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2 June 2016

The delay of No Man’s Sky, a scorned Kotaku journalist, and the paranoia of gamers-in-waiting

Online abuse coupled with the videogame industry’s intense focus on pre-release hype has nurtured a bizarrely tribal fandom, dedicated to games they've never played.

By Phil Hartup

When a highly anticipated videogame gets delayed a bit of rancour is expected, but lately things have been getting weird. Getting weird is perhaps unfair as many aspects of nerd culture are already weird. Suffice it to say that something that was already weird put on a power ballad mixtape, spent two weeks learning absurdity from a wise old maintenance man, then went to the regional ridiculousness finals and bagged the silliest trophy in the room.

This new high watermark for strange fan behaviour began when ran an article regarding the possibility that the game No Man’s Sky would be delayed. Some fans, by no means a majority but a number greater than one (which in itself is a surprise), responded to this news with vitriol directed to the author of the article and even threats via email and social media. The outrage seemed to be based in the idea that the author had lied, inventing a story to get attention.

A few days later the games developers confirmed that, yes, the game was delayed. The story was true and the release date had been pushed back. The response to this was even more baffling, where furious fans had first raged at a journalist for, as they believed, inventing a story about a delay, they switched their focus from the writer to the developers of the game and poured abuse on them instead.

To unpack this mess we need to understand a few things about online abuse, the videogame industry and the sort of fandom it nurtures.

When dealing with the internet it is imperative to remember that this is an environment crawling with gobshites. There are legions of vocal idiots whose entire existence within the digital sphere consists of misunderstanding the world around them and lashing out against it. You’re going to find such people almost anywhere, regardless of politics, regardless of subject matter. When a story creates ripples it draws more such people to it like piranhas, bringing teeth and fury but no understanding or genuine interest in what’s going on.

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However, to attract the attention of the furious moron shoal there has to be an initial ruckus of sufficient size, and here is where we run into the problems largely specific to videogame fandom, and No Man’s Sky is a great example.

No Man’s Sky has websites, message boards, let’s play videos and all the accoutrements of a modern popular videogame. It has all of these things but, at the time of writing this, it still has not been released.

We live in a world where a videogame can create a thriving community of fans before any of them actually get to play it. This approach has become standard to the point that it is seldom questioned but a cart-before-horse situation of this kind cannot help but lead to problems.

This is not the fault of the developers of No Man’s Sky, of course. Games developers develop games; they don’t do the marketing. The people who make videogames are my heroes; the people who market them are very much not. Games are rarely marketed these days based upon what they are; they are marketed upon what they might be.

The bulk of a marketing budget is spent before the game is available to play to drive pre-orders, suggesting a business that doesn’t believe their products will necessarily hold up to player scrutiny.

There is something inherently dishonest about marketing games in this way because up until very close to release you’re selling something that does not yet exist. Graphics are not fixed, features might change, and critically nobody knows if the whole thing is any good or not.

The emphasis is always on the upcoming game, building the hype, feeding the fans, bagging those tasty pre-orders with the extra content, then the game comes out and, well. Maybe it’s great. Maybe it’s Spore. In an ideal world maybe the sales push would be alongside the release of the game and the following few months, buoyed by support from fans and critics.

Instead, too often we see games built up to an absurd degree before being launched amid a fanfare and forgotten in a week, because even a good game won’t be the SuperDreamPerfectGame that we were promised and disappointment becomes inevitable.

The fan communities that spring up for unreleased games are also very strange beasts. Imagine the line outside a cinema when a new Star Wars movie comes out. The big fans are all there, they’ve got their costumes, they’ve bought all the merchandise, it might be raining, it might be cold, but they are there on the pavement for hours before the doors open. In the online sphere, for a videogame, that funny little line of super fans can have been formed for years. It is less a line, more a shanty town.

This needn’t be a bad thing but it can be a source of problems. Firstly, as illustrated with the No Man’s Sky delay story, instead of a myriad individual disappointed fans all over the place when the story of the delay broke, the writer of the story and later the developers of the game were dealing with a readymade mob on tenterhooks for news, who were perfectly happy to pick up pitchforks and flaming torches. In fan communities, paranoia and rumours can run wild. There will always be wiser heads and voices of reason, but the lion’s share of the attention will go to the gobshites.

A final oddity of these fan communities is how hostile they can become when the game finally drops. Recent examples of this have been seen where reviewers of games have been the targets for abuse because they have given scores to games below those that the expectant fan communities have deemed worthy.

Uncharted fans raged at publications that saw fit to dip below a ten for the fourth instalment of the series and even nominally sensible strategy game fans flipped over IGN awarding Stellaris a lower-than-average score.

For things to improve in videogame culture and nerd culture generally there needs to be de-escalation. The marketing people need to stop teasing and taunting their target audiences so ruthlessly and the audiences need to work on building up immunity to these shenanigans. Ideally we could all come together in an atmosphere of guarded optimism where nobody is getting deceived and nobody is getting threatened.

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