I’m going to let you in on a secret… I don’t like writing articles like this. I love video games, but the video game industry makes that a really hard love to hold on to. There had been a lot of things simmering that had been prompting me to write another article in what I guess is a series here talking about the problems with the video game industry, but it’s really been all of the news that Ubisoft is a giant cesspool of terrible homophobic and sexist behavior that has done real and repeated harm to many different victims.
You cannot find a console in stores right now, and most companies have been reporting major increases in sales across the board. You can’t even find most accessories at this point… it took me two months to get replacement joycons when mine started to show the drift problem. Gaming has been an escape for many in the chaos of the world, myself included, but watching that chaos and reading about how the industry is party to some of the problems has made it harder to enjoy. 2020 has already been just the worst. While so many industries have seen a downturn, especially in the entertainment space, gaming has simply exploded.
All of the other articles I’ve written have talked about how studios and publishers I admire have managed to fall from grace and just; Bioware with their wet turd that was Anthem (and how their re-do of it is still MIA), Blizzard in going full Activision, and now Ubisoft, at being a toxic cesspool of harassment and assault. And that’s just what’s in the past couple of weeks… the worst in a line of previous “worsts.”
Ubisoft Needs to be Burned to the Ground
The very first game I listed in my most-anticipated games of 2019 from last year’s E3 was Watch Dogs: Legion. When we were compiling our best-of and looking forward to list back in January before the world came off its damn axis, I again named Legion as one I was most looking forward to.
Sometime, I wished I could just ignore the world at large and “play the game”… and I know a lot of people can do that. I cannot. It’s privilege at its worst, the ability to ignore the pain and harm that’s being done by people and companies so we can have our escapist enjoyment. When I talk about things like crunch and worker abuse, I cannot wipe away the real human toll that goes into making our games. People are paying a real, visceral, cost to make these games and it is just wrong.
2020 has focused a lens on exactly how deep the idea of privilege goes in our societies, and how much people and companies have exploited that. The video game industry, by in large, escaped the #metoo movement that started back in 2017 that rocked other industries. While those problems most certainly existed in games, there were just so many other abuses being called out that they were small or went unnoticed.
There’s a bit of irony in that, given that video games has the genesis of one of the most twisted and toxic things of the past decade with Gamergate, where a bunch of asshats decided they could not abide women to… exist and levied an endless harassment campaign against thousands just for having of the audacity of being women. They crowded under a tag of “ethics in gaming journalism,” which is just as disingenuous and idiotic as it sounds, when in truth, they just wanted to be little harassing trolls that this world would be better without.
What’s this have to do with Ubisoft, a company that I have praised for having decent policies in regards to crunch (even if their game monetization stinks in some ways and they’re basically a punchline of marketing that tries to convince everyone their farts smell of roses)? Turns out they’ve had a long-lasting culture of sexual harassment, assault, and covering it up.
We’re not talking about one bad apple (and don’t forget the other half of that statement), but a whole culture across the top that harassed men and especially women, was full of bigotry, and advocated rape. Yes, advocated. The HR department, which contrary to popular belief isn’t there to protect people, but the company (HR is not your friend in the vast majority of companies) did little, and often enabled the retaliation or did next to nothing to address issues.
On one occasion before this summer, when Ubisoft sided with an alleged victim, the company removed the woman’s boss and rewarded the woman with a gift card, she says.
I’m sure someone reading this is going to thinking “cancel culture” or something like that… well, not this, that person quit well before now… but cancel culture is not a thing. It’s not like these are fake charges being leveled, no matter how much Ubisoft deflects or doesn’t comment. A half dozen executives don’t suddenly resign because the press suddenly got bad, and companies don’t announce “failures to create a safe environment” when there is no merit to accusations. And they don’t move on something this quickly if they didn’t already know about it. It also wasn’t one place, or one department… it was something systemic across their whole organization.
