What if Hitler made Half-Life?
Throughout gaming’s history, there have always been celebrity developers. In the early days we had Shigeru Miyamato, Sid Meier, David Braben and I’m sure many others. But nowadays there’s almost too many to keep track of, with Peter Molyneux, Phil Fish, Hideo Kojima, American McGee, Tim Schafer and still the ever persistent Shigeru Miyamato to name but a few. Some of these developers achieved their celebrity status by simply making fantastic games consistently, others have got there by being extremely outspoken and becoming prominent media faces. The question we’re discussing today, is does it matter who these people are? At times they can be offensive, unkind, and at the extreme end even criminals, but does that change how we feel about their games?
This issue goes back further than just videogames of course. For centuries, perhaps even millenia we have enjoyed the writings and art of people, and each of those people had their own lives and views and opinions. Do you enjoy Greensleeves less because Henry VIII took a distaste to a couple of his wives’ necks? (I know there is doubt about that song’s authorship but it makes for a compelling image). Since the rise of Hollywood we’ve been exposed to the celebrities behind art at an increasing rate, and not all of them have been that savoury. Walt Disney was a horrendous employer and possibly anti-Semitic, Robert Downey Jr. has been a drug addict, Sid Vicious killed Nancy. But do their actions or beliefs actually change what they have created? Would they affect your decisions to buy or watch their creations?
For me, this issue first came to light with Peter Molyneux. He’s not a bad man by any stretch of the imagination, he’s not a criminal, and as far as I know he doesn’t hold any particularly contentious beliefs. He is however, prone to massive exaggeration about his titles. Black and white, Fable and Curiosity were all supposed to change gaming, and they all failed to deliver. Fable in particular was presented as having features that were way ahead of it’s time, including trees you planted as a young character growing with you and huge socio-economic factors influencing how the world changed. It turned out to be a fun third person adventure RPG with a quirky sense of humour. Not a bad game by any means, but now what we were promised. Now had this been a one-off, Peter could be forgiven due to the realities of development, but he did this with each and every Fable game. Many people announced loudly that they were going to boycott his future games, something that’s much easier to do now he’s running his own independent studio, 22Cans. I can see why they’d have this urge, it makes sense as a consumer. If someone produces something that you buy, and it isn’t what you wanted or were promised, you wouldn’t buy from them again at the risk of being burned another time.
It gets more interesting when you get to cases such as Phil Fish. Phil Fish is the independent games developer who poured his heart and soul into the delightful puzzle adventure game Fez. Now I have never met anyone who wasn’t enchanted by Fez, it’s a brilliant game, but Phil Fish isn’t the most likeable guy in the world. He’s spoken out against Japanese game development quite publicly at GDC, announcing that:
“Your games just suck,”
When asked a question from a Japanese man about what he thought of Japanese games. He later followed that gem up on Twitter with:
“im sorry japanese guy! i was a bit rough, but your country’s games are fucking terrible nowadays.”
“people telling me they’re going to pirate my game because they dont like me. gamers are the worst fucking people.”
Not the best way to get along with your audience. In Indie Game: The Movie, Fish comes across a little better, but he does spend much of the documentary mired in some kind of legal battle with an old friend, and it’s hard to feel sympathy for him.
Does this change how I feel about Fez? Not in the slightest, it’s a labour of love by a guy whose public image I dislike, but it’s a lot of fun and the game is detached from those opinions that people find so distasteful. If anything it almost speaks against them, with there definitely being a hint of past Nintendo games present in the DNA of Fez.
Of course it isn’t just Phil fish who provokes ire in the industry. The biggest offenders right now are easily EA and to a lesser extent, Activision and Ubisoft. They represent what many gamers see as big faceless corporations taking over what used to be a hobbyist pastime. For a while it seemed as if the days of bedroom designers were on their way out because those tiny games could never compete with Call of Duty and Fifa and Assassin’s Creed, developed by hundreds of people on different continents, with hundred of millions of dollars available to them. Almost every day you can read somewhere on Reddit or the Gamefaqs boards, that someone is boycotting one of these companies. Most recently it was due to Simcity, which needs to be run through EA’s Origin service and has an always-online requirement, that was originally announced as being crucial to the game’s working but is increasingly seeming more like an always-online DRM that only has a negative effect on gameplay. Ubisoft have tried the same trick with their UPlay store, and Activision are seen by many as a force of evil working to ruin Call of Duty and monetise it wherever possible.
Of course the logic behind all of this is clear, blockbuster games require huge budgets to pay for the people who work on them. Big budgets require investors and businessmen, rather than coders sitting in their bedrooms, these businessmen want to protect their investments and increase profit wherever possible. It doesn’t always have to end badly as Gabe Newell has proven with the Steam platform, but it often does. Micro-transactions, anti-piracy measures and pre-order bonuses are all ways that companies can secure a little bit more money out of the game-playing public, and they all tend to make the games involved a tiny bit worse. I’ve written defending micro-transactions on free-to-play games before, but I can see how being asked to cough up an extra £5 on top of the £40 you paid for a game just to see the ‘true’ ending is more than a little irritating, when ten years ago that entire game would have come on the disc.
The truth is, that if we keep pushing for more immersive and polished games, we need to accept the issues that come with the money. Just like Hollywood did when producers started interfering, people with money got that money by being smart about it. We can’t ask for it as charity and then expect them to give things away that they could charge us for. More than ever it is difficult for a game to break even, let alone create a decent return, and the marketplace is ever more crowded with different titles fighting for your attention. If they grab you, they’ll take whatever money they can, and as far as I’m concerned, you should be glad to hand it over as the long as the product is of good quality.
From my perspective, you need to take the good with the bad. I want to play games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, so I’m happy to pay giant faceless organisations to create them for people like me. I’ve spent something in the region of £120 on Battlefield 3 (X360 and Premium and on the PC too) and it was worth it to me, and I hope it helps DICE and EA to make future titles like that. I’m also happy to play Fez, and ignore whatever Phil Fish says if I don’t agree with it, or argue with him if I ever meet him. Roland Barthes wrote a book called ‘Death of the Author’ in which he argued that when considering a piece of fiction, the author is irrelevant as the work should stand by itself. In gaming this is even more true, as that Call of Duty game that you’re writing off as another cash in by a corporation was worked on by over 200 people who were more passionate about gaming than you could ever imagine. They were given jobs and some security by a company that wanted to make money off it so they could pay themselves and carry on investing in more games. Some of those people might be racists and bigots, some of them might be liars, but once the game has been created and it’s good, does any of that matter to you?
Let me know in the comments.