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The year in gaming controversies

Greed, cowardice and callousness were blights on the game industry

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A look at gaming controversies in 2018 reveals the ongoing story of large, powerful organizations struggling to cope with the consequences of their worst impulses. Faced with strong headwinds of public reprehension, they often misapprehend the problem and apply wrongheaded solutions.

From greedy commercial tricks to toxic workplace cultures; from callous employee policies to feeble free-speech compromises, game companies are finally being forced to face the consequences of their actions, or at least to face the inconvenience of negative publicity.

Via social media and an increasingly assertive specialist media, consumers demand that game companies display commonly held standards of decent behavior.

Unfortunately, too many companies appear to believe that making bland statements and paying lip service to consumers’ concerns is enough for them to get by. If 2018 had taught us anything, it’s that this assessment is dead wrong.

Executives who previously answered only to amoral shareholders are now required to respond to questions of ethical behavior, both in how their conduct their businesses, and through the products that they make.

This does not mean that game companies are now in thrall to the opinions of social media’s most active campaigners. But they do have to consider likely reactions from progressives, who now make up an increasing share of their audience.

Old-fashioned greed

It’s interesting that the year began with the fading echoes of a commercial issue — loot boxes — that feels now almost quaint, rooted in gaming’s controversy heartland of corporate greed.

While some gamers care little for social justice, the entire gaming community gets animated by the notion that it’s being sheared. When Electronic Arts and other companies opted to design their games entirely around a tacky semi-gambling mechanic, the public rightly pushed back.

But by the end of the year, it’s clear that most companies have adapted and moved on, in the way of these things. Just as the Federal Trade Commission wearily expresses an interest in the issue, it’s already passed into history.

Game companies know how to deal with that sort of mess. They find another way, in the current case, Fortnite-like seasons and “Battle Passes” that exploit a game’s popularity for as long as possible. This has the effect of creating ongoing revenue streams, without the unpleasantness of government interference or media outrage. It’s the sort of resolution that game companies are good at engineering. They simply replace Toxic Problem A with Mildly Palatable Strategy B.

A similar situation played out when Sony decided to put its own interests before the interests of consumers, in the face of common sense and basic decency. When Fortnite came to Nintendo Switch earlier this year, players noticed that accounts they’d used to play the game on PlayStation 4 couldn’t be used to play on Switch. Sony had locked the accounts from being used on rival platforms.

Fornite accounts are generally transferable across a multitude of platforms. Sony’s refusal to countenance cross-play on PS4 meant that anyone who’d bought a Battle Pass, and made certain progressions and skin purchases on their PlayStation, had to open a brand-new account on Switch, without their hard-earned in-game goodies.

In the wake of the fracas, Sony finally backed down, offering a cross-play beta for Fortnite, with a promise to open its platform up to more games in the future. PlayStation chief exec Shawn Layden said the problem had taken a while to sort out because it’s “not about flipping a switch ... it’s very multi-dimensional.”

Sexism and Crunch

Sexism and a poor track record on workers rights have been a feature of the game industry for years. In the era of “Me Too,” companies are being called out in ways that they are unable to ignore.

Riot Games, the company behind League of Legends, was forced to take a long, hard look at its internal operations, following a Kotaku report that exposed multiple serious allegations, including accusations of sexual harassment. Some sources spoke of an environment where male employees would sexually evaluate their female colleagues or send unsolicited pictures of their genitalia.

Riot issued an apology, promising to address its problems. But this rang hollow when one of its first acts was to fire two employees who had been publicly critical of Riot’s culture. Following weeks of revelations from former employees, and associated outrage from the public, the company hired former Uber executive Frances Frei to advise its internal diversity efforts. Employees later hit Riot with a gender discrimination lawsuit.

Likewise, Rockstar Games is a company that seems rooted in some macho ethos of the past. Co-founder Dan Houser inflamed the ongoing debate about working conditions in gaming when he suggested in a New York Magazine interview that the development team worked multiple 100-hour weeks on Red Dead Redemption 2.

Following widespread social media disapproval, and plenty of evidence that working long hours is not unusual in gaming, Houser later clarified that he was only speaking about the senior writing team. But his words nevertheless prompted an extensive conversation about crunch in the games industry. “Crunch” is an industry term describing a period up to a game’s launch when the development team is often required to work long hours to finish the game.

In a later profile by GQ UK, Houser compounded the offense with some out-of-touch comments about how he sees developers. “Sam [Houser’s brother and Rockstar co-founder] and I talk about this a lot, and it’s that games are still magical,” Dan Houser said. “It’s like they’re made by elves. You turn on the screen and it’s just this world that exists on TV. I think you gain something by not knowing how they’re made.”

