By Ho Qingxiang
“A developer makes a quick game with store bought assets and attempts to sell it. The game gets picked up by a critic and is reviewed very negatively. The developer rebukes the critic and seeks to silence critique. A vicious cycle of name-calling, defensive denial and feigned ignorance leads to more controversy.”
Throughout the past 5 years from the moment of this writing, this scenario has become increasingly common in the gaming industry with the rise of indie development that comes with readily-available game engines and creation software. While a lot can be said about the increase in cookie-cutter games and the lack of quality control from developers and distributors, there is an underlying dynamic relationship that demands a renewed look.
The animosity between creators and critics has existed for a long time. While creators pour their hearts and souls into their craft, critics analyze the products with scrutiny and hammer down their judgment. As reflected in Pixar’s “Ratatouille”, a critic’s job can be seen as easy because the reviewer can enjoy a position of power above those who offer their hard work to criticism while risking little. Yet, the times have changed with the emergence of the indie industry. In the past, the roles of creator and critic were reserved for a selective few, usually the elites and the educated. Nowadays, anyone can seek to be a creator or a critic. With the rise of Youtube, Steam and Unity amongst the many advances of the internet age, it has become easier to put oneself on the starting line for that ambition.
This has greatly affected the performance of the two roles and how they interact with the world and each other.
Perception of Craft
Traditionally, it takes many years of training before a developer is ready to present their craft to critics. However, the curse of convenience has bred a mentality of shortcuts for anything, including the need to master one’s craft. The recent wave of mediocre games is comparable to the shovel-ware that caused the collapse of the Atari 2600. While it is unlikely that this would lead to another industry crash similar to the one in 1983, it is worth discussing the repeat of history. Many people assume that the convenience and automation afforded by technology would make it easier to create successful products. Most inexperienced developers fail to realize that while the barrier for entry is lower, the barrier for recognition is higher. The complacency has resulted in developers who overvalue their worth by a huge margin. There are many who misinterpret the use of tracing, copying and the use of ready-made assets. This in turn drove critics to be extremely skeptical and demanding of developers.
A good example of this scenario is in the lawsuit between James Stanton aka Jim Sterling, who is a Youtube critic and Steam curator, and James Romine, who is an indie developer and owner of Digital Homicide. In most parts, it is the classic story of a creator taking offense at a critic’s review and lashing out at the negativity. However, the scale of disillusionment for fame and greatness is blatantly displayed when Romine tried to defend his products, which can be objectively measured to be defective, as being labors of hard work and passion. He saw his products as decently-made masterpieces that were catered to a specific audience and thus did not deserve the harsh criticism they received. The developer took steps to the extreme when he launched a lawsuit against Jim Sterling and Steam in the self-righteous belief that he was a victim of harassment and an evil conspiracy. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed with prejudice, but not before Digital Homicide was removed from Steam and Romine had inevitably destroyed his company.
The summary of the case can be seen at:
Perception of Criticism
Similar to developers, critics conventionally require years of experience to refine their tastes and observation skills. When developers hand over their game products to reviewers, an unwritten agreement of fairness and wisdom is expected. However, the popularity of crowd-sourced reviews like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes has shown a departure from well-thought analysis towards spontaneous reactions of impressions. With the rise in people proclaiming to be critics, criticism is slowly becoming a product of entertainment, with critics evaluating other critics. As content creators, these critics face the same trials of learning to develop a viable product. They have a responsibility to their audience and have to contend against competitors to get their products noticed. This has resulted in a surge of brutal commentary since negative criticism is exhilarating to make and interesting to observe.
At the same time, there is a demand for critic personas on platforms like Youtube. Personalities in the manner of Total Biscuit, Yahtzee, and Angry Joe have a frenetic fan-base that desires the amusing gratification of critique rather than the assessment of the game product. When celebrity critics do not deliver the content that their audience expects, they stand to lose their source of income. Hence many critics stick to their harsh criticism to maintain the status quo. This has further implications when the impact of their words gains unintended action. Over-zealous fans can take the opinions of critics too far and enact coordinated attempts of persecution against strangers. While critics cannot be expected to control the actions of their audience, it cannot be denied that they share some of the responsibility. As a consequence, many developers, especially those in the indie industry, have a strong distrust for critics. They often accuse criticism as being click-bait tactics and unfair provocation. They insist that the critique videos made by such critics are lazy, easy-to-make rip-offs that have little creative value. To finalize their argument, they dare the critics to make a game to justify any negative claims.
Another thing that has recently been highlighted is the censorship of criticism from developers. In the past, it is common for critics to censor creators, but the reverse is becoming more prominent. Furthermore, censorship is becoming progressively vindictive. In reaction to negativity of their products, developers have used their administrative rights on distribution sites to remove all negative comments as a defense against toxic behavior. Some have even resorted to abuse the legal system and claim copyright infringement against critics. Offended developers commonly refer to critics as parasites who feed off the hard work of ‘real’ creators. This is in part because many critics currently are also content creators who rely on the products of others to generate their own content. This is best illustrated in the #WTFU movement made popular by Doug Walker aka The Nostalgia Critic. Ironically, in trying to censor the products of these critics, these vengeful developers are potentially destroying the livelihood of these people while maintaining the belief that these critics are actively destroying developers.
You can learn more about the #WTFU movement here:
An example that is related to the game industry is the dispute between SidAlpha, who is another games critic on Youtube, and Dentola Studios, a developer who was under suspicion of unethical development practices. In this case, the developer was accused of “asset-flipping” which is the practice of purchasing a revenue-generating game asset and quickly reselling it for profit. In response, Dentola Studios aggressively censored any negative comments about its products. The developer then went as far as to issue a DMCA strike against SidAlpha’s coverage of the issue. To summarize, the DMCA strike is largely a ‘guilty until proven innocence’ system that is easily abused on Youtube with its biased rules. It is a shame that a system meant to protect creators is being weaponized against legitimate people by immature developers to prevent informed opinions from being shared. The responsibility of the developer is to filter and not censor which comments will help them improve. Yet, this common sense is lost in a growing group of indie developers who view themselves as above reproach. In a weird twisted way, the critic has become the entity judged by the developer rather than the other way around.
The summary of the DMCA case can be seen at:
The ease of accessibility has created a boon in the indie game industry. Steam Spy has reported that 40% of Steam’s entire game library catalogue came from 2016. However, how many of those games were made out of passion and respect? And how have critics reacted to such an influx of mediocre games? The battle between developers and critics may have changed with the times, but it is important to note that certain concepts will continue to remain needed regardless the advances that technology takes.
Developers have to learn from past mistakes to make better products and focus their efforts on self-improvement. They need to understand that high expectations are usually tied to an investment for success and not failure. While the brutality of certain comments lacks what many perceive to be encouragement, many of them direct attention to certain details that the developers may have neglected. Criticism should not be seen as a hindrance to their growth but markers towards mastery. Similarly, critics must understand that the purpose of criticism is not to destroy but to point towards the potential of something and to encourage its construction. They have to be honest and admit that the negativity with which they attack a product with is probably worth less than the actual product they are criticizing. They need to take risks in defending the new and the unpopular when their integrity comes into question, instead of bending to the whims of their audience or patrons.
Love it or hate it, technology will continue to bring greater conveniences to our lives. Whether we aspire to be developers or critics, it is important to not rely on the ease of the “how”, but to understand the intent behind the “why”. Why is ethical game development worthwhile? Why does criticism exist? It would be the awareness of such fundamentals that will ensure the industry advances with the times and not meet an apocalyptic end.