Have they learned nothing at all? Or rather, why do we keep falling for their same old tricks?
Perhaps I lacked the mental capacity to gauge the quality of games in my formative years, but back in the day most games were awesome. The internet ushered in an era of commentary and critique and put to rest the old regime in which gaming mag reviews were essentially advertisement. It’s fantastic that gamers have grown to be so discerning over the years as this makes a rise in standards almost inevitable. However, anyone with a finger on the vague periphery of the gaming pulse will have noticed a recent surge in PR clangers within the industry.
Before I plough into the metropolitan elephant in the room, consider some past examples of developers and publishers getting it wrong. In 2004 Valve released Half Life 2 with its now ubiquitous distribution platform, Steam. The (hilariously silent) backlash came from those without internet connections who were forced to activate their product online in order to play. I can still remember an important-looking member of Electronics Boutique asking me if I was sure I had the internet. At the time it seemed presumptuous to rely on this newfangled technology but Valve’s decision was arguably a sound one.
The internet in turn caused grief for publishers due to the unabated rise of piracy. Electronic Arts was one of the first to use Digital Rights Management (DRM) in an attempt to stifle this perceived threat, limiting activations of Spore to just three instances. Spore ended up the most pirated game of 2008 and its DRM was even blamed for inciting gamers to illegally download it. Righteous indignation is something we do rather well, but apparently not well enough.
As Reddit recently reminded me, Spore was terrible for another reason – it didn’t live up to expectations that live demonstrations of the game had created. The ol’ bait n’ switch has become commonplace and remains the most justified cause for a gamer’s meltdown. Few expected the spectacular levels of dishonesty displayed by developer Hammerpoint Interactive and odious producer, Sergey Titov in the release of The War Z. The game was a cynical attempt to cash-in on the popularity of a mod for Arma 2 called Day Z, which at first succeeded. Steam were forced to remove it from their service after a frothing backlash from bewildered fans, who rightly pointed out that the product was not as described.
While it’s difficult to feel sorry for a man like Titov, who broke taboos by calling certain War Z players “faggots“, others have fallen from grace because of fans’ unrealistically high expectations and diametrically opposed beliefs about where a franchise should go. Beleaguered Diablo III lead developer Jay Wilson was effectively forced to resign when the moans of dissatisfied fans could not be quelled. ‘Wrong’ as his decisions may have been, pleasing demonic fans who had already waited over a decade for a sequel was never going to be easy. Even the prodigal Duke was treated better on his miserable return.
Like Diablo III, the new Aliens game had a good chance of disappointing die-hard fans. Gearbox Software would always have been able to rely on the ‘insatiable fans’ defence, but Colonial Marines turned out to be objectively pap in gaming terms, notwithstanding its handling of the franchise’s lore. Damning comparisons with pre-release versions of the game also cropped up. Sega marketed the crap out of it and there are still huge ads for it all over the London tube. It’s startling how much effort can be put into something which ends up so mediocre.
Disappointment is sometimes inevitable then, unless you’re dealing with a reboot which is almost impossible to cock up. SimCity’s 2013 incarnation did not need any sort of online component and yet its inclusion has sabotaged what should have been an effortless triumph. EA have an impressive record for scuppering franchises and as reluctant as I am to blame corporate greed, I can’t see any other reason. Whether it’s DRM, microtransactions or misrepresentation, there’s always something to detract from their releases.
Ironically, CEO John Riccitiello has stepped down for failing to meet EA’s financial targets. In reality the difference between EA’s reputation from a business perspective and a gamer’s perspective could not be more stark. How many annual iterations of Need for Speed, FIFA and all the rest are actually sustainable? What would it take for them to reassess their modus operandi and spare a thought for their public perception? Bad sales, perhaps.
I believe SimCity to be the epitome of PR disasters. Its technical problems were unnecessary and predictable, the response to complaints was dishonest and miserly and worst of all it has tarnished the legacy of one of the oldest and most beloved franchises. I had to turn down my rage just one notch on discovering that EA were offering a limited chance to get a free game, but the memory remains.
In any case, I hope the growing consensus amongst informed, spendthrift gamers is not to pre-purchase anything. Publishers have become skilled at tricking their loyal fans into leaping without looking and they are highly motivated by the undeserved successes of their cash cows, old and new. My advice is to stick to what you don’t know – your research will be more thorough and you will benefit the companies with an incentive to impress rather than those relying on past glories.
Images: EA, Hammerpoint Interactive