Editorial: How to Lose Gamer Goodwill in Four Easy Steps

Following the release of Final Fantasy XIII (the worst game ever created) I greatly doubt that Square Enix learned a damn thing. I am not entirely sure what proportion of profit that game raked in once development costs were taken into account, but in terms of the number of sales alone it is likely the single most successful RPG of this generation. In a company that has not got a thing right since 2006, the quality of FFXIII likely ranks as a lower concern than how many catamites to hire for that night’s money party. Now, perhaps this will have a long term detrimental effect on Final Fantasy‘s profitability over the coming years. I would hope that it does–but perhaps it will not; perhaps they no longer make games for people who are me. At any rate for the purpose of this editorial the quality of Square Enix software is immaterial, because they do one thing really well, and that thing is the mea culpa.

A game of fail!
Because no current generation game has ever delivered thirty hours of original content ...

Final Fantasy XIII was a polarising title, many fans (along with several reviewers) greeted the title with abject animosity. And so Square Enix luminaries wheeled out the mea culpa: they admitted that significant parts of their game were lacking, they acknowledged the critical angst, and they solemnly pledged to remedy this situation going forward. Such admissions were no doubt hissed through forked tongues in an effort to firm up consumer purchase intent for the imminent Final Fantasy XIII-2, but that is not what matters. What matters is that they were able to enact a situation of confected propriety and contrition so that fans who wanted to forgive them were able to do so.

Some devs are still getting it right
... No wait, they have!

The Japanese are generally fantastic at performing acts of public contrition; the talents of Square Enix were on show once again in the aftermath of Final Fantasy XIV, while Sony’s best efforts were evident for all the world to see following the recent PSN hacking incident. Western developers by contrast can sometimes betray themselves as rather inept at receiving criticism, resulting in little benefit to themselves or their employer. Consumer complaints should absolutely never be seen to be dismissed out of hand unless the vast majority of consumers can be expected to do likewise. Many of the aspersions being cast against Sony recently rate somewhere between baseless and absurd, yet Sony executives are experienced enough to know that deriding such allegations or dismissing them out of hand is unlikely to sway the opinion of one single consumer, and so the situation calls for them to display their humble contrition for something that is looking increasingly unlikely to have been their fault. Western gaming has largely not learned this lesson. If consumer negative reaction (or over-reaction) has any plausible basis at all then it should never be dismissed regardless of how right the game designer considers themselves to be, as doing so provides the aggrieved party a banner of bullshit to rally behind, inflicting more harm than good. The following are four critical missteps routinely committed by Western developers when on the receiving end of criticism:

Blame Gamers/Reviewers for the Negative Reception

Example: A game without expectations
Dragon Age: Neko Neko Pillow Story!

Following Destructoid’s review of Hydrophobia, the aggrieved game designer repeatedly e-mailed Jim Sterling insisting that he had been “playing the game wrong”, and demanding that Jim commit himself to a re-review. This is just about the worst thing that anyone could do if they wished to have their game sell to Dtoid community members. Jim ended up turning the harassing e-mails into a series of several posts and an episode of The Jimquisition. Anyone who cared to look would have noticed the community hate-in found in the comments thread, as gamers repeatedly told one another what a bad game Hydrophobia was, reaffirming one another’s opinion on a game that few of them had likely even played. Insisting that reviewers are wrong looks shrill and desperate, and the only thing it is likely to do is turn your game into a meme, as was the case for Hydrophobia.

Now, Hydophobia is a relative small fry, but one would expect the behemoths of the industry to show a mite more restraint when fielding the question of why consumers did not enjoy their shitty game–or so one would think. But apparently not, if that one thought of Bioware and Bioware’s Mike Laidlaw; a man wont to blame consumers for the tepid reception garnered by the rushed-to-market Dragon Age 2. Laidlaw thinks it is most unfair that gamers who were fans of Origins became upset when the game turned out not to be Origins 2, and subsequently had an (opinion invalidating) strong emotional reaction. Now, if this turns out to be the case than I am inclined to agree, not least because I have never even heard of this Origins until now, much less played it. No, I think it is only reasonable for gamers to expect that Dragon Age 2 will hold up the standard of its prequel, Dragon Age: Origins. Sadly it appears that when Bioware dropped half of their original game’s title that also signalled their intent to drop half of the original title’s content as well, so it would appear that gamers aggrieved on this score might be a mite more justified in their disdain. Had Bioware wished not to have their game buried ‘neath this mountain of reasonable expectations, then they might have considered naming it Dragon Age: Neko Neko Pillow Story. Instead they opted to make it a full sequel and it was evaluated as such. Laidlaw’s only response to this charge was that the recycling of content was in fact a value-adding measure, as though Bioware would have otherwise been content to release their Dragon Age 2 as a five hour long epic–because it is utterly unthinkable that they would pad out a thirty hour title with ORIGINAL CONTENT.

Write Your Own Reviews

Funnily enough, Bioware’s consumer-blaming and disingenuous spin was not even their biggest misstep during the Dragon Age 2 saga. Rather it was an employee of theirs, Avanost (Chris Hoban), who (presumably) took it upon himself to author a Metacritic review awarding the game a perfect ten, and peppering it with enough platitudes to fill a Bioware press release. OK, so you have an employee who has gone rogue on Metacritic, what do you do? First you pull the review, check. Next your parent company stands behind their actions 100%, che- WHAT?!! Unbelievably EA’s statement on the matter was “Of course the people who make the game vote for their own game. That’s how it works in the Oscars!”, a statement which seems to suggest that manipulating the ratings of your own game is no big deal, that such conduct is endemic to the company, and to expect more of it in the future. If that was not the intent of their missive then EA might consider firing a certain someone, because that was the message that gamers heard loud and clear, and that is the perception which pervades the identity of Bioware to this day: a fact which can be easily demonstrated…

Lusipurr.com readers may be aware that The Witcher 2 launched in the last several days. What you may not have noticed is the nonsense and drama which have been occurring on Metacritic. Fan response to the game has been almost universally positive. I say ‘almost’ because the game has been awarded around fifteen 0/10 nonsense Metacritic user-reviews by people with newly created accounts who also happen to have reviewed Dragon Age 2 (10/10). Now, in the ensuing churn and rumour-mill of Metacritic a few gamers started asking the question of whether the authors of these reviews were in fact Bioware employees attempting to harm the game’s chances of picking up RPG of the year (as if its success or failure hinged upon a handful of user-reviews). These questions were then picked up as fact by other gamers, spawning dozens of forum threads on the topic, and even a handful news stories in some very minor gaming blogs. There is no evidence to suggest that this was the case, and the accusation seems patently absurd on the face of it. Yet the claim fit the average gamer’s schema of Bioware to such an extent that more than half were willing to readily accept the claims without first requiring proof. People are idiots, yes, but if you are seen as a dishonest broker then that is what people will come to expect from you, even if they have no reason for doing so.

Deny Documented Fact

Readers will recall that several months back the eagerly anticipated Crysis 2 was released to a generally positive reception. True to Crytek’s reputation they had managed to extract some truly miraculous performance from the five year old 360 and PS3 hardware, with meticulously modelled environments and global illumination as the engine’s crowning jewels. Indeed, the only sour note to the game’s release was its reception within the PC community. For a long while the Crysis franchise has enjoyed a near mythical status among the PC community as a game to push PC gaming hardware to its limits, so of course the multi-platform status of Crysis 2 was always going to cause some angst. It is likely that, regardless of the actual state of the game, someone would inevitably cry console port!. Yet Crytek certainly did themselves no favours in this regard. Gone are the physics from Crysis which allowed shrubbery to bend and trees to be destroyed; gone, too, is access to any of the game’s advanced settings. Textures are now half the resolution of the previous title; the game itself does not support anything beyond DirectX 9 rendering; the title screen even invites PC gamers to Press Start Button. So yes, this is the very definition of console port. It seems Crytek have even made substantially less effort to enhance their game for PC enthusiasts than many legacy console developers–indeed the only thing Crysis 2 even has to show for the surfeit of PC hardware muscle is a higher precision lighting model. And yet for all that the game looks gorgeous and appears to be fun. PC pirates have driven Crytek into the arms of the console owners, so the scorn of PC enthusiasts seems somehow misplaced, or rather it did until Crysis 2‘s principle graphics engineer, Tiago Sousa, attempted to deny abject reality while addressing the charge of selling out:

We could not have created a game with the scope, scale, and multiplayer features of Crysis 2 if it were a PC-only title. The PC market does not support that cost of development, but going multi-platform does. If making a game that is bigger, better, more stable, performs better across a wider range of hardware, provides a continued visual benchmark for PC gaming, and more fun with a huge single-player and multiplayer offering is considered selling out, that seems like a really odd application of the phrase.

It is an eminently agreeable justification for the most part, laudable priorities for any developer really, but I do not understand why he then chose to claim that the game was a benchmark for PC gaming visuals. Crysis 2 is not an ugly game by any means, but you do not get to make those claims when your old game still looks better than your new one. To make matters worse, Sousa made this claim while defending his game on Digital Foundry, a site dedicated to the analysis of gaming performance, ensuring that the primary audience to hear his lofty claim would be a large crowd of hostile and derisive PC owners.

Criminalising Legitimate Consumer Behaviour + all of the Above + Profound Retardation

Lionhead rhetoric will always make Glenn Beck look like a bastion of calm rationality
At least there is one thing we can always rely on in this crazy world.