The worst part is that the abusers and people who victimized others weren’t fired, and they’re not in jail where they belong. They were allowed to resign, and likely are getting buyouts and golden parachutes along the way. The victims have been done irreparable harm, and the people who did it get to exit and dodge all responsibility.
For its part, which can be described as “the sheer minimum possible,” Ubisoft promises to do better. Of course, this is Ubisoft, so there are no details, no promises, and no metrics. There’s mention that they’re going to tie part of their bonus structure to creating a positive environment… but given that many of the harassment complaints are from women who were being told to smile more and “have better attitudes” – something men are rarely if ever told (I hardly ever smile and can’t say that it’s affected my career), that feels empty. It’s likely just another way to silence people who dare to speak up about the harm being done.
If this sounds like a rant… it is a rant. I’m pissed at what this company has gotten away with. I loved a lot of their games, and a lot of people poured their heart and souls into them. Some of those people were criminals that harassed and abused those in their power, a lot of others enabled them or looked the other way, and the rest are going to pay a price.
Ubisoft may make games that are fun, but the rot that goes to the core of their company simply cannot be looked past at this point. Ubisoft is a company that wants to control the narrative, and thinks they are entitled to do so, that fans and critics should just fall in line. That’s how they can make games like the Division 2, Far Cry 5, and Watch Dogs: Legion and claim with a straight (and lying) face that the games are not “political.” It’s how they can purposefully cripple their games and make them grind fests so they have an excuse to sell you boosters and accelerators. They want to control the message, which is why they pitch their pseudo-E3 stream and leave out any mention of the controversy and with a straight face say they can’t address it because it was pre-recorded. Video editing is a thing, and they’d rather ignore it and wait for us all to forget it than make actual changes.
It’s also come out that the general boy’s club was pervasive in their game design, as well. Kassandra, one of the two options in Odyssey but in truth the only actual choice in the game. As she was supposed to be, until that choice was overridden by the marketing team. Because boys don’t want girls in their game or something… despite evidence from Tomb Raider, Metroid, Bayonetta, Neir: Automata, Portal, Mirror’s Edge, and a number of other games. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, this was the company that said it would be too hard to “animate female characters” in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and ignored all of the reviews that said Jacob was the worst part of playing Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.
I’d rather see Ubisoft implode and its properties auctioned off, and the rot burned away, then the pain they’ve inflicted and enabled continue. It doesn’t matter how much I want to play Watch Dogs: Legion or Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, the cost of these games is simply too much. We cannot let them forget what they were party to, even if some of the individual people are gone, because all the ones that made it possible are still there.
Video Games are Not too Cheap
If that were the only news going on, that would be bad enough. But we’re staring down the next generation of consoles, and the AAA industry can be summed up in one world most of the time – greed. So we have to deal with the fact that 2K games, maker of the annual slot-machine simulator NBA 2K… a game that puts micro-transactions that are close to required to succeed at their single-player career mode, announcing that the next version of NBA Slot Machine 2021 will be $70 on next-generation consoles.
One of the main apologist tactics for industry bullshit like microtransactions and lootboxes has been that companies need these because “games are so expensive” to make. If you take it just at that point, and do no additional research… that’s true. Labor is expensive, especially skilled technical labor like developers. I know this, because I am a developer and I’m sure as hell pretty expensive to hire (I just don’t work in games, because, you know, that industry is awful to skilled labor).
Of course, this ignores the fact that so much of that labor goes into problems that the industry has invented for itself. Things like changing the engine between every version of the game (like Square does with Final Fantasy), putting in an absurd level of detail (like horse balls that react to the weather), or basically everything Kojima ever does in a game. Sometimes, those things add so much… but a lot of the times, if they weren’t there, no one would care.
Sometimes, the costs are more that there’s no leadership behind a project, or mismanagement from the top. Maybe Anthem could have been a good game, maybe Mass Effect Andromeda wouldn’t have been a big jank fest in its first act, and maybe Fallout 76 could have been more than a shameless cash grab if someone would have set some actual direction. Well, maybe not Fallout… Bethesda apparently can’t do anything but shameless cash grabs at this point.
