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Gamasutra's Best Of 2010: Top 5 Biggest Controversies
Gamasutra's Best Of 2010: Top 5 Biggest Controversies Exclusive
December 14, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

December 14, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[Gamasutra continues its 2010 retrospectives with this year's top five game industry disappointments, from companies that are super-secretive about digital sales to a promising developer crushed by its own MMO. Previously: Top 5 Trends, Top 5 Major Industry Events, Top 5 Surprises and Top 5 Disappointments.]

The game industry is constantly growing and evolving -- and that can't happen without a little contention from time to time, right? With every year comes new public debates, debacles and disputes, and 2010 played host to many.

The first-person shooter category, more highly-valued than ever, saw numerous dramas, a new platform faced openness issues, and the industry and gamers alike considered identity issues in more ways than one.

Given how vocal and passionate those working in and around the game industry tend to be, it's not uncommon to see heated discussion crop up around just about any issue.

But here are five that drew the biggest buzz during 2010, that made the juiciest -- and, in many cases, the most deeply-considered -- headlines this year.

5. Apple Versus Flash

The success of Apple's iOS platform was swift and explosive. It seemed like out of nowhere, the company's devices were everywhere -- but it was this year's iPad launch that really made users more aware than ever that the company's lack of Flash support was a problem.

With a bright, touchable screen and an elegant hardware that seemed ideal for web-browsing in one's lap, the inability to use Flash on iOS seemed a big hole in an otherwise largely seamless offering.

And Apple and Adobe had an exchange of words in the public eye, beginning with Apple CEO Steve Jobs' statement about his company's decision. Adobe asserted Apple was trying to control its App Store, and Jobs said that the company simply wanted to protect users: "Adobe claims that we are a closed system, and that Flash is open, but in fact the opposite is true," he wrote.

For Adobe's part, it said openness was essential to innovation -- a sentiment shared by many game developers who wanted to bring their Flash projects to iOS. At last a form of compromise was reached, as Apple loosened some of its third-party tools restrictions, thereby allowing developers to run apps built with Flash in a fashion that packages them as native, so long as they don't download any code. Users still can't use the Flash plugin itself to browse the web or play games, however.

4. What's In A Name?

It's been suggested that bearing a relationship to real-world conflicts, instead of the vague correlation most modern war games have preferred, might add a new layer of relevance and dignity to the first-person shooter category.

But either that's not actually the case in practice or audiences simply aren't ready, because Electronic Arts' decision to identify the enemy faction in Medal of Honor's multiplayer as Taliban -- and in so doing, allow players to take the role of Taliban against U.S. soldiers -- was hotly contested.

Many, especially veterans' advocacy groups and mothers of fallen soldiers, felt it was disrespectful to literally act out the combat that was taking lives overseas. Those in favor pointed to free speech -- the very rights the industry is in the midst of arguing in the Supreme Court -- the distinction between video games and reality, or a happy compromise, wherein portrayal in interactive entertainment could help people relate to real-world events better.

A heated debate ensued, with strong opinions on both sides. Ultimately, despite its initial 'proud' and immutable position, EA eventually capitulated to the vocal detractors, changing the word "Taliban" to "Opposing Force", a decision that some continue to view as the only way to be respectful, while others see it as an act of commercial appeasement absent of sincerity.

3. Blizzard's Real ID Battle

The internet has always provided the haven of anonymity, while the worlds of MMO games offer players a new "self", a chance to be anyone. Although this is a positive element for many players, others have wondered whether the lack of accountability associated with anonymity has contributed to a tide of anti-social behavior online.

"Cyber-bullying" was a much-buzzed topic in the mainstream press this year, and the game industry has for a few years now taken a long, hard look at the culture within online services where no one has to use their real name. Would people's discourse be more respectful, their game behavior more holistic, their multiplayer sessions more inclusive if people had to sign their real-world names beside everything they did?

Blizzard decided to find out. In what it called an effort to "promote constructive conversations" and curb "flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness," the company introduced the 'Real ID' feature on its forums, requiring users to use their real names when posting on a community forum.

What happened next was nothing less than a massive uproar, with users bemoaning lost personal privacy and concern for their information security. On the other side of the argument was the concept that everything's online now, and that if one has no problem having a Facebook account, one should be okay with putting their real name on a Blizzard forum account. But in the face of the massive controversy, Blizzard quickly retracted the idea, citing feedback from its users as the most important factor in its policy-making.

2. Infinity Ward's Lawsuits

The battle for the first-person shooter crown this year -- and all of its hirings, firings and machinations -- was arguably the largest conflict of 2010, as industry-watchers looked to see what would become of Call of Duty, Infinity Ward and its relationship with Activision, among all the other moving parts.

But it was the contentious way the departure of co-founders Jason West and Vincent Zampella played out that was among the most-watched dispute of the year: it began with Activision's sudden sweep of the Infinity Ward's office and ousting of the two studio heads.

The sensational claim? The two had been plotting behind the scenes with a rival publisher -- later revealed allegedly to be EA -- and preparing a coup on Activision. Then there was the other side.

The ousting and accusations were a ploy to deprive the pair of their rightfully-earned Modern Warfare 2 bonuses, and according to claims, the outstanding incentives were being held over the heads of remaining employees to keep them from following their former leaders (Activision denies that the conflicts have any relationship to employees' compensation).

That EA managed to avenge, in a manner, Activision's poaching of its Visceral Games founders Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey by signing West and Zampella's Respawn Studios -- and that Activision retorted by signing Halo wizards Bungie to a 10-year deal -- and that EA couldn't resist weighing in -- was just icing on one of the biggest dramas the industry had ever seen.

