In my long, long history of writing for video game websites – something close to 10, 11 years now – I’ve had the opportunity to see this culture at its best and at its worst. If we were being generous, and for the sake of this article I will be, I would say that the good does, ultimately, outweigh the bad. There’s only been one gamergate, for example, but we routinely raise millions of dollars for charity every couple months through Games Done Quick. The rise of swatting is troubling, for sure, but people becoming active consumers and standing up against toxicity both within and outside the industry is encouraging. We make rape threats daily, but have also progressed scientific thought and progress through gamification and group studies. And while last week I was feeling particularly melancholy, I have to admit that the pockets of hate that this culture has long fostered are, in fact, growing smaller.
And that’s good.
But that’s not to say the hate that so often forms the backbone of our community has vanished: it’s more that it’s been redirected. We’ve stopped hating on booth babes and lady twitch streamers (I don’t think there’s been a ‘real’ discussion about ‘fake gamer girls’ in a long time) to hate on publishers and developers. Generally, this is better: generally it’s fun watching companies squirm (however insincere they might be, looking at you EA), and in the best-case scenario, such as in Ubisoft’s case, it can lead to genuine improvement. I would never go so far as to call them “good”, but they’re certainly much “better”. They even tackled the issue of politics in a Kotaku interview. That was nice.
But there’s always a dark side. Or at least, a grey area where it can be hard to tell what’s okay and what’s not.
Case in point: attacking individual developers, or really small studios, with vitriol and hate is always a bad thing. While I do agree the Ooblets people were being jerks, for example, nothing they said or did in that case warranted the level of verbal violence they ultimately received. Don’t fake stuff to make someone look anti-sematic. Don’t say the woman should be raped. Don’t make death threats. This is pretty common, easy-to-grasp stuff, people, I shouldn’t have to be the one to tell you all this.
On the other hand, I’m of the opinion that another commonly-cited case of gamer entitlement, the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy, was not “over the line” or “too much”. Namely, because the outrage stemmed from the fact that people were passionate about the game, genuinely cared about it and how it ended, and their idea of protesting was ultimately fairly harmless and kind of cute. Like the cupcake thing. I think giving them three different colored cupcakes with the same flavor was a little stroke of genius.
Plus, I’m of the unpopular belief that the minute you share your work with the world, you forfeit some level of control over it. So it’s not “entitled” for fans to want a better ending. But that’s a different conversation for a different day.
Now, you might recall that last weekend, we had another incident of gamer rage, specifically the kind that so often pops up around how a game chooses to monetize. The game in question was EA’s very own Apex Legends, and the issue regarded how you had to spend a considerable amount of money on in-game loot boxes before you even had the chance to get some of the game’s first good skins and cosmetics, which could put you hundreds in the hole. This kind of outrage tends to be warranted, and Respawn, as the developer, quickly issued an apology saying they were sorry and they would do better.
This is where things get messy. Because people were still angry.
Normally, I think that would be fine and justified. EA does, in fact, have a long and terrible history of apologizing but making no changes. They’re the people who are trying to fight European laws to keep loot boxes in their game, for god’s sake. They’re the epitome of “greed in the games industry” and generally they’re not a lot of fun. So it would normally be encouraging that people didn’t swallow the usual lies and kept up their demands for change.
But – and this is a big but here – it wasn’t EA making these statements. It was Respawn. And Respawn actually does have a history of being good for their word… or at least, better for their word than EA ever was. You might recall that there was a similar outrage surrounding the very first Season Pass in the game, and when Respawn promised they’d do better, they actually did deliver. Season 2’s season pass is a significant improvement, and generally people were really happy about it… until recent events, anyway.
It’s also worth remembering that Respawn is one of the few developers out there committed to treating their own employees well, and refusing to force them to work crunch to try to match the break-neck and break-spirit pace of Epic Games and Fortnite. And while that’s not strictly relevant to the conversation at hand, it is a character-defining moment for the studio, and one of the many ways they’re different from the company that owns them, EA.
All that remembered, I still don’t ultimately think anyone had crossed the line by criticizing the apology and the way the Iron Crown event (that’s what was going on, by the way) was being run. To the best of my knowledge, no names were dropped, no threats were issued, no one crossed the usual lines to make their anger or rage entirely unreasonable.
But here’s what I ultimately wanted this article to be about: does that mean it was unreasonable for Respawn to get angry back?
There was a funny, unintentional irony to the “open letter” that fans issued on reddit criticizing Respawn for their “immature” reaction to the criticism. It completely glossed over the fact that Respawn not only didn’t fire first, they were hardly the least mature party involved. Way more people said way nastier things before Respawn spoke up, and the implied message of the reddit post was “you guys didn’t follow the script, you’re supposed to just shut up and let us beat you up”.
Are they, though?
Because while I, personally, love to be the moderate and mature voice in a culture that seems obsessed with acting like an angry 14-year old, I also found something almost refreshing about Respawn’s response. It wasn’t like the Ooblets people, which was self-important and sarcastic and came from a position of power. It wasn’t like 4A Game’s response to the anti-Epic Games deal by making a stupid and cringe-worthy threat about not releasing games on the PC anymore. And it definitely wasn’t the bog-standard head-bowed apology or non-answer most developers give.
It was just a down-in-the-mud, at-your-level, childish insult. Talking crap in response to crap. They didn’t lord their power, they didn’t make it about culture or race or sex or anything else political or contentious. Someone called them a dick and one of their own decided that person was actually the dick and the world needed to know it.
I’m not saying it’s okay or right, of course. Just… refreshing. To see people’s expectations of a studio silently taking it’s beating and breaking it in the most immature and concise way imaginable. In some way it almost breaks down the customer-developer barrier, and it just became people being mean to people like in the good ol’ days.
I’m in no way saying that it should be forgiven, either. Or that this should be normal. I’m also not suggesting that If this offended you, you shouldn’t feel free to boycott the game or refuse to buy another loot box or anything like that. Empower yourself with your money. Listen to your heart. All that stuff. But for some reason – maybe it’s all that bitterness I’ve built up over the years, as I alluded to at the start of this article, or maybe it’s the fact that the fans plain and simple started it this time – I’m just not that bothered by it right now.
There’s lots and lots of stuff to be mad at developers for. Hell, there’s lots and lots to be mad at EA for, and Respawn in particular. But this? This feels like the most human slip I’ve seen in a long, long time. So I’m kind of just willing to let it go.
In any case, Vince Zampella, CEO of Respawn, eventually did do what everyone sort of figured he’d do and apologized for the insults while saying that they will still stand up to toxicity and death threats… just, more appropriately in the future. It’s not a surprising or even a sad resolution, but it is almost disappointing: after all, it means we’re back on schedule, back on script, and the surprises are over.
For now, at least.