PC Game Pits Gamers Against Developers, Nobody Wins

PC Game Pits Gamers Against Developers, Nobody Wins

If you've followed video games for more than five minutes, you've seen players and creators clash.

The constant tug-of-war over what devs think is best and what players want, the tremendous aid an active fan community can provide versus the volcanic damage that can come from miscommunication (or something worse), the floss-thin tightrope dangling over the pits of fanned flames — it's the modern era of video games embodied. Hardcore players rage as passionately as they love. They're not afraid to go full blast when they feel like their time or money has been squandered. That's Kickstarter, that's Steam Greenlight, that's post-release updates and DLC, that's (portions of) GamerGate, that's Twitter arguments, that's Steam review bombing, and on and on and on.

The new PC game The Magic Circle is a first-person adventure about a game that's been stuck in development hell for a decade. Despite this, a contingent of fans adores it. They watch the skies for scraps of news, write endless reams of fan fiction, and dote on each piecemeal demo. The game's main creator, Ish (played well by James Urbaniak, aka Dr Venture from The Venture Bros), insists that it's not perfect. He says he can't release it until it is. Each time it's nearly finished, he sends it back to the drawing board. Born a text adventure, it eventually evolved into a graphically primitive space opera and then a modern fantasy adventure mixed with an overwrought personal narrative about daddy issues and messiah babies. Urbaniak's character is a man on a mission, even if he doesn't know quite what that mission is. You never meet him face-to-face — at least, not physically.

The Magic Circle takes place entirely within this failed game world, among its lonely peaks and grey valleys. You are a tester gone rogue, largely in service of a mysterious character who claims to be trapped within the flaming ruins of this overambitious project. Your main power? You can hack into characters and objects in the game and rewrite their basic properties. Spiky dog creature chomping you like a chew toy? Simply jump inside it and immobilize it. Or take away its ability to attack. Or make it your ally. Or make it your ally, turn it fireproof, give it a tractor beam for an eye, and rename it "fuzzums." It's not like I've done any of these things, mind you, but hypothetically, if I had, you can't stop true love, dad.

PC Game Pits Gamers Against Developers, Nobody Wins

It's a pretty sweet idea. It allows you to solve puzzles in a variety of ways. Problem is, you don't get to do it often. The Magic Circle is short, just a few hours long, which doesn't do its ambitious mechanics or story much of a service. At times they feel trapped, constrained. I'm all for short and sweet, but The Magic Circle sometimes feels full to bursting.

The Magic Circle bills itself as "darkly comedic," but when the fictional game company hires a new intern named Coda plucked straight from the fan community, things turn hyperbolic. The game had good jokes, like a gag at the beginning where you gain a cliche Sword of Destiny and then combat is removed from the game seconds later. Those jokes slow to a trickle, replaced by lengthy melodramatic speeches about the nature of auteur-like creators and chaotic fan communities.

It's clear that The Magic Circle's creators are passionate about these topics, but their story feels cynical and heavy-handed.

For instance (WARNING: SPOILERS), one big scene sees Coda's scheme to wrest control of development away from Ish finally come to fruition. They're on stage at the industry-famous "E4" conference, and you hack into the demo and sabotage it. You then get to watch as Coda confronts Ish with a prop gun based on an item from the game universe. A bunch of her allies in the fan community stand up and join her, resulting in this striking moment:

PC Game Pits Gamers Against Developers, Nobody Wins

Clearly outnumbered, Ish agrees to make the game open source and let the community finish it. But then, like a mega-villain with one last ace up his sleeve, he gives the player a truly epic earful on topics like control and our hunger for it (whether playing games or not), creativity, life, and time. It felt a lot like confronting Andrew Ryan in the original BioShock, which fits, given that Magic Circle's development was headed up by Jordan Thomas, who worked on all three BioShocks.

For me, though, the idea of the wannabe auteur as the fallen BioShock Machiavellian mastermind — while a powerful image — stumbles in the same place BioShock often stumbled: nuance. He was half-punchline, half-melodramatic auteur pastiche — not an affecting depiction of either. I couldn't really laugh (he was too pitiful), and I couldn't feel sympathy (he was too over-the-top and hammy).

