It’s a tradition now at GamesBeat to try to look back and sum up the year as a single defining trend. This started out as a fun exercise to spot similar elements across multiple games — like the year of the bow in 2012. More recently, however, this trend is shifting to reflect the wider culture of gaming. We named 2016 the year of the loot box. And 2017 was the year of gamer-rage opportunists.
Now, it’s time to figure out 2018, and a lot of trends are worthy of consideration here. Developer unionization is picking up momentum. Affordable cloud infrastructure is making it more viable for big companies to leave or challenge Steam. Fortnite — you could definitely argue it was the year of Fortnite. But while those are all important, ongoing stories that are changing the industry, we went with a continuation of last year’s trend instead.
You can listen to us pick our trend in the video above or listen to it as part of our podcast below:
2018 was the year of outraged fans using their power
The reason 2017 was the year of the gamer-rage opportunists is because that’s when the business of making money from angering gaming fans came into its own. In the perverse entertainment industry on YouTube, creators capitalized on YouTube’s algorithm rewarding popularity. And creating content that gives gamers a reason to get mad at publishers, feminists, and SJWs is a reliable way to earn that popularity.
This has led to a large group of creators on YouTube jumping from one controversy to the next. If they find a topic that reliably gets views, they stick with it until their audience grows old. Then, they move on to the next one. If the next controversy doesn’t exist, YouTube creators manufacture one.
You can find dozens of videos trying (successfully) to bait gamers into believing that a class of media elites called the excellent platformer Cuphead racist. And in August, many of the same creators attempted to convince people that SJWs were freaking out about jokes in Doom Eternal. In both of those cases, the controversies that the YouTube creators were reacting to did not exist. A couple of people talked about Cuphead’s art having an origin in racist cartoons. For Doom Eternal, all it took was one or two tweets that no one would have noticed until the opportunists jumped on it to fuel their business of outrage.
And if 2017 was the year that gamer-rage opportunists grew into a mature business, then 2018 was the year that gamers realized how to wield their outrage as a tool to get what they want.
The mob is at the door
Last year, Star Wars: Battlefront II was going to launch with some pay-to-win microtransactions in the form of loot boxes. The fan reaction to this was so loud and so hot that it drew the attention of government regulators around the world. And more importantly than government regulators, it drew the attention of Star Wars brand owner The Walt Disney Company. In response, Electronic Arts made a last-minute decision to pull all loot boxes from Battlefront II.
This was a win for gaming fans. They worked collectively to force a massive corporation to change an unpopular business practice, and it worked. But every fan community realized that if they can get loud enough to scare Disney, they can get loud enough to scare anyone. And since then, we’ve seen that scenario play out again and again.
Sometimes, that outrage works to change things for the better. Bethesda sold a $200 collector’s edition of Fallout 76 without telling customers it was switching the canvas bag in the ad with a cheap nylon replacement. Fans shouted about that, and Bethesda caved in and is now in the process of getting canvas bags out to people.
The mob is indiscriminate
But for these gaming mobs, the point isn’t to ensure that the guy spending $200 on Fallout 76 gets the right bag. As with the YouTube opportunists, the outrage is the point. These mobs are outraged first, and then, they look for reasons to justify that outrage.
Diablo Immortal is one of the best example of this. At BlizzCon in November, Blizzard announced Diablo Immortal as its next mobile game. This upset fans of the series who wanted more news about a PC sequel or a remaster of an earlier PC game. But in the wake of that disappointment, the Diablo fandom manufactured multiple false justifications for their outrage.
Fans first claimed that Blizzard wasn’t involved in making the game, but it is. Then, some people claimed that it is a reskin of a Chinese Diablo clone, but it isn’t. I talked about that in this story where I point out that it does look similar to loot games from developer Netease. But those similarities come down to Netease aping Diablo’s style as well as Diablo Immortal using a similar on-screen button layout. Blizzard and Netease are using that button layout because they know it works.
The people in these mobs throw out justifications for why Diablo Immortal isn’t just disappointing, it is a scam. Or it is unethical. Or it’s a slap in the face to real fans. One person with a small following on Reddit could make a post like “this game looks like a reskin.” And the mob will take that idea, strip it of its nuance, and amplify it.
It’s almost like the people who make up these mobs realize that they are overreacting. That if they are just freaking out because they don’t want a product a company announced, that is kind of embarrassing. But the mob senses that doubt, and it is capable of throwing out endless ad hoc theories for why their anger is righteous.
