Last year, as you might remember, this website leaked almost everything there was to know about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
As you might also remember, Modern Warfare 3 did OK. Like, $US775 million in its first five days OK. People could easily go on the internet and read extensive spoilers on every single one of the game's missions and plot points. But they bought it anyway.
In other words, last year's leak helped prove something that people in the video game industry just don't seem to understand: knowledge isn't harmful.
See, the biggest problem in gaming today isn't downloadable content. It's not used games or piracy or publishers nickel-and-diming us for everything we've got. It isn't even Zynga.
The biggest problem in gaming today is that the gaming industry thinks we're all out to get them. They think gamers are the enemy, a group that needs to be treated with disdain and avoided whenever possible. They think the only way to fool us into buying their products is to cover everything in a shroud of secrecy, only drip-feeding us pretty trailers and juicy soundbites during carefully tailored marketing campaigns. They think we should just sit there and lap it up.
Game makers are afraid to get our hopes up about projects that might be cancelled. They won't talk about games they've spent months or years creating. They won't show us prototypes or tell us about problems or even answer the most rudimentary questions, like "will this game be multiplatform?" or "can we use guns in this one?"
Sometimes they won't even confirm a video game's existence. When asked by Kotaku last month if Final Fantasy Versus XIII, a game announced in 2006, was still under development, developer Square Enix refused to answer. They wouldn't confirm or deny the existence of a game they had already announced.
Sometimes it's minor questions. Last week, Bethesda wouldn't say whether Skyrim's Dawnguard DLC will come to PC and PlayStation 3, nor would they say why its 30-day exclusivity window on Xbox 360 exceeded 30 days. I've hounded Konami quite a few times about re-releasing beloved classic Suikoden II on the PlayStation Network, but they won't say a word: just "we have nothing to announce at this time". Sometimes things just get preposterous: earlier this year, when I casually asked Kingdom Hearts co-director Tai Yasue how many people helped make Dream Drop Distance, a PR representative immediately interrupted to say they couldn't comment.
That's right: Square Enix wouldn't even say how many people worked on one of their games. Even though I can just go in and count the credits.
Don't gamers deserve answers? Don't the fans whose hundreds of millions of dollars a year keep this industry booming deserve to feel like game companies care enough to address their questions? Why are publishers so afraid to tell us about the deals they make or the games they cancel? Why won't they shed more light on their business choices, on the way they make the games we love? Just what is so bad about information?
No other industry treats its customers like this. Hollywood filmmakers aren't afraid to tell us what they're working on. They're not worried we might find out who is cast in their movies or what their film sets are like. They're not afraid to give us an inside look at their creative processes, nor do they refuse to answer questions about what they have to offer. And filmmakers certainly aren't afraid to tell us when a movie, sometimes announced many years before it will see the silver screen, has made its way to the depths of development hell.
Maybe game makers are worried that talking too much will cost them sales, something that sure didn't matter for Modern Warfare 3. Granted, Call of Duty is an industry exception; as the world's biggest entertainment franchise, Activision's massive first-person shooter series plays by its own rules. But other games have suffered massive leaks and came out totally unscathed. Mass Effect 3's script. Half-Life 2's source code. Halo: Reach's ending. Despite their respective leaks, all three of those games sold tremendously.
And we're not often asking for spoilers. Usually we just want to get excited about the video games and video game makers we love. We want to hear why publishers make the decisions they make. We want to see cool concept art. We want developers to tell us about how much they've worked, how much blood and sweat was required to make each game what it is. We want to know why a game studio can shut down even when its game hit #1 on sales charts for the month it came out.
And, yeah, we want to hear about games that might be axed. We're not unreasonable; we understand that things change, that games sometimes have to be cancelled. Why not let us in on the process? You don't have to completely unveil the shroud; just let us get a few more peeks inside. And maybe stop ignoring our questions.
What really makes this culture of silence so heinous is that it helps hide the industry's most critical issues, like bloated budgets, mismanaged teams, and catastrophic collapses. Executives at the late 38 Studios, for example, knew that the company had serious issues way before it fell apart earlier this year. Employees at L.A. Noire developer Team Bondi were afraid to speak up about hellish work conditions because it has become taboo in the gaming industry to speak up about anything.
I just don't get it. If game makers talked more, we'd like them more. We could start chipping away at that "us vs. them" mentality that seems to surround the video game industry these days.
Just look at gaming's most popular personalities. Tim Schafer. Notch. Cliff Bleszinski. Gabe Newell. These are people beloved by gamers because they're not afraid to talk. They speak their minds. They tweet and chat and take questions from fans like normal human beings, not PR-trained jargon machines. They share ideas and tell us about their lives, their projects, and their creative visions.
Here are some suggestions, game makers. Some tips to get the fans back on your side. Free of charge.
- Answer questions. As many as you can. Questions are not your enemy. We're all here because we all love video games.
- We know it can sometimes feel like we complain about everything. It's not easy to please everyone. And there will always be complaints on social media and message boards, no matter how candid you are, no matter how many questions you answer. But people complain because they care. And if you show that you care back? Maybe there'll be a little less to complain about.
- Don't be afraid to tease games that are coming in the far future. We love teases. And we won't even mind if those games get cancelled, as long as you don't lie or pretend they're not.
- It's OK to throw around the "We don't comment on rumours and speculation" line, but try not to make it your default response to everything that crosses your desks. You don't have to tell us about the next Xbox, but it's OK to shed a little light on your plans for a new HD collection bundle. Nobody's going to die if you have to make your official announcement a few days early. We'll all still be talking about it.
- If you don't have plans to do something that fans want, at least tell us why. We want to understand what you're thinking. If you logically explain why it wouldn't be financially or legally viable to translate Valkyria Chronicles 3 or bring Earthbound to Virtual Console, we'll be a lot more sympathetic than if you just spout the same old "We have no plans" nonsense over and over again.
- Just talk to us. Explain the logic behind your decisions. Help us understand you. Help us relate. Help us empathise.
When a relationship is in trouble, the only way to fix it is communication. The relationship between video game fans and video game makers is in trouble. Let's fix it. Let's talk.
Photo: Maksym Bondarchuk/Shutterstock