Beyond that, it ignores the economy of scales that exist for gaming. The cost to develop a game is a fixed good, but the potential revenue can scale and grow. As of February, Red Dead Redemption 2, likely one of the most expensive games to make ever, has sold 29 million copies. Let’s say those were all sold at SRP of $60, which they weren’t… but I’ll get into why I’m using that in a bit. That would amount to 1.74 billion in revenue. Given that a lot of those sales were on digital platforms, estimated to be upwards of 90% at this point, most of that stayed with just a handful of companies.
There’s also the inconvenient fact that games haven’t cost $60 for some time. There are Launch Day Editions, Deluxe Editions, Digital Deluxe Editions, Collector’s Editions, Ace Wallet Baiting Editions… and so much more. You get them both physical and digital, often with extra content or DLC included… or worse. With the advent of the season pass and similar content, the “full” version of a game has been more than $60 for some time.
This is ignoring the microtransactions, season passes, online content, loot boxes, and everything else that seems almost obligatory in a modern AAA game. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey only cost $60 when it launched (and if you’re wise and waited just a couple of months, half that or better), but the total cost to get all of the in-game store purchases? $393. Grand Theft Auto V, and now Red Dead Redemption 2, boast online modes that sell billions in microtransactions a year.
The issue here is that games are expensive to make, but how most of the big studios operate is that they expect to realize all of the costs up front, with no long-term sales. That’s why they press pre-orders so hard, even though they rarely have actual consumer benefit – save for artificial ones they add as bonuses that give some marginal upgrade at best. If a game doesn’t sell according to their arbitrary, and often unrealistic, expectations… it’s seen as a failure even after record sales. Everything after those first few weeks is just extra to most big publishers.
Even more worryingly, there’s no guarantee that a game is going to be good, or even finished, when it launches. For Every No Man’s Sky that launches in a sad state but gets patched up later, there’s an Anthem that’s a husk of a terrible game, or a Fallout 76 that has to accidentally patch in fun content. Games that don’t meet expectations are chopped, quickly, like Mass Effect Andromeda where all the DLC was scrapped… despite actually setting up a good story in the end that really could have justified some DLC.
Of course, there is one exception to this model… Nintendo, who plays a longer game than most other video game companies, expects their games to continue to sell for months, or years, and supports them as such. Splatoon 2 “stopped” getting new content some time ago, after a couple of years of free updates and one big paid DLC… except that Nintendo is still supporting, patching, and running events for it.
They plan for games to keep selling, even if in lower numbers, for a long time after launch. It’s how games like Animal Crossing and Breath of the Wild can continue to live in top 10 lists for months and even years after their first sales. The downside is that they rarely come down in price, typically not until the next game in a series comes out. Unfortunately, consumers tend to complain about that lack of sale… which is valid, to a point, but at the same time, ignores that the value of a game hasn’t really gone down since it was released.
Much more likely is that our expectations, as consumers, are off. How much is an entertaining game worth, and how much is a game full of busywork worth? Why $60 or $70 if there’s no guarantee that a game is going to even be supported after launch? Why is Breath of the Wild overpriced because it was a launch title, yet one of the best games on the system still? There has always been a conversation that games are too long, and I agree for the most part. I rarely finish games anymore, mostly because I get bored, get distracted, or just have stuff to do and don’t get back to it.
The question shouldn’t be about length, it should be about quality. I like a lot of open world games, Eric hates them… but I think we both could do with less of them, and a lot of the filler mechanics that are in them. Just like the conversation isn’t about if games are too cheap, is that do they deliver a value for the money being asked.
