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LOW SCORE: A documentary about the other side of the video game industry

NETFLIX just released High Score, a six-episode series about the history of video games. It’s a great-looking series, with an amazing level of access to historical icons and their personal archives. But, like most works on the subject, it’s nostalgic and celebratory. Blindly so.

In works like these, the only bad thing video games ever did was the 1983 Crash. Any other criticism was just silly old people saying silly things like “D&D is satanic”. Truly, video games are a bastion of inclusion and diversity — that’s why the one LGBT game they gleefully celebrate was so tiny and inconsequential that it was lost for almost 30 years.

It’s nothing new, the video game industry is the man-child of entertainment — a grown man that refuses to take on responsibility and still wants to be spoiled as if it were a cute child. An industry where executives make billions of dollars on the backs of poorly-paid workers and fight governments on gambling regulations, all while presenting themselves as quirky people making cool stuff in their garages.

So let’s do the opposite of High Score them:

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Here’s the episode list:

Episode 1- “Put up or shut up and leave”
Episode 2-
“I’ll leave morality out of the talk”
Episode 3-
AAA, and the death of everything else
Episode 4-
GamerGate
Episode 5-
“Dad, where is Afghanistan? Level 4, son.”
Episode 6-
History is written by the Americans
Episode 7-
Rare Skin Troopers

Now let’s go into a summary of each episode:

Episode 1 — “Put up or shut up and leave”

Or, as TIME magazine puts it:

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In the High Score documentary, Nolan Bushnell talks about how Atari was an “Age of Aquarius company” and how he could get any engineer to work for him by letting people work in flip-flops. He leaves out the fact that Atari didn’t credit its developers, something many studios still refuse to to today:

[…]some workers say their agencies keep their names out of the credits so other companies can’t poach them. One contractor who’s served as a lead for a major console game says his agency forced him to use a different pseudonym in the credits of every game he worked on. And while there are nascent efforts to forge a sense of solidarity among workers, there are no unions in the U.S. or Japanese video game industry — and legions of eager people are waiting in the wings.

One of the companies that changed this was EA, which used to stand for “Electronic Arts”. Back in the 80s, their stance was to promote developers as “Electronic Artists”, with game boxes that looked like music albums and even had pictures of developers looking like rock stars:

Ironically, years later EA would become the icon of employee abuse, when the famous “EA Spouse” letter was published. In it, the wife of a developer talks about her husband’s work routine at EA:

The current mandatory hours are 9am to 10pm — seven days a week — with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30pm). This averages out to an eighty-five hour work week.
[…]
And the kicker: for the honor of this treatment EA salaried employees receive a) no overtime; b) no compensation time!; c) no additional sick or vacation leave.
[…]
Put up or shut up and leave: this is the core of EA’s Human Resources policy.

This was in 2004, 16 years ago. Has the industry improved since? Let’s ask a Fortnite developer:

“I work an average 70 hours a week,” said one employee. “There’s probably at least 50 or even 100 other people at Epic working those hours. I know people who pull 100-hour weeks.

Ok, it seems like things only got worse… but the industry got more diverse, right? Now we have more women, people of color, LGBT+ and non-binary people than ever before!

Yeah, now they can enjoy being harassed at work too:

The suit laid out allegations that Riot fostered a “men-first” “bro culture,” where harassment and inappropriate behavior such as “crotch-grabbing, phantom humping, and sending unsolicited and unwelcome pictures of male genitalia” and managers circulating a “hot girl list,” ranking female employees by attractiveness, went unchecked.

Don’t expect it to get better, the current push for “live service games” is only making crunch worse. Which ties into our next episode:

Episode 2— “I’ll leave morality out of the talk

This episode is easy, we don’t have to shoot any footage, just play this video:

“Hello. I’m here to talk about monetization. It’s ‘Let’s go whaling’, it’s about a summary of a huge bunch of behavioral psychology. The tricks on how to monetize a game well. Some of you will probably be slightly shocked by all the tricks I’ve listed here but I’ll leave morality out of the talk.”

Thus says Torulf Jernström, CEO of a mobile game studio. Then he spends 18 minutes gleefully showing all the psychological techniques that game companies use to trick susceptible people into spending absurd amounts of money on their games — “there’s no upper spending limit!”, he points out.

He’s talking about mobile games here, but let’s not pretend this isn’t on “live service” PC and console games either. Or that it’s something new.

Video games have been benefiting from “whales” since the mid 80s, when the first commercial online games began, such as Air Warrior, Island of Kesmai and Habitat. They didn’t have cash shops, but you had to pay by the hour to play it. Habitat even gave players in-game currency for each day they played, allowing them to buy in-game items and avatar customization options.

Yes, a game from 1985 already had “dailies” to make you login every day.

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Using the vending machine in 1985’s Habitat to buy skins for my avatar.

As video game consultant Jessica Mulligan points out:

“On GEnie during 1991, our average MMOG customer spent $156 per month, the equivalent of 32 hours at $3 per hour to play. However, the hard core players averaged three times that and accounted for nearly 70% of the total revenue. The top 0.5% had truly astronomical bills, well over $1,000 per month”.

So yeah, predatory monetization schemes has been an thing for over 30 years. And the industry has made it quite clear that the only ethical limit is “until it makes too much noise and governments start regulating it”.

I imagine future documentaries won’t present those regulations as “silly old people thought it was bad to make children addicted to gambling, haha”.

In part because the industry doesn’t expose itself anymore like it did during the 1993 hearings about video game violence, when the vice-presidents of Sega, Nintendo and EA were called to the US congress to explain themselves. They learned their lesson have since created the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) — a lobby group controlled by the industry’s biggest companies and used to deal with this kind of stuff.

Episode 3—AAA, and the death of everything else

Here’s a quiz for you: In 1993 we had tiny teams like id Software making games like Doom. Skip 15 years to 2008 and we’re like “OMG, there’s tiny teams making games like Braid now!” How come?

It’s all because indies and mid-sized studios were slaughtered or devoured in the mid-90s and 2000s. That’s when some of the most beloved studios of the 80s and 90s went bankrupt or got acquired by bigger companies:

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Brøderbund, Bullfrog, Bungie, Ensemble Studios, Interplay, Mattel Interactive, Maxis, MicroProse, Mindscape, Origin Systems, Raven Software, Red Storm Entertainment, Strategic Simulations, Inc., Toys for Bob,
Westwood Studios, Looking Glass Studios, Neversoft, New World Computing, Sir-Tech, Virgin Interactive, Sierra Entertainment, Thalion, DreamForge, etc…

While studios like Neversoft might have benefited from being acquired, overall it was a grim scenario. It had many causes, such as retailers like Walmart restricting access to their shelves to only the top companies; the rising costs of game development; mismanagement; the dot.com bubble, etc…

I wish this was studied more, but the result is clear: by the mid 2000s, a handful of giant publishers dominated — the industry was an oligopoly.

They had the biggest games, direct access to retailers and consoles, a powerful lobby face called The ESA, could dictate industry prices, it was extremely difficult to enter the market and they had close relations with the gaming press. That’s when the term AAA really takes off — three letters to set their games apart from whatever independent studio still survived.

Just ask industry legend Ken Levine. Before the success of BioShock, Irrational Games developed Freedom Force (2002), published by EA.

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It sold 400,000 units.

For the sequel, Freedom Force vs the 3rd Reich (2005), they self-published. It got great reviews, but they couldn’t get it to retailers, and online sales weren’t really feasible yet. Players couldn’t buy it even if they wanted.

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It sold 40,000 units.

This is vital to understand the history of the industry and how digital distribution helped save it. But gets buried in PR nonsense about how every year is always “the best year for gaming”, and fans that go “2005 had God of War and Resident Evil 4, it can’t be a bad year!”

It can. It was.

Episode 4— GamerGate

Oh boy.

You know, I doubt it’s a coincidence that the celebratory books, movies and articles on video game history only go as far as 2012, with Indie Game: The Movie and Tim Schafer going to Kickstarter.

But there’s so much we can talk about here, it will be a great episode.

On the High Score documentary, SEGA’s CEO Tom Kalinske happily talks about how Nintendo was for young children, so he decided to target an older audience, doing everything he could to make SEGA “cool”.

In the documentary, this is illustrated with MTV clips and cute ads about racing cars. We should show the other side, how sexist and aggressive some of the ads and the overall marketing tone became over time:

You might wave it away as “it was the 90s!”, but it’s still something that happened, and that would continued way into the 2000s, with the Xbox in particular heavily embracing the “dude-bro” tone.

To be clear, I have absolutely nothing against adult content in video games — but that’s entirely different from giant corporations telling kids and teenagers that being edgy is what makes you “a real man”.

As VICE clearly puts is, Games Marketing Invented Toxic Gamer Culture.

Pandering to insecure people online, giving them an identity and a community to be part of, making them feel special, superior to “normies” and “outsiders”… turns out this a winning strategy to sell things far beyond video games, as the alt-right found out.

Hyping games and pandering to gamers was the name of the game — this was THEIR place, THEIR industry, THEIR identity, THEIR “gamer culture”.

Let’s not forget, part of the video game media embraced that tone as well . In fact, the lines between PR hype and journalism were often quite blurry, with some dangerous accidents along the way. I mean, we still remember why Jeff Gerstmann founded Giant Bomb, right?

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Let’s not pretend this is normal.

It’s extremely easy and convenient to say GamerGate was just a bunch of far-right assholes who hate women. But they didn’t come out of nowhere — they were precisely the people being pandered to by parts of the industry. And all this pandering was being questioned by game journalists as well:

Publishers are well aware that some of you go crazy if a new AAA title gets a crappy review score on a website, and they use that knowledge to keep the boat from rocking. Everyone has a nice easy ride if the review scores stay decent and the content of the games are never challenged. Websites get their exclusives. Ad revenue keeps rolling in. The information is controlled. Everyone stays friendly. It’s a steady flow of Mountain Dew pouring from the hills of the money men, down through the fingers of the weary journos, down into your mouths.

Are we really that surprised that some gamers freaked out when “outsiders” started to rock the boat and criticize the games they loved — games sold to them BY THE INDUSTRY as nothing less than their communities & identities?

Finally, GamerGate ties nicely into our next episode. After all, how can you talk about the alt-right boarding video games without establishing how right-wing US propaganda was already comfortably installed?

Episode 5— “Dad, where is Afghanistan? Level 4, son.”

In the past weeks, we had Call of Duty®: Black Ops — Cold War promoting far-right conspiracy theories and Ubisoft using symbols associated to Black Lives Matter movement to represent an in-game terrorist organization in Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad. While revolting, it’s not one bit surprising.

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An ad from July 2002, 9 months after the US invaded Afghanistan.

The US as a whole adapted a heavily nationalistic & military tone after 9–11, and that also heavily affected games, making it perfectly fine for you to go to Afghanistan to kill people.

Yes, we jumped from aliens, cyberdemons and WW2 games to “kill terrorists” propaganda for a war that had just started!

Imagine China starting to bomb Taiwan and then releasing “Super Taipei Bomber 2020: Separatists Must Die”. Would it get ads & reviews on IGN?

And it wasn’t “just” commercial games. Starting from 2002, the US Army itself was openly developing games under the name America’s Army — and giving them for free to help recruit soldiers.

Meanwhile, journalists were cheering on what a great idea that was, as being virtually trained by the US army meant a more realistic experience:

[…] the detailed view of modern infantry combat (thanks to one of the greatest consultant pools of all time — the US military) and a game as fun and addictive as Counter-Strike should send more than one young gamer down the recruitment office. — Computer Gaming World #225 (July 2002)

On the plus side, reviewers have since evolved to become more critical of propaganda: PROS: Great graphics, realistic gunplay, fun multiplayer; CONS: Pure ideological propaganda; SCORE: 9.5.

Episode 6 — History is written by the Americans

High Score is guilty of this, but so does the vast majority of articles, documentaries and books on video game history: they ignore anything outside US & Japan. At most you get some trivia about Thatcher & UK computers (a shame, since France made much more interesting games).

As a Brazilian, of course I’m biased here. But I’m not saying “boohoo, they don’t talk about Brazilian games!”. No, I’m saying they ignore THE BIGGEST VIDEO GAMES IN THE WORLD.

Go read about MMOs and you’ll find glorious tales of how big Ultima Online, EverQuest and World of Warcraft were. Then do some real research and you’ll find out that all of these were dwarfed by Korean MMOs like Lineage, Maplestory and Dungeon Fighters Online — which are rarely mentioned.

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From 1998 to 2004, Lineage was bigger than every other MMORPG combined. Sourse: http://pw1.netcom.com/~sirbruce/Subscriptions.html

Yes, while WoW peaked at 12 million monthly players, some Korean MMORPGs you probably never heard about had over 25 million monthly players.

“But those are free to play!” And? Are those not real people? Are those companies not reporting record-breaking profits? Will you dare bring quality into question, as if western MMOs can’t be exploitative — as if your tastes should filter reality?

What’s most disappointing is that this is actually getting worst. Last year, YouTube listed the most popular games on its platform. Most video game websites reported on this — here’s a snippet from Kotaku on how the 4th biggest game of 2019 on YouTube was Free Fire.

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From https://kotaku.com/minecraft-is-the-top-youtube-game-of-2019-thanks-to-a-1840272877

And yet, Kotaku never wrote a single article about Free Fire. And it’s not just Free Fire, nor just Kotaku. A big part of the media simply pretends theses games do not exist, something ever more ridiculous as Chinese companies like Tencent increase their dominance over the video game industry.

It’s like they are not reporting on the actual game industry anymore, but on an idealized version of it, where the biggest news are Call of Duty and how many teraflops the Xbox X will have. Not even Roblox fits this world of theirs.

Allow me to be (more) blunt: Eurogamer once published a very critical review of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, saying that it should feature more non-white people, on the basis that “What if a group of black Africans came through and stayed at an inn and someone got pregnant?”. As the reviewer wrote, “racism can take many forms, one of them being exclusion.

So why 80 million daily active Free Fire players, many from poor regions that never had access to games before, don’t get the same consideration as the hypothetical sons of black Africans crossing 1400's Bohemia?

Episode 7—Rare Skin Troopers

In this final episode, we explore how Epic Games decided to fight Apple over profit margins — truly the most noble of causes. Their tactic was:

  • Intentionally break Apple’s rules.
  • Get Fortnite banned from the app store.
  • Announce a massive new update with beloved characters.
  • Start running propaganda (even in-game!) saying that you won’t get these fancy new toys because of Apple.

I hope we can interview Epic’s executives about their plans for the future — maybe they’ll give a limited edition Captain America avatar to whoever goes out in the streets and kills employees of Epic’s rival companies.

Since this is a shorter episode, we can pad the run time with 20 minutes of people shouting “Fuck you, Timothy Sweeney”.

Written by

Brazilian living in Japan, Marketing dude and Gaming History enthusiast. Creator of The CRPG Book: https://crpgbook.wordpress.com/

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