2013 in Games: Year of the Corporate Snake Christopher Erb April 11, 2013 Blog Certain practices in the gaming industry have been perennially questionable. Recent years have seen the introduction of annoyances such as increasingly intrusive digital rights management, online passes, and the revelation of how deep on-disc downloadable content really goes. Many of these issues have been addressed in the wake of fan backlash, be it in the form of actual fixes or at least garnering apologies. 2013, however, has seen some glaring disrespect of gamers on the part of bigger game makers, to a level that is pretty much unprecedented. In a realm that’s previously been highly focused on public relations and even seen firings and resignations for particularly outrageous gaffes, the behavior of gaming corporations in respect to their fanbases has been downright deplorable. It’s only the fourth month of the year and we’re already looking at some of the biggest PR nightmares companies have managed to not give two shits about. The gall being displayed by some of the biggest names in gaming is appalling, especially following a year that saw a backing down from on-disc DLC practices, apologies on many fronts, and a full-on revision of a game’s ending due to fan outrage. The first such debacle was easily the entire mess surrounding Aliens: Colonial Marines. Long story short, Gearbox Software pulled a similar stunt as it did with Duke Nukem Forever. After a seemingly endless development cycle and a highly promising teaser trailer, Gearbox churned out a half-baked pile of rubbish that’s seen massive patching since release just to make it playable and that looks nothing like what players were promised, all at full retail price. Except, of course, that Gearbox didn’t churn it out. Despite Gearbox and SEGA’s claims to the contrary, a bit of investigation uncovered that TimeGate Studios, listed as one of the supplemental developers on the project, did nearly all of the work on the game. Between anonymous sources from both Gearbox and TimeGate and the resume listings of TimeGate employees following Colonial Marines‘ release, it rapidly became clear that Gearbox was mostly in a supervisory position, and judging by the game’s quality, they were hardly doing a good job of that. Further digging has presented the possibility that funds for Aliens: Colonial Marines were funneled into other projects, such as the Borderlands games and even Duke Nukem Forever, by Gearbox, but those claims remain unsubstantiated. This is the case for many of the mysteries surrounding the disaster that is Colonial Marines, as most of the parties involved have remained publicly mum. SEGA has at least come forward in recent weeks to admit the trailer was indeed misleading, but that still leaves a lingering puzzle given that the head of the demo team was also the Senior Level Designer for the entire project. SEGA was also kind enough to Nintendo’s Wii U to cancel that system’s version of Aliens: Colonial Marines, as even having the iconic motion tracker integrated into the Wii U Gamepad was probably not enough to make the game not suck just as much as other versions. However, Gearbox Software continues to remain silent as to any of the allegations, with its head Randy Pitchford content to block those on Twitter who question him about what happened with Colonial Marines as he showers the populace with SHIFT codes for Borderlands 2 and distracts us with new downloadable characters. Considering his similar defense of the spatchcocked mess Duke Nukem Forever turned out to be, this is of no surprise, but so long as Pitchford remains head of Gearbox Software, we may never hear exactly what went wrong with Colonial Marines in any official capacity. Hot on the heels of the Aliens mess came the long-awaited release of SimCity. This reboot of the classic PC franchise promised online interaction between you and your friends’ cities through linked regions, and showed a lot of promise in the early beta stress tests. Until, as we know now, everything went down the toilet on release day. Thanks to an inability to pre-load the the game for digital pre-orders on EA’s Origin service, which has saved Steam server stress time and time again, and servers that were swamped due to one of the biggest companies in gaming completely missing the possibility that maybe, just maybe, a game this anticipated just might need a sizable initial server allowance to provide for everyone picking it up. The game was nigh-unplayable by most North American users for the first week and change of its release. Some review outlets retroactively lowered their scores for SimCity in the wake of the disaster, or gave up and slapped low marks on the game when they couldn’t play it to review it. The key problem, it turns out, was SimCity’s lack of any offline play, needing to be always online to access the servers where cities are hosted. This is a necessary element for linking up cities in various in-game regions, but no option was offered at all for those who just wanted to fiddle around in private or, you know, actually be able to play the damn game. Several excuses were given in sequence by Maxis, curators of the SimCity brand, as to why this was the case. First, we were told by Maxis GM Lucy Bradshaw that the game offloaded a sizable amount of calculation onto the game’s servers. This was proven complete bunk by a modder finding a way to play the game offline in debug mode. Sure, there were some features missing, but it was completely functional aside from the ability to save progress. As a follow-up, Bradshaw made a second statement claiming that the new SimCity was meant to be always online as part of the developer’s “vision” for the game. EA backed this up and dismissed suppositions of DRM by stating that such a move would have been a dead end strategy, and that they were merely going for the feel of a massively multiplayer online game. That’s all well and good, but if history has taught us anything, MMOs tend to have servers that work. Sure, there may be massive login queues in the early days of any popular MMO, but the servers are still there. SimCity was essentially shut down across the board for users, failing to even post a wait in most cases for those who wanted to get in. Making this doubly ridiculous is the SimCity brand’s roots in offline experiences. The original SimCity and its many spin-offs have done just fine as single-player games since 1989. Why change that now? Despite all of the shenanigans, SimCity still managed to rake it in, selling 1.1 million copies in the game’s first two disastrous weeks. This may be due in great part to preorders made for the game prior to everything going to pieces, especially given the claims that 54% of those 1.1 million sales were digital. The offer of a free EA title on Origin to anyone who purchased SimCity may also have bumped the numbers a bit, but either way, it’s disheartening to see gamers that willing to bend over and take it. Were the SimCity woes not enough for EA, Blake Jorgensen (EA’s CFO) made a point of mentioning around the same time as the game’s release that EA had plans to thrust microtransactions into all its games going forward. Reactions fell mostly in the realms of concern and disappointment, with backlash already cropping up regarding the implementation of cash-based weapon creation shortcutting in Dead Space 3. There were claims that it could be fine if not implemented intrusively, but considering EA’s track record for wise decisions, such handling of micropayments didn’t seem likely. Not long after, Jorgensen made it a point to clarify that he only meant mobile games would be getting the microtransaction treatment. That didn’t leave full retail titles free of such shenanigans, however, as it was revealed EA planned to continue doing “premium service” options for many of their franchises, not unlike the Battlefield Premium offer running in conjunction with Battlefield 3. This backpedaling would soon be mirrored by the company’s “massively multiplayer” statement regarding SimCity, which leaves one to wonder just how many more attempts to spin things until they sound less obnoxious we’ll be hearing from EA as the year wears on. Most recently in the realm of corporate scumbaggery in regards to their fans, we have the unfortunate tale of Adam Orth. The creative director at Microsoft decided to have a delightful back and forth with an industry colleague regarding the rumors of the next Xbox system requiring an always-online connection to even play games. One of his initial tweets shrugging off the idea of an always-on console as something that should be expected by this point ended with a derisive “#dealwithit,” leading to assumptions that the always-on rumor was indeed true and leading many into a furor over the contempt openly displayed by one of Microsoft’s own for its consumers over the issue. Several dismissive tweets followed counterexamples showing that such a requirement may prove difficult given the still juvenile state of broadband access worldwide, and though “Orthy” made a point to change his Twitter account to protected, the damage was already done. In no time, the tweets had spawned an image meme, and the expected April reveal for the new Microsoft console was mysteriously re-dated for May. Microsoft themselves were quick to release an apology for the statements, mentioning that Adam is in no way a spokesman for the company. Nor is he an employee of Microsoft anymore, as news of his resignation spread rapidly via Game Informer and other outlets on April 11th. While it seems Microsoft’s Xbox division is a great deal more customer-focused and willing to address this sort of snafu than other companies given the response, it’s not exactly encouraging to find that there are still those in the industry foolish enough to openly admit they feel their customers are unwashed masses worthy of their derision. Do I expect things to change just by complaining about them? Do I think corporate apologies will ever be entirely genuine, or that the big game publishers out there will ever put their fans before their profit margins? Do I believe PR spin will ever be free of hyperbole and that we’ll get straight answers for any of the above issues, past indiscretions, or future screw-ups? No, on all counts. Hell, we can’t even trust non-corporate enthusiasts anymore, judging by the case of ZilianOP. A popular Diablo III livestreamer, ZilianOP (aka Angel Hamilton) was outed and twice banned for botting his way through the game rather than legitimately acquiring his wealth of equipment and gold, despite several attempts at damage control after the fact. Confined to a wheelchair for years following an accident, one would think he’d have the time to play through the game regularly himself. Following his second account ban on Diablo III, Angel moved on to streaming World of Warcraft, continuing to see a sizable viewer base and frequent donations to ease his medical bills. That is, until he decided to stand up and leave his wheelchair completely unhindered by any sort of injury while still on camera one night. Despite claims that he threw himself out of the wheelchair to keep his dog from spilling water on his hardware by his girlfriend and accomplice, Panthoria, a story that later changed to him apparently undergoing physical therapy despite never announcing as much to his fans, it’s pretty clear to see by his reflection in the fishtank behind him in the telltale video that Mr. Hamilton is perfectly capable of walking unassisted. Whether those defrauded by the duo of ZilianOP and Panthoria will see any legal recompense has yet to be seen, and as it stands Angel’s girlfriend is still pleading with Twitch.tv to have their cash cow reinstated. What I’m saying is that gamers need to take more of a stake in their role in the business. Without you and I, money doesn’t exchange hands for games and gaming-related content. Don’t be suckered into a pre-order with “sweet” bonuses that will just be downloadable content in a month, and will be free on the “Game of the Year” or “Complete” edition of a game by the next holiday season. Wait for reviews you trust, a demo, or the chance to rent a game before you sink your wallet into something. Hell, nowadays you can wait a week or two and most AAA titles will be on sale somewhere, either in digital format on Steam or as a daily deal on Amazon. If you get screwed, demand answers; it worked for outraged Mass Effect 3 fans, after all, even if a lot of them still didn’t like what they got. Given that many companies are already flailing over completely unrealistic sales predictions for great games that did amazingly well, more responsible and educated purchasing across the board can only help shift the shadier elements of corporate gaming culture toward changing their ways. Similarly, be careful where you throw your money donation-wise, be it to YouTube personalities, streamers, or Kickstarter projects. A good pitch is a good pitch, but look into who’s pitching it. Look for evidence of work being already done on a game. A couple pieces of character art and a grand idea may not be trustworthy enough to warrant crowdfunding. It’s no surprise that the big names in gaming have been hiding things, and obviously have been for some time, but we’re getting better at noticing and calling them out on it. Keep your eyes open, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll stop getting mushroom stamped before the year is out.