Game Developers, It’s Time To Stop Listening To VG247
VG 247

Yesterday VG247 released an op-ed entitled “Game developers, it’s time to stop listening to the fans.” I found the piece so outrageously horrible I decided to come out of retirement from talking about video games and respond to it. GamerGate was almost five years ago and still some people have learned nothing. It’s wild to come across a repackaged “Gamers don’t have to be your audience” narrative after all this time.

“Don’t get mad, there’s a bit of hyperbole in that headline – among all the detritus of the internet, the occasional bit of usable feedback exists. It’s just that the shit floats to the top until it’s all you can see.”

At least the author of the piece is being honest about their clickbait. I consider that a remarkable bit of improvement despite the circumstances.

But then we get into the actual article itself here and immediately Kirk McKeand tries to downplay what happened with Bioware and Mass Effect 3. He chalks up the public outcry over the game’s ending, and the eventual revision of this, as “bending the creative vision.” But that’s contradictory, as the original Mass Effect trilogy insofar up to that point set out an incredibly high standard. They had various strands of story lines and plots that deserved a proper sense of closure. Something that the original ending as it was failed to deliver.

In a throwaway line at the end of the first main paragraph, Kirk talks about Game of Thrones last season being terrible. He focuses on the angle that people petitioned for it to be remade, without properly examining the circumstances surrounding that situation. For good measure, we can throw in the Star Wars outrage surrounding The Last Jedi. As not only does it fit the pattern at play here in this discussion, but the writers on Game of Thrones also managed to snag a Star Wars gig of some kind.

George R. R. Martin ‘s source material for Game of Thrones only went so far. From the end of the fifth season onward, the writers of the TV show had their training wheels taken off and no longer had Daddy George to fall back on. The IMDb ratings reflect that, as on average the later Game of Thrones episodes scored lower than their predecessors. It’s perfectly natural for anyone to be disappointed based on this scenario. The earlier episodes built people’s expectations up about storytelling quality, and the marketing hype euphoria could only delude people so much before reality kicked in.

This perfectly describes the Star Wars situation as well. It’s relevant to this general discussion of what constitutes a fandom even more recently thanks to the The Rise of Skywalker reveal. An overly excited fanboy filmed himself reacting to the initial Episode IX trailer. His screeches of excitement and tears of joy made him a viral sensation for a brief five minutes of fame. His general blind enthusiasm for the upcoming film was an 180 degree turn when it came to the prevailing skepticism about the future of the Star Wars franchise otherwise. Before the Han Solo one-off film was a box office flop, there was The Last Jedi. If we were to discuss the merits/flaws of Episode VIII we’d be here all day. All that matters in our case is the divide between critics and audiences. The Rotten Tomatoes tells all.

Yes. Backlash for The Last Jedi went too far in some cases. There’s no way that throwing up $200 MILLION for some kind of remake would have ever worked, even with all that money. Moreover, Kelly Marie Tran having to leave social media because of all the crap people were giving her online for The Last Jedi is in no way acceptable. It made the Episode IX reveal at Star Wars Celebration awkward viewing.

However this is a two way street. Mark Hamill, the actor for Luke Skywalker, had long since been the center of attention when it came to The Last Jedi debate. His prominent role in the movie and Star Wars series overall gave his opinions more weight. We don’t need to speculate about the numerous comments Mark H. made in interviews and to the press, either. The remarks that suggest to many that at the very least Hamill was disappointed with how Episode VIII turned out.

Just this one “#MissedOpportunities” tweet from April 26th of this year should cover it. Hamill tweeted a picture that shows the original cast, now as old folks, headed off on some new adventure. 

Even in the first reply down below, Hamill is admonished by the public.

It’s not any more appropriate to do this to Mark as it was to Kelly Marie Tran. The lesson here being: that it’s perfectly normal to want something out of the media/pop culture one consumes. Feedback is fine.