1. The Industry's Identity Crisis

Amid the explosive rise of new business models, the industry's biggest and most bitter arguments were perhaps least visible to gamers and consumers, but impossible for those in the business of developing games to ignore.

In 2010, the industry crowned something of a new villain in social game developer Zynga, massively successful on the back of Facebook games that most felt were designed around metrics rather than creativity, storytelling, spirit, engagement -- or any of the principles game designers had heretofore prized. When Zynga's Bill Mooney used an awards acceptance speech to tell an audience of young, quirky IGF winners that they'd be glad to work for him someday, the offense they took was almost palpable.

But the old polarity of "corporate versus indie" doesn't even apply here. Numerous veteran game designers, from Steve Meretzky and Raph Koster to Brenda Brathwaite and Brian Reynolds, began exploring the social space -- much to the bafflement of indies and traditionalists, who argued publicly among themselves about the "true" identity of game design in 2010.

Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker was practically a rebel movement, provoking solidarity and ire alike. Venture capitalists said traditional game designers were "in denial.

Alongside these contentious discussions it soon became clear that the parties in many cases considered the issue deeply personal and as such could not, would not agree. Jesse Schell's DICE talk on 'gamification' -- society viewed through the lens of game design, with achievements and rewards for mundane tasks great and small -- rocked the industry, presenting a vision of the future considered bleak by many.

Bigger than any lawsuit or public spat is this roiling angst, this era of self-reflection and self-definition for the games industry as it struggles to figure out what it "is", what it's "for", and where its integrity lies.

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raigan burns
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Hey, #4 was already used in the "Top 5 Disappointments" list!

Simon Carless
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We had some overlap in non-game charts this year, Raigan, just because we felt the incident applied to both - we'll probably switcheroo some of the charts for next year to not get overlappy!

Bart Stewart
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I see you're also retaining your "those who objected were wrong" stance instead of simply reporting both perpectives and letting it stand as a controversy.

Editorially choosing sides is maybe understandable as a "disappointment." But it wasn't necessary when framing the whole thing as a "controversy," which even those who disagree on the details can agree is a fair description of the overall situation.

Meh. I just like keeping my reporting and editorializing separate -- yes, even in a Best Of list. ;)

Adam Bishop
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Bart, I'm unclear where you see a specific side taken in the article above. The Infinity Ward section has a couple of awkwardly worded sections that make it a but unclear whether the statements are intended as opinions or not, but I'm not seeing anything in any of the 5 points that clearly posits that one side was right and the other was wrong.

david paradis
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I don't see it either. All of the articles state the facts of the arguments, and after re-reading them, I dont think any of the controversies have a clear "right" side by the way they are written.

Unless you consider stating what the outcome of these controversies were as taking sides.

"Blizzard quickly retracted the idea, citing feedback from its users as the most important factor in its policy-making"

This is just stating what the result of the debate was. The other articles have similar endings.

Bart Stewart
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Adam, I was referring just to the "Taliban" controversy. It was close, which is why I took care to poke a little fun at myself at the end of my comments. I don't want to be Angry Internet Man who freaks out over every little perceived thing.

But in this case, I think suggesting that the existence of objections to portraying Taliban fighters killing Western soldiers as value-neutral means that "audiences aren't ready" for games with modern relevance, and that EA "capitulated" to the objectors does send a pretty clear signal from the writer, and, by extension, from Gamasutra.

I agree that the rest of that piece played it down the middle. But why have any editorializing when the piece is good without it?

Anyway, that's not to argue the point, but just to respond to the reasonable question you asked.

gus one
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West and Zampella are now residing in the 'Where are they now file'. MW2 is forgotten and Black Ops is the new king. The king is dead long live the king.

Gregory Kinneman
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Mechwarrior 2 will never be forgotten :)

Aaron Casillas
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lol Mechwarrior 2 3dfx OEM deal baby! (<---qa lead)

Ardney Carter
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Mr. Kinneman, that made my morning.

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Mechwarrior 2 was the first Mech game I'll played and I will never forget it.

David Fisk
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Not really. They are opening up a new studio in Van Nuys, and are looking for people. If working for a new company doesn't make you nervous, then go for it. These guys have a proven track record for making quality games.

Tim Carter
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Is the proper place for talent to be beholden to corporate?

Is talent only to have power once it becomes corporate itself?

Should a designer not wield creative power until he becomes a studio head?

Should the creative contract be second to the financial contract?

Why wouldn't it be financially wise to find the most creative and give them creative control?

Those are fundamental questions about the game industry's identity.

Paul Lazenby
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West and Zampella are now residing in the 'Where are they now file'.

Really? They're repped by CAA.

They created the biggest selling shooter of all time (at 23M+ units)

MW2 - still a top ranked MP on XBL

And I'm certain Respawn is creating a massive IP for EA

With Jason and Vince, there would have been no COD, and definitely not MW or MW2.

Your statement is not only disrespectful, it's ignorant.

Andre Gagne
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Heh, "where it's integrity lies".

I find that statement hilarious.

BobbyK Richardson
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"Adobe claims that we are a closed system, and that Flash is open, but in fact the opposite is true"

Yeah he just kept digging himself a bigger hole. Apple's tight market control has always worked for them, it's hard not to notice when so much of it comes directly from Steve Jobs own mouth. He owns his market, and he'll be damned if he lets anyone get a share of it.