Here’s a thing I will never understand with gaming culture. I don’t understand why we have to wholeheartedly throw ourselves over a game and praise all aspects of it.
At some point we have to be able to say “I loved this part, this expression, but I didn’t like that part.”
Doing that, both in a public and personal setting or in some cases even in a professional setting, can cause outrage. The responses can be anything from scorn and mockery to outright hostilities. If this had no effect on publishers and developers or for that matter the big tribe1 that is gaming culture’s visible layer, I think the culture would be… not fine but okay. No massive issue. But that’s not really what’s happening. Instead we are constantly buffeted by the winds of public – or should I say gamerbro – opinion.
I’d like to caveat this by saying that interacting with players and hearing their opinions is definitively worthwhile. Players are our customers after all. In a respectful setting, that interaction is both positive and creative. What I’m talking about now is the knee jerk reactions that come when players are not getting what they want or letting one “everybody knows” opinion rule, especially when the “everybody knows” is based on assumptions and conclusions drawn based on made up situations, hypotheticals and ignorance surrounding game development. I think many of you can agree that bad takes are about as common as ants at a picnic. “Just switch on the multiplayer toggle”, “why don’t they just change the engine” etc.
Back to the point, and the point is that when you criticize popular games, this is often the response: “How DARE you criticize even the most insignificant detail of this perfect game!”
Probably because there is no such animal as a perfect game. I admit, I may be harsher than most when rendering judgement. Most of the time, it’s because I know what goes into what we do, and in some weird way I’m hoping that my (barely read) analyses of games I love will lead to some small change.
In short, I believe we can do better. Not just on the developer side, but also on the publisher side. There’s a lot of noise in game dev. Public opinion is just one aspect of that noise. There’s the lack of structure, framework, biases, mono culture, incestuous relationship between culture and developer, lack of forward motion due to too much focus on the present etc. I’ll write more about that noise later.
The lack of nuanced feedback or criticism precludes us from improving. If everything is bad (which is also a common judgement and it seems to be restricted to certain developers and publishers) how do I make things better? Where do I start? In addition, if there’s nothing you can do about it as a dev or publisher because this is a view that has very little to do with actual output and more to do with “I don’t like this publisher”, how do I fix it?
If everything is perfect, then there’s nothing to improve. And again, what if it’s perfect only because it comes from a publisher or dev that “everyone” loves? They can do no wrong in the eyes of public opinion.
Either way, there’s very little to work with and either public judgement rendered is going to make life difficult for the people trying to improve on a product or trying to survive a “bad” game release.
The publishers can continue pressuring the developers into making bad, burnout related decisions that take more out of the devs than the devs are even aware of, or want to admit to. In a “perfect game” scenario, all those problems during development, all that noise, is soon forgotten. It gives way to the belief (at least from higher ups) that if this was the “perfect game”, we can do it again, exactly the same way we did it before, because it resulted in the perfect game, after all.
For developers ending up on the other end of the spectrum, the worst game in history2, the game will be held over them as a thread and lead to the exact same conditions.
The lack of nuance is understandable from a historical perspective. Games have had to endure much, both ridicule, moral panics and being the underdog of entertainment, and it led to people who love games being terrified to voice any kind of criticism around anything except the more practical aspects of the game. What’s the engine like? The graphics? The physics? Looking at content was forbidden because it always brought the risk of bringing the cultural and moral panic vultures circling. Admitting fault – as it were – could lead to lawsuit or judgment in the eyes of media, which is almost as bad.
Contrary to music or books, which has always3 been pervasive in our culture, games have not. At least not in their current, digital form. They also haven’t been as widely spread or as easy to partake of. This of course has meant that games, and the position of games in popular culture has been somewhat more precarious. This also means that people have been more protective of games. That protectiveness has by necessity included all kinds of defences, including those that are harmful to games in the long run.
In the end, if we reject all criticism as unfounded and moral panicky, how can we ever improve? Combine that with the fact that all criticism we actually seem to listen to as a culture is that of loud gamer bros who more often than not have an excluding and gatekeeping agenda, then what?