So how is that different than one or two people with a few followers calling out the jokes in the Doom Eternal trailer? Well, those people weren’t part of a mob. Those views weren’t amplified by people looking to be outraged by Doom Eternal. In fact, those tweets only found a wider audience when YouTube reactionaries used them to fuel their own mobs.
And that’s the point here. You can say whatever you want about a game. You can call Doom Eternal “problematic,” and you can call Diablo Immortal a “reskin.” That isn’t the issue. What I’m trying to emphasize here is that gaming fans need to recognize what happens to those throwaway half-baked criticisms when they happen inside of a mob.
The mob is dangerous
But who cares? People get mad at businesses and the people at those companies all the time. Is this really any different than an annoying group of vegans demanding that Five Guys Burger and Fries serve a non-meat option?
I think it is different, and we’ve seen evidence of that throughout this past year. The gaming community has the power to frighten the executives at major corporations, and fans are finding out that those companies are often more than willing to sacrifice some of their workers to quench the mob’s thirst for punishment.
In July, Guild Wars developer ArenaNet fired two of its workers for not putting up with disrespectful fans. Then in September, Riot Games fired two employees for calling out fans who were upset about an official League of Legends event that excluded men.
What’s dangerous here is that people see that gaming mobs work. And people can also see how easy it is to get gamers angry (it’s even a good business). So, reactionaries are using this to go after low-level marginalized people at major corporations.
In the ArenaNet case, Guild Wars 2 narrative designer Jessica Price told someone on Twitter that she knows how to do her job. At worst, she was dismissive of someone who was dismissive of her abilities. I wouldn’t even qualify what she said as “rude.” But a mob formed to make ArenaNet punish her, and the developer decided that was a price it was willing to pay.
The mob is demoralizing
While the threat of a large crowd of angry gamers is real and immediate for many people in gaming, the effects could run deeper. Look at Marvel’s Spider-Man from Insomniac Games. The studio faced backlash for not including the Spider-Man suit from the Sam Raimi films in the game. That disappointment turned into fans accusing the studio of lying and ignoring the fans.
And then, Insomniac revealed that it was adding the Raimi Suit in the days just before Christmas. This was likely something that the studio worked on for a very long time. The design and approval process is something that can take months. You could probably find the suit listed among many others on a whiteboard in the studio’s office before the game came out.
But many people who made up the crowd of Insomniac harassers likely assumed that they made this happen. This group was never massive. They were just whining on Twitter, and yet they think that they were enable to enact change just like Battlefront II. And when I talk to people familiar with the studio, it’s clear that the Raimi-suit whining affected them. But worse than that is people assuming that they added the suit just because of the angry fans.
If you worked at Insomniac, you could imagine how this would make you feel. You worked for months to make this thing happen, and instead of getting credit for that labor, people assume you just did this to cave to fans.
Mobs have become so common that even when something probably wasn’t the result of fan outrage — and I don’t think the Raimi whiners were even a mob — people just assume that developers only do something because of loud fan pressure. This creates more incentive for people to repeat this outrage when they want something, and that’s demoralizing for the people working in games.
And hey, you can argue that this is part of the job. I don’t disagree. It is part of the job, but game developers are usually very talented. And there are industries that would gladly pay them well to work reasonable hours with zero risk of ever having to deal with fans hounding you on Twitter about a skin. This is something that developers think about a lot. They are even beginning to acknowledge it publicly.
Some, like Destiny director Luke Smith, are trying to recognize how they contributed to this “passion.”
I think it’s kind of reaping what we sow. Expectations of ongoing support or games as service or whatnot — they bring out passion.
Passion that may be rooted in something even more primal — confronting how we spend our time (arguably humans most precious resource).
— Luke Smith (@thislukesmith) December 20, 2018
But it’s possible that this defining trend is going to scare people away from making games. That’s only going to hurt ourselves in the end. And sure, we can say, “if it’s too hot, get out of the kitchen.” And many people are doing exactly that. I would argue that driving certain unwanted people out of the industry is the real point of many of these mobs. But I’m suggesting a possible alternative where gamers try to reflect and come to terms with the responsibility of the power that they hold when they act collective again the people who make games.
Updated December 31 at 2:45 p.m. with more links regarding the reaction to Diablo Immortal. Also fleshed out Diablo Immortal and Spider-Man reactions with more details.