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 youThe 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 previewThere'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.