Similarly, the next scene saw the mega-fan-turned-intern-turned-dev-lead experience her own dramatic downfall. Back in the game (read: no longer at E4), she gives a big speech to her legion-like fan developer community about how they are finally gonna do this thing justice, and then — dev tools in hand — the fans immediately explode into a crazed mob. They tear the game world to shreds until the frame rate struggles to hover above 1. The apparent moral? Not just anybody can make a game, and communities are fucking crazy, irresponsible, and power drunk. Once again, I couldn't really laugh or embrace the message. Something didn't sit right with me.

PC Game Pits Gamers Against Developers, Nobody Wins

The Magic Circle does attempt to end on a slightly uplifting note — at least, where the actual act of creation is concerned. (WARNING: BIG SPOILER) You get to build your own game level and have it evaluated. Then you get to hear a Magic Circle Big Speech (TM) about how hopefully you've been bitten by the creation bug. Hopefully the welt has popped and gushed into a full-on disease, and you've got to create games because it's in your blood. Make stuff, the game seems to say, despite the fact that you'll have to deal with batshit fans and obsessive tendencies and all sorts of other baggage.

I can understand how and why someone might make a story like this. There are kernels of truth in it. Making anything — whether it's a game or a story or a song or a video or what have you — is difficult, nerve-wracking, and sometimes terrifying. Nothing's ever perfect enough. And let's not beat around the bush here: while I've hardly had it as bad as a lot of people, I've experienced firsthand what incensed gaming communities can look like. I've also covered creators who thought they knew better than their communities, even when compromise might have been more advisable. I've seen the bad on both sides, and it's not pretty.

But I've also seen plenty of good. Developers like my friend Rami Ismail of indie studio Vlambeer have told me time and time again that their games have been improved immeasurably by interactions with involved, well-informed community members. Heck, I've even witnessed communities take over entire games when their developers moved on — from officially endorsed community dev teams on games like PC FPS Natural Selection 2 to long-running efforts like the ones to polish up Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. And that's not even delving into modding efforts, which have completely transformed games like Fallout: New Vegas and Skyrim and Team Fortress 2 (and the list goes on) in some degree of conjunction with major developers.

PC Game Pits Gamers Against Developers, Nobody Wins

Communities can do great things and driven creators can do great things, and the modern era of games — at least, the idealised version of it, the hope — continually seems to be about them doing great things together. Have there been stumbles along the way? Absolutely. Will there be more? Oh definitely, from now until the end of time. And certainly, I'm interested in seeing people create things about those struggles — honest looks at the bad as well as the good.

I guess I just found The Magic Circle's main plot beats to be a little disheartening. In it, two groups of passionate people collided, and the end result was that they tore each other down, did more harm than good. Perhaps that was the point: to serve as a cautionary tale, or a story glorifying the pure act of creation despite all the baggage that might come with it. But I don't feel like gaming communities have to be baggage. When you've only got one game on the block approaching this subject matter, and its appraisal feels like a plate of doom with a side helping of gloom, it comes off as skewed. So I felt like I understood what The Magic Circle was going for, and I felt like the developers cared intensely about what they were saying, but it didn't quite speak to me.

I feel like I already know what they'd say in response to that: "Well then, go make a game that does."


Comments

    that’s (portions of) GamerGate

    And what portions would that be? Pretty sure kotaku and all the others in collusion swept them under the rug and turned the narrative into anyone that has legitimate concerns with gaming journalist integrity must be a misogynist.

      Come on man.
      Gamergate was doomed the moment it was hijacked by trolls and idiots with other agendas, from both sides.
      Those with genuine concerns should of distanced themselves immediately and approached it objectively. Instead most either tried to patch up a sinking ship while outnumbered by saboteurs or foolishly let heresy and fraudulent information drive them onward.

      The platform will never be anything close to what it was supposed to be, everyone is a liar and automatically a member of the opposing extremes. (Again, both sides)
      A finger pointing shitfight is never going to be the vehicle that delivers practical discussion on the subject.

