Acting nasty is really, really fun. No, don’t lie, don’t disagree. You’re a nasty, dysfunctional human being like the rest of us. You get a kick out of tormenting your fellow man, just as much as we do. When you sprinkle toast crumbs in a friend’s bedsheets, it’s done for that tired, haggard look of misery they have the next day. When you spend five hours lowering a person’s doorway with newly-learned carpentry, it’s all for that satisfying clonk as they discover what you’ve done via the medium of the forehead. When you lure a person into a room with a pack of hungry wolves, it’s so that you can witness the outrage on their face as they hear the the click of the lock behind them and realise the significance of that raw steak you gave them.
… Alright, maybe there’s a limit.
The reason I bring this up is because I’ve heard some grumblings from the other side of the industry recently, from developers and mainly the indie ones at that. There’s the idea floating round that criticism of smaller, independent games needs to be more careful, to be tactful, to be considerate of context and not to be as harsh or clinical as the criticism of major releases.
The most recent time I heard this was in the interview with the critic, journalist and online personality Jim Sterling, formerly of The Escapist and Destructoid. Mr. Sterling had already been accused of being overly brutal and living off the work of small developers when he came down hard on Skate Man Intense Rescue, a memorable product made by Digpex games that he tore to shreds online.
In a responding letter, Digpex accused him of “using poor weak developers for money,” and this came up in his interview as well, with the frustrated creators of The Slaughtering Grounds (another game he reviewed unfavourably) claiming that he was a “leech,” dependant on the work of small, struggling developers whilst harming them in the process.
I’ve seen the same ideas levelled at personalities like TotalBiscuit and AngryJoe on forums too, and both have been the subject of attempted censorship on YouTube, when upset developers try to take unfavourable videos down under the guise of copyright. It’s embarrassing, clumsy, and it never works, but they try anyway.
I do get why indie developers can get so upset. Indie projects are small scale and thus very personal. A developer might be desperate for the income that such games generate. There can be emotional attachment to even the most horrible, lazily constructed game.
But I’m going to have to tell you developers that I think you’re wrong to make these claims, because the gaming industry needs no more of this “the player is the last one that matters” mentality. I said before that this is a akin to a war between those that make the games and those that buy them, and whilst this isn’t a major blow, it is an attack on consumer awareness and worth responding to.
Let’s make this clear – if you are selling a game, for money, in the public sphere, you are up for criticism. All of it, on every level, uncensored. You don’t get a pass depending on your circumstances. You also don’t get to cancel out unkind criticism, even though it never works.
The Slaughtering Grounds is currently on sale for fifteen pence, but it wasn’t when it was put up, when it was getting the initial attention. It was going for almost ten pounds. And as somebody who’s played it, I don’t believe the quality of the product justifies that price. That was too much to ask for the product as it was being sold.
That might sound mean, and it probably is, but I don’t think it matters in comparison. When somebody criticises something and ends up giving the final verdict, it’s often done with the price taken into context. For example, watching a crap film would still be unpleasant, but it’s not so much of a loss if the ticket only costs fifty pence. It might even be worth it, if there’s a good sex scene halfway through and you can just sleep through the rest in a comfortable cinema chair. But if it’s fifteen pounds? Well, the situation’s different. It’s not good value for money.
That’s the point – criticism defends the consumer against the deceitful monsters that are PR, Marketing and spin. And when criticism is dropped, some very big problems can get past the radar. Critics were waiting to leap past the review embargo when Aliens: Colonial Marines came out, desperate to warn the public against a horrible game that was riddled with technical issues and disturbingly different to the trailers. And those that pre-ordered the game were wishing that they’d listened to them first.
It’s the same principle here. Money is important to people (not to mention the time invested) and they want to know they’re getting the best use out of both of these things. Thus, if you’re selling something for money, the critic is morally obliged to urge potential customers against it if he thinks they could be getting far better use from other products and other uses of their hard-earned cash. It’s not just the developer who has to be watchful of income, you know.
Besides, things get better when they’re criticised and the developers take it into account. There’s a reason why we put “constructive” at the beginning of that word so often. A good critic doesn’t just wave his or her hand at a product and say “Yeah, that? That’s kinda shit, don’t waste your time.” Even with the most toxic product, the critic points to specific issues and says exactly where they’ve gone wrong, or even suggests potential solutions for the next game.
And if they’re being mean? Well… That’s the way it goes sometimes. I’m afraid you’re going to have to grow up and deal with it, and I’m not being harsh here, that’s just the risk you take when you enter the public sphere. We all know this, none of us are exempt from it.
That said, critics probably shouldn’t be unjustly cruel, or at least should have good reason for blistering reviews or analysis. You have to know what you’re talking about, have to feel right in saying these things. You’re not a priest, you do have to put SOME effort in to proving your claims.
That’s the final point I’d make. Brutal criticism might be hard to hear, but it’s not done out of spite, it’s done out of necessity, for both the customer and the creator. So you’re going to have to learn to deal with it. Remember how at school, there was always that one kid who cried at every little thing? Don’t emulate that kid. That’s not going to get you anywhere, except dehydration and wet trousers. That one’s for you, Wikiquote.