Wednesday, October 24, 2012

#44: Standing By Your Work: Why Video Game Development Takes Guts

It cannot be disputed that gaming has grown to become a legitimate form of expression and speech. Over the years, it has acquired a legitimacy previously in dispute and constantly vied for by developers and publishers. Now that the Supreme Court of the United States has rendered its ruling on the matter and sided with us, the gamers, this is no longer a matter up for debate. Despite the fact that we have reached this point, it seems that developers can still be susceptible to the pressures and influences of the media and major news outlets. It is not the norm for developers, but it does happen often enough and gamers can get caught in the crossfire when it does. This week's article is dedicated to these instances and what is wrong with them. Instead of my usual format where I make a sweeping general statement and then support it with facts, I will do things in reverse. I will outline three different cases and then tie them together with my point in the end. Now, without further ado:

The first case will be talking about was somewhat controversial when it was announced: Six Days in Fallujah. Many of you many have heard of this game, developed by Atomic Games, a company that specializes in war games like the Close Combat and World At War series. The story behind the creation of this game is a very interesting one. One of the many divisions of Atomic Games was contracted to create a set of training tools of the Marine Corp of the United States. In order to do this, Marines from the Third Battalion, First Marines were assigned to them. In the midst of development, these Marines were deployed to the Battle of Fallujah. After returning to continue development, the Marines themselves requested that the developers make a game about their experiences during this conflict. From that request was born the desire to make a realistic and true-to-form tale of what the soldiers go through, based on actual testimony and experiences from returning US Marines, Military Officials, and other experts of combat in the modern age. While actual gameplay footage of Six Days of Fallujah, at least the footage I found, reveals very little about the game itself, Atomic describes it almost as survival horror game. Players were to assume the role of a company of soldiers in the Battle of Fallujah, going through the mission in a way that actual soldiers would go about it. This would entail constantly being on edge and being unable to predict what could come at the player next. The player would have gone up against tactics used by enemy insurgents and combatants in real world conflicts. It was to depict the physical and psychological toll that war takes on the people involved, similar in a sense to the more recent Spec Ops: The Line, although with an even stronger grounding in reality. This game was originally going to be published by Konami. However, on April 27, 2009, they backed down from the project when faced with pressure from media in the US. The outcry came mostly from the parents of soldiers who lost their lives in the conflict speaking out against it for fear that they would not treat the subject with respect. Because of all of this, the developer was left to fend for itself. Though the game has long since been finished, Atomic has yet to find someone willing to publish it. To this day, they have been reduced to a minimal crew of few people and are still trying to find someone to help them bring the game to the public.

Our next case was much luckier than Atomic, but it is still a very telling one. We are going to talk about the reemergence of the Medal of Honor series, now published by EA and developed by Danger Close Games. Before the days of Call of Duty's dominance, in the time of World War 2 shooters, Medal of Honor was one of the top dogs in the FPS genre. When it was going to be reawakened in 2010, people were naturally curious about the subject. However, one design decision in particular caused controversy. In the game's multiplayer mode, instead of making one side a generic, nameless terrorist organization, the game was going to mirror real life warfare by making them the Taliban. The problem arose from the fact that this meant that many players would inevitably play as the Taliban's forces against representations of soldiers from the United States and its allies. Faced with pressure from different groups, and with US military officials banning the sale of the game on their bases, Danger Close and EA folded, changing the name of the terrorist group in the game to the OpFor (Opposing Forces). Though the game did reasonably well, it was far from one of the top sellers. With the exception of the controversy surrounding it, there was nothing noteworthy about it and it quickly faded into obscurity until the sequel emerged.

This last case study differs greatly from the first two. Not only is this one not, strictly speaking, a war game, but it also did very well in many aspects. Nonetheless, it will follow the themes laid out in this article and needs to be discussed. One of my favorite games to discuss and criticize, this one will be an old hat to returning readers of my series: Mass Effect 3, published by EA and developed by Bioware. Now, given the circumstances behind the last two cases, I think all of you can guess what I will be discussing here. When Mass Effect 3 was released to the public earlier this year, it was highly praised for the most part. People were enjoying the final chapter of the franchise. Then, all of us reached the ending of the game. This caused people to... react... negatively. Rather than defend their work with logical, well thought out arguments, Bioware initially decided to hide behind the veil of something as obscure and meaningless as “artistic integrity.” Later on, they recanted their previous statements and released the Extended Cut version of the ending. This was not a change to the ending, but rather a revision of it. While this revision is generally a good one, combined with the response from Bioware to the response of the original ending, it called the developer's practices into question. After the issues people had with Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2, along with the Day 1, On-Disc DLC of Mass Effect 3, Bioware was on thin ice. The way they handled the ending of the franchise proper was not helping to smooth this over.

