Thoughts Of A Feminist Gamer, Why The Sudden Gaming Press Hate For Developers?

Unless you’ve been stuck in a cave somewhere you’ve probably noticed that the last six months in gaming have been tempestuous to say the least. The events leading up to and including the #GamerGate movement have created a rupture in the very heart of gaming itself. The ripples have steadily moved outward, from the gaming media to the mainstream media and even into entertainment, with the Law and Order SVU episode ‘Intimidation Game’ painting a quite frankly ludicrous picture of the current situation in gaming.

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In the middle of the storm have been game developers. While there have been some developers that have openly supported the media, and some that have openly supported gamers, most developers have kept out of it. Who could blame them? If you’re someone that just wants to make games because you love the medium then you may find yourself caught between the rock and the hard place that is the politics of modern gaming. Developers walk a difficult path. They know that gamers, as their customers, look to them for support against those that seek to slander them all as sexists and harassers. They also know that if they say the wrong thing they may find themselves blacklisted by gaming media, making it almost impossible to get their game out there once it is made. Developers that work for larger game companies may also be unable to take a public position because of fear of repercussions from their employer. Employment contract stipulations and Non Disclosure Agreements can make speaking out in the open very difficult. Some developers have chosen to speak anonymously, Bro Team Pill made a series of YouTube videos in which developers answered questions from gamers while having their faces silhouetted and their voices distorted.

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Recently there have been events that have made me re-examine the way that the current game media deals with developers. These being the handling of the Peter Molyneux story and the response to Mark Kern’s petition. For those who don’t know Peter Molyneux is the British developer responsible for games such as Dungeon Keeper, Theme Park, Black And White and the Fable Series. Mark Kern is CEO of MEK Entertainment and has worked in the development of such games as Starcraft, Diablo 2 and World Of Warcraft.

In 2012 Peter Molyneux and his company 22cans launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new Free To Play game, Godus, which he billed as “Half a living sandbox world, and half a strategy game” The Kickstarter was successful, raising just over £526 000. In September 2013, nine months into development, Godus was released on Steam Early Access. It’s official release on the App Store came in May 2014 though it was not received well critically, earning middle to poor reviews for it’s missing features. On 11 February 2015 Eurogamer ran this story about Scot Bryan Henderson, a young man that won a competition in 2013 to be the Godus ‘God Of Gods’, meaning he would be featured as a god in the game’s multiplayer “Hubworld” feature and would receive a share of the game’s earnings. Eighteen months after winning the prize the “Hubworld” feature of Godus has not yet materialised and Scot has received nothing of the prize he was promised, indeed Molyneux and his team appeared to have abandoned him completely. Five days after this story broke developer Mark Kern launched this petition, asking that the gaming press, particularly Polygon and Kotaku, take responsibility for their part in the unfair coverage and character assassination of gaming as a hobby in the current mainstream media.

After these stories emerged the response from press and on social media was immediate. Molyneux was universally condemned, for his company’s treatment of Scot Bryan Henderson, the chaotic, unfinished state of Godus and for his announcement that many Kickstarter backers would not receive their pledge rewards. Backers were furious and took to forums and Twitter to express their outrage. Molyneux found himself under the media microscope. In the following days after the Henderson story was released there were more articles featuring Molyneux. Rock, Paper, Shotgun ran an interview in which the author, John Walker, immediately asked Molyneux if he is a pathological liar. This piece was published in The Guardian in which Molyneux announced he would no longer speak to the press as he and his family had received death threats. There was also this article which pretty much calls Molyneux’s entire career a lie. This almost instantaneously caused a dramatic swing the other way in public sympathy, with Molyneux in the space of a few hours going from villainous bounder to clueless but earnestly creative victim of poor decisions and belligerence. Rock, Paper, Shotgun in particular came under heavy criticism for it’s treatment of Molyneux.

As for Mark Kern, though other big names in development such as Bioshock creator Ken Levine, were supportive of the petition

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the day after his petition was created video game publication VG247 responded with an article titled

Developers shooting the messenger: stop blaming the press for sexist extremism in games

The article was very critical of Kern’s petition and Levine’s support for it. Writer Patrick Garret makes it clear that he does not recognise Kern’s assertion that the gaming press bears any responsibility for the rupture in gaming, placing the blame solely on the shoulders of those who have supported the GamerGate hashtag. Garrat finishes with this

“As was made blatantly obvious by Gamergate, the last thing the gaming community needs at the moment is more ill-informed bigots getting angry on the internet. Think before you sign. It may be very difficult to erase the ink.”

