Titanfall, aka Call of Duty with robots. Image: Respawn Entertainment
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Yes, gamers are angry, but why wouldn’t they be when the games industry hates them?

Gone are the days when you just bought a game and then played it. With the pre-orders, rushed productions and all the patches, the relationship between producers and customers is becoming ever more adversarial.  

With autumn looming, bringing with it many promised new video game releases, it is clear that a newly minted tradition of the last few years is about to play itself out again. The tradition goes something like this. Games are released, most of them are critically praised while disappointing audiences, and the complaints of the gamers themselves are dismissed as them being “entitled”.

The supposedly entitled gamer is a relatively modern phenomena born in a large part out of an increased capacity for disgruntled players to make their voices heard over social media. Gamers got angry back in the day as well, but the options to express the rage were more limited and more importantly gamers back then didn’t have nearly so much to be angry about.

What lies at the heart of the modern gamer’s agitation and sense of entitlement isn’t just that gamers today are worse than they were before. This is evidenced by the existence of many big and cuddly game communities, like those attached to Dwarf Fortress, Skyrim, or Kerbal Space Program and the plenty of other games with friendly fan bases. The gamers haven’t changed at all, but what has changed is the games industry, particularly the big producers.

There was a time and it wasn’t very long ago when you bought a game, and you’d play it, and you might buy expansions for that game, what we now often call downloadable content (DLC), but that was that for that one game. I can remember buying expansions for games as far back as Laser Squad on the Spectrum and it’s never been an unwelcome practice to give the players more of what they want. Equally it wasn’t so long ago that in order to be assured of getting a copy of a game as soon as it was released you might pre-order it, because then you wouldn’t have to wait for new stock.

Those times are gone now of course. Pre-orders are now a chance to coax players into ordering games before they face brutal vivisection under audience scrutiny. Discounts, exclusive content offers, early access to beta versions of the game, what used to just be a guarantee that you’d get your game on time is becoming a sophisticated gambit to get the customer to cave in to marketing and open their wallet on blind faith. The extra content for pre-orders was traditionally a trifling addition, maybe a cosmetic change to the character or a bit of a leg up in the game, but we’re now seeing games like Alien: Isolation offering first dibs on what you’d think would have to be a pretty substantial part of the game. Other games offer items that affect the balance of the game, or provide an advantage in multiplayer competition.

It should be obvious that this is a dodgy practice that people shouldn’t embrace, and yet it is continuing to happen. Games are marketed very hard with budgets for marketing often comparable to the budget for producing the game itself. Tens of millions of dollars earmarked for adverts, press junkets, favourable coverage from Youtube channels and so on. Plus, as we’ve seen with games like Watch_Dogs and Aliens: Colonial Marines among others, players are often being sold on highly polished tech demos that do not reflect the final game.

When a game hits the stores and players get their hands on it, the results can be vicious, and sometimes deservedly so. Very few games manage to hide their badness from their intended audience. Games like Dragon Age 2 can impress reviewers working to tight deadlines, but not always the players. Although there is something faintly ironic about a player spending forty hours glued to a game only declare at the end of it that he has not been entertained.

Pre-orders are a fishy element of business, but they lead to another problematic aspect of the games industry these days which is games that just do not work when you get them. This was a problem for SimCity and Battlefield 4, which were both plagued with huge technical problems at launch, as was Total War: Rome 2 and Watch_Dogs. The ubiquitous nature of the internet has meant that games can be patched, which is great, it means you can fix a game that is buggy at release, but the flipside of this is that developers can now release buggy games knowing that a lot of the problems can be fixed with patches later on. Releases that should be delayed press on regardless while the developers working on the game, usually now deep into the brutal crunch phase of development are made to carry the can for these failures and work even longer after release to bodge together fixes.

So between pre-orders and rushed productions the average gamer is being tempted to fork out top dollar for brand new games that may not have seen much, if any, real critical scrutiny, and which will probably need a patch to work as fully intended. What we end up with is in some ways more of an adversarial relationship than friendly business practices between many producers and their customers.

The game publisher seeks to present the game in the best possible light, regardless of its final quality for obvious reasons, rather than just release the game and let it sell itself through videos and word of mouth, which is vastly more powerful than it used to be. More than ever before we’re seeing the games that deserve attention and that deserve to be played getting that attention, from the likes of Day Z and Dark Souls to League of Legends and Minecraft the good games get found, it just takes a little while. The big publishers don’t have time for that though, they’ll sell most of their copies in the first month.

The elephant in the room though and the reason that the big titles, the AAA releases as they are called, have to push for those early sales is that most of them, well, they just aren’t that impressive any more. A generation of consoles that hung around arguably far too long, followed by a new generation of consoles that sits four or five years behind cutting edge hardware means that mainstream games that can genuinely offer something amazing and deliver on their overblown promises are increasingly uncommon.