So what do these all have in common and what is this building up to? Well, it is pretty simple. While cases like these three are fairly rare, they do and will probably continue to happen, meaning they need to be called out now so that developers and publishers can learn from them. All of these games had controversy surrounding them and the developer and/or the publisher was responsible for mismanaging the controversy and doing for harm to the product and brand than they needed to. In the case of Six Days of Fallujah, Konami failed to address the naysayers and instead opted to sever ties with Atomic. They could have easily decided to stand by the game and addressed the critiques of the project. Going in, Konami had to have known that this kind of reaction was possible, they are not stupid. It would have been necessary to make a plan to address this. Since the developers seemed to have known what they were doing, it would have been easy. Spec Ops: The Line later proved that games can and should address the subject of war from an pessimistic and cynical point of view as opposed to the military bravado expressed in games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. They did not support the statement this game would have made and decided to abandon it, washing their hands of the whole affair.

In the case of Medal of Honor, gamers stood up for EA and Danger Close. We as a whole felt that it was okay for them to make the move to have the Taliban as part of the multiplayer mode. When they decided to cave into the pressure and change the Taliban to the OpFor, they lost any support that they had. Once they no longer stood behind their product and their decisions, gamers could no longer do so either. They had felt betrayed that they had stood up for EA and were then left in the dust. This brought negative attention and spite to the Medal of Honor brand that it could never truly recover from, even if the game itself was not as mediocre as it was. The US Military still refused to stock the game in stores on their bases well after the developers made the change, meaning that it was for naught. All that Medal of Honor left it its wake was bitterness, and its okay sales reflected that.

As for Mass Effect 3, like I said, Bioware initially did their best to respond to the criticisms and stand behind the ending they created. However, instead of using logical and sound arguments to support the ending like the themes it was supposed to represent, the obvious lack of resources and time, etc., they chose to use “artistic integrity,” a useless phrase that has no meaning. Then, they released the Extended Cut as a way to “clarify” the ending, changing a few scenes and ret-conning the destruction of the Mass Relays. Neither one of these reactions was good and both brought the wrong kind of press to Bioware's doors. By hiding behind “integrity,” Bioware opened itself to many criticisms and made itself look pretty weak all things considered. And then when they released the Extended Cut, they sent out another subtle message to their fans. By changing the ending, they show, perhaps unknowingly, that they did not fully endorse the product they were sending out initially. If this was indeed the case, then it should have never been released in the state it was in. Just like with the case of Medal of Honor, if Bioware cannot support the game they release, then how can they expect fans to do the same. One of two reactions could have helped to mitigate the damage. Bioware could have fervently and forcefully stood behind their ending. While, as a detractor of the ending, I would not have liked that reaction, I would have understood it, accepted it, and finally moved on after awhile had they supported it enough. The other possible reaction was to simply admit that they made a mistake. Telling the public that they took a risk and it did not pan out is not the most pleasant thing to do, but it would have reduced tensions. Gamers knew something was wrong with Mass Effect 3, they are not stupid. Saying that would lay many fears to rest, since the imagination can often times can be worse than the real thing.

The underlying moral behind all of these issues is that people involved were not willing to stand behind the work they did and caved in to pressure. In all of these cases, doing so led to a generally weaker position for each of these projects and negatively impacted them in some way. Let us all be honest here, making games is not a science: It is very much a creative endeavor. As such, it important to have courage when developing games. In much plainer language, if developers and publishers do not have the guts to stand behind what they make, then they have no business being in this industry and need to remove themselves before they grow bankrupt. Making safe bets and following the leader will not work here. It takes ambition, creativity, passion, and guts. Bowing to pressure is the biggest indicator that companies do not belong in the industry. This is something I feel strongly about, and I would hope you all do too.


Sebastian said...

You are the king, man, good job on this.

newdarkcloud said...

Thank you. I hope I continue to live up to the standards set for me.