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Opinion: Do we as an industry reward negative attention? Exclusive
Opinion: Do we as an industry reward negative attention?
September 4, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

In this reprinted opinion piece from the September issue of Game Developer magazine, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield weighs in on how the games industry can reward negative attention.

Mass Effect 3 was the cap to a trilogy of games that players had come to feel emotionally invested in. They had maintained their characters and character alignment through dozens of hours of play, and the internet was rife with speculation about where the story could go.

Then they finished the game — and by gum, some vocal people sure hated that ending.

So BioWare read the vitriolic comments, listened to the petitions, and made a new ending that tried to address some of these concerns. And guess what? The haters still hated it. We, collectively, have created a game community that thrives on hate, and sometimes there's not much you can do but grow thicker skin.

I love to hate you

The engagement we have with the community is a double-edged sword. It is fantastic (and necessary) to get fan feedback and make people feel involved in a product.

But the internet is the "great equalizer," and WeedSmokeBalls187 now feels his voice is as important as that of a work's original creator. The ease of expressing opinion on the internet makes it easy for everyone to feel their voice is as important as any other, and the loudest voice will often become popular opinion.

Then there's how creators react. A comment saying "Wow, I love this!" doesn't get as much attention as "God, this is terrible." Everyone, game developers and journalists included, responds quicker and with greater force to negative reinforcement than positive. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and to a voice that wants to get noticed, that's a powerful piece of knowledge.

I don't think this is something people do on purpose, but the more reactionary statements are made, and actions are taken based on negative comments, the more we show people that hating on products really works. It gets results, or at the very least reactions, and this has been absorbed into internet and geek culture at large.

Here's another recent example in games. Journalist Patrick Klepek recently lost a close relative, which greatly affected him, and he briefly spoke about it publicly. Not long after, Klepek wrote an article that some people disagreed with, including one person who saw fit to comment, "I'm glad someone close to you died."

Klepek was quite affected by this terrible statement, of course, and wrote about it on his blog. Now, I'm not saying he shouldn't have addressed it, but fewer people would write a blog post about how they had gotten some awesome praise from a random internet denizen. By and large, we as an industry reward negative comments with more attention than we give positive ones.

Very often, when I address a negative sentiment that's been left on my articles, or levied toward me personally, especially if I do it directly via email, the person will backtrack, saying, "Oh my god, I love your stuff. Thanks for replying. I'm sorry if I seemed rude, I was just thinking this and that..." The hate is expressed deeply, but is really only on the surface. It's born out of a deeper need for connection.

People love to hate the things they love. And why not? If they care about something deeply, any minor detail will stick in their craw, and they're more likely to get a response from the people who made the thing they like, if they make a stink about it. We reward it, directly.

The power of the preview

There's one big exception to this haterade trend in games, and that's the indie darlings of the world. The indie game community is generally much more open and supportive than is the triple-A game community, most likely because many in the indie game community are making games themselves. Nobody wants their first big effort stomped on, and so a culture of support is bred instead of one of negative reinforcement.

But it's interesting to watch these indies as they climb. Self-starters like Zeboyd Games were lauded early on for their revisionist Japanese-style RPGs, but as soon as they started to work on a large property (Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode 3), the criticisms and negativity started streaming in. Once you're rolling with the big boys, it's time to get your shields up.

As an indie, showing your work early and often wins you points with your friends and your fans, and people will be very supportive of you. But when you're BioWare, and you change a character's armor slightly, you're going to get some praise, and a bunch of hate. And as I mentioned before, we're trained to seek out that hate, and to give it greater privilege than the love we receive. It's terribly hard to avoid.

It's alive!

This is a monster that we as professionals have bred and allowed to flourish. Community managers have tried to mitigate it with information leaks to fans, and many developers have had blowups about this very issue. Ignoring your fans is never the answer, and silencing voices of dissent is not very democratic.

I don't think anyone has found the ultimate answer. My advice is to ignore the hate publicly at first, but discuss it internally to see whether it has merit. If it's something you should really address, speak to those concerns as though they were well reasoned and nicely written. But whatever you do, don't feed the trolls.

