||The Firing Line #13: Reducing pesky fan noise
September 02, 2003 Tom Chick
Summary: Tom Chick on The Firing Line:
The yawn heard round the Internet
Tom's got a beef with the way hardcore gamers are treating publishers and their representatives. A recent incident with the Homeworld 2 community brought this issue into the limelight again, and Tom think it's enough. You, hardcore gamer? Down boy! DOWN!
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Tom Chick on The Firing Line:
The yawn heard round the Internet
The European Computer Technology Show is the European version of E3. By European version, I mean smaller and less relevant, like foreign films or Euro-Disney. So it should come as no surprise that Vivendi Universal Games wasn't showing Homeworld 2, which went gold last week and will heave into stores sometime around the middle of the month.
However, some fellow who calls himself twitchtastic was pretty appalled. He said as much on the forum hosted by the game's developer, Relic Entertainment. His post was followed by a relatively tame discussion about how games are marketed. The reasoning seemed to be that Homeworld is a niche RTS that doesn't qualify for a full court marketing press, so Vivendi focused on their other games at ECTS. But then Homeworld's brand manager, veteran PR guy Alex Rodberg, took time out from his Labor Day weekend to chime in.
Rodberg opened with that time honored passive/aggressive tactic, the yawn, and then wrote a sort of drama queen screed announcing he was fed up, he would no longer participate in the forums, and they never loved him anyway. I might be misremembering that last part, but the tone was there. There was a long string of replies and new threads, many of which were locked by the moderator. The responses ranged from level-headed comments to throwaway remarks like this nugget of wisdom from WarHampster911, who seems to be worried that his punctuation isn't coming across: "Sierra sucks ass. PERIOD."
Since the Homeworld community is pretty small, the whole tempest is a teapot would have quickly died out had it not been mentioned on Blue's News, where ECTS apparently wasn't generating enough press to occlude an isolated PR hissy fit. The most newsworthy thing about this silly ruckus is that an industry veteran like Rodberg, who's weathered far worse, got his dander up on such a relatively friendly forum. Those Homeworld guys are pushovers. It's not like they have much choice in the matter. What are they gonna do, go play Star Trek: Armada 2 instead?
SIDEBAR: On GameRankings.com, a site that compiles review scores, Homeworld scored 89%. Armada 2 scored 70%.
For the most part, when it comes to staying in touch with the fans, Alex Rodberg is among the goodest of the good guys. He has acquitted himself with grace and good humor. His online monniker, Marweas, is a contraction for "marketing weasel". And has anyone in PR ever earned a love letter like this one from the Tribes community, a notoriously obnoxious group of hard-to-please fans?
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Sierra has always had a fan-friendly PR department, with stand-up guys like Adam Kahn and Rodberg taking their lumps, justified or otherwise. Rodberg belongs in the ranks of producers like Ubi Soft/SSI alum Carl Norman, Atari's Constantine Hantzopoulos, Fox Interactive's Dave Stalker, and developers like Big Huge Games' Brian Reynolds, Sony's Raph Koster, and Jane's CJ Martin, all guys who remind us that a lot of the industry is just gamers who managed to make a job from their hobby. We all speak a common language. We all wasted hours with Diablo 2, we all still have Half-Life on our hard drives, and we all have an opinion about whether Myst is evil. We all like talking about games; we might as well all talk about them with each other.
But flight simmers might remember how this all took a nasty turn about five years ago when Origin's Andy Hollis, flush with the glow of almost universal adoration for Longbow 2, was relentlessly hounded by some idiot on Usenet who called himself "FooT". Do a search on Google Groups and the results aren't pretty. This was the beginning of the end.
The whole episode on the Relic forums isn't surprising (although it is mystifying that Rodberg was as put out as he was). These sorts of 'screw you guys, I'm outta here!' posts from developers, producers, and PR folks aren't uncommon. But what's even more common is that these posts don't happen. Most industry guys will just quietly shake their head and slip away, maybe going into lurk mode but more likely just being done with the whole noisy thing. As a result, there's an increasing divide between the people who make the games and the people who play them. And guess whose fault it is? It's yours, not theirs.
SIDEBAR: With 26 separate bones, the human foot contains one quarter of the total number of bones in the human body.
The guys in the industry are neither doormats nor saints. Like the rest of us, they are somewhere in between. But unlike the rest of us, they deserve -- by default -- to be treated graciously. They've earned that right by slogging through a competitive and often thankless business that requires long hours, middling pay, and frequent frustration. Few people understand this because the popular image of a successful developer is John Carmack/Romero in a Ferrari. Weíre just dilettantes who pay a reasonable price for the fruits of their labor.
