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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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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