      I'm 100% for integrity in gaming journalism, but we need to start fresh and from a position of fact and professionalism.

        How would you start fresh when every time you do, the same group of trolls and jackasses joins up and trashes the reputation of the new movement? I don't affiliate myself with GamerGate, but suggesting the entire movement is tainted is no different to saying all of the feminist movement is tainted by a handful of members who are misandrists. It's a perennial problem with any type of movement that has no official membership or leadership structure. Running away only shifts the problem, and people who judge entire groups on the actions of a minority are part of the problem.

        The rule should always be to judge an argument on its merits, not on the affiliation of the person who made it. It's a really simple, really easy rule to follow and really cuts down on prejudice. Unfortunately, a lot of people are too prideful and smug to realise that fighting prejudice with prejudice only perpetuates the cycle. Hard lines worsen problems more often than they solve them.

          Woah, hold up there my holy undead friend.
          It's not fair to say my claims of it being tainted are unfounded before explaining why it has become that way, I'm not disagreeing with you.

          I never said we should judge people based on affiliations at all, I am however not going to pretend that all people are guilty of it and it's undeniable strength.
          I don't agree with it all, but it is something powerful enough to derail any good ideal.

          I agree, there is a cycle. Each side literally hands the other ammunition while diminishing themselves.
          Knowing this and wanting to distance ones self from it isn't running away, it's recognising that any good that can be done will go down with the sinking ship due to a very crappy truth about ourselves.

            My comment wasn't meant to be accusative towards you, just critical of people who think along the lines of "all GamerGate people are dicks because that one person who says they're from GamerGate is a dick". If you substituted 'GamerGate' with 'black' or 'female' in that sentence there'd be no question that it was incredibly prejudicial and inappropriate, but a lot of people lack the ability to recognise their own prejudices while they're busy fighting against the prejudices of others.

            I called it running away because you can't keep remaking movements under different names hoping eventually one day the trolls will say "I guess we'll stop trying to trash this one". They won't. They'll always be there, doing their best to fuck your shit up, because they get off on it. You can't do much about them, but you can do something about the people who think along the lines of the example above, unfairly judging everyone on the basis of a few very bad apples. The better solution is to stand your ground against the people who are prejudiced against you.

        Gamergate was doomed the moment it was hijacked by trolls and idiots with other agendas, from both sides.

        Not only what was said above but also these trolls and idiots where given attention from the gaming sites by driving the narrative towards the misogynist comments and away from the integrity side. They did the worst thing possible, they gave publicity to the trolls - which just draws even more low lifes to it exacerbating the situation.

        They knew exactly what they were doing. It was a huge success from their pov. Mention gamergate now and the first thing most people think of is misogyny - not journalistic integrity.

          Of course, you yourself took it there in your initial comment!
          How can you expect it to be about integrity when you can't move past the very thing that has bogged it down to begin with?

            The genie is well and truly out of the bottle on that. It's mainstream. By that I mean there was a law and order episode on gamergate relating all gamers as perveted males who see females as something to just be ridiculed, insulted and physically harmed. This whole fiasco was brought about by journo's covering their own asses by feeding the trolls.

            All that can be done is trying to make people aware that the whole gamergate thing was construed from the get go, every major gaming website had an agenda regarding it. That agenda being to drive the narrative as far away from journalistic integrity as possible - which was hugely successful - all i'm trying to do is draw attention to that. It's seems to be a futile effort.

              Sorry man, but everyone was to blame.

              The hate and toxicity it generated was indeed the needed distraction, but one that was readily provided when the movement kicked things off with a finger pointing witch hunt.

              You are right, people were able to draw attention away from journalistic integrity, but are as much to blame as the other side who used journalistic integrity as a mask for there own bullshit.
              Everyone created villains and martyrs of themselves and others, of course the smarter few used that to their advantage.

        I honestly don't understand how a movement born out of a troll post (i.e. the Zoe Post) can claim to be or complain about being hijacked by trolls. The trolls and sh*theads were there from the start and were core to the formation of gamergate. The people with genuine concerns about journalistic integrity should never have boarded the USS Lulz in the first place.

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