Electron Dance
13Sep/11Off

Punchbag Artists

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.

[collage of internet abuse]

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.”

[rant about Privates]

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.”

[time fcuk negative review]

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.

[l4d2 rant]

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.

Further Reading

I followed up with two small companion pieces here on Electron Dance: Punchbag Marshall and How Not To Get A Reply From Tim Schafer.

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Posted by HM

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (18) Trackbacks (1)
  1. As an aside, the success of “Punchbag Artists” barely registered here; the site gained virtually zero new readers. As a result, I’m pretty wary of trying to publish elsewhere because it tends to diminish Electron Dance than enhance it.

  2. Are there numbers for how many people start reading someone’s site due to an article of theirs appearing in a magazine? Lots of people contribute to The Escapist, but it only got me reading Shamus Young’s blog (I was already reading Yahtzee’s site by that time, though a rare podcast is the only unique content it gets now).

  3. I feel certain I’ve read this piece before, am I wrong? At any rate it was a pleasure to read it again – such a valuable perspective to bring, thanks again for writing it. I particularly think that more good writing from the “developer” side is sorely needed, and this humanising kind is a favourite.

    Great!

  4. @Beam: That’s why I’m not so bothered. If you want to make a name as a games journalist or maybe make a bit of extra cash, that’s what you do – go out and get pieces published on other sites. But I’m much more interested in cultivating Electron Dance and I’d only spend hours and hours on work for other people’s sites if it could broaden the ED audience.

    @Pippin: Maybe you read it a year ago on Reso magazine… this was before I knew you though!

  5. @HM Huh… that’s so strange, I feel that it wasn’t in Reso I saw it (not being consciously aware of that magazine anyway)… but I suppose it could have been. It hasn’t appeared in any other form? No matter, anyway, it’s great whatever.

  6. I don’t think so Pippin, although it was linked by the RPS Sunday Papers.

  7. Aha! That’s it. Sorry for this super banal comment stream. I will now shut up.

  8. Excellent read!
    You know, lately I have been working on the idea of understanding game development as play form. Of course the idea is not new, but my approach is that, as in game-play, in gamedev-play there is a set of expectations and promises, the mapping of which can lead to playfulness or “playfulessness”.
    Flaming responses and personal attacks to game developers are for me the result of such “problematic” mappings, perhaps in an even more direct dialogic way than through the artifact/game.

  9. Another fantastic read HM.

    To be honest I can’t really understand this level of hatred, though I did admittedly enjoy reading through the Derek Smart flamewars… Nobody is perfect it seems. Oh, and people -especially on the internet- are indeed strange. Even Gnome’s Lair has gotten its fair share of incredibly hateful comments; comments that would warrant proper violence in the real world.

  10. @Christos: Electron Dance welcomes your first comment! And thanks! I remember some comments I made on Second Person Shooter some time ago where I said I saw gaming as a pact between player and developer. What I’m coming around to is the idea this relationship is maybe more combative than I originally conceived, particularly after following up on some of Douglas Wilson’s work with Miguel Scart. Still, I’m not convinced (as yet) that this natural state of player vs developer in the game context is what is at the heart of attacks on developers. I do not think they are uniform in cause; for example, the impulse to destroy something that is seen as successful within a blinkered clique (I see what you are really!) and, the flip side, the lynch mob-like takedown on something that is over-hyped (ABP is a perfect example of this) that some are waiting to fail.

    @gnome: Thanks! I know at some point ED will become popular enough to pick up crazies and I’ll know the site’s popularity will have hit the big time then!

    I picked up two criticisms against the article when it was originally published. One was that it painted the developer mindset in its final paragraph as a bit needy which I think is a valid criticism; sometimes trying to throw in a little symmetry into an essay can alter its meaning rather than reinforce it. The other was that I talked to Derek Smart – who some consider to be a developer that throws out the same sort of attacks, just in the opposite direction – which weakens the thrust of the piece.

    Derek Smart is someone with so much infamous internet history that many people just can’t even engage with even the most harmless banter he might put out now. I’m not going to claim he’s been a saint – I did a lot of background research prior to interviewing him – but I came across so many apparently harmless conversations where people seem to be just waiting to lynch him. It has become internet modus operandi to treat Smart as a punching bag. An eye for an eye; like “it’s okay, he gave up his internet rights by being an asshole”.