Feedback means the audience cares about the subject. It’s also a necessity when it comes to the lasting legacy of whatever medium the work resides in. The public praise or fury is what leaves the outlasting mark on society’s collective memory. Developing a product and the feedback process towards said product might look ugly. But that’s just a fact of life and human nature. We can’t change that immediate. Instead, we can refocus our priorities.

The end product is what matters the most.

VG247 is assuming that it’s impossible for a development studio to have a smooth ride from start to finish creating a game, only to release it and have it flop on its own merits. “Developers are usually aware of the major issues they launch with,” the piece says, stopping a few brain cells short in the train of thought. Developers are aware thanks to the fans and their feedback.

The author is confusing the distinctions for critique. They seriously just called gamers a bunch of dumbasses, only to go on to decry the negativity that glorified bloggers receive whenever they try to get overtly political. It’s a system of checks and balances that all three groups need to listen to each other for, in order to flourish. How would the game journos know what to write about, if they didn’t have the gaming community to read the room for them? The truth is everyone is listening to the fans, all the time. In the case of this VG247 article for example, they’re intentionally going against the grain.

But they’re still listening. It defines the existence of these outlets. Their relationship with the community overall is a key element, no matter how strained places like VG247 might try to make such a relationship. Extra Credits has overall been a massively successful YouTube channel for video game critique for years now. What the VG247 article forgets is that the public is more than welcome to critique the critics, and that’s exactly what happened with a recent Extra Credits episode. The “Stop Normalizing Nazis” video racked up 185,000 dislikes, and the channel bled almost 30,000 subscribers in the days after uploading.

There’s nothing wrong with this, despite what VG247 is trying to argue. Everything in the internet ecosystem is working as intended.

Early on in 2019, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey had a controversy with one of their DLC episodes. The kerfuffle came about as a result of the more open storyline choices available to the player throughout the game. This wasn’t just limited to quest outcomes, but extended to the relationships and romances the player could explore. With this “Legacy of the First Blade” DLC episode, however, everyone — regardless of their choices — was funneled into procreating with a particular story character. The intent behind this was to establish the character’s bloodline within the Assassin’s Creed universe. But this didn’t stop a backlash from forming.

I’ll let a quote from one of the developers speak for itself about how the fans matter when it comes to video games as a final product.

“We have read your responses online and taken them to heart. This has been a learning experience for us. Understanding how attached you feel to your Kassandra and your Alexios is humbling and knowing we let you down is not something we take lightly. We’ll work to do better and make sure the element of player choice in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey carries through our DLC content so you can stay true to the character you have embodied throughout.”

A few months later, Ubisoft made a patch for the DLC that allowed for removal of the romantic connotations as much as possible in player choices. From “wanting to have a family” changes to “wanting to secure the bloodline.” The author of the VG247 piece would definitely defend that particular situation, undoubtedly.

The backlash from Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem produced some of Jason Schreier’s best work when it comes to Kotaku investigations. We would have known nothing about the dire circumstances within the development process of each of these games, otherwise. There needed to be an angry fan base frothing at the mouth about the games put in front of them. That hunger for answers is what’s called public interest, and it served as the foundation necessary to spur Kotaku and Schreier to look deeper into it. This is a wonderful thing too. It’s something beautiful that comes out of disasters, being able to learn from the mistakes made along the way. The fan base serves as a motivator to do the best job possible. It gives game developers an objective sense of accomplishment and value for what they do.

The VG247 piece mentions Metal Gear Solid 4 seemingly out of nowhere. In my personal opinion I think that comparison is too dated to be of much use whatsoever. A much better example would be the contrast between Metal Gear Solid V and Metal Gear Survive. We all remember the boos of the crowds at Geoff Keighley’s Video Game Awards show back in 2015.

After Metal Gear Solid V won accolades, Metal Gear Solid game designer Hideo Kojima’s absence had to be explained. Konami barred him from travel because of the employment contract they had Kojima under. I still personally remember the fireworks show that social media was that night. It serves as a metaphor though, as Kojima managed to masterfully make his identity as a person be a reflection of his work product. Hideo Kojima ended up leaving Konami a few weeks later. Although it’d take a few years, the February 2018 flop that was Metal Gear Survive serves as a perfect antithesis to the VG247 piece in that we can see the glaring differences in end product from a game development standpoint.

