What constitutes a “good” games company?
I think we all have a pretty good idea what constitutes a “bad” one: our news feed (and the news feed of others) is peppered with tales of abuse and neglect orchestrated by the hands of many of the most well-known industry leaders. Companies like EA, who champion “games as a service” and predatory monetization schemes, as well as quickly buying out, exploiting, and destroying promising studios. The internet will never forgive them for what they did to Star Wars (both the single-player game Visceral had been working on as well as Battlefront 2), and it will certainly never let it pass if they decide it’s time for Bioware to take a permanent dirt map. Konami, too, has often been the target of hatred, not only because of what they’ve done to their beloved IP (lookin’ at you, Castlevania and Metal Gear Solid), but also how they treat their employees: we all vividly remember their feud with Kojima, and how they worked overtime to ensure he got as little credit as possible for his work on Metal Gear Solid 5. We can all agree that no matter how you look at companies like these… they come off as pretty awful.
But good companies? That’s a trickier thing to peg down, because it seems that every time a company seems to go above and beyond, there’s some controversy, some issue, some flaw that drags them back into the mud. It’s almost as if the industry was composed of nothing but crabs, and the moment one tries to rise above the others yank them back down with their pincers.
The problem, of course, is that there’s so much gray area. A company often listed beside EA and Konami is Ubisoft, and that’s an easy connection to make. Ubisoft, too, champions “games as a service”, they make a lot of very bad decisions with their games, they have often a stupidly prohibitive amount of DRM on their PC ports, and it’s never unfair to accuse them of being lazy when it comes to design: particularly if you look at Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry.
But while all of that is true, it’s unfair to ignore all the good that they do. When they call a game a “service” they seem to really commit to it, and have gone to great pains to continue to deliver fresh content to their older games, such as Rainbow Six Siege, The Division, and For Honor, long after they’ve stopped being relevant on the market. They use loot boxes but they tend to be a bit more responsible with it than Warner Brothers and EA, and critically, by every account I’ve heard, they treat their employees very, very well. They also have a bit of social responsibility to them, often taking bold liberal stances (which I guess is a take-it-or-leave-it sort of thing) regarding diversity, and I still can’t get over how cool it is to have an education mode in Assassin’s Creed: Origins.
Compare that to a company often cited as a “good guy”, CD Projekt Red. Now, from the consumer side, these guys do everything right. They have brilliantly self-contained single-player games that are masterfully made and offer dozens upon dozens of hours of entertainment. They offer free content to their players for weeks after the launch of their games, and while they do offer paid expansions, they are right and proper expansions, adding countless more hours of lovingly-crafted game into an already jam-packed experience. There are few people who would call them bad developers.
…but there are some. Specifically, former employees. Late last year there was a major controversy surrounding the company’s Glassdoor reviews, with former employees lambasting their ex-employers by calling them slave drivers who would ruthlessly push them into a state of near perpetual crunch. And let’s not forget that they weren’t above using doctored footage for marketing campaigns, which caused quite the stir when people realized that the still fine-looking game wasn’t quite as breathtaking as old E3 footage would suggest. They do right by their customers, to be sure: but they would be far from the perfect model of a “good” company.
A company often confused for “good” would be Nintendo. And it’s easy to see why, at a glance, they are pretty darn good. Their dogged dedication to innovation means they’re one of the few people in the industry who actually have the guts to try something new and exciting, either with a control scheme (motion controls and touchpads), an art style (Yoshi’s Wooly World), peripherals (Amiibo and cardboard cutout robots), or whole, entire consoles. They have a high bar of quality that means that everything they produce is at least good—even if it is overpriced. They have a fun-first focus of design that makes them a delight for gamers of all ages, and of course, they project themselves as game creators for everyone. Hardcore, casual, first-time player, Nintendo has something for you and it’ll be colorful and well made. Kind of like the Miyazaki of game design. And of course, they’re one of the best companies to work for, offering stability and advancement opportunities that most game employees crave: their former CEO even opting to take a pay cut rather than fire a single employee during the dark days of the Wii U.
But they’re also some of the most brutal mother 'effers you’ve probably ever seen. Their iron grip on their IP means that there’s no art, no youtube video, or fan creation that they won’t shoot down the second it enters their crosshairs. They have artificially and willfully incited scarcity of their products to bolster demand, and their customer service policy is “eff you, we got ours”: the minute you buy one of their products, there’s no mountain you can move that would get them to offer you even store credit as a refund. Nintendo is also one of the least responsive companies you’ve probably ever seen, and while many companies will acknowledge and even honor their players (and do some amazing things like gift special copies to people or import sick players into their favorite games), Nintendo, to the best of my knowledge, has never done that. It’s more likely your devotion to Nintendo will get you a lawsuit than a smile and a “thank you”, betraying their friendly facade as exactly that.
It’s always important to remember that a company’s bad actions don’t cancel out their good ones: EA will always be one of the first companies to stand up for equal gender and sexual rights, for example. But it’s equally important to remember that the good stuff doesn’t cancel out the bad either. Blizzard might be very customer-responsive and fairly generous with their games (StarCraft 1 and 2 are technically free), but it doesn’t change the fact they’ve done some needlessly cruel things, such as implement one of the most widely-used and corrosive loot box system and then say it’s “not at fault” for what became of the industry. Or, say, make Diablo 3 always-online as a form of DRM while saying it was really to facilitate the use of the real-money auction house, which was also a shameless and selfish cash grab on their end.
But the real question you might be asking, is why it’s important to make these distinctions. For some, if not many of you, the only quality that really matters for a game company is their ability to make fun, fair, and affordable games. In which case, you don’t really need to look harder than Obsidian and CD Projekt Red. But for those of you who are slightly more engaged with the industry and the medium, it’s important to know who we hold up as heroes and who we scorn as villains because if enough people do that, it becomes noticed by the industry. And considering the industry is one that has built its whole model around the idea of shamelessly copying itself at the earliest opportunity, well, being noticed matters a lot.
But like everyone else, the industry is far more likely to notice something it likes rather than something it doesn’t. Cosmetic loot boxes, microtransactions, everything that’s made gaming slowly worse over time, all of it had people who rallied against it in the early days. But there were always people who would support it, or even buy it. And If those people existed, it didn’t matter if they were one thousand or just one, the games industry would hold them up as the “majority” and continue to roll out with the next big violation confident in the fact that the “majority” would stay with them. And so far, unfortunately, that system works.
If this industry is ever going to make some positive changes both in the world and in itself, we need to better identify who we consider the good guys, the people who should lead by example. Once we have that, things can start to turn around, but in the meantime, it’s just gonna get worse and worse.
Because in some respect, every company is the bad guy.