Edmund McMillen was standing in the checkout line at Whole Foods a few days ago. The guy behind him said, "Hey, aren't you the Super Meat Boy guy?" They enjoyed a pleasant chat while they waited their turn.
"What's this all about?" asked the woman behind the checkout, curious about the exchange.
"This guy's famous," said the dude, explaining that McMillen had been featured in a hit documentary about game developers.
"Yeah," replied McMillen, somewhat embarrassed. "I'm Lord of the Nerds."
Last weekend's Phil Fish episode, in which the Fez developer argued on Twitter with video presenter Marcus Beer and then furiously quit game development, has spent these few days of news-cycle intensity being portrayed as yet another example of online rage, trolls and baiting.
But after talking to developers behind games such as God of War, The Binding of Isaac, DayZ, Duke Nukem, Depression Quest and World of Goo, it's clear that this is also a story about people who have found public recognition without always being prepared for its consequences. There is a big difference between being an individual who gets into a flame war, and being an online celebrity who does the same thing.
Polygon spoke to leading developers about the perils of public recognition, including Edmund McMillen, Ron Carmel, George Broussard, Zoe Quinn, David Jaffe and Dean Hall.
Game developer fame is a quirky new form of quasi-celebrity, at its most pressured in the online digital world. McMillen isn't bothered much in supermarkets or in the street, but lots of people on Reddit and Twitter and NeoGAF know exactly who he is. When he, or Fish, says something controversial online, lots of people respond, some of whom choose to be unpleasant.
Of course, developers are as prone as the rest of us to saying something regrettable or downright stupid. When they do, lots of people notice because, in this microcosm of gaming, they are famous.
"It's idiotic. It's totally retarded," said McMillen. "It's the most alien thing in the world to me. Never in a million years, growing up in the '80s, would I have thought that nerd culture would rise up and create the celebrity nerd."
"It's idiotic. Totally retarded."
Both Phil Fish and Braid creator Jonathan Blow were heavily criticized by Beer (aka 'Annoyed Gamer') in a GameTrailers video show for declining to comment on a rumored story about Xbox One self-publishing.
Beer argued that the two men had appeared in the documentary
Indie Game: The Movie and that they are public figures who, he said, ought not complain about requests for media comments and should be grateful that their opinions are valued. He called them "a pair of tosspots" and "fucking hipsters." Fish responded angrily in a series of aggressive tweets, culminating in his announcement that Fez 2 had been canceled.
McMillen and his development partner Tommy Refenes also appear in Indie Game: The Movie, along with Fish, who has a story arc about the struggles to get his game, Fez, to market.
According to McMillen, the fame this film has generated has also created personas of each of them that are targeted by online critics both in the media and on social media. He said that each of them have become archetypes for critics who show up whenever they appear in the press.
"If it's about me, they say I'm an overrated fat fag. If it's Phil Fish, they talk about him being a crybaby. They will call Jon Blow pretentious and they'll call Tommy an asshole."
Each of them has responded to his fame in different ways. McMillen fronts it out, plays to the crowd, entertains us with juicy quotes. Refenes keeps to himself. Blow looks like a man who understands the value of trying to maintain a dignified posture. Fish gets into fights and, a few days ago, apparently lost it completely.
There is no guidebook for becoming a game developer celebrity. Most people who make games do so because they love to draw, or fiddle with computers, or write stories or play games. These are solitary pursuits that, until very recently, did not indicate an obvious path to celebrity. Aspiring actors and singers will often be open about their desire for fame. Aspiring game developers who dream of headlines and paparazzi generally keep it to themselves.
"I'm a social outcast. I am in my room all the time," said McMillen. "There's no reason for me to be in the public eye. I grew up at a time when artists were losers, in their rooms, and no one would care."
Few game developers yearn for paparazzi
He said that a "lack of experience" was a big problem for well-known game developers, when dealing with the public and the media. None of them can get used to the idea that "anyone takes a single thing we say seriously."
"Phil doesn't think that he's that important that he would say something and then have it plastered all over the world, and then have his character assassinated," he added.
Interacting with the public is problematic. Experienced celebrities and corporations barricade themselves behind publicists, and every public utterance is vetted and stripped of any possible offense. But game developers, especially indies, embrace their roots, make use of social media, talk openly. This leaves them open to trolls, to mischievous headline writers, to misinterpretation and to their own displays of anger, ego and error.
"Some of us, like myself, are happy to make fools of ourselves if it means we get more attention for our games, our teams and yes, at times, for our own egos. And more often than not, the actions that have given me a wonderful group of fans are the same actions that have also made me a target," he said.
"It's just me, my ego"
Jaffe added that he had chosen this route, rather than it being a course of action he had been pressured into. "It's just me, my ego and a genuine enjoyment that comes with discussing and debating the medium of games. Direct interactions allow you to keep the perspective of the pure consumer and the pure fan, which is something we all began as. End of the day, we are slaves to the customer and the fan, which is as it should be."
But even Jaffe, evidently no wallflower, has days when the online pressure gets to be too much. His reaction, not unlike the less experienced Fish, is to vent, very publicly.
"‘Everyone deals with it differently. As I get older and busier, I don't care about it as much. But on the days that I do care, I just drag the abuse or bad journalism into the light of Twitter and my blog and vent. That's kind of all I can do," he said.
"There is genuinely valid media criticism that hurts because it's true and comes from a place of wanting to inform readers and improve the medium, and then there's the click bait stuff that is just pathetic."
