When abuse becomes the cost of doing business

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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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I don’t think it’s possible to easily identify a single specific cause, although there’s a clear point where the dam burst.

How telling that even now, years later, you can’t actually say what that is without a group of angry, misguided people derailing the conversation, jumping down your throat to tell you how you’ve got them all wrong (and thus proving your point in the process).

Jim Sterling, Angry Joe, any number of people who shout a lot about the injustices of the industry.

Two things about Jim Sterling that are simultaneously true:

1 – His witty, insightful criticism is some of my favorite stuff on YouTube,

2 – Any time he gets on his high horse about some perceived anti-consumer incident in games, his videos are so ranting and vitriolic that I find them un-freaking-watchable

I agree completely with you about Jim Sterling, I have gotten to the point that I will rarely watch his videos on certain subjects because they are almost a guarantee to be your second point. When his videos aren’t about his pet peeves I find them to be a lot more watchable.

His pet peeves are fun for me to watch, do you expect to NOT hold the games industry to account for screwing over consumers? You know what videos I find unwatchable, anything that tries to blindly suck off big publishers and defend them over crap like microtransactions in full-priced games.

I never said they shouldn’t be held responsible, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t either. Going over the top does nothing, publishers and developers will say anything to get a person to shut up, but in reality nothing changes for they aren’t listening to what is being said they just want quiet.

um yes it does do plenty, he goes over the top to make a point, you are flat out wrong at the notion that it "does nothing. If people didn’t go "over the top" about Battlefront 2’s horrible Pay to Win microtransactions, they never would’ve been removed, likewise Destiny 2 wouldn’t have been caught lying about XP gains if players hadn’t taken notice and raised holy hell to Bungie about it.

Sometimes you NEED to make noise to make a point.

I’m pretty sure what actually "solved" the Destiny problem was people going in and actually proving it. the yelling and raising hell just made it 10x more complicated to get to those people.

It did not "make things more complicated", that’s asinine, Bungie NEEDED to be held to account for trying to actively screw over players.

You sound an awful lot like one of those people who would answer yes to one of the questions posed in the article:

"there are times when it’s reasonable to send personal abuse to a developer,".

"there are times when it’s reasonable to threaten a developer’s life,"

"there are times when you should dox a creator, and try and find their family."

Thank you for proving the author’s point, spot-on, immediately.

This. Yelling and raising hell objectively does nothing.

If you objectively point out the problems with a game by actually demonstrating why and how they are problems, sure, the development studio could simply ignore your reasoning and efforts. However, going "THIS IS EFFING RIDICULOUS AND YOU SHOULD ALL DIE!" immediately reads as "I’m such a toddler, all I can do is cry when I experience something that doesn’t make me feel good, and I couldn’t even begin to present to you useful information towards making anything better."

There are times to yell and scream… like when there’s some urgency in a situation and you have to make sure they understand the importance of what you’re saying. On the internet leisurely telling some developer that their game has a problem is not one of those situations. It’s like leaving someone 93 voicemails. If they’re going to ignore your first one, they’re probably going to ignore your 93rd one.

No you don’t. You need to inform people about the problem and they stop buying the product. These companies don’t care about people they care about money. People like Jim Sterling gets his crowd going with his ranting and raving about things like lootboxes, but that doesn’t bring new people to the issue.

Destiny 2 they reversed the experience gain, but people were screaming about it being hidden. What if for people it wasn’t that the change was hidden but the amount of experience needed to gain that box. So when people like Jim Sterling are screaming and yelling about how horrible they are for hiding it, people like me were more upset about the amount of experience but what if Bungie has a huge experience gap next time right out of the gate. Nobody will yell and scream about what bothered me the most and why I stopped playing.

Battlefront 2 only made the changes it did again because of money. EA’s stock prices fell when it was predicted that they will only sell 10 million instead of the projected 12 million copies. Now next time if they still sell close to the 12 million projected copies because people took a wait and see approach who do you think they are going to listen to next time? They will go back and look at people still bought the game as predicted and the people online just caused them a PR issue, but they will have evidence that it didn’t hurt sales. Right now it is being projected that Battlefront did better then expected in December and we will see when the NPD report is released for the month. The moment that was announced by only one investment firm EA’s stock prices went up by 3-4% which was about half of what they lost.

Valve got caught in the skin gambling trade there were a lot of yelling and screaming about it a few internet articles as well. Two years later the problem hasn’t been fixed. CS-GO currently is a bad skin to use, but people are starting to gather around PUBG for the skin gambling because the underlying systems on Steam never changed. Valve just monitors CS-GO instead of fixing broken systems.

