“Everything we do, we do for the gamers.”
“We would be nothing without you, the fans.”
Gamers love to hear things like this. These types of sentiments and others like it have become commonplace in recent years as developers, publishers, and platform holders come out on stage at a big event and express their gratitude and devotion to the fans. I admit that at first it sounds like a nice sentiment, the people who create the games that we love showing how much they appreciate (and need) the support of their customers. What could possibly be bad about that? Well, after some recent incidences between developers and gamers, I can’t help but shake this feeling that however well-intentioned those remarks are, there have been some ugly consequences to them.
We’re living in an age where it’s easier than ever for players to connect with game developers. Whether it’s through Reddit, Twitter or Discord, people can easily find and communicate with the creators of their favorite games. And while that can be a great experience for both sides if it involves respectful conversations or constructive criticism, there have been an increasingly disturbing number of instances where it involves people hurling insults, slurs, and even threats of violence or death against developers for everything from adding loot boxes to their game to changing which platform a game releases on.
The most recent example of this was a recent dust up between fans and Respawn, creators of the popular Apex Legends. Players were upset about a recent event that locked certain content behind paid loot boxes, something that they had apparently previously suggested they wouldn’t do. What started as probably a fairly legitimate concern about the game’s economy, escalated into a war of words with gamers calling the developers liars (and much worse) and a member of Respawn responding with the comment. “I’ve been in the industry long enough to remember when players weren’t complete ass-hats to developers and it was pretty neat”.
Yeah… it got pretty ugly.
Obviously that person from Respawn would have been better off letting the PR folks communicate the message or not engaging with those hostile comments at all, but I can’t help but empathize with them and understand how they could lose their cool for a moment. After all, how would you feel if every time you goofed up at work you were met with hundreds of people telling you how horrible you were or that you should die? I’d probably lose my shit too if I had to deal with that day in and day out.
In an effort to better communicate and connect with their audience, I fear that game makers have unintentionally helped to foster an unhealthy relationship in which players feel like they have some sort of agency over a game’s development and release. After all, games are collaborative works of art, and the creators should feel free to create their experiences however they please without living in constant fear of angering the fan base. It’s okay (and a good thing) for developers to listen to the wants of the players, but ultimately they don’t owe them anything. This culture of “we do it all for you” has created an environment of entitlement where some players think that the developers job is to please them, and create the game that they want to see.
The first instance I can recall of this happening was in the wake of the release of Mass Effect 3. Players were so upset and vocal about that game’s ending that they actually pressured the developers into patching the game with an altered finale (for the record, I thought the ending was fine). While players celebrated that the developers had listened to their complaints, it unfortunately showed that campaigns of pressure and harassment can work. I think that moment more than any other has set the stage for what we see today. Players felt a sense of power after that and could now demand that a game be changed to whatever they wanted. And now that the genie has been let out of the bottle, I’m not sure that there’s any putting it back.
I don’t know why it’s unique to video games, perhaps developers have a bigger presence on social media allowing for more interaction, but I don’t remember a time when an author had to change the last chapter in a book due to backlash, or when a director had to re-edit a film because of threats from angry moviegoers. Fans have obviously gotten pissed about books and movies before, but it seems they generally get little reaction from the artists and eventually everyone moves on. With games it seems different though.
I think when studio heads get up stage and declare that “we’re all about the players” they have all of the best intentions, and I think that most developers would argue that they want to have open lines of communication with their audiences, but sooner or later there has to be some sort of line drawn in the sand. Game developers are not your friends, and they most certainly don’t work for you. They are writers, animators, actors, and programmers who are working their butts off trying to create something that hopefully folks will enjoy. And most importantly they are all people, like you and me, just trying to do their job.