Some employees later posted public messages denying that they’d been required to work unreasonable hours, although former employees were not so generous in their recollections. Later, an in-game message in Red Dead Redemption 2 surfaced which appears to reference the issue of crunch.

[Note: If you believe your employer is taking advantage of you, contact the author of this article in absolute confidence.]

Shamefully spineless

Of course, social media outrage doesn’t always come from a place of wholesome desire for the common good. ArenaNet, the company behind MMO Guild Wars 2, buckled shamefully to toxic online outrage, when it fired narrative designer Jessica Price. She had committed the error of responding to a mansplaining game YouTuber, who was subsequently held up by cynics and trolls as some kind of victim.

Price had written a lengthy thread on Twitter about narrative design. When the YouTuber chimed in to disagree, Price posted: “Today in being a female game dev: ‘Allow me — a person who does not work with you — explain to you how you do your job.’” Predictably, the exchange drew fierce criticism on Reddit and other platforms. Critics ignored Price’s point about women professionals constantly being questioned by men. They wanted to express their anger about a man being rebuked.

Price and her colleague, Peter Fries, who’d agreed publicly with her, were both fired. In an interview with Polygon, she accused ArenaNet of “folding like a cheap card table.” The company issued a statement that Price and Fries’ “attacks on the community” were “unacceptable.” In the aftermath, Price was subject to intense social media harassment and abuse.

Facing storms of protest, games companies look for utility. What is the easiest thing we can do to get us out of this jam? Firing an employee is a tried and trusted resolution. But reversing a bad decision will also work, in a pinch.

In an all-out rush to enter the Asian market, Ubisoft changed art assets in team-based shooter Rainbow Six: Siege. The company wanted to conform to Chinese censorship requirements. Alterations included banishment of sexual imagery as well as icons and posters to do with gambling and violence. (Polygon ran a series of before-and-after images that showed the extent of the changes.) In order to save money, the changes were implemented globally.

Fan condemnation was swift and vociferous, with some making the point that Ubisoft was allowing Chinese laws to dictate global standards in its creative output. A few weeks later, the company reversed course, promising to revert to its original build outside China. But who is willing to bet that game companies won’t now design their games from scratch, with Chinese censors in mind, rather than Western consumers?

Ubisoft’s turpitude was also on display this year, when the company curled itself into knots over the issue of political engagement in its games.

The company released Far Cry 5 in 2018, a story in which a Montana-based cult that looked a lot like a far right militia sought to create its own mini-state. Ubisoft was accused of using contemporary political divisions to market its games, while publicly denying any link between its fiction and the real world.

Evidently unconcerned by these criticisms, executives tried the same trick with its E3 reveal of The Division 2. The game’s trailer featured heavy use of topical imagery pointing to a near-future United States that’s tipped into tyranny. Parallels were duly drawn with the currently parlous state of American politics, in which a known admirer of dictatorships sits in the White House.

But Ubisoft didn’t want to address this aspect of its on-the-nose marketing. “No,” said creative director Terry Spier, in an interview with Polygon. “It’s not a political statement.” Game companies continue to use real-world problems to sell games, while ducking any sense of responsibility or accountability.

Employer callousness

Ubisoft, Rockstar, EA and Riot all enjoy the advantages that come with success. But game companies are absolutely at their worst when the chips are down. Company closures aren’t unusual in gaming, but the manner of Telltale Games’ fall was particularly brutal on its employees, revealing the carelessness that marks relations between bosses and workers in this business.

The developer of licensed narrative adventures such as The Walking Dead series, Game of Thrones and Batman laid off 250 staff in September, giving them roughly 30 minutes to leave the building. Some employees wept when they were told that their healthcare would only last a few more days.

The studio, which wrapped up its operations a few weeks later, had become a notorious object lesson in poor management, as revealed in a Verge investigation. In the wake of the layoffs, furious former employees tweeted that they had not been given severance, despite years of harsh deadlines and long hours.

One employee described the company’s business operations as: “Make an expensive deal with an IP holder, aim for an unrealistic deadline that forced us to rush production, and hope we cross the finish line without burning out.” Employees later filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the company had violated California labor laws.

Meanwhile, Microsoft found a way to save a few bucks. The company laid off Xbox support staff, and replaced them with volunteers, who were paid with virtual goods.

These events must lead most observers to the view that game companies have a long way to go before they can truly present themselves as caring about their employees, their customers, or the world that they inhabit. But they are at least now subject to vociferous disapproval when they make their most grotesque mistakes.

Perhaps meetings are taking place right now, in which execs are noting the previous damage of their own actions, and making necessary alterations. More realistically, as we enter the new year, the issue of unions is in the air. If and when employees organize themselves into unions, game companies will have more to worry about than bad publicity. In 2019, maybe we’ll see a change for the better. Maybe.

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