Reactionary changes don’t help anyone, it makes them do quick fixes to solve the problem, but it doesn’t solve it long term for instead of a good solution it becomes a bandage solution.

I mean, I get it, when Jim rants it can be a challenge to watch. But there are some practices that are so anti-consumer that they should simply be beyond the pale and I cannot fault Jim for getting so worked up about them.

Tying progression to "optional" purchases and then manipulating the in-game payout to effectively force the player into making those "optional" purchases is the kind of thing that deserves all of the ranting and vitriol it receives. They aren’t just playing a game where they win a small amount every time, they’re actively stacking the deck, playing with extra aces up their sleeves and changing the rules mid-game.

So, yeah, Jim might be a bit passionate about anti-consumerism in video game publishing but, frankly, so should we all. That’s not targeted at the small developers who don’t do it. It’s targeted at the money grubbers who do (and make all kinds of excuses about why they "have" to).

Yes and as Jim has said, there are lots of developers who quietly praise Jim in emails anonymously whenever he rants on industry bullshit. That’s why he keeps doing it, because he knows developers hate those terrible business practices as much as he does, maybe even more.

So see… here’s the thing.

It isn’t about the message. I don’t think many would disagree with the points made, whether they’re anti-consumer or just bad game design or whatever.

It’s the tone. The delivery. The level of discourse, to use an older phrase. I don’t watch Jim Sterling, because I already know what he’s about when it comes to these subjects. And it isn’t that I disagree with him (or you).

I just don’t need to hear that kind of abuse. There’s a huge, huge, huge gap between being passionate about something and being abusive about something. This isn’t just in regards to Jim—this is for every fan, of anything, anywhere. Magic: the Gathering fans. Fans of football (and American football). Fans of a band. Fans of an actor. A comic book. A video game.

The level and the nature of the discourse has changed, and part of that is, definitely, directly attributable to how much easier it is to gain direct, or nearly direct, access to the people who create this content.

There should never, ever, ever be a justification for these things. They’ll happen, but we shouldn’t ever normalize them or justify them behind words like ‘passionate’. I’m passionate about many things—I don’t heap abuse on the people who make the things I’m passionate about, even if, or even especially if, they make decisions that I don’t like.

It’s really as simple as, would you want to be screamed at the way these people are screaming at game devs/writers/artists/what have you?

Every time i see people like Jim Sterling i think of the critic character in ratatouille. People with strong voices should be the champion of the new, of the un-explored that show you what is good so the industry can change for the better.

Like the author suggest at the end of the day the only vote that count is the one you cast with your wallet.

The industry is in dire need of constructive criticism and all we get is piling on what is wrong with this or that business model.

Jim has given plenty of constructive criticism, he’s not inherently against lootboxes or microtransactions, he just thinks they should only be in free to play games and shouldn’t be anywhere near games you already have to pay for.

You mean like his Hellblade review?

That he took down, admitted his mistake, explained himself and apologized for?

He took it down apologized and uploaded a real review, stop trying to spread lies about Jim.

Jim is the champion of the unknown though, just this week he did a Jimquisition defending an relatively unknown developer who was maliciously slandered by Nine News in Australia, he’s also tried to raise awareness of hidden gems like Sexy Brutale.

Jim does plenty of constructive criticism, if you’d followed him at all you’d know that.

This.

Admittedly, I played The Sexy Brutale before Jim Sterling did (because I’m a sucker for Groundhog Day type situations), but he definitely gave it a lot of praise.

For people wondering about the name "The Sexy Brutale," it’s the name of the casino that the game is set in. The game itself has no lewd or adult situations in it. I mean, you literally play as a priest in the game.

Yeah I agree with the opinion piece except for that bit. Like, Jim has been the loudest advocate for shutting down anti consumer tactics. He also uplifts devs when he can. He’s devoted entire episodes to Ninja Theory and defending Nintendo’s port heavy library. I find the idea that he’s a vector of negativity deeply disingenuous and avoiding much if his work to make a point.

Thank you. I stopped watching him about two months ago. I love his analysis, but the proportion of analysis to shouting with over-the-top metaphors for every. silly. thing. got to the point where I couldn’t handle it anymore. And I think the author’s point about that kind of shouting begetting more shouting is worth some serious consideration.

People suck, I’m sorry you have to be so aware of that.

The internet sucks and for some reason every communication service on it lets unlimited people contact us.

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