Game Developers and the Fans Who Hate Them

14037507_3541109337696_817818091_o What is it that makes the story of Frankenstein’s monster so palpable, so relatable? The story has the impact it does as it is one of the earliest works of modern fiction that so inherently connects man to something he cannot understand, that being death. In all of the story’s representations, one piece of connective tissue between monster and man rings the truest: the dejection by society, the hunting with torches and pitchforks, the judgement. What drives Frankenstein’s monster mad is often not his own nature, but his reaction to a critique the society he so badly wants to please places on him.

In more modern times, the private and the public relate in very different ways due to social media and new forms of communication and interpretation, however, the emotions behind these interactions still feel the same. An arena in which this becomes especially notable is the realm of video games, a field in which games can be hyped for years before an actual product can be experienced. Not only that, but this is also a field in which the fan base can be truly powerful; reactions can be so effusive with praise and dedication that games earn followings that last them ten years or more (look at the family tree of the Half-Life games, for instance). But these fans’ expectations are a double-edged sword, and they can become so burdensome that a game is swallowed up by them (look at the surprisingly sparse legacy of a game like Spore). New levels of connection between game players and game developers are being produced like never before due to new modes of social media that lead to more unique interactions between the consumer and the producer. This brings with it increased scrutiny, scrutiny that can cause a layering of the consumers’ preferred narrative over their expectations, leading to a rift between what is wanted and what is produced, something heightened by companies that prefer to speak of their goals as opposed to their abilities, or simply when they desire a level of mystery to shroud their games.

The relationship between video game makers and video game players has always been an interesting one, given that the whole industry experienced a very rapid cycle of growth (and continues to grow at a better rate than a good deal of other entertainment industries). Gaming really came out of the developer’s garage and into the context of modern discourse with characters like John Romero, a long-haired developer dragged right out of an 80s hair metal music video. Romero lived the image of the “rock star” game developer, a sort of romantic public perception of the newly powerful status of these popular game-makers. This can be seen as a sort of growing pain of the industry, developers were trying to fit themselves in the same category of public perception as say, record producers did. The lifespan of this sort of consumer perception of the developer was rapid, as was Romero’s time at the top of the industry. His hallmarks of gaming, Doom and Quake, are probably some of the most iconic video game properties of all time, but his big follow-up, Daikatana, went down in gaming history as both one of the most anticipated and one of the most disappointing game releases to this day. Announced in 1997 and hyped with all of the “extreme” 90s advertising and press releases money could buy (including the infamous “John Romero’s about to make you his bitch” campaign), the game was not released until 2000 and was a major commercial disaster. Romero himself credits the hype campaign as the thing that changed his relationship with gamers forever, the tenuous developer-gamer relationship at the time being a primordial institution.

As video games became big business, this relationship suffered more growing pains, and AAA titles have formed a sort of standardized process regarding game content that a lot of players view as harmful, specifically as it relates to the concept of “downloadable content”. EA Games is a notable player in this dichotomy, a sort of citadel of gaming power and prestige that has grown evil with its empowerment, charging twice as much for a single game by the stringing along of content and features. AAA game developers have become (as record companies have in the music industry) the “bad guys”, faceless corporate shells meant to exploit the gamer and their hard-earned dollar. At least, that is the impression one would get from the comments on each new game release, maybe this vitriol is the standard of a more interactive presence on social media, but the perception is certainly there.

The comparison to the music industry doesn’t end there, however! As music listeners jaded by the big business aspect of their chosen medium turned away from big record producers, they turned towards the independent. Much the same has happened in gaming – players eschewing AAA developers in favor of smaller indie developers they feel they can form a much more intimate connection to, especially given the progression of social media. Smaller developers mean more intimacy, mean a dedication to their craft and product, and mean a more meaningful connection to what they develop. Look at a game like Minecraft: simple and accessible, a game based on creativity as opposed to accomplishment; a new and fun way to look at gaming, untested by larger developers perhaps for being “too simple” as, in a sense, the development of the game comes from the community itself. Abundant with mods, a modding community, and player interaction (through Facebook, YouTube, and various game-streaming platforms) this game garnered its own culture and consumers respected that. Despite the purchase by Microsoft (for a whopping $2.5 billion) it has maintained most of this consumer respect as the gamers are still the ones with the control in this gaming universe. However, this is the platform that is allowed by the relatively slow growth that Minecraft accomplished: largely word-of-mouth with, again, social media serving as an important method of diffusion. Minecraft had time to develop, and as we will see, this makes all the difference.

Look at Niantics’ recent mega-hit Pokémon GO, this game had hardy expectations from the beginning: not only bringing augmented reality gaming to its most popular level, but using one of the most popular intellectual properties in gaming history to do such. The tale of the reaction to this game has been largely one of inaction, as both difficulties and changes followed the games release with little statement by Niantic. There were the initial launch server issues, the errors with the “three-step” tracking system, which when updated was removed entirely and then re-added as an entirely different tracking system. This update also came with a change that made catching Pokémon more difficult, which was widely interpreted as a cash-grab by Niantic to force users to purchase more Pokéballs.  Each of these changes took weeks to develop and were accompanied by little to no statements from the developer. However, the line of blame becomes murkier when you note the fact that Niantic has around thirty employees (for comparison, Electronic Arts has about 8,500). How much can consumers expect such a small developer to do? Is it unfair to criticize a burgeoning game with the kind of response a multi-million-dollar corporation would give, or is it unfair for such a seemingly popular game to be released in such a state?

