. And if there is a reason behind the noise, learn how to parse it calmly, without overcorrection. But it’s not just their responsibility. Audiences need to learn to be better, too.

“Being polite helps,” Andy said. “Also, I’d love it if people stopped questioning the credibility of developers. It takes a lot of luck and hard work to get into the games industry and assuming that a developer having 5+ years of experience is wrong or is working incorrectly is probably not the best approach.”

We sell ourselves short if we silently accept toxic commentary and simply leave them to own the field, Sofajockey said. That’s not to say there has to be a fight, but it’s important to ask why, to ask for a source, or for the logic in a criticism.

“Most consumers are reasonable people, but that’s not how it looks if only the angries stand at the water cooler.”

Lucy O’Brien is Games & Entertainment Editor at Tech’s Sydney office. Follow her on Twitter.

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