Some took this to be a veiled threat against developers that they will be blacklisted if they openly come out against the gaming press. In an exchange with Kern days later Garrat denied this

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To be clear Mark Kern is not a supporter of the GamerGate hashtag, his aim is to encourage the gaming press to accept their share of the blame for how things have been for the last six months, with a view to opening a positive dialogue between all parties and beginning the healing process. However other members of the gaming press were quick to dismiss this.

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The response to this petition is still going on. As I write this blog post the petition has 2465 signatures and the hashtag #LetMarkSpeak is trending on Twitter in response to VG247 denying Mark Kern a right of reply to Patrick Garrat’s article

So how does this all connect? Well in my opinion we have reached a critical moment in time. The game media, having spent the last six months painting gamers as the worst people on Earth, has now turned it’s attention to game developers. In doing so they may force developers to publicly take a stance on political issues in gaming, perpetuating a war of attrition. Whether or not you agree with Molyneux’s actions is it really professional journalist behaviour to call him a pathological liar? Does he deserve to be told everything he has ever achieved is a lie? Whether you support Kern’s petition or not is it really professional journalist behaviour to deride him in an article and then deny him the basic journalistic tenet of a right of reply? This sets a dangerous precedent. Mark Kern is a very well known name in gaming and as a result has been able to draw large attention to his treatment by VG247, meaning that other publications and even Youtube personalities such as TotalBiscuit have offered Kern a platform on which to speak. If a small or indie developer were in the same position then it would be likely that their side of the story would never be told, they would be blacklisted and their voice would remain unheard.

For both Molyneux and Kern the gaming media has chosen to focus on writing wildly accusatory opinion pieces instead of actually focusing and reporting on the news itself, creating a wildly unbalanced and unfair version of what has occurred. Why are developers beginning to see such bias in game news reporting? Where are the journalistic standards here? Even if I thought Molyneux’s actions make him the worst person in the world, or that Kern’s petition was a laughable and pointless exercise, I would still wish that they and anyone else be treated fairly and in a balanced way by the media. That is the most basic expectation of journalistic ethics.

It seems that the gaming media cannot decide whether it wants to be an enthusiast media which serves the interests of gamers, a marketing media which serves the needs of game publishers or an investigative media that uncovers and exposes wrong doing. It is not possible for them to be an effective enthusiast media while smearing their audience as sexist, entitled terrorists. It is not possible for them to be a marketing media and expect to retain a workable ethical policy, resulting in such things as the GamerGate hashtag. It is not possible for them to be an investigative media and uncover such things as the Molyneux story without an effective wall between themselves and their potential subjects. Many game journalists still have close relationships with developers, PR representatives and game publishers, even supporting them financially through Patreon.

What is certain is that other game developers will have watched the treatment of Peter Molyneux and Mark Kern and may be wondering if they will attract the witch hunt ire of the current gaming press. From my own perspective it seems that the state of gaming journalism is far worse than we feared. If nothing else the response to Kern’s petition shows that gaming journalists and publications are extremely unwilling to examine their own behaviour or admit that mistakes have been made. Are gaming journalists so willing to throw, not only their own audience, but game developers as well to the wolves for daring to disagree? If games journalists dislike games, dislike their own audience and now even seem to dislike those that make games then how can we have any real expectation of a competent games media? What is the point of a gaming media that hates gaming? If game developers need to be worried that they will not be treated ethically, with balance and non-bias, by the gaming media then it is clear that radical changes need to be made. Perhaps game developers should ask themselves if they can really afford to continue being silent and accept that ultimately they may be forced to choose a side. If this is the case then it may be a longer road than we thought to heal the wounds of gaming.

Thanks For Reading

Angela

 

 

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Thoughts Of A Feminist Gamer, What The Hell Are ‘New Gamers’?

A little while ago game developer Brianna Wu published a series of tweets concerning the reaction to her IOS game, Revolution 60, going up on Steam Greenlight.

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Now my own feelings on Brianna Wu aside when I read the tweets I felt a twinge of interest in this idea of ‘New Gamers’, as I thought more about it my fascination increased. And so I would like, if I may, to explore some theories about what I think the term ‘New Gamers’ is all about.