Toxic Fanbases and their Enablers
Sometimes, though, it’s important to talk about how bad, and how toxic, the fandoms around… anything, really… can become. Especially and games. And Star Wars. And nerdy things in general. I talked about this a bit in my Pokemon Sword and Shield review, and how septic it became around it, and Star Wars fans showed an incredibly low and ugly side in response to the release of The Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker.
Game fans are not different. Not just because there’s a considerable amount of crossover between the various nerdy fanbases, but in part because that sort of tribalism has been baked into the video game landscape for ages. There was always a rivalry between Nintendo fans and Genesis fans (seriously, The Console Wars is a great book), and I’m sure a lot of people my age remember pretty clearly how much grief you gave those on the other side. That being said, most of the time it felt like those were just ribbing and telling the other person how much their experience was gonna suck. That or yelling about how their version of Mortal Kombat may have blood, but they only have 3 buttons so it’s gonna be crap. #teamnintendo
That… isn’t what we get in the modern world, and while the internet and social media have made it far easier to amplify the noise, it isn’t the cause. There really isn’t even one cause to it, there are likely many, but I’m going to point out who is often responsible for fanning the flames and instigating a lot of problems: the developers and publishers themselves.
We’ve talked about the idea of “Fear of Missing Out,” or FOMO, here before. I’m a sucker for it at times, and I know Ace can be as well. Consumerism and the idea of nerd culture are rife with missing out, it’s unavoidable… from Boba Fett and his little plastic launcher to walking past UCS X-Wing and TIE Interceptors on clearance at Toys ‘R Us for $30, to selling off your old Magic: the Gathering collection and your three full sets of Dual Lands a couple of decades ago when in college.
The game industry has been drumming that up for ages, giving little drip feeds of information in return for loyalty. They gut buzz, and support, and adulation… which for the most part is an extension of marketing for them. The problem, though, is that in recent years, that’s turned into supporting the mob and trying to get the same effect instead of just going to the fan base. These are things that, yes, have been amplified by social media, but the companies have done little to nothing to try and curtail behavior.
We see that play out, again and again, when a big game launches and someone dares to do something other than lavish it with praise (or, on the other side, dares to like something that is supposed to be hated). Most recently, that was The Last of Us Part 2, a game that has a great story, but is average at best with it’s gameplay, and that I found emotionally manipulative and ham-handed with the narrative. It got a whole ton of praise, but a few people pointed out flaws, and the community for the game lost their damn minds.
Naughty Dog is an exploitative studio that makes some of the best games ever made; that’s just a fact. Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us, as well as The Last of Us 2 and probably the games they made before, were made through crunch and worker abuse. These are not facts in dispute… but they would love for us to ignore that fact and just play their games. Which is why they got very passive-aggressive and invited a dog-piling on critic Jason Schreier (writer of the fantastic Blood, Sweat, and Pixels that cataloged their earlier games) when he made a comment that didn’t involve them, was seemingly perfectly on point and valid, in response to a treat dripping with so much pretension that it’s likely dangerous to handle without safety precautions.
He never mentioned Naughty Dog or even the game, only talked about hyperbole that was so extreme it went full ouroboros. Yet the producers of the game and the studio heads… the people who have been called out specifically as the enforcers of crunch (deservedly so), decided to come and criticize Jason’s later responses (which, honestly, weren’t that great either). It went far enough that Troy Baker (the voice actor in everything) decided to jump in an an unrelated tweet that games are too long (and they are too damn long) to complain about critics. It’s unclear if anyone has seen Troy since, as he likely got lost up his own ass.
I mean, I’m an amateur critic at best, but I suppose I am one. There is a small kernel of truth to critics not adding to the creative side, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a purpose and benefit of them. Contrary to what most people thing, people that write reviews want to love the things they look at. It’s how most of us got here, out of passion for something. But part of that process, being critical, is looking at what’s both good and bad, and you get a practiced eye at seeing things that are looked pat. Often, the hope is to improve things or make them better. Yeah, some people just like crapping on games, but the vast majority are just offering a voice for people who might feel the same about something.
