Should The Gaming Industry Be More Talkative? Game Makers Speak Up

Yesterday, I ran an op-ed asking the people who make and publish video games to talk more, to be more willing to answer gamers' questions, to communicate rather than wrap themselves in a blanket of cold, corporate silence.

The piece triggered quite a few passionate reactions. Some agreed with my piece. Others spoke out against it. And I had a lot of great conversations on the subject with quite a few people, some of whom brought up points that I hadn't considered. I wasn't clear, for example, that I was not addressing developers who are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs; I was addressing the publishers and executives who want to shut those developers up. And there were certainly points I missed.

So in the interest of exploring more angles, I asked people to send over their thoughts. Below are a few letters from game makers and reporters, posted to present some other perspectives in this conversation.

Jamie Cheng, Klei Entertainment:

I'm genuinely surprised you didn't tackle the main reason why devs have a hard time talking to press: we have to take into account that our words could be used in the most sensationalist way possible.

I have literally seen this cause the cancellation of projects, damage developer/publisher relations and people getting fired. I have seen this happen to large companies and indies alike. I've seen indies who's games are no longer coming out on platforms due to the printing of a supposedly confidential, but honest and friendly, conversation. I have seen my own words taken out of context and cause my studio to look like we were blaming others when we were literally just being upfront and taking responsibility.

...

Through all this, I'm still working hard to give as much information as I can. Better to be bitten a few times than to play it safe and never say anything interesting. I can do this because I run my own company, and I understand the risks. I genuinely believe being open to the press causes more good than harm. But understand that the press has and will continue to periodically materially damage people's lives — is it any wonder that the average PR person, who has far more to lose than to gain, says "no comment"?

Dan Teasdale, Twisted Pixel Games:

Legally, you might not be able to answer the question. Lots of things can cause this, but almost always you can't even say that a legal reason is behind why you can't talk about it.

Take the whole Prey 2 mess. I bet if you'd asked if Prey 2 was still coming out during that time, it would have been impossible for any party to answer that for a whole bunch of reasons — it messes with the contract, Prey 2 may still come out with a different developer, one party might be preparing to/have already started suing the other party and anything in the press can impact it, etc. "Does your game still exist" sounds like a simple question, but even that can be complicated by behind the scenes problems. Business deals are never simple.

That's just one potential legal reason. Patents, resolutions to lawsuits that require certain changes to a game, NDAs, licensing terms and issues, IP issues... there's a huge chunk of things that we can never talk about, or even tell you that we can never talk about with you.

Sometimes there's better places to talk about some information, and you may have also secured deals to get that information out there.

This probably makes more sense after you wrote the article, but I'd bet that the reason Bethesda didn't get back to you about your Skyrim DLC request was because they were doing an announce and explanation of it during their huge convention the next week. While it might suck for you, Quakecon is clearly a better place for Bethesda to make announcements and get across their message unfiltered about their games.

That can happen all over the place. If I've got a cover exclusive with Game Informer for my game and you ask whether the game exists or not, I'm not going to tell you on the record that the game exists and is coming out soon. A big event is going to get more attention and be better for the game than an article on a single site.

Everything you say is taken as gospel and locked. It doesn't matter if you hedge it. If you say or hint at something and it ends up not happening, you'll get eviscerated, even if it's small - just ask anyone who wanted stage kit support in Rock Band 3! I bet that's the other part of Bethesda not telling you about the PS3 version of Dawnguard: they didn't know if they'd solve their problems in time for a Quakecon announce or not, so why tell you that they're struggling if everything could potentially be OK a week later?

In an ideal world, people would be able to understand the difference between announcing something and talking about potential paths of things, some of which might not happen. We don't live in that world. Hell, this is a problem even just internally when making a game.

Laura Parker, GameSpot Australia:

I agree with your article (as in damn straight, they should talk to us more!) but here is why I think it's kind of like saying that it would be nice if people were kinder to each other and stopped murdering or thieving, or it would be nice if countries stopped going to war with each other, or it would be nice if poverty didn't exist. It would be nice, but it won't happen until something deep in the core of humanity (or in this case, capitalism) changes. And that's not going to happen anytime soon.