This conflict has come to a raging froth recently with the release of Hello Games’ space exploration simulator No Man’s Sky. This game is a masterclass in the follies of gamer expectations and how they can turn what could have been a magnanimously praised launch of an interesting game into a boondoggle of hurt consumer feelings and developer radio silence. The release of this game, in production for three years with an incredible E3 presentation spearheading an upsurge of grassroots interest in the game, has served as an interesting split when it comes to trying to measure its success. A huge player base and response on launch date, bug issues especially for the PC release, middling reviews and the perception of broken promises on the part of the development team (specifically lead developer Sean Murray) all created a maelstrom of perception versus expectation.

One could have probably (and in some cases did) predict the storm of hurt feelings that now saturate the response to this game. The subreddit dedicated to the game was an amalgam of lofty expectations, outlandish theorizing, and outright hero worship in the fan base’s treatment of Sean Murray. This developed on both sides of the spectrum: the hope of a developer who would grant this following with a truly immersive and life-changing experience versus those overeager for such sights that upon news of the first delay in development bombarded Murray with death threats. Sam Zucchi did a wonderful piece on this for Kill Screen, in which he states: “Taken together, both extremes point to a depth of feeling comparable with—even identical to—religious fervor.”1 The intensity of this particular type of producer-consumer relationship isn’t a one off observation either, with Phil Owen doing another great piece of insight into this phenomenon, stating in his article for The Wrap: “A friend of mine in the industry remarked to me a few weeks ago that video game marketing isn’t selling you a game, but rather a membership in a cult. That video game marketing is, essentially, weaponizing fandom.”2

That is what we are looking at right now: a weaponized fandom. Layers of mystery, compounded by lofty statements that may or may not have been taken out of context, created a shroud of confusion and obsession with this game that became a rain of deceit and mistrust upon release. As represented with the quotes above, many game industry analysts and observers saw this crash coming, Sean Murray even tweeted out shortly before release of No Man’s Sky about how the game would be a lot more “chill” than people expected. Maybe this came too little too late, the hordes were riled up and they expected maybe more than a game can give them at this point in our technology.

How did this happen? There is a clear disconnect between the language that the developers used in their description of the game and the product that the gamers interpreted and this has, as most communication issues do, a root in misplaced or nonexistent context. “Official” press releases were few and far between, as well as restrained in their revelations. Interviews with developers were more colloquial, less absolute than say a spec release, and as such much more open to interpretation on the part of the viewer or fluffy language on the part of the interviewee. That said, the developers are not completely innocent here: clearly defined multiplayer portions were not included with the game on launch and other features are missing. Flowery language from developers did give a different sense of what the game was, but how much of this is the artist’s vision and language versus the perception of the consumer? It is difficult to say, developers are just as ambitious if not more so than their audience, perhaps the technology couldn’t catch up, or the design at the point of the statement was preliminary and not practical. The level of open upfront communication we are experiencing now was not there before or even on the release date.

While this article was being written, Sean Murray tweeted further developments about fixing bug issues and the eventual addition of promised or hinted-at content. The mistakes are being corrected, and it will certainly take time as Hello Games’ small staff of fifteen work to correct the errors faced by millions of players. And there we have the crux of the issue: this is an indie game facing the problems of a AAA title. Can we really expect a studio of fifteen to not only produce but maintain a game of excelsior quality within the timeframe that large developers can? If we can’t expect that, then were we not paying for an idea more so than a product?

As independent producers break into this market the same way independent musicians have broken into the recording industry, it seems unfair to provide the same requirements to an indie developer that we would to say, Ubisoft. Personally, I find the game mesmerizing. It is an interesting and introspective journey that can become almost philosophical in nature at times. It is one of few games that place the intrigue of exploration over the satisfaction of completion in design importance. It might just be my favorite game of the year. However, it is also a testament to the growing pains of an entire industry as video game companies with pie-in-the-sky goals and ambitious developers try to meet halfway their customers who are constantly in touch via social media and almost always wishing for the stars, sometimes more so than even the developers. It’s a tenuous relationship, at best, but hopefully with some patience and more transparency it can become a bit more civil and less reactionary in future discourse. Until then, the Frankenstein’s monster of the video game industry will be the developers, up in their tower, desperate to appease a public that does not understand them.

 

 

1 - Zucchi, Sam. The Apocalyptic Fandom Of No Man’s Sky. Kill Screen, 22 Jul. 2016, https://killscreen.com/articles/no-mans-sky-religious-fervor-fandom/. Accessed 18 Aug 2006.

2 - Owen, Phil. How the Video Games Industry Created Its Own Cult of Toxic Fans (Commentary). The Wrap, 1 Jun. 2016, http://www.thewrap.com/the-cult-of-video-games-commentary/. Accessed 18 Aug 2006.