That is not to say that games are getting worse, but their power to blow audiences away has been on the wane for years. When a games company promises the Next Big Thing™ and it turns out to be merely Assassin’s Creed with a cellphone or Call of Duty with robots, the inevitable disappointment breeds resentment and cynicism. That cynicism is what fuels the so called “entitled” behaviour.

The cure to all this is simple. If publishers and developers want a less hostile and seemingly less entitled audience, they need to stop treating the customers like marks in a short con. Gamers act like they are entitled to more because year after year they are promised more and year after year nothing really improves. Getting expectations closer into line with reality would be a very smart move for everybody involved.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Why do games do revolutionary politics so badly?

Too often, you know who the good guys and the bad guys are, but not why.

It is one of the ironies of videogames that they often embrace some of the most radically political situations in the most noncommittal ways possible. After all, just because a game features a violent revolution or a war, that doesn’t mean the developers want to be seen to take sides. The results of this can be unintentionally funny, creepy, or just leave you wondering if you should disconnect your brain before playing, as if the intended audiences are shop window mannequins and crash test dummies.

A recent example of a game falling over itself to be apolitical is Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, an open world game about stabbing people set in London around 1886. The game has you embarking on an extended campaign against a secret organisation which controls London, and by implied extension the British Empire as a whole. You fight against them by murdering assorted senior personnel (as well as hundreds of affiliated henchmen), sabotaging their various endeavours and generally unleashing all manner of mayhem against the group.

Why do we do this? Well, because we’re reliably informed that the people we are killing are members of the Templars or are working for them, which is apparently a group of Very Bad People, and not like the Assassins, who are much better, apparently. London under Templar control is bad, apparently, and under Assassin control we are told it will be better for everyone, though we never really find out why.

Your credentials for being on the side of righteousness seem to stem from the fact that when you meet famous historical figures like Charles Darwin or Florence Nightingale they seem to like you and let you help them out in various ways (usually but not exclusively related to stabbing people). The rationale presumably being that since Charles Darwin is a great man slashing throats at his behest reflects well on our heroes.

Even in these interactions however the game is painfully noncommittal, for example your characters in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate will happily to kill police officers for Karl Marx, but they don’t actually join the Worker’s Party, because heaven help us if it turned out that either of our heroes did anything that might suggest an underlying ideology.

It feels very much that when a developer is so timid in attaching defining ideological or political qualities to the characters or groups in the game then Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is what you end up with. There is no sense that your characters stand for anything, at least not intentionally. Instead your hero or heroine wanders around a genuinely beautiful rendition of Victorian London trying their absolute level best to not offend the sensibilities of anybody (while stabbing people).

By contrast something like Saints Row 3 handles this sort of system altogether better. Saints Row 3 works along a set of almost identical mechanics for how the struggle for control of the city plays out; do an activity, claim an area then watch your minions move in. However what Saints Row 3 does is cast you as an anti-hero. The design is self-aware enough to know that you can’t treat somebody as a regular hero if their most common form of interaction with other people is to kill them in cold blood. Your character is motivated by revenge and by greed, which is probably terrible karma but at least it gives you a sense of your characters purpose.

Another approach is to have the antagonists of the story carry the political weight and let the motivations of the heroes become ennobled by the contrast. The best example of this is a game called The Saboteur. By setting the game in occupied Paris during World War Two, ensuring that everybody you kill is a Nazi or Nazi collaborator, everything is good clean fun. We know that Nazis are bad and the game doesn’t need to go to great lengths to explain why, it’s accepted ideological shorthand. Another example of this is Blazkowicz, the hero in the Wolfenstein games; here the character is not engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering people, he is engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering Nazis.

When it comes to games set in World War Two it is still possible to mess things up when trying to be even handed. For example Company of Heroes 2, a strategy game set on the Russian Front, takes such pains to remind us of the ruthlessness of the Soviets that it ends up accidentally making the fascists look like the heroes. The trick would seem to be when approaching a historical situation with a clear villain then you don’t need to be even handed. It’s a videogame where tanks have health bars after all, not a history book.

Of course it can be argued that none of this ideological and political emptiness in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate makes it any less fun, and to a point this is true. The mechanical elements of the game are not affected by the motivations of the character but the connection between player and character is. As such the motivation to keep playing over hours and hours of repetitive activities suffers badly. This is a problem that past Assassin’s Creed games have not been too troubled by, for instance in Black Flag, the hero was a pirate and his ideology based around the consumption of rum, accumulation of doubloons and shooting cannonballs at the Spanish navy made complete sense.

If a game is going to base itself around important events in the lives of its characters it has to make those characters stand for something. It may not be something every player or potential player agrees with, but it’s certainly more entertaining than watching somebody sit on a fence (and stab people).

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture