In the second part of a new series, Northern Soul’s gamers consider the thorny issues besetting the video game industry. This month’s burning question … Are gaming forums a vital touchpoint between developer and community or the destructive mouthpiece of a vocal minority?
Chris Holmes, Gaming Editor
To get heavy for a second, I have no doubt that the rise of the internet has heralded a steady decline in the tolerance of imperfection. Of course, we now have social media outrage masquerading as liberalism, accompanied by a stubborn refusal to believe that there are shades of grey. Instead, the preference appears to be a pendulum-like swing back and forth over a chasm of black and white. With everything a click away. ‘I want it all and I want it now’ has become an ever louder online mantra.
Demos used to be throwaway experiences, designed to whet the appetite. Now, forum users spend hundreds of hours playing the latest FIFA/PES demo and posting their invariably overly-critical findings online – shouting them from their virtual soapboxes as gospel. This over analysis creates a snowball effect for other readers, whereby previously unperceivable faults with the game become noticeably irritating, creating a permanent sense of dissatisfaction. It’s not just football game forums that create this affliction either. Having dipped into the Fallout forums to get past a thorny problem when playing Fallout 3, I was gobsmacked by the sheer level of criticism being pointed at the game and retreated quickly to Wikipedia for my answer.
For the sake of balance, it should be highlighted that this is by no means a one-way street. Developers have increasingly used online gaming and forums to beta test their titles post-release, to the point where I now avoid purchasing any game on day one, or even month one, preferring to pick up the finished article after its fifth patch.
I believe it’s important that developers heed an eternal truth: those with a complaint will always shout the loudest.
From my perspective, gaming forums – grim reading though they sometimes are – serve a useful purpose for us, the consumers. Reasons for this mainly revolve around the marketing.
Basically, gaming is a high-risk industry. Creating even a small game is a huge investment of both time and money, and it’s often a complete gamble as to whether the public will respond (poor initial sales will sink a start-up company like a stone). It’s one of the reasons why initial sales are vital, so most video games today make it or break it on their marketing. It’s such a huge and time-consuming responsibility that sometimes the marketing is done by people who otherwise have very little to do with the actual game. Dead Island famously had a revolutionary viral trailer in the form of a short film that was haunting and terrifying and devastatingly sad. It was actually made by a completely different company, and turned out to have very little to do with the finished product. No Man’s Sky is another textbook, high-profile example which dramatically failed to live up to the ambitious game-play promises its developers made in interviews.
Gamers (like Chris and me) are getting wise to this, and many now wait for reviews rather than buy on release day. Some big publishers have responded by paying off the reviewers or embargoing their articles. Unethical, yes. Illegal – not technically. So, if you can’t trust the marketing and you can’t always trust the reviews, where else can you turn? You guessed it: the forums. And not all posts are made by people simply throwing their toys out of the pram.
It’s easy to forget that gamers are a huge demographic. Staggeringly massive. Contrary to what Hollywood – or certain broadsheets – might have you believe, it’s not just slackers and petulant teenagers who play games these days. Millions of adults do too; well-adjusted ones with jobs, families and lives – parents, managers and professionals. Like almost every adult, they’re people who have a lot of demands on their time and money, and they may well resent paying £50 for a new game and finding it to not be as advertised. What’s more, they can use forums to articulate their opinions clearly and reasonably to the world at large, and are happy to tell you what you’re getting as opposed to what developers are showing you. Comments like that don’t form the majority, but they’re not as rare as you might think.
Sure, gaming forums are filled with people who may be brash and loud and wrong but so is TripAdvisor and no one disputes how useful that is. We need gaming forums. Like anything else, they just need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Once you wade through the occasional tedium, they can be unquestionably useful resources.
Martin Suleman (guest writer)
The internet is not to blame. It is just another tool which, if used properly, can benefit the production of video games in general. Back in the day, games were monitored and tested in-house. But the ever-increasing speed of the internet and the prevalence for online gaming gave developers access to a massive base of people – and therefore a free testing platform. However, it has also opened up developers to widespread complaints, generally coming from people who don’t know the workings of a game and are merely unhappy with the product and want to shout about it, rightly or wrongly.
So, with a direct line to all manner of video game companies, anyone can voice their point of view instantly whereas, once upon a time, you had to send a letter of complaint and wait for a reply. The instant nature of the internet can be a good thing but, in my opinion, it has caused developers to rush production on games due to overwhelming demand and this can mean a sub-par product on launch day.
One of the worst recent examples of this is No Man’s Sky which, following release, took many, many months for the developers to patch. The trend of releasing games before they are actually finished and expecting people to pay full price is, to be honest, very cheeky, but this is largely due to the pressure on developers to release games as early as possible.
Overall, I think it’s good to express your opinion to a games company, but obviously gamers have no control over what developers do with that information. At the end of the day, you can’t please everyone all the time. Nevertheless, I would like to see game development slowed down so titles don’t need several critical patches after launch just to bring the quality of a game up to the required standard.
(Photos by Drew Wilby)
To read the first Quality Control article, click here