And finally, what use would be a discussion of the faux pas committed by game developers in the name of consumer relations without also listing a few choice quotes courtesy of Lusipurr.com’s favourite industry auteurs: Lionhead Studio. This week Lionhead lead combat designer, Mike West, was given the opportunity to spruik the dubious merits of the recently released PC version of Fable 3. He then proceeded to spout nonsensical gibberish. When asked to discuss the reception that the 360 version of Fable 3 received, West decided to launch into a tirade against forum detractors:

Generally what happens when there’s any information about Fable or about Peter Molyneux, you get a complete black and white – pardon the pun – split of forum replies. Half of the people, whatever it’s about – if Peter has made the most sensible comment about games development ever – just spout obscenities and terrible, ridiculous things. Whether you like him or don’t like him, he’s made Populous, Dungeon Keeper – he’s done amazing games in the past. Then you’ll get the other half of people saying “Fable was actually pretty good, I really enjoyed it.” It’s a frustrating situation to be in because we make good games, but people expect something that no one else is doing.

Oh, I see. Half of all people are rabid, hateful, babby-raping monsters, and the other half like Fable. The world suddenly has meaning again. You know, the funny thing is that I can actually picture Molyneux being questioned by a gormless minion like West, and shrieking “You dare question me? I made Populous!”. Small wonder, I suppose, that it found its way into the interview. But now I am curious: by what metric is Fable a “good game”?

Most role-playing games I play, you go into a town and there’s someone standing there, and then you walk up and press a button and he says the same line over and over again, he doesn’t move and it comes up in text. In ours, everything is vocalised, everyone has a personality, you can marry people, you can buy every building in the game!

I see: Fable is a good game in 1999. His description of “most role-playing games I play” sounds rather a lot like a non-gaming parent attempting to explain the game their child was playing to a disinterested store-clerk. At any rate, it seems as though the most recent game that Lionhead’s lead combat designer has played is Diablo II, when he declares, “We’re making a co-operative role-playing game – there aren’t any co-operative role-playing games out there, we’re the only one.”

No, wait, I guess he has not played Diablo II after all. So what RPGs does the fellow play?

Every time you finish playing Fable you’ll have a smile on your face. Every time you play Oblivion you’ll say “I enjoyed my time there but now I want to play something fun”. Fable III is a different type of game: it’s more of a fun, comedic TV show than a serious Lord of the Rings film. I think a lot of people that play it think it’s a Lord of the Rings – and it isn’t.

'They're all laughing at me, AT ME!'
'DON'T YOU FUCKING LOOK AT ME, I MADE POPULOUS!'

Ah, there’s my problem! Whenever I hear Fable‘s awful dialogue, I immediately think of Lord of the Rings because that film also had terrible dialogue. Now, that was all pretty embarrassing, and if Eurogamer had any compassion they would have already pulled the plug on the interview, but there was more, for the chap seems well intentioned about empowering gamers.

“Piracy these days on PC is probably less problematic than second-hand sales on the Xbox … … For us it’s probably a no-lose even with piracy as it is … … Why do game publishers and developers not like second-hand game sales? Because they don’t get any money for the transaction – the shop reaps all the rewards.”

Oh? I see.

5 comments

  1. The idea that the second-hand gaming market is destroying the industry is one of the more recent insanities to come out of the industry’s increasingly large, greedy, corporate entities. Of course they’d love to charge you every time you do anything with a game. If they could get away with it (and by slow degrees, they might be able to), they’d like to recreate the quarter-arcade in your own home, forcing you to pay-per-play or to ‘subscribe’ for the right to play the games you bought on the console you own.

    We only have MMOs and Microsoft XBox Live to thank for this. One more reason to hate both.

  2. I find it absolutely perverse that they are attempting to exert control over what we are able to do with our own property, but then of course they don’t see it that way, they view us as liscencees of their product, to be cut off if they do not like the cut of our jib.

    -Also, it just blows my mind at what a poor job that guy did selling his game …

  3. Jim Sterling is a piece of rotten shit. Any person that constantly talks down and nit-picks great games just so he can be lowest score on metacritic to get more hits, while at the same time praising Call of Duty for being original and innovative needs to be shot.

    He is a fucking joke… I had to say that.

  4. For every game you sell secondhand, the company that made the game fires three employees. Proven fact.

    I really don’t understand why US and other western game developers act like such children. Nor do I understand why reviewers act like children. Are they children? Is this my problem? Did everyone in the world turn into a child when I wasn’t looking?

  5. @SB: most of them never grow out of being children. Everyone feels entitled to something and they get all huffy when their “entitlements” are taken away. Publishers and developers feel entitled to consumers’ attention and money, and reviewer’s understanding of their n uances. Very few people can appreciate a game on, say, the artistic level, the way people do with music, film or literature, so reviewers tend to only ask, “hey, does this scratch the itch I currently have?” And consumers are hardly better, wanting ever bigger and grander spectacles of games with AAA values but not wanting to support the people that make them because they get mad at the evil and idiotic people that run the business side of games.

    The end result is that people who want to consume good things, people that want to critique good things, people that want to produce good things, and people that want to sell good things never can get together to enjoy good things because they see their interests as mutually adverse. Consumers hate publishers, developers hate critics, critics hate everyone, and publishers shit on everyone because they’re capitalists and that’s what they do.

    @Oyashiro: Jim Sterling’s father was a shoggoth. Proven fact. Nothing else can be that squamous and bulbous.

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