The point being that the tone deafness from Konami as to what the fans really cared about, had lasting consequences for the company’s overall business model. The inverse is going on for Blizzard Entertainment when it comes to Overwatch. Ironically the VG247 piece alludes to the game with their inclusion of a team picture of the various Overwatch characters. However when looked closer as an example in this discussion, we have more proof to the contrary of what VG247 is trying to argue. On one hand it’s possible to simply examine the routine updates to the game when it comes to buffing and nerfing the nitty-gritty stats (I’ll namedrop Mercy and all the changes she went through as an example).

Yet by taking the approach of looking at the Overwatch roster as a whole we can see the bigger picture. The game launched with 21 playable heroes and added 9 more post-launch. The Overwatch team at Blizzard are more or less rocket scientists or brain surgeons, given the incredible responsibilities to game balance that apply therein here. Game developers listening to fans is the only reason Overwatch has survived as long as it has. At all. What the VG247 piece tries to do is separate “listening to fans” as to mean not from a technical standpoint. But it’s precisely that perspective in this push-and-pull relationship between developers and fans, that allows the product to properly operate at all. Over the past couple of days, news has come out from Blizzard that Hero 31 is going to take more time than usual before they can release it. Game balance is exactly the reason why this is the case.

But a good segue is that Overwatch has loot boxes. A concept that EA likes to call “surprise mechanics.”

The entirety of the VG247 piece is refuted when you consider loot boxes. That qualifies under the definition of company driven “innovation,” does it not? And what happened there? If we look at the Star Wars Battlefront II disaster, the loot box system was so poorly implemented, and garnered enough negative attention, that EA had to pull the plug on it.

It was doomed from the start.

In one vein, Star Wars Battlefront II was coupled with The Last Jedi when it came to disappointment, as well as release dates. But what DICE had set out to do, in the public’s eyes, is finally deliver a product that was worth waiting for. This time. The first Battlefront game from DICE was lackluster when it came to content (no story mode) and lasting replay value. When stepping into the modern age of online multiplayer experiences that tends to happen when you have the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield to contend with. The multiplayer component in both Battlefront games had the Star Card system, but it was greatly expanded in the second game to reflect the effort from DICE to offer something more meaty for players this time around. As it was launched, the Star Card system was now a mandatory progression tool. It broke the barrier of what’s considered just cosmetic, and crossed the line into stats, weapons, abilities, and so forth.

To cut a long story short. The Star Card system was tied to money. When you do something like that, the gaming community is more likely to deeply scrutinize the ins and outs of what’s going on. Microtransactions really put a wrench into the progression system further by having more than one currency, Crystals and Credits. If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Which lead to a fateful day in November 2017 when someone became outraged they paid $80 in Battlefront crystals, only to still have Darth Vader locked from being available to play.

That day was right before launch day. EA’s community team tried to explain their design choices, but to no avail. So much to no avail, that it became one of the most downvoted Reddit comments of all time.

EA tried to backtrack from their mistakes over the next year. But too little to late, as the legacy of that situation hit the games industry at large when it came to the practice of loot boxes. To the point where the governments of the world had to step in.

All in all I don’t buy Kirk McKeand’s argument about developers not listening to the gaming community as a means for innovation. 

To any game developers who come across this piece, heed my warning. By following the advice of VG247 you’ll quickly find yourself in a place of financial bankruptcy. The sort of rhetoric and mindset being espoused there is an old-fashioned relic of the 2010s decade. An era where opportunists like Anita Sarkeesian came in, set things on fire, and watched the games industry burn. The fact that Sarkeesian is approaching financial bankruptcy isn’t an accident. It’s the end result of that way of thinking.

Don’t listen to them.

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Nick Monroe offers insight and in-depth looks at various aspects of the gaming industry. You can contact this author through the Contact Page.

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