Jaffe said that he had been known to "shoot [his] mouth off without thinking of the consequences," but he added that developers have a personal responsibility for what they say, and whom they talk to. They can choose, he said, to retreat from the public eye, if they wish.
"Sometimes I've been too open and vulnerable and that's bitten me in the ass, but it's a process of learning the hard way," she said. "There's probably a better way to do it. I don't think 'just grow a thicker skin' is it, though. There are enough hard-hearted people in the world. I'd rather see people find healthy outlets for their emotions than try to suppress them."
"There are enough hard-hearted people in the world"
She copes by turning to the real world, and the opportunities there to find goodness. "Commiserating with other developers or doing something positive and helpful," she said. "These days when I get harassment that actually manages to get to me, I go look into helping out other people or groups dealing with the same thing so I don't turn into a depressed and anxious blob. Reminding myself that the world doesn't have to be a horrible place, by doing something positive and helpful for others on it, seems to have been the best thing I can do for my peace of mind."
Quinn believes that the strange nature of game developer fame is fueled by the fact that the lines are blurred between fans and creators, that game developers are basically fans who made something good.
"A lot of people care about the person behind the works they consume and I think that this is magnified by the current 'games made by scrappy underdogs that are just like you' narrative surrounding independent games. When you combine that with the unprecedented direct access to the creators behind your favorite works via social media, then you get this situation where people will care about your personality and not simply your games."
Until last year, Dean Hall (pictured climbing Mount Everest) was an ex-soldier who had turned to game development, Now, he's known by a multitude as the guy behind DayZ, the Arma 2 mod. He finds himself, every now and again, receiving unexpected negativity from fans, including weekend exclamations from people on Steam that he quit fooling around playing games and get back to work.
"I can understand someone reaching the point where they say, 'This just isn't worth it,'" he said. "People often define and identify you by your success, and not as a person. That can be very frustrating especially through social media. People's expectations can quickly become ridiculous and incessant. I think while we're all sad to see Fez 2 not happen, what matters far more is that Phil Fish is happy and enjoying what he does."
One of the biggest reactions to the Phil Fish affair has been an outpouring of anger against anonymous trolls who insult people online. Although Fish has indulged in unpleasant public arguments with identified people, he has also been the victim of such attacks.
"People define you by your success, and not as a person"
"People start forgetting that you're actually a real person, and what people say can have a very real effect," said Hall. "I think people tend to hold their 'media personalities' to a very high standard, often one much higher than they would hold to themselves or their friends."
Hall has learned that there is a balance to be found between engagement with the public, and privacy. "Knowing when to disengage from the media and social media is probably one of the most important and hardest-to-learn aspects of courting publicity. I think you have to know when to just grin and bear something as well."
He has a formula for moments when it gets too much. "I ask myself these questions. Would this person actually say that to me if we were face to face? Does this person actually know me and the facts involved? Is this someone's advice I would actually value as a friend? If the answer is 'no' to at least one [of] those then, rationally speaking, why am I bothered about what they are saying? If the answer is yes, then it's quite possibly an important issue that has been brought to my attention."
George Broussard spent many years facing the ire of 'fans,' as he struggled to complete a new Duke Nukem game. The veteran developer takes a practical view, saying that game makers can choose their own levels of interaction.
"Some embrace it and actively pursue it and some are like vampires running from the spotlight," he said. "What you have to balance is how honest you will be in public. Do you filter yourself or do you share a polarizing opinion while soaked in gasoline? You can't be truly honest with a collective like the internet. You're one comment away from a sensational headline about how Japanese games suck.
"If you make something creative and release it to the world you're going to get good, bad and ugly feedback," he said. "Most of it is out of your control. You can't control when the media takes things out of context or sensationalizes an event for page views. You can't control when the internet mob [goes] ape shit insane over something game-related. In the best of situations you just have to be the type that can tune out and ignore the hate. It always passes, like a tornado."
Broussard also points out that there is an element of personal responsibility. "If you want to be private, be private. Nobody makes you offer public opinions or post on Twitter."
Ron Carmel is best known for World of Goo, and for helping other developers through the Indie Fund.
"Phil, he's an emotional guy and he feels things very intensely," said Carmel. "I spent a lot of time with him during the development of Fez and I got a glimpse of who he is. I imagine it's a hard life living inside his mind and I wouldn't trade places with him. But I know that Phil tries really hard to do the right thing. I've also seen his remorse when he knows he screwed something up."
(Polygon contacted Phil Fish for comment for this story.)
Fame warps perceptions, which are then magnified by the intensity of Twitter and media scrutiny during intense public dust-ups, to which Fish has always been susceptible.
Game developers are as guilty as everyone else of saying stupid things. "Everyone has an internal compass, something that tells them what is a good idea and what is a bad idea, and it should help them draw a line between what they are comfortable sharing in public and what they are not," said Carmel. "Phil lets it all hang out on the internet, unfiltered. He is completely himself with the world, and I think he suffers because of it."
For Carmel, like many of the developers we spoke to, simply pretending that insults or unfair media treatment does not exist is not an option. Choosing to get above the morass is possible.
"Every time I write something when I'm worked up I try to put it away and not send it or share it with anyone until the next day. Sometimes I fail because I give in to my self-righteous inner asshole. But I always try to ask myself, 'What do I hope this will accomplish?' And if I can't answer that, or if what I'm writing will not accomplish what I want it to, I don't send it. Again, sometimes I screw this up."
This is advice most of us have learned in the age of instant communication. Generally, a thoughtful approach is better than an angry one. For someone in the public eye, operating in the realm of news cycles and widespread fan indignation, it is much, much more difficult.