People like Tim Schafer and Notch and Cliff and Gabe are personalities in the industry. Tim and Notch both run very small teams and have no one to answer to. Much the same for Cliff and Gabe (in terms of having no one to really answer to). These guys represent the best side of the gaming industry. But the reality is that a large part of the gaming business is made up of companies and corporations that don't have a strong personality or voice behind them. Perhaps there are some people within Nintendo or Microsoft or Sony or Sega or Ubisoft who do want to have a more open discussion with gamers, who do want to engage with them on a more personal level. But just think of the different tiers of management in those companies.

Think of how many people have to approve even a very simple decision. These companies have whole marketing departments. They have whole PR departments, and whole departments dedicated to community engagement. These departments function on one level but there are so many levels above them. It's easy to imagine a publisher like Microsoft having a single coherent vision or voice (ie "I hate Microsoft, they always rip gamers off.") But in reality we have to think of these publishers as what they are: a very large company with a lot of different people and personalities and departments and decision-makers. There isn't just one person who gets to say: "Right! From now on, we're going to be more open with our community!"

Approving things like teases for upcoming games or media comments/responses to stories or speaking out about rumours is not a simple process for these publishers. It requires a collective, unanimous decision from a whole lot of people, which is almost always impossible. That's why these companies have standard "No comment" responses. That's why they carefully approve who can or cannot speak to the media or speak to the community. Every decision that comes from them is one that hundreds of people have approved. It's not easy to change this process overnight.

It comes down to brand image, right? Publishers think: "How do we want people to think of us?" and this is something they spend a lot of time thinking about and eventually settle on a vision and keep to that vision as a standard. It requires a huge effort or shakeup to shift this vision or change its direction. Of course, they can choose to renegotiate this vision, but something huge has to make them do that. Something to do with either money or a shift in the audience.

So yes, we should keep trying to tell them to open up to us more, but at the same time I think we should be realistic about the reasons why it won't happen overnight.

This is a complicated issue that deserves a great deal more debate and conversation. And what's important (and great) is that we're having the conversation. That's the point.

Top photo credit Dmitriy Shironosov/Shutterstock


Comments

    Well I'm on the biased side of believing that communication is key. I understand the desire for secrecy and respect it, but I just don't agree with what these people are saying. I mean what I want is the truth, I'm not going to hate developers for telling the truth: truth that may change over time as development and business contracts change. Also I would enjoy more actual revealing, sincere inside looks at development. As far as I'm concerned once your game is out and unless you've got some kind of amazing one of a kind tech, you've got nothing to fear.

    You could get fired for telling the truth? What a wonderful job you have! I think we need to get over this kind of behaviour where you can't talk about fight club.

    Media might misconstrue your message? Well not talking doesn't help! Contact them and get them to correct it, failing that, it's 2012! Get on your website/twitter/reddit/whatever and tell it like it is.

      Well it depends... At the Capcom panel at Comic-Con this year people kept asking questions about Megaman and other games that aren't even announced as yet. The only response Capcom staff could was to check their website for future information. Yet despite this repeated message, the people kept asking these questions, and subsequently got pissed at Capcom because they wouldn't answer their questions (which they couldn't).

      Essentially if Stupid people are asking questions they no they can't answer why should they?
      If they are asked thoughtful questions to which they can respond why not?

      Like Mr Garrison said "There are no stupid questions, just stupid people"

        Actually there are stupid questions and they tend to get stupid answers. At the same time I believe it would have been better for them to reply to Megaman questions with, "There's quite actually nothing we can tell you right about that, but we hear you and are looking into avenues for Megaman developments. If we have something to announce we'll put it on the website."

        Now maybe that's roughly what they said or not, I don't know but so often I've seen PR 'imply' rather than tell their messages and that's where the confusion almost always comes from. Here's one I see all the time:

        Q: Have you got multiplayer in your game?
        A: I've got nothing to say about that.
        DING DONG Yes you do!
        Now everybody thinks you have multiplayer, they can't be sure but now they're thinking it, hypothesising it and wondering why you're being so secret.
        Why not just tell the truth and say something like:
        "We're looking into multiplayer, but for the moment the major focus is on a complete single-player experience."