In the last few years I have noticed a growing level of resentment towards what is perceived as the ‘traditional’ core gamer, both from the gaming industry and the gaming media. We have been described as entitled, whiny man-children (remember we’re talking the perception here) that bicker and complain too much and are owed nothing by those that descend from on high to grant us mere peasants the gift of video games. In the last few months that resentment has become outright contempt, in August 2014 there were the now infamous articles that attacked the very identity of ‘gamer’ and declared gamers to be “over”.

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While that has been happening the market for IOS and mobile games has exploded. In 2013 around 1.4 billion people owned a smartphone worldwide, estimated to have jumped to 1.76 billion by 2014. At the end of 2013 it was estimated that 285 million people worldwide owned a name brand tablet (such as Apple, Samsung and Amazon) According to the ESA in 2014  80% of time spent on mobile was using apps or games and 84% of tablet owners mostly used it for playing games. Games such as Flappy Bird, Bejeweled, Candy Crush and Angry Birds have made IOS and mobile gaming into big business, with Flappy Bird at one point estimated to be earning $50 000 a day in advertising revenue and games like Clash of Clans earning a whole lot more. By 2014 the casual game market was estimated to be a $8.64 billion industry.

So why do I bring this up? Well here’s the thing, I think there may be a connection between the ongoing resentment towards ‘core’ gamers and the rise of the more casual ‘New Gamer’. This attitude of disdain for traditional gamers is everywhere, the gaming media, the mainstream gaming industry and even the Indie game community. However before I get into this connection I will first explain what I believe is meant by the term ‘New Gamers’

Now I am going to generalise a fair bit here so I will ask you to remember that this is a theory, an opinion, nothing more. Also I would ask you to remember that anything I say here is not, in fact, a criticism of casual gamers.

To me ‘New Gamers’ are the casual gamers that have come into gaming in the last few years through mobile/IOS games. When publications throw in the statistics that half of gamers are now women and that adult female gamers now outnumber teenage boys it is worth remembering that those statistics include those that play regularly on IOS and mobile. However this is an entirely different market to the mainstream triple A industry and as such the rules and expectations are different. So let’s explore the differences between these markets.

Games such as Angry Birds and Candy Crush as gaming experiences are based on instant gratification, ‘New Gamers’ like games that can easily be picked up and put down again just as fast. This is in contrast to the methodical enjoyment that comes from core games on console and PC that require more intense concentration and investment of time. In short, ‘New Gamers’ do not have the time or patience to grind. The industry for these games is aware if this and so adds features that allow the ‘New Gamer’ to skip all that pesky grinding business, namely microtransactions. ‘New Gamers’ can simply pay for more power ups, to unlock levels and for costumes/skins, it’s that easy and that fast.

Which brings me to my next point, ‘New Gamers’ like their games to be easy to learn with the most basic , simple controls. Because of this these are games that can be developed and pushed out relatively quickly and, more importantly, cheaply. While researching for this blog I came across this guide on how much it costs to develop a mobile game. According to the guide a basic level game like Flappy Bird would cost between £5000 (just over $7500) and £20 000 (just under $30 500) Just think about that, a game that cost that little to develop could end up earning up to $50 000 a day in advertising revenue. Of course IOS/mobile games that are more complex cost a lot more to develop but even the maximum amount of money, such as Infinity Blade 3 which was rumoured to have cost around £1.5/$2.3 million to develop, is never going to get anywhere near the cost of triple A game development. It is actually quite difficult to find out how much triple A games cost to develop since many of the big developers don’t have a concrete set budget and most estimates you find tend to include marketing in the cost of the game however I did mange to find a couple of examples. According to Stéphane Decroix, an executive producer at Ubisoft, the game Watch Dogs cost in excess of $68 million to develop. Quantic Dream was estimated to have spent around $27 million developing Beyond: Two Souls. Mobile/ IOS games are cheap and easy to produce with a huge potential for profit through advertising and potentially microtranaction revenue as well, they are easy money.

But what about Indie gaming? This section is two fold, the first part being that it has never been easier to be an Indie game developer than it is now. With software such as Twine, Sploder, Game Maker Studio and Unity3D now readily available if you have an idea for a game, a budget and are willing to put in even a little work you can get your game made and out on the market relatively easily. So we come to ‘New Gamers’ and it is becomingly increasingly clear that the standards of ‘New Gamers’ in terms of graphics, gameplay and visual quality are pretty low. Bear in mind many of these games/apps are very low cost or free so if a game is poor quality, glitchy or unfinished a ‘New Gamer’ is not likely to make that big a fuss, they’ll just uninstall the game and leave a one star rating on the App Store. Even when ‘New Gamers’ are being mistreated the level of outrage is minimal. In the UK in 2014 the British Advertising Standards Authority ruled that EA’s IOS version of Dungeon Keeper could not be advertised as a free-to-play title because they believed that it was virtually impossible to play the game without spending real money in microtransactions, this was after receiving only a handful of complaints. The amount of outrage expressed by core gamers about something like the Mass Effect 3 ending would never happen with ‘New Gamers’. Which leads me to the second part, ‘New Gamers’ are an audience with a higher concentration of female players, around 42% of mobile gamers are women.