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Furthermore, few people online understand how to disagree without being disagreeable. Online interaction is so impersonal, so fraught with assurances of anonymity, and so littered with the maladjusted and juvenile, that there are no social repercussions for acting like a jackass. I fully support requiring not only registration for participating in official forums, but also the use of your actual name and a visible email address. This is no guarantee that someone won't be a jerk, but it's a start. If you want to participate in discussions on an official forum, you don't get to role play. They're there as themselves, you should be there as yourself.
But the biggest problem is the nature of a fan base. You hardcore fans can be bad news. You are often idiots with no perspective. You live with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, mistaking your own dedication for commercial significance. You don't know what's best for a game, because you rarely represent an accurate cross-section of the people buying the game. You don't understand that you rarely drive sales in any statistically significant sense. Youíre just the guys with the loudest mouths. You might think the conventional wisdom is that your mouths drive the word of mouth. And they do. Among hardcore gamers. For everyone else, the word of mouth is driven by friends, the press, and the guys at EB who ask if youíd like the strategy guide for 30% off when you buy the game.
And here's a bit of irony that flies in the face of the presence of guys like Rodberg: you hardcore fans will buy a sequel no matter what. If someone from the developer or publisher is on a game forum, mixing it up with you, itís not because youíll decide the success of future titles. They arenít sucking up to you to ensure their game does well. Theyíre there because they have the decency to honor your eagerness for attention and interaction. The least you can do is drop your self-important sense of entitlement and conduct yourself with a modicum of courtesy.
SIDEBAR: This just in! Strategy guides are a total rip off!
Brett Todd doesnít have any gamer friends, probably because he lives in some remote wilderness called Canada where Iíve heard thereís nothing to do but shoot moose. Down here in Los Angeles, Iíve got plenty of gamer friends. Of course, I also have regular friends who donít know the first thing about games. And never the twain shall meet. Iím not going to hold my breath in anticipation of when worlds collide.
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All this silly talk about games being mainstream is causing frustration for people like Brett, who wants to discuss games around a water cooler the same way he talks about the California gubernatorial race, how good Seabiscuit was, and who was on Leno last night. But this is our hobby. Itís weird. Itís a niche. We canít expect people to understand it any more than weíd understand needlepoint or fly-fishing.
About five years ago, I was on an airplane, chatting with some friendly guy in the seat next to me. In the course of exchanging pleasantries, he asked where I was going. I was on my way to visit some game company, so we started talking about computer games. Heíd heard of Doom and Myst and even tried to played Warcraft a couple of time. He asked me to tell him about some good games.
When I mentioned Total Annihilation, he threw back his head and burst out laughing. It took me a second to figure out he was laughing at the name of the game. Which, I then realized, is really stupid. Chris Taylor may be a genius of game design (this was before Dungeon Siege), but he canít name a game to save his life. In fact, even Dungeon Siege is a pretty stupid name. Why would someone lay siege to a dungeon? And did this actually happen in the game? I canít say for sure. Although I did play all the way through Dungeon Siege, I was taking a nap during the last two thirds. Maybe my characters and their mule besieged a dungeon while I dozed.
The point is that we might as well be talking Greek when weíre discussing games with someone whoís not into them. This is a whole other world and it doesnít matter how many Tomb Raider movies they make; unless youíre part of it, itís going to sound alien with all the references to fragging, MOOs, Civs, nVidia drivers, Eff Pee Esses, and Are Tee Esses.
SIDEBAR: Hillary Clinton, Jay Mohr, and the Black Eyed Peas were on Leno last night.
Remember when we were worried that Star Wars games were going to start being as bad as Star Wars movies? Knights of the Old Republic changed all that. And when Jedi Academy hits the shelves in a few weeks, the trend towards Star Wars Games that Aren't Bad will continue. By way of a teaser, I leave you with a screenshot and two words: Siege mode.
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As a fan of the Rogue Squadron series, I even have high hopes for Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike on the Gamecube this October. Midichlorians? Obi Wan hates flying? Mullets and rat tails? Jedis with tricorders? Surveying? Paying maintenance for your harvesters? Nerfed probots? Never heard of 'em. It's going to be an Old School Star Wars Christmas this year. Punch it, Chewie.
Wow, Tomís been inhabited by the spirit of Charles Bronson Ė heís got a death wish! How dare he go about insulting hardcore gamers on their own turf - in their Fortress FiringSquad. This really brings new meaning to ĎTom Chick on the Firing Lineí. Well, people, just so you know, Tomís a skinny 5í11Ē guy with dark hair and he can be located atÖ the Sound Off! in the news comments!
SIDEBAR: If you donít have an Xbox, you canít play Knights of the Old Republic until November 18th. At the earliest.