5 Things Game Developers Apparently Believe (Are Legitimate Excuses For Their Screwups)

(In response to this from Kotaku. The views expressed henceforth are my own.)

Before I joined the military, I worked at Starbucks as a barista. My formerly conservative views and upbringing gave me a pro-military leaning when it came to American men in uniform. Despite this, I didn’t spend all my time spewing vitriol at the big-budget Pentagon on how carelessly they were using our troops. I didn’t have to: they obviously were. Still, they offered a bunch of reasons why people just didn’t understand the realities of war. I didn’t care then or now. It turns out that, despite not knowing much about the real-life military, I still kind of expected them to follow all those inconvenient rules of engagement and Geneva Conventions and to get shit done in a reasonable time frame with as little loss of life and expenditure as possible despite all the unimaginable conditions they endured every day. Funny how that works.

Six or seven-ish years removed, I still expect that of the military, even though I know a little more about what it’s like in uniform as opposed to outside of it, probably because we are responsible for a vast amount of power that can (and has) ruined entire countries. I mean, I guess it’s probably hard for those guys manning our nukes in Montana somewhere to wake up at 0400 or whatever and deal with the most monotonous, horrible job that they hope to God never ever gets exciting, but I still kinda ruthlessly expect them to foster and maintain that sort of discipline each and every day while they’re handling devices that can bring about The End of All Things (complete with Howard Shore score) in the space of a few minutes. How unreasonable of me. The gall.

I say this stuff as a deliberately hyperbolic example, so let’s take it down a notch: I guess it’s pretty hard to build a building, e.g., an apartment complex, a type of facility in which billions of people live. To make matters worse for my spoiled ass, I happen to reside in a developed country with a decent standard of living and the inconvenient expectations that brings about, so I expect the facility to be safe, clean, protect me from the elements, and all the other sort of things I trade a little over one-fourth of my paycheck for. If, in the course of my residence, I spy a hole in the corner of my study, the roof starting to cave in, or simply a lot of bugs of the various types that shouldn’t be there (apart from spiders. I really don’t give a fuck about spiders and oh my god would you stop freaking out over them), I basically have grounds to complain about this, right?

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

1. Making games is a thousand times harder than you think (so it’s not our fault if we fail miserably)

I am an atrocious blogger. Check how often I post (and what I post about) if you don’t believe me, but jeez, I’ve gotten a little tired of the game industry coming up with all sorts of variations on this same comic mea culpa, which really just says “fuck you faggots it’s not our fault” in regards to stuff that clearly is. It’s hard to feel empathy for them when, oh, I don’t know, the developers for Assassin’s Creed go on record saying “it’s really hard to make female animation models, so fuck women. They’re not important!” then shit out a game that tried to coast on the same tired formula of their franchise’s last five games, hoping you wouldn’t notice how the rendered dolls behaved and appeared very much like the vanguard of Cthulhu.

Let’s say you want to make a game. The first thing you do is set goals. Over the past twenty-five years or so, one of them has tended to be to fix most of the critical bugs before shipping things. Then you can move onto things like story, gameplay, themes, etc. Done.

Nope.

Nope.

To make a game now, you need to focus on monetization. This is a fancy corporate term for squeezing money from your potential consumers who have stuck with you all these years, all due to a vicious cycle of spiraling costs and development times for much smaller profit margins, one we loudly lament on our Twitter feeds but refuse to do anything about, since the actual people above us tend to sign our paychecks. I can understand that you have families and can’t really be asked to be moral crusaders at the forefront of changing the industry you’re stuck in or wish to remain a part of, but then that probably means shouldn’t throw stones from your glass houses, as eventually some people might a mistake your attempts at catharsis as a legitimate opinion. Again, the gall.

Maybe I should have read the Necronomicon after all.

Maybe I should have read the Necronomicon after all.