    And that’s why I talked to him, because a lot of people now think it’s okay to dehumanise him.

  11. Actually reading his opinion did make me feel rather bad about enjoying the flamewars…

  12. As if by Magic, this appears: To My Someday Daughter. Along similar lines but not about the developer/armchair critic divide.

  13. How odd. I was convinced that I had already commented on this. Possibly it was a double-whammy of deja vu, as despite my earlier comments to the contrary I realise I did read this back when it was first published.

    It’s a great piece and I think the only thing it doesn’t really touch on is the culture of entitlement and privilege that seems to go hand in hand with a lot of online gaming culture. As do a lot of people who recognise this and call it like they see it (the RPS comment threads usually have plenty of such people, for example) but still.

    Completely agree with what you say about Derek Smart in your comment above, btw. I came across him via Usenet in the 90s and never spoke with him myself, but it did seem that a lot of people just found it amusing to bait him. Equally, it seems he was quite poor at taking criticism of the then astonishingly broken and commercially released Battlecruiser 3000AD (a game I bought in a bargain bin and gave away after the manual and I could not encourage my spaceship to fly).

  14. Hey Shaun, sounds like everybody already read this. I made a point of not talking about getting into the heads of those people firing off harsh, personal criticism; I thought reflecting the impact on developers would be a smarter way of condemning the behaviour.

    I also don’t have an “opinion” about Derek Smart. I read the thread over at Gamers With Jobs which got him banned. But I also hung around his forums and everybody seemed civil; the players there clearly loved his games. So it’s not all flames and insults.

    There’s a fine line between critical and being insulting and negative critique pulls in more traffic than glowing, floaty praise. (My piece The Retired Gambler, which some perceived as a swipe at video games by someone “who has grown out of them”, snatched a lot more comments on the RPS Sunday Papers than anything else they’d linked to here.)

    I dug up all sorts of attacks on the web. One of my “favourites” was written about the upcoming XCOM. Hearing about XCOM being remade as an FPS, it was said, was like hearing your childhood sweetheart had been raped and left for dead on the roadside. This kind of statement is all about theatre; look how nasty I can make my insult.

    It goes beyond games, of course, to people who write about games. Second Person Shooter was the subject of personal attacks last year on the back of an article about The Witcher and Western RPG protagonists. Even just last week something vicious was sent through their comment feed (now deleted).

  15. Oh god, the RPGCodex invasion into Second Person Shooter was just shame, shame, shame. Though I felt some validation when I found that opinions of them weren’t high elsewhere on the internet, either. The fact that indie RPG Prelude to Darkness only has quotes from Codex members praising it on its site had me reticent to even try it, despite no other connections to that incident (as far as I can tell).

  16. I do wonder where this deeply unpleasant and often ad hominem style of writing / criticism sprang from. I suppose it was always about in some form but I suppose the explosion in popularity of Charlie Brooker and Yahtzee must have driven it to some extent. Now, I’m a fan of both, but do generally consider them entertainers rather than critics, despite the fact that they do both often have interesting things to say. Regardless, I suspect a lot of imitators can only emulate the mean-spiritedness, being as that is rather easier to accomplish than having something to actually back up your nastiness.

  17. @ShaunCG: There have always been brutal critics that basically elevate themselves off the back of others’ work. I’m thinking theatre reviews and food critics for one. Those are usually very personal more so than film, closer to the destructive indie criticism that the article was focused on. There’s definitely an art to it: the RedLetterMedia reviews of the new Star Wars trilogy was some of the most accessible and well-thought film criticism I’ve come across yet absolutely bonkers HILARIOUS.

    As I’ve said before, I try to steer away from writing negative stuff in general, so if I don’t take to something then I might not write about it at all. Rare occasions are my Lost Planet piece and, to some extent, Cryostasis (which I keep remembering fondly as my brain has chosen to excise all the negatives).

    Some of it is theatre and some of it ain’t; I think there are all sorts of reasons why people take out hate contracts on some developers.

  18. @HM: Well, get you with your reasonable, nuanced, even respectful arguments. This sort of woolly-headed liberal generosity is what leads to national socialist medicine death camps and therefore you, sir, are worse than Hitler. In fact on the Hitler scale I’d say you’re 2.3 Pol Pots, or 1.4 Ubisofts! Also you smell bad and your face is funny.

    GLENN BECK 2016