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Dan Felder
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"Then they finished the game and by gum, some vocal people sure hated that ending.

So BioWare read the vitriolic comments, listened to the petitions, and made a new ending that tried to address some of these concerns. And guess what? The haters still hated it. We, collectively, have created a game community that thrives on hate, and sometimes there's not much you can do but grow thicker skin."

This seems like a colossal misdiagnosis. People begged for DNF to come out for a very long time and when it finally did... People still hated it. Does this mean we've created a community that thrives on hate, or does it mean there were just genuine mistakes made?

Whether we reward negative attention or not - the bioware case seems like a massive misdiagnosis.

Jeremie Sinic
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I want to believe this is not entirely true (that gamers only open their mouth to hate on games). I keep repeating to everyone around me how I love Fieldrunners 2 on iOS as it stands out as one of the very few recent games on the App Store with NO in-app purchase.

But certainly when people pay 65 euros ($82, the basic price for a new Xbox360 in France) for a new game, they get angry more easily, while the pricing of most indie games calls for more leniency.

Kelly Kleider
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What's wrong with in-app purchase?

Maria Jayne
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It's not the industry, it's human nature, news reporters and papers have been doing this for years. We like reading about negative things, maybe because it reminds us our lives aren't so bad, maybe because we can collectively be part of the "popular mob". It takes something of epic positivity such as the Olympics or a famous wedding etc to even reach a possibility of shoving that negative story off the front page every day.

The internet is relatively anonymous, people have the freedom to be assholes and when there is no reason to keep that behaviour in check, people often want to be assholes. The guy who said "I'm glad someone close to you died" probably stopped thinking about that comment and the potential impact it would have within 5 minutes of saying it. He never met the person he said it to, maybe he has never experienced the death of someone he knew, no doubt the disconnect between the screen and the human behind it, simply didn't even register to the poster.

As you rightly say, far more people now have a voice and a podium on which to use it, due to the internet. Where as before people would express dissatisfaction within their own communities of friends now they can get together globaly. I don't nessecarily believe more people are unhappy then before (although what makes them unhappy is obviously becoming more trivial as the comfort of life evolves), I tend to believe it's simply easier to find that out now. It's also easier to get behind the really angry person and say "yeah me too!" then it is to express your own opinion, because after 300 pages of negativity on a forum, what hope is there that your 301st opinion will be read anyway?

Perhaps, if there is a flaw in the system, it's that the voices on the internet haven't earned them, therfore they don't put any value in having them. If you can't appreciate what it's like to have no way to express an opinion, how can you ever respect the reader when you do?

Michael Rooney
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It's important to listen to the hate, but I agree that it's often too successful (ME3 being the perfect example). I do think, however, that being overly positive can be just as detrimental. The indie game community is generally one where I think people get away with poor choices because it's too supportive.

I think a better goal would be to generally accept honest constructive criticism and pay less attention to blindly supportive or blindly hateful opinions.

E McNeill
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You're right that the opposite of love is not hate but apathy. The haters are invested, and perhaps that's an opportunity, at least.

As for the indie scene, although the developers tend to be supportive of each other (excepting some scene drama), I don't think that most players are especially forgiving. I've heard a lot of indies talk about how they're hit hard by negative comments, and it always seems like they get hammered any time they get thrust into the mainstream (see the comments on Greenlight, or Fez in IG:TM). An insular bubble of support can be helpful or even necessary at times, but it's not the same thing as a wide culture of positivity.

Joe Zachery
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If you been on the internet long enough your realize there are only two ways to behave. Express your love for a gaming company, game or character then there is the total opposite of that. For example "Nintendo" That one word have some of you feeling good, and the other half ready to fight.

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Umm. Excuse me, but Bioware existed before Mass Effect and it was not the first time they have been called out for shenanigans by the internet. Maybe by a community they created on the internet, but not the first time. Just go back to KOTOR 2 and you will see what I mean. Maybe cooperate culture should remember that their customers are not their personal friends, and that these consumers may be only doing something because its popular with their circle of friends and not because they love the entity as a company. There maybe some die hard fans, but they are not friends either. I guess I'm saying it nothing to take to heart, and its best not to try to share human moments with people you don't know unless your not going to take it personally how they react.

matt landi
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KOTOR 2 was actually developed by Obsidian Entertainment.