And that’s just the most vocal people at the top, you know, the ones with some capital and wiggle room to freely express themselves in a public space once in a while. Since this is their livelihood and career, one that doesn’t tend to allow crossover into other sections of society, the unfortunate lower members of the studio have to shut up and deal with their studio heads’ questionable management methods and objectives and knock out the overwhelming pile of shit in the “To Do” pile on their desks. Granted, I haven’t worked in the game industry, but considering this is how it works in almost every company or organization worth a damn, I’m going to guess it applies to the oh-so-special cadre of persecuted game developers. Then you have to deal with the inherent uncertainty that comes with an industry with little solid ground and studio shutdowns and hoping Metacritic doesn’t tear the kitten you’ve labored on for five years into tiny pieces and, and, and…

I haven’t even mentioned design and code, because I’m giving up trying to follow the general literary format of the original article for no reason. Let’s skip straight to my point:

No one. Fucking. Cares.

This little “explanation” is something nearly everyone in the work force has to deal with. No one outside the military really understands us; as mentioned before, we’re still expected to do our jobs. Nobody outside the finance world understands it; it’s still kinda expected (but not really forced to, thanks to the power of Mammon that people still haven’t figured out is entirely imaginary) to do something productive for society. Nobody outside the video game industry really understands it; you’re still expected to meet a basic level of quality.

You’re not special snowflakes.

2. Games look like complete ass for 90% of their production (which is why we never explain anything)

You know what I love about Blizzard (that company that makes WoW and some other games whose names I can’t really remember right now…weird…)? Apart from their generally consistent output of solid iteration on established franchises, they’ve become masters at pretending to be really earnest people whose fans don’t empathize with, yet refusing all the while to elucidate and build a culture of transparency of how decisions are made in their meeting rooms. They’ll make long Blue Posts on their forums once in a while about how “we really try hard and care and blah blah blah” while making absurdly clueless decisions about problems in their own games, ones that their vigilant raiders were screaming at them for weeks to fix. Eventually, after a thousand and one mistakes, you stop believing they’re sincere. What’s baffling is that they (and almost all other game studios) insist on adhering to some unspoken Biblical Commandment that internal decisions and priorities are sworn to greater secrecy than CIA black ops, as if revealing their whole methodology–one uniquely tailored to their own institutional culture–will ruin everything. I don’t know why. To go back to my own experience, how the military works is not exactly mystifying. In fact, it’s one of the better understood ways of living in human civilization, since shitty stuff happening to you for inscrutable reasons beyond your control continues to remain literary gold. To be sure, the military doesn’t want you to know the precise details of what it’s up to right now unless you actually need to know, but that’s somewhat reasonable. Not for the video game industry, though. Imagine what would happen if they were transparent. They might get…embarrassed.

SILLY.KOTAKU-RANT-3

Exhibit A.

The above poorly generated meme refers to the brief scandal in World of Warcraft known as Candlegate, in which Ion Hazzikostas (a cool guy that I met very briefly while my face was painted and stuffing itself with a mistakenly large pizza) declared, to the best of his knowledge in that minute, that they wouldn’t be nerfing an in-game item (yon Candle) even though it was clearly overpowered and causing some serious issues. Twenty four hours later, a hotfix was implemented to nerf the Candle. Oops. Egg on face. Hazzikostas was working off the information on the top of his head, but it still reflected a telling sign of the left hand not knowing what the right was doing, if not more. Suffice it to say, attempts at transparency in a corporate structure at odds with the very idea tend not to go very well.

Obviously, it’s not hard to imagine why this aversion to transparency endures. Video game developers are people, and much of what happens in those studios undoubtedly arises less from holistic creative aspirations–or even EA-style shenanigans–and more from the gritwork that we love to watch Frank Underwood spin: politics, self-interest, and ruthless pragmatism. You don’t really want to admit even the possibility that Casey Hudson ruined the Mass Effect franchise for the sake of his own ego or whatever (an unverified and unverifiable rumor, but to quote Mordin Solus: “theory fits evidence”), so you keep your mouth shut. You don’t want to try to put your foot down against Activision’s goal to release another soulless Call of Duty clone to keep the money coming in, so you keep your mouth shut. In a close-knitted industry where much of your resume involves your reputation, burning bridges safely is an opportunity most members will never run into.

