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When abuse becomes the cost of doing business

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Morgan Jaffit is the founder of Defiant Development, a Brisbane, Australia-based independent game developer and the creator of Hand of Fate and Hand of Fate 2.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it costs to be a developer these days. Not merely the cost of running a team (although I think about that a lot), but the cost of putting your work out in public, and what that means in the modern era.

[Content warning: The post contains many actual abusive tweets.]

I attended my grandfather’s funeral last week. Like me, he was a visible figure in his industry, although he was a harness racer, and I’m a game developer. He worked for 60 years training horses, racing them and working with his family to do the same. Five hundred people attended his funeral, all of them people he’d touched through his life.

People whose horses he’d trained. Friends from the country town he lived in. Neighbors to whom he dropped off fresh eggs each day. Punters who had gone from fans to friends over his many years at the track. People who were there to remember him and his legacy.

There are many similarities between his life and mine. We both ran our own businesses. We’re both in hit-driven industries, in which chance plays a large part in success. We’ve both built something where previously there was nothing, and that something sustains the livelihood of more than just ourselves.

‘If I quit gamedev’ tweet Twitter

Yet there’s a striking difference, in 2018 at least. In the last 12 months, a single topic has come up every time I’ve spoken developer-to-developer either in person or online: abuse. The difference between my grandfather and me is that he did his work in peace. While there were surely frustrated punters, the chance of one of them calling my grandfather lazy to his face was small. None would pull him up to call him greedy, stupid, ignorant or bad at his job.

Yet every game developer receives these messages daily.

It hasn’t always been the case, but it certainly is now. This has become the established discourse between creators and the audience in the games space. Developers aren’t speaking about this in public, by the way, for two reasons. First, every time you do, there’s an audience that loudly proclaims that you receive abuse because you deserve it. Second, it seems petty to complain. We developers have internalized that abuse is the cost of doing business.

Abuse is the cost of doing business

“Abuse is the cost of doing business.” It seems particularly sad when you put it like that. One thing I’ve noticed recently is that when developers raise these issues in public spaces, they often receive a response that implies that they’ve earned the flood of hatred. That something they have done deserves such a vitriolic response.

‘FUCK YOU’ tweet directed at Campo Santo Twitter

The big issue here is that when you speak to players — and I have, a lot — a large number of them would agree with the statement “there are times when it’s reasonable to send personal abuse to a developer,” although they differ on when those times are. Maybe it’s if their game has loot boxes. Maybe it’s when an update takes too long. Maybe it’s when a game has gender options that offend you. Maybe it’s when a game doesn’t. Regardless of the circumstances, players have been conditioned to believe that vehement personal attacks are the right way to communicate with developers. We see this every day.

A smaller proportion of the audience, but still a real number, would agree with the statement that “there are times when it’s reasonable to threaten a developer’s life,” and there are enough players out there to make that a substantial number of people.

An even smaller proportion, but still enough to do damage, would agree that there are times when you should dox a creator, and try and find their family.

As long as some of your audience thinks that abuse is sometimes justified, we end up with the situation we have now, where every single developer with a decent audience also receives a helping of daily abuse and threats.

I think the central question that every developer — especially indies, who are at the coalface when it comes to receiving this feedback — is, “Why would you make games, if this is the result?”

‘YOU FUCKED UP!’ tweet directed at Bungie Twitter

The answer to that is that, ultimately, we don’t make games for those people; we make them for the rest. Even so, it’s getting harder and harder to stomach that the price for making a game is an unending wave of abuse, day in, day out, for the rest of your professional life.

For the record, I’m not suggesting that online abuse has just started to become an issue in the last year. What I’m drawing attention to here is the normalization of online abuse  —  from the perspectives of both players and content creators. It is now, for a significant part of our audience, the way in which they communicate with creators.

a derogatory tweet directed at The Chinese Room Twitter

There are those who’d say (rightly) that some level of abuse has always been a part of having a public presence, but it’s clear that things have gotten worse over the last couple of years. I don’t think it’s possible to easily identify a single specific cause, although there’s a clear point where the dam burst.

Over time, big studio development has lost the trust of its audience, in some cases for good reasons. The gap between what was going on behind the scenes and what the PR people presented publicly became more and more obvious. The response to that (and the rise of alternatives to the mainstream games media) was a lot of people “telling it like it is,” on YouTube and elsewhere: Jim Sterling, Angry Joe, any number of people who shout a lot about the injustices of the industry.

tweet advocating death threats to game developers Twitter

If you look at any of those YouTubers and sort their videos by popularity, you’ll find out what they already know: Shouting is popular. Videos with titles like “Shittiest games 2016” and “Why it is moral to pirate everything Nintendo makes” rate a whole lot better than nuanced and insightful reviews.

That tone has since become the default to talk about game development and to game developers — anger and shouting. It’s the same tone the audience is picking up on and using to speak directly to developers.

In addition to this, most spaces where customer support and feedback happen for video games are essentially unmoderated. The days of running your own forums as the primary connection point for your game are long gone. Between Twitter and Steam, the vast majority of players receive absolutely zero consequences for framing their issues in a torrent of abuse.

The fact that the bulk of the discourse takes place in unmoderated spaces has shaped that discourse. We actually do moderate the Steam forums for our games, and people are always shocked when they get banned for heaping abuse on other forum members (the only thing we regularly ban for).

The tone of those angry videos and comment sections has slid in everywhere around games discourse now. It’s part of the way people talk about video games. You don’t ask a developer if they can implement a feature you’d like to see; you scream at them for being too lazy to put it in in the first place. You don’t explain how the game balance doesn’t work for you; you tell the developer they’re a brain-addled idiot for getting it wrong. You don’t vote with your wallet and buy games that include the features you like; you make death threats and hurl abuse against the people who make the games you dislike.

angry tweet at Terraria developer asking for a response Twitter

All of this is hardest on indies for two reasons. First, they are generally at the coalface of their games. They don’t have a marketing person standing between the hostile feedback and their work  —  it all comes in direct and unfiltered. Second, most indies don’t make mass-market games that appeal to the broadest cross section of players, and which include every feature under the sun.

A lot of hostility on forums especially comes from people who are essentially saying (with rage and vitriol) that “this game isn’t for me.” That should be a fine thing, especially in today’s era of games. If a game is not for you, there are so many games out there that you should be able to find something that does appeal to you.

For a certain type of gamer, however, that’s not enough. Vitriol has become a necessary part of the equation. They see developers as the enemy, and abuse as the only tool to keep them in line.

Not only does this not work, but in the long term, it could render indie development too hostile a space to have any chance of attracting the best possible talent. Would you sign up for a job where you get screamed at all day, every day? Why would you go through that when there are a million other fields where that doesn’t happen?

Every developer I’ve spoken to agrees that the discourse has changed  —  and it’s still changing. If we don’t do more to make sure that change is in a positive direction, we’ll find more and more developers asking themselves, “Is it worth the cost of doing business?” And what will happen when the best established developers and most talented up-and-comers decide that it’s not?