What’s happening here, though, is that the light being shined shows the developer and the people behind it in a bad like. Troy Baker has union protections against overwork, so he never sees that ugly side of the people hurt by bringing his characters to life. The executives and managers over the teams don’t care about the smaller people that they hurt so long as the product gets out. Yeah, part of that is driven by a passion for their work, but more is likely driven by the bonuses they receive (and regular rank and file rarely do) related to the launch.
We can find so many more examples of this behavior in the gaming space… like when people decided that the rational response to Breath of the Wild “only” getting a 7/10 from Jim Sterling, the lowest possible score, and pointing out problems in a game that are valid, was a DDoS attack and death threats. And it happens again, and again, and again. There are cries that critics hurt developers when they give a bad review (they don’t), or that games are owed good stores, or people don’t play enough, or whatever else justifies bad, childish, and often criminal behavior.
While I normally dislike the other side arguments, but there is a dirtier side to this whole mob that was drummed up. For developers and publishers, they can turn on a company in an instant… look at Anthem and Fallout 76. I mean, both of those games are terrible, and EA and Bethesda deserve derision over there, but the fact that those seem to come with death threats, takedowns, and so much bad behavior is just disgusting. You can be critical of something, or not like it, but as soon as you feel the need to be punitive with that dislike, you’ve now become a toxic little shit that we don’t need.
Going back to The Last of Us Part II, that was on full display. There was rage, for people who presumably never played the original game, that a… g-g-g-girl was put at the forefront of the game. More than that, a girl who liked other girls! And the primary antagonist was also a girl that had muscles that were too big. So the response was the repeatedly threaten the voice actress, harass developers, and meta-bomb the game.
Here’s the thing, both of these responses are bad, and there’s likely a lot of crossover between the groups. Harassment of people involved in the making of a game, or critical of a game, is just wrong. It’s perfectly fine to like and love a thing, or dislike and hate a thing, but if at any point your reaction to seeing someone who doesn’t share that feeling is “I should really go threaten to kill this person”… don’t. Get some help.
Of course, the backlash and fanboyism doesn’t really end there. Going back to Nintendo, you can see a whole ton of recent backlash against the company because their Nintendo Direct that expressly said it was going to cover 3rd party and indie titles… did just that. Yet there are a bunch of reddit posts, complaints, and some harassment leveled at the company, and developers, for doing what they said they were going to do. Or, rather, not doing what people kept hoping they were going to do in spite of direct statements to the contrary. Star Wars fans are pretty familiar with this, and it sucks there too.
Publishers Cannot Continue to Control the Narrative
A whole lot of this, especially with Ubisoft, Activision, and EA, stems from them demanding to control the entire narrative and message. They do whatever they can to stifle and silence those who don’t play nicely with what they want, and view outlets as simply another marketing source. Ubisoft was doing just that when they said their whole not-Direct Direct stream wasn’t going to acknowledge or talk about the terrible things they did.
That was bad enough, but they were spending a considerable amount of the time in the presentation showing off Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and a number of accusations and later resignations were from that very team. Serge Hascoët was the creative head behind nearly every big title they’ve had (and as we’ve found out since, the reason why so many great ideas haven’t happened) and had been drugging his coworkers. Oh, and you know, being a toxic, homophobic, misogynist.
Ubisoft, in particular, is notorious for this behavior of just ignoring the world, going so far as outright lying when a leak happens, abusing the takedown system to silence people covering it, or being so full of it they use words like ‘iconic” to describe new IP. They claim their games aren’t political, when using politics are infused into every little bit of their games. They want to be able to use hype to their advantage, and silence everyone when it doesn’t.
It’s not unique to Ubisoft, either. Take two harasses people that cover leaks in the real world, hiring private investigators that stalk them and make their lives hell. Activision|Blizzard blackballs professional players that say things they don’t like, or happened to be married to people that disclose their layoffs were after record earnings came down. Electronic Arