The topic every game dev is talking about behind closed doors : The cost of doing business

Content warning : I’ve embedded some tweets to various developers that show the sorts of comments that they receive every day. There’s some strong language in there.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it costs to be a developer these days. Not merely the cost of running a team (although I think about that a lot) but the cost of putting your work out in public, and what that means in the modern era.

I attended my Grandfather’s funeral last week. Like me, he was a visible figure in his industry, although he was a harness racer and I’m a game developer. He worked for 60 years training horses, racing them, and working with his family to do the same. 500 people attended his funeral, all of them people he’d touched through his life. People whose horses he’d trained. Friends from the country town he lived in. Neighbours to whom he dropped off fresh eggs each day. Punters who had gone from fans to friends over his many years at the track. People who were there to remember him and his legacy.

There are many similarities between his life and mine. We both ran our own businesses. We’re both in hit-driven industries, in which chance plays a large part in success. We’ve both built something where previously there was nothing, and that something sustains the livelihood of more than just ourselves.

Yet there’s a striking difference, in 2018 at least. In the last twelve months a single topic has come up every time I’ve spoken developer-to-developer either in person or online : abuse. The difference between my Grandfather and I is that he did his work in peace. While there were surely frustrated punters, the chance of one of them calling my Grandfather lazy to his face was small. None would pull him up to call him greedy, stupid, ignorant or bad at his job.

Yet every game developer receives these messages daily.

It hasn’t always been the case, but it certainly is now. This has become the established discourse between creators and audience in the games space. Developers aren’t speaking about this in public, by the way, for two reasons. Firstly, every time you do there’s an audience who loudly proclaims that you receive abuse because you deserve it. Secondly, because it seems petty to complain. We developers have internalised that abuse is the cost of doing business.

Abuse is the cost of doing business.

“Abuse is the cost of doing business.” It seems particularly sad when you put it like that. One thing I’ve noticed recently is that when developers raise these issues in public spaces, they often receive a response that implies that they’ve earned the flood of hatred. That something they have done deserves such a vitriolic response.

The big issue here is that when you speak to players (and I have, a lot), a large number of them would agree with this statement “There are times when it’s reasonable to send personal abuse to a developer,” although they differ on when those times are. Maybe it’s if their game has lootboxes. Maybe it’s when an update takes too long. Maybe it’s when a game has gender options that offend you. Maybe it’s when a game doesn’t. Regardless of the circumstances, players have been conditioned to believe that vehement personal attacks are the right way to communicate with developers. We see this every day.

A smaller proportion, but still a real number, would agree with the statement “There are times when it’s reasonable to threaten a developers life,” and there’s enough players out there to make that a substantial number of people.

An even smaller proportion, but still enough to do damage, would agree that there’s times when you should dox a creator, and try and find their family.

As long as some of your audience thinks that abuse is sometimes justified we end up with the situation we have now, where every single developer with a decent sized audience also receives a helping portion of daily abuse and threats.

I think the central question every developer, especially indies who are at the coal face when it comes to receiving this feedback, is “Why would you make games, if this is the result?”

The answer to that is ultimately, we don’t make games for those people. We make them for the rest. Even so, it’s getting harder and harder to stomach that the price for making a game is an unending wave of abuse, day in, day out, for the rest of your professional life.

For the record, I’m not suggesting online abuse has just started to become an issue in the last year. What I’m drawing attention to here is the normalisation of online abuse — both from the perspective of content creators and from the point of view of the audience. It is now, for a significant part of our audience, the way in which they communicate with creators.

There are those who’d say (rightly) that some level of abuse has always been a part of having a public presence, but it’s clear things have got worse over the last couple of years. I don’t think it’s possible to easily identify a single specific cause, although there’s a clear point where the dam burst.

Over time, big studio development has lost the trust of its audience, in some cases for good reasons. The gap between what was going on behind the scenes and what was presented by the PR people at the front became more and more obvious. The response to that (and the rise of alternatives to the mainstream games media) was a lot of people “Telling it like it is,” on YouTube and elsewhere. Jim Sterling, Angry Joe, any number of people who shout a lot about the injustices of the industry.

If you look at any of those YouTubers and sort their videos by popularity, you’ll find out what they already know. Shouting is popular. Videos with titles like ‘Shittiest games 2016' and ‘Why it is moral to pirate everything Nintendo makes’ rate a whole lot better than nuanced and insightful reviews.

That tone has since become the default tone to talk about game development and to game developers— shouting, and angry. It’s the same tone the audience is picking up on and using to speak directly to developers.

In addition to this, most spaces where customer support and feedback happens for videogames are essentially unmoderated. The days of running your own forums for your game as the primary connection point are long gone. Between Twitter and Steam the vast majority of players receive absolutely zero consequences for framing their issues in a torrent of abuse.

The fact that the bulk of the discourse takes place in unmoderated spaces has shaped that discourse. We actually do moderate the Steam forums for our games, and people are always shocked when they get banned for heaping abuse on other forum members (the only thing we regularly ban for).

The tone of those angry videos and comment sections has slid in everywhere around games discourse now. It’s part of the way people talk about videogames. You don’t ask a developer if they can implement a feature you’d like to see, you scream at them for being too lazy to put it in in the first place. You don’t explain how the game balance doesn’t work for you, you tell the developer they’re a brain-addled idiot for getting it wrong. You don’t vote with your wallet and buy games that include the features you like, you make death threats and hurl abuse against the people who make the games you dislike.

All of this is hardest on indies for two reasons. Firstly, because they are generally at the coal face of their games. They don’t have a marketing person standing between the hostile feedback and their work — it all comes in direct and unfiltered. Secondly most indies don’t make mass market games that appeal to the broadest cross section of players, and that include every feature under the sun. A lot of hostility on forums especially comes from people who are essential saying (with rage and vitriol) “This game isn’t for me.” That should be a fine thing, especially in today’s era of games. If a game is not for you, there are SO MANY games out there that you should be able to find something that appeals.

For a certain type of gamer, however, that’s not enough. Vitriol has become a necessary part of the equation. They see developers as the enemy, and abuse as the only tool to keep them in line.

Not only does this not work, but in the long term it renders indie dev too hostile a space to have any chance of attracting the best possible talent. Would you sign up for a job where you get screamed at all day, every day? Why would you go through that, when there are a million other fields where that doesn’t happen?

Every developer I’ve spoken to agrees that the discourse has changed — and it still changing. If we don’t do more to make sure that change is in a positive direction we’ll find more and more developers asking themselves the question :

Is it worth the cost of doing business? And what will happen when the best established developers and most talented up-and-comers decide that it’s not?