On October 4, 2010, Resolution Magazine published an article called Punchbag Artists. To this day, it is the most popular piece on gaming I have written outside of Marvel Brothel, earning tweets from the exalted likes of Leigh Alexander and Kieron "The New Games Journalism is writing comics" Gillen.
One year on, I am now able to welcome the article home. If you've not read Punchbag Artists before - just sit back and enjoy the ride.
And read the words, too.
THERE WAS this guy I met at a software development conference in Cambridge last year. Long-term memory has smudged his features so I wouldn’t recognise him even if he was standing in front of me right now, but I recall he spoke with a soft Scottish accent and might have been slightly taller than me.
He said he worked for a games developer, Realtime Worlds, on something called APB. This was somewhat more impressive than my job which involves spreadsheets, databases and yawn. I told him I’d read all the buzz about APB on Rock Paper Shotgun, and there had been plenty of buzz, stacks of it. Sounded like a great project to be on.
As if trying to temper my enthusiasm, he said: “I just hope everybody likes it.”
A year on, APB has been ridiculed, Realtime Worlds has gone into administration and the developer who might have been slightly taller than me is likely out of a job. Hostile descriptions of APB like “absolutely retarded beyond belief” litter game forums and blogs. But all I can think of is a softly-spoken Scottish developer reading all this online vitriol, damning years of work. I just hope everybody likes it.
Now it’s no big surprise that on the internet anyone can be a critic. While professional reviews can be brutal and punishing, down at the anonymous, anarchic end of the scale, criticism can mutate into public humiliation and denouncement of not just a game but also its architects. APB is not an isolated case. Zombie Cow’s Privates is a “game for perverts”. Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV is a “faux 8-bit piece of crap.” 2K Marin’s in-development XCOM is “like wanting a puppy for your birthday but getting dogshit.”
But what does this do to the developers on the receiving end?
Every relationship has problems
Arcen Games released AI War in 2009, a critically-acclaimed take on the RTS template which eventually became successful enough to convince founder Chris Park to give up the day job and go full-time with Arcen. Having recently followed up with puzzle game Tidalis, I asked Park whether destructive criticism has an effect on his work, particularly in the wake of AI War’s success.
“Some comments are easier to ignore than others,” he says. “When you are working on something that you know is good and other people think is good, it’s easy to brush off that sort of thing. Destructive comments about AI War rarely bother me these days, and so I thought I’d built up a nice thick skin. It was with some surprise that I discovered that negative comments on Tidalis were once again having an effect on me. When you’ve got dozens of positive reviews already in hand for a game, it’s easy to write these off, but when you have only a growing handful, the insecurity creeps in.”
Dan Marshall of Zombie Cow is upfront. “Negative comments are crushing, soul-destroying and it really affects me. Not every game is going to be to everyone’s tastes – and that’s fine. The trouble is that internet comments are so disposable and easy; people rarely write ‘the gameplay wasn’t quite to my tastes’, they’ll just declare it’s ‘fucking shit’ and move on.”
Zombie Cow is better known for humorous point-and-click adventures such as Ben There, Dan That! But Channel 4 recently funded them to make a sex educational platform shooter called Privates. It has seen both positive and negative reviews. The problem for developers, Marshall explains, is keeping everything in perspective: “I’ve had more lovely e-mails from people, saying how much they enjoyed Privates, than any other game I’ve made. And yet for every dozen comments that say they really enjoyed it, the one that slags it off is the one that sticks out in your mind.”
Think of the children
Park has blogged in length about maintaining a good rapport with players, as fans can provide valuable feedback and inspiration. He fears that some developers, feeling the heat of a vocal minority, might withdraw. “They just shouldn’t have to put up with that in their job,” he says. “It’s not bearable, and so to cut out the unbearable parts of a job they otherwise love, they turn away from players. I think it’s a really unhealthy cycle, and not good for anyone – developers or players.”
Long-time indie developer Paul Eres has worked on many games over the years, the most recent being Immortal Defense in 2007, a unique spin on the tower defence genre. Paul also doubles as an editor on TIGSource, an indie developers’ portal.
Eres is frank about the pressure of throwaway criticism on indie developers who are just finding their feet. “Sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth it to review an indie game because I hate subjecting the authors of those games to the negative hateful comments that are sure to come, no matter how good the game is or how hard they worked on it.” It leaves him with an uncomfortable paradox: “I hate that in order to let people know about a game I’m also simultaneously subjecting the game’s author to ridicule and personal attacks.
“I know several people who have given up indie game development completely due to negative comments and many more who have considered it. I think it’s kind of sad but true that a major part of being an indie developer is to get death threats and hate mail about your games. Even if they’re games you make completely for free for others to enjoy.”
Don’t shoot, we’re humans
Edmund McMillen is the author of a diverse cornucopia of games from Gish to Time Fcuk to Super Meat Boy. To raise the spirits of other developers who might be turned off by the indie experience, he put together a short YouTube video last year mocking those who leave discouraging and corrosive comments.