The problem is that this sort of mentality actively instills among your fans a very skeptical, hostile, and altogether unforgiving culture towards you. It’s not like your feeble PR antics actually fool any significant number of people. They just communicate that our concerns and desires ultimately have no say: you’re the corporation, we’re the consumer, and we should learn our place. So if corporations want to continue avoiding transparency like the Black Death, they need to accept some amount of unbridled and at times ridiculous levels of criticism from us in return. It’s not like our concerns mean much to you. Why should your concerns mean much to us?

3. When the devs use the word “excited”, they’re not blowing smoke up your ass (except when they are, so good luck trying to tell the difference)

Really? No, really? This is a point? “The devs have feelings too”? You know, I generally assumed someone involved in such a nascent thing as the video game industry would have some kind of passion for it. How else would you get anyone to even start the damn thing? I also assume they’re working under a number of constraints that force them to do stuff they would rather not do, like oversell a talking point that a manager wrote for them. It’s not as if every other human being has ever had to do this.

This is how demeaning this article gets, since apparently everyone who criticizes a game is a Metacritic trollwhore who just wants to shit on game developers’ hopes and dreams and see their families starve. It’s like the author, now a game developer himself, hasn’t considered that most gamers are reasonable, intelligent people who work just as hard as they do (or harder) and would like to see some consistent return for shelling out their hard earned cash on an entertainment medium they enjoy and have dedicated significant portions of their own limited mortal passion and attention to. Let’s be fair: there are some idiots on the Internet who haven’t really thought through the logistics and realities of making a video game, but let’s be fair: those are few and far between. Most of us hating on you for demanding that we pay $60 for The Order: 1886 have some legitimate grievances with a pattern from your industry, a pattern that is no longer explained away as a fluke or variance. It’s become a damnable habit, and you’re just catching on to how we’re catching on. Uh oh.

4. Game devs actually read a lot of critical writing on their work (but don’t actually have to care)

All right, I do believe this point a little more than the others, if only because I watched the Dragon Age team fall on their swords repeatedly to appease the idiots who thought Dragon Age 2 was the Beast and False Prophet all tied up into one baby-eating package. On the flip side, who gives a flying fuck? Consumer criticism, by definition, is ex post facto, i.e., after the transaction is completed. From the standpoint of the law, the video game consumer has very little wherewithal or standing with which to resolve their buyer’s remorse (those massive EULAs have consequences). Keep in mind: we’re not talking about buying some rip-off toy from a mall vendor because we fell for their cheap sales pitches. We’re talking about $50-60 purchases that you, the developers, spend literally years building hype for. You promise us a tremendous amount of shit in the hopes we’ll buy it, much of which borders on blatant deceit. To our credit and often folly, we tend to follow through, because we care about games and tend to have active interest in experiencing this pastime of ours. To claim you empathize with our anger after you have managed to get us to hand over our money that we cannot get back from you is a little rich. At best.

No, it’s as rich as escargot, assholes. There is an implicit contract between the game developer and the gamer: you give us good shit, we buy it from you. If you don’t give us good shit, we at least have a right to complain loudly, as that’s the only thing we can do. No amount of bitching, Reddit-level quality or otherwise, will get a court to listen to us and force you to fork over those greenbacks. You’ve won. The only thing you have to do, as far as we can tell, is move onto the next game. You’ll repeat the cycle. Again, I’m more than willing to entertain the idea that game developers don’t always (or often) have a choice in what they can accomplish during a game’s development cycle, but examples of developers truly listening to feedback and making serious changes–changes they often don’t even have the corporate leverage to effect–are few and far between. Again, Dragon Age is really the only example that comes to mind off the top of my head. Not all of what they changed was good anyway. In the end, those people who hated Dragon Age 2 lost out on their money and time, even though I disagreed with them and spewed vitriol at them myself. Sure, maybe some of their reactions might prove a bit immature in the grand of scheme of things, but yours has no weight whatsoever.

In other words, game developers score no brownie points by claiming “we have passion too.” In the context of the basic video game transaction, they have the upper hand. For them, passion is a luxury. We, as video game players, only buy video games we have passion and interest in to begin with. That is literally the only thing making us willing to fork over several hours’ wages for something like this. When a flagship franchise for a next-gen console barely has enough content to match the real-world number of hours the average worker might have slaved away to buy it, you lose all standing for pity with us.

5. If you think something sucks, that’s not really news to the dev team (so suck it up anyway)

Oh. This again. I get to be enlightened by how game developers have limited resources and have to establish priorities. Yawn. I already explained that we, as normal people, understand this. Going back to Item #2, however, due to the gaming industry’s crippling allergy to transparency, we never get to know why those choices were made. Why do game developers insist on belittling us with stories about how “we have to make hard decisions” while never explaining what the calculus of those decisions is? You think we care if we don’t have any substantive details? Answer: we don’t. Here Anthony Burch waxes rueful about how his team had to choose between the bulk content of Borderland’s 2 and the ending. I dunno, that seems like a pretty big strawman to me, to say nothing of how it speaks to how out of touch he seems to have become with the average gamer. Very few people bought Borderlands 2 for the quality of the story, an element it barely even had. The entire game is sold up on reckless mayhem combined with some silly antics and quality voice acting to provide a transparent excuse for carnage. We want the guns, the classes, and the mindless violence. Claptrap is not Fall-From-Grace. He’s a mascot that produces cheap laughs. Sacrificing the ending of a game that did not prioritize literary quality from the outset is not a sacrifice. It’s called structure. We don’t expect Call of Duty to have an amazing story either. Or Blizzard games post Frozen Throne. Even claiming to value story is a reputation that a gaming company tends to have to earn.

Let’s go back to my favorite dead horse: Mass Effect 3. Explain to me the priorities of that game. It was the end of the trilogy, the closer to two previous games that had constructed a memorable array of characters in a rich and inviting universe we all loved. I’d hazard to say the story of that game should have taken priority over everything else, assuming all that talk about passion wasn’t pure flatulation. Instead, it seems pretty clear said story was low on the priority list. Forget about the nightmare that was the ending for a moment: Mass Effect 3’s story was the weakest of the three games regardless. There was a very noticeable shift in the actions of the characters and how the stories were told in the first place. All the piles of hype about how the story would have branching endings and radical outcomes based on what you’d done before turned out to be ashen night. But what did seem to have the priority of the developers? Oh, the gameplay. I should note that Mass Effect 2 had solved that issue already. Despite the outrage over thermal clips, the gameplay was tight and crisp. What other major iteration was needed? Apparently lots, because the gameplay was the best in the franchise, revamped and sparkled up for all to revel in. Even significant amounts of development time were dedicated to building a feature into a singleplayer RPG that nobody had ever asked for: multiplayer. I bet the months and resources appropriated to that could have been spent on giving us a final boss, or, maybe, a credible concluding scenario that fit the overall tone and themes of the franchise. Oh, but I just remembered Item #4, so here’s a little clarity for you: nobody remembers Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer. Everyone does remember the ending. Those last three minutes ruined the entire Mass Effect franchise and permanently scarred and besmirched the Pixar-like reputation of Bioware as a studio. I certainly hope that the studio discussed priorities after that fiasco.

It never gets old.

It never gets old.

You see, there are priorities, and there are basics. Assassin’s Creed didn’t get that right. Watch Dogs didn’t get that right. More and more games seem to be following in those footsteps. But beyond all that, merely having a list of priorities does not mean those priorities are well-conceived. It’s perfectly possible to ruin a game with the wrong set of priorities. What we’re a little miffed about these days is that you keep making the same mistakes. You keep throwing out games that nobody could believe were ready for release, yet you adopt the corporate line the moment shit hits the fan. A few months later, you rant about how nobody understands you. But we do: you are a normal person, in a normal job, in a normal industry, and we still expect you to do that job. Just like the military, stress and logistics are no excuse for massacring a village. The complexity of building a plumbing system doesn’t make the consumer a whiny brat for suing you when that shoddily built system ruins their month. But in the video game industry, we don’t have any recourse. You take our money and that’s that, often by outright lying to us. So we get to bitch in return and call you names on this giant bathroom wall.

Until you put your money where your mouth is, we’ll keep opening ours. It’s the only option we have, after all. How’s that for constraints?

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