Source: http://www.statista.com/

This figure includes the people of any age that might play a larger mobile game say through Facebook, even my mother in law has played Candy Crush. However ‘New Gamers’ that would buy Indie IOS/mobile titles rather than the well known games are perceived by Indie developers to be a younger audience. In the last few years gamers have noticed a trend in Indie Gaming and Game Journalism towards certain social ideologies. As a developer or a journalist with a potential agenda which you would prefer? The core gamer audience that is around 80% male with an average age of 30 that is unlikely to react well or a younger, more gender equal audience that is potentially more progressive or at the very least less likely to argue?

Again, these are not criticisms of casual gamers, merely a supposition. Also I am not in any way suggesting that there is no cross over in these markets, some gamers that mainly play console or PC will also dabble in mobile/IOS gaming and vice versa. The point is the way that the core and casual audiences in gaming are potentially perceived by those in the industry and media. A market of gamers has emerged that want games that are cheap to make/buy and easy to play and these gamers are not too fussed about getting rinsed for cash.

When you look at it that that way is it any wonder that the kind of money grabbing tactics used in IOS/mobile gaming have rapidly begun appearing in core triple A gaming? Microtransactions, games sold episodically, content clearly stripped from the full game to be sold as extra content, even broken, glitched or unfinished games. These have all become common bones of contention for core gamers.

So what, in my opinion, does all this have to do with the resentment aimed at core gamers? Well if casual IOS/mobile gamers are the ‘New Gamers’ then we, the traditional core market for gaming, are the ‘Old Gamers’ We are the establishment. Many of us grew up playing video games, we remember when things were different, when games were better value for money and when game writers were just like us and actually seemed to enjoy writing about gaming. Things have changed and the rise of social media has made it a lot easier for us to complain about it. We don’t enjoy being ripped off, we expect a certain level of quality from our games, we expect our games writers to behave to a certain standard or, at the very least, to LIKE video games. But the industry wants us to behave like ‘New Gamers’, to take what is given to us without complaint and hand over the cash whenever called upon to do so. The gaming media wants us to stop liking the games that we enjoy and instead crave more intellectual, thought provoking games. They want our tastes to focus on games that are more easily recognisable as ‘art’ and that can be critiqued as such. A particular clique of ideologically driven journalists and their Indie game developer friends want gaming and it’s audience to change and become what they see as more progressive. They don’t want to be one of us, they want to tell us what to think and to have us agree unquestioningly. Gaming has become like being at school, the popular, cool kid clique has decided that the audio/visual club would be really great if it didn’t have all those dorky nerds and geeks in it and has set about driving us out.

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And where will that leave ‘New Gamers’? Here comes the part where I will sound extremely ancient. New trends that remain over time become the establishment. Everyone and their dog will be trying to get in on the easy money of mobile/IOS games and the market will soon (if it isn’t already) be flooded with games with graphics from 1995 that look like they were coded by a chimp with a pipe wrench. As has happened with triple A ideas that sell well will be reused again and again, until the market reaches over saturation. The industry will begin to push it’s luck with the cash grabbing. Media trends will change, new writers will come in wanting to make changes and names for themselves. They may want a new audience, one more in line with their own progressive way of thinking. The core audience will grow tired, they’ll remember when things were different, they’ll remember when they got more for their money and when the hobby that they love seemed to matter to those that write about it. You see where I’m going with this? ‘New Gamers’ will become the ‘Old Gamers’ and the cycle will start all over again.

The sad part is there is plenty of room for both markets, core gamers and casual gamers can exist side by side. Yes we may mock each other gently but no more than we mock ourselves

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As I said at the beginning, this is just a theory, maybe you agree with it and maybe you don’t. Maybe you think there is something I have missed, if so I would love to hear about it in the comment section. An ‘Old Gamer’ I may be but I’m not dead yet.

Thanks for reading

Angela