      Unfortunately, even though you, myself and probably most readers on here understand this process, the 16 year old who understands the internet but not game development doesn't. If he finds out that something mentioned was removed from development for any reason, he will kick up a stink and cause as many problems as possible for the developers. So whilst it's great for people that understand to not have an issue with the truth, these companies work around the morons who don't get that not everything is set in stone. This is where the main issue lies, people don't understand that things change in development, once this is understood, we could see truthful information

        "If he finds out that something mentioned was removed from development for any reason, he will kick up a stink and cause as many problems as possible for the developers."

        Possibly, but you know if the developer told the objective truth about why something was removed then it would usually turn 'any reason' into the 'actual reason.'

        "This is where the main issue lies, people don’t understand that things change in development, once this is understood, we could see truthful information."

        True, I don't know how wildly people react and speculate about these things. But I find it such a difficult concept to grasp since for me, I don't buy a game until it's already out. If they made something worse along the way then it'll show in the end product and so that game would be bad when I buy it, whether I knew their development process or not.

    You've also got to keep in mind that a lot of games would only be creating an idea of a game that they can never possibly live up to by being truly open about what's going on behind the scenes.
    Game development isn't like putting together an IKEA bookshelf. You can't just start at the beginning and see how far you get, locking things in as you go. You've got to plan it out, build it, see what works and what doesn't, replan it, rebuild it, meet deadlines, etc. At almost any stage of development the game they're trying to make can be wildly different to the game they actually are making.
    BioShock was a well made, well received game but I think if you put it up against what was on the whiteboard during development it'd really, really fall short. The easiest example of this is Fable. Promised the world, delivered three amazing games, yet it's still slapped around for being an incomplete piece of garbage compared to the original ideas. Maybe they were aiming too high, but at the end of the day what studio doesn't aim high?

    Like I said last time I agree with the core concept, but full transparency isn't great either.

      Well maybe I'm naive but I think there's a big difference between telling people what your going to be and telling people what you're trying to get your game to be. It's so easy to disappoint your fans when you 'promise the world' instead of 'considering the world.' I know that Bioshock was a completely different beast in pre-production, and while you might disagree, I feel that even with prior knowledge of this Bioshock would have been just as good as it (funnily enough) turned out to be.

        I suspect the difference in our opinions may just be that you're naive about it while I'm a little more cynical (although I'd like say realistic). I'd love more frank and indepth discussions with game developers about their current projects. This Double Fine stuff is really interesting and like I mentioned on the original article I LOVED hearing Richard Ham talk about Brink. It's more human and it's awesome. I just don't think it has a healthy place in the average pre-release game promotion scene so I'm willing to wait for behind the scenes documentaries on games to become a standard thing (I'm not holding my breath).

        As for your last bit I'm not really that familiar with BioShock pre-production so I'll stick with just the idea vs the game. It's hard to ruin a good game (or in BioShock and Fable's case great games) but when the idea is so different to the outcome it does create a rift where you're comparing two different games. Rock Band is the game they were aiming for and Guitar Hero is the game they made. Guitar Hero is sweet, but if you were expecting Rock Band and someone handed your Guitar Hero it's safe to say it'd kill your buzz a little.
        Probably the best examples of this are ideas that never existed. The Elder Scrolls Online, new XCOM, new Syndicate. They all drag up such strong ideas that the really good games we ended up with just don't cut it. Obviously games don't usually change that much during development (although Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts comes to mind) but the exaggerated void illustrates the idea vs the end-result scenario quite well.
        For guys like you and I who would keep up with the whole thing it's not so bad. We know that the feature got retooled or removed because it was just lame in action or that cutting it allowed the resources to be shuffled so we got more, but the guy who only tuned in for that one interview where they show early rocket cycle footage is expecting kick-ass rocket cycles when he throws the disc in the tray.
        I also just think it's sort of unfair/dishonest to promote the game you're trying to be over the game you're making even when you slap a big 'this is all hypothetical' disclaimer on everything you say.

    so much of a game is thrown out through dev, if users knew that they would get quite disheartened

    Let's not forget how people reacted to John Blow's being open about his game.

    Stay classy guys.

      I was of the understanding that Blow got in hot water about what he said about other games and the industry, rather than what he's said about his own.

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