McMillen himself is no stranger to online attacks. “The only thing that bothers me,” he says, “is the transparent jealousy that drives anonymous people to post negative comments in an attempt to ‘bring that guy down a peg’. Back in the day I can say I did use it as a motivator, and it actually pushed me to make more content to directly upset those people. Nowadays, I don’t put as much effort into my retorts because it seems to bother the trolls much more.”
But what starts out as throwaway, negative criticism can morph into something malevolent and hostile. “The high point of my career was when I was in hospital for three days having emergency surgery and a few friends got together to get donations to pay for my bills,” McMillen says. “The low point was getting home in a drug-addled haze to read TIGSource comments wishing I had died.”
Those comments still haunt the TIGSource boards. “I hope he dies,” says one. Another: “He makes shitty games and then asks for your pity?”
But every cloud has a silver lining. McMillen adds: “As the months go by and I see other developers like Cactus, Anna Anthropy and Derek Yu also get death wished upon them by trolls, I feel honoured.”
Derek Smart has been running indie studio 3000AD for two decades, his most recent release being combat simulation All Aspect Warfare. He also took over the helm at MMORPG Algernon earlier this year. Smart is not shy to strike back at critics, so much so that he is as much associated with his online exchanges as his games.
Smart’s favourite quote is from Warren Marshall at Epic Games: “Game developers are just human beings who happen to make games for a living. So anyone who wants to hold us to higher standards shouldn’t be surprised if we don’t uphold them.”
Does the flood of internet vitriol affect Smart? “It still has some effect to be honest,” he says, “but not in the ways that most people would think. It’s not really the bad criticism that gets to me, it is the fact that most of that criticism is not only unfounded, but also comes from anti-social misfits who just do stuff like that because they can.
“However, since I’ve been in business, I haven’t noticed any adverse effect on either myself or my products. I’m sure it’s there – I just don’t notice it because, well, I still make money doing what I love doing. And that’s all that matters at the end of the day.”
Zombie Cow’s Marshall typically only replies to criticism when people make claims that the game would’ve been so much better if some aspect had been implemented in a different way. “It’s a frightfully easy thing to say from behind your little desk,” he says. “Thing is, more often than not we’ll have tried that idea during development, and it turned out to be terrible. But responding to comments isn’t cathartic, people just whine back and it never ends.”
If this is so, why does Smart still feel the need to reply to his critics? “When you respond,” he explains, “you’re not just addressing the trolls, but you’re also stating your opinions as per the diatribe being addressed. The goal – at least for me – is for others to hear what I have to say and thus draw their own conclusions. You get into trouble, self-inflicted no less, when you start to assume that the trolls outnumber the fans who either follow you or your work.”
Nobody answers the phone
What of big mainstream developers? Valve has always been a shining example of exemplary PR, but even they have had community problems. When Valve announced Left 4 Dead 2 would be released just one year after the original Left 4 Dead, a section of gamers felt short-changed. They assumed that Valve had decided to retire the original game a lot earlier than they had been led to believe – and thus began the infamous L4D2 boycott.
I ask Gabe Newell, Valve’s managing director and co-founder, about this and he is surprisingly pragmatic. “We start from the knowledge that we’re all in this together. Game developers and game customers want good games. The model we use is signal-to-noise. To use the specific example of L4D2, we still think there is always some useful information contained in just about any feedback. That’s our job as developers to extract that. Getting distracted by noise is not doing our job.”
Newell suggests that the ferocity of online criticism is borne out of a need to communicate with the developer. “People tend to assume that there is a huge filter and at best a tenuous connection. They start by turning their volume to 11. Once they realize that there is actually someone on the other end of the email, phone, forum, whatever, they don’t feel the need to shout. If you politely listen to people, they will politely talk to you.”
Yellow brick road
So can anything be done to improve the situation? Is abuse something developers are just going to have to live with?
Smart accepts his lot. “The anonymised culture of asshats pounding away at keyboards and saying all manner of crap with impunity… is just one of the necessary evils of our culture. It is the price we pay for being who we are and doing what we do.”
Eres is more in favour of action on the indie sites: “The biggest thing we could do is prevent anonymous comments, because pretty much all of the time people who write hateful comments are either doing so anonymously or impersonating other people. Few people want to say such things with their real name.”
But it is Newell who is the most optimistic. “Oddly enough, I think there will actually be a sea-change in this starting about five years out. A lot of the affect expressed in current communications is a side-effect of the loss of social cuing. You can go back to some of the original sociologists’ papers at Stanford University where they were studying ‘flaming’ by otherwise normal, easy-going people when they first started using email or other highly filtered communication forms to see an analysis of this.
“The sea-change is that a bunch of technology is coming that will replicate many of the data channels that have been lost in non face-to-face interactions. They won’t be the same – micro-expressions, shared attention and so on – but I suspect that as a side-effect they will make people nicer. It is much harder to be rude in person than it is to be rude in email because of the way we are hard-wired.”
Until then, it seems, developers have to cross their fingers during projects and keep thinking I just hope everybody likes it.