Paul Berry
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"Then they finished the game and by gum, some vocal people sure hated that ending."

If your moral decisions in an RPG don't drastically affect the ending of the game, then you are playing a fatally flawed RPG. Expect an outcry if logic flies out the airlock at the denouement of the game.

Bethesda had a similar issue with Fallout 3: by the end of the game, you could have a super mutant, robot, or ghoul henchman who all could laugh in the face of radiation. In the vanilla game, they would point blank refuse to take your place in the radioactive death chamber. Bethesda wanted The Road's "thematic symmetry", i.e. your character died like your character's parents did for the greater good.

Google "fallout 3 original ending" and you'll see how well that went over... Bethesda eventually fixed that logic lapse & released Broken Steel as DLC. Your follower went in for you, sparing your life. That act on Bethesda's part smoothed things over.

"So BioWare read the vitriolic comments, listened to the petitions, and made a new ending that tried to address some of these concerns. And guess what? The haters still hated it. We, collectively, have created a game community that thrives on hate, and sometimes there's not much you can do but grow thicker skin."

Tell you what, release a game that's pretty good right up until the ending. Make the ending ignores all previous character actions. Have it make very little sense at all. Then, arrogantly hide behind "Games R Art! I am an Artist! How dare you tell me what to do!". See what happens to your future sales.

In conclusion, there's lots of competition out there for my hard earned dollars. Watching Bioware go the way of Ion Storm, Interplay, or GT Interactive Software would bring me a great deal of schadenfreude.

Jeremy Alessi
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In general people need to take things down a few notches. There is always a person on the other end of the comments we leave online and it does hurt when someone says mean things about the work you've done. Yes, you've got to have a tough skin and be able to laugh off the comments calling for your death or torture because someone didn't enjoy something you made but as a society we should also ask others to open their minds and see that the negativity (especially the really mean stuff) is uncalled for.

Kenneth Wesley
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In regards to ME3's ending, there proved a point where people disappointed with the ending forced Bioware and EA to critically look at their ending and try to re-do it. There's tons of negativity around but all negativity is not whining. Some negativity can help look at things objectively and see where possible flaws lie. If all video games and everything related to it were just effusively praised, then the Wii U would have no need for an online network or HD capabilities.

There is difference between someone's own disinterest as true negative and a prevalent problem with some facts backing up that problem.

Michael Rooney
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Are you assuming that changing ME3's ending was a good thing to do?

Chris OKeefe
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I think this take on the issue is flawed in a number of ways. First of all, although it's true that anyone who is creating art for mass consumption needs to have a thick skin, it is wrong to assume that public reaction is something which can be safely ignored. There are many reasons why the human psyche reacts to criticism and negativity the way that it does. But ultimately the 'grain of truth' or at least 'perceived grain of truth' rule applies; we are most sensitive about the things that we fear might be true. And while it's true that in a lot of cases, anger is over relatively trivial things (like a character's design change), it is interesting (to me) that you chose to use Mass Effect 3's ending as an example. Because to me, as a consumer admittedly, an ending to a trilogy is perhaps the most important part of the experience.

I hate to turn this into a debate about whether or not the 'hate' that was shown to Bioware over their ending design was legitimate, so I won't go into detail as to why I think that it was. Suffice to say, I was never a huge ME fan, I never cared more about the game than what was required to play through the trilogy, and I can safely say that by any standard I can think of, it had a badly designed, nonsensical, unrewarding ending. That is my opinion. But it is beside the point.

Instead, I'd like to point out a couple of things. It is true that people who are invested in something are more likely to show strong, reactive emotions when you change something or break something. That is simply a fact that everyone should be comfortable with; we've all been a little too invested in something before, and anyone with a modicum of self-awareness would recognize that.

However: when there is anger about something you have done, it is the height of arrogance to assume that this is simply a secret sign of success. A good game can include bad decisions. And it is alright to say, you know what, overall people love the game but the diehard fans didn't like X or Y about it. We can live with that.

But there is such a thing as 'objectively bad.' It is possible to make a poor design decision that sours an entire experience. This is taken for granted when it's simply a poorly designed game mechanic; we've seen it over and over, when a beautiful(ly ugly) narrative like Spec Ops: The Line is marred by poor cover mechanics, nobody circles the wagons to defend their design decisions. We can be constructive about what could have been done better/differently to improve the game as a whole.

However, when we start talking about story and narrative decisions, people start to circle the wagons when it comes under fire. Two points here:

1) It is possible to ruin the experience of a game with a particularly bad narrative. And in the case of ME3, it is possible to sour the experience of an entire trilogy with a particularly bad ending. It is, after all, the last note of the story that players leave on. I would make this analogy; if you go to a friend's house for a party, and 95% of the party is great and you have a good time, but the last 5% is spent holding your friend's hair as they vomit repeatedly into a potted plant, then most people will not come away with a great impression of the evening. It's just human nature to put an emphasis on the last thing they experienced. It's called the recency effect (as opposed to the primacy effect) and it's first year psychology stuff.

2) Can you imagine if the movie industry or literature behaved this way? Movies and books are always critiqued on their narratives, along with acting and effects, etc. Although the problems inherent in designing games are twofold in that a developer needs to present a story that is both well written and entertaining to actually play, this is still (largely) an industry in which we tell and experience stories. This element is important, and it is difficult to take the 'games as an artform' seriously when the best advice the industry has for story criticism is 'no no no, they really love your game, just ignore it.'

Michael Rooney
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@"Suffice to say, I was never a huge ME fan, I never cared more about the game than what was required to play through the trilogy, and I can safely say that by any standard I can think of, it had a badly designed, nonsensical, unrewarding ending. That is my opinion. But it is beside the point."

You view it as badly designed, nonsensical, and unrewarding. I viewed it as a juxtaposition to the entire series that showed how dire the situation the galaxy was in. The fact that you were given a limited number of choices that generally said your efforts thus far meant nothing and that all resulted in unplesant endings was a huge statement for them to make.

Understandably people disagree as people always do in all fields of art, and that's the way it should be. However, artists should never have to change their creation at the whim of the consumer.

I find the fact that the fans demanded that they change it appalling. It's one of the truly saddest and most selfish things I've experienced in the field.

Chris OKeefe
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I didn't want to turn this into a debate about Mass Effect's ending. But I knew -someone- would defend it.

It didn't show anything as dire, it hardly showed anything at all. It was a lot of non-choices that resulted in pretty much the same thing, none of which really told you anything. They may as well have just put the words 'YOU WIN!!!' in bold letters and ran the credits. Insert coin to play again.

The worst thing is when people make the argument you just made; that they were making a statement that things were so bad that nothing that you could do would have changed the fate of the galaxy. That is the very definition of cop-out. They could have had one ending with no choices at all, that showed everything in the galaxy being destroyed, and that would have been better than what they wrote. It has nothing to do with how 'dire' they made it out to be. Let's be honest; none of the endings showed anything remotely bad. You win no matter what. And none of the endings would have precluded showing what happened with many of the world-sweeping choices that you made over the course of the game, such as how you handled the krogan problem.

This wasn't an ending. I'm sorry, it just wasn't. It's like they ran out of money at the last minute.

Honestly, I have a hard time imagining the ending being worse without them deliberately trying to troll their fans. I cannot think of any game with even a half-hearted attempt at a strong narrative with a worse ending. I wish I were exaggerating, because to this day I'm not sure how the people at Bioware let that happen. It is one of the saddest things I've seen happen to a series in a long time.

But to each their own.

And like I said, my feelings on that specific matter are beside the point I was trying to make. There are room for disagreements about the artistic merit of a narrative choice. It is possible for these narratives to be bad, or take a bad turn. Circling the wagons to defend art for art's sake is damaging the artform. Even the greatest films have their detractors, while the worst films have those who manage to wrench something good out of it and make excuses for substandard writing/acting.

Steven Christian
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Sensational/Negative news always garners more attention and consequently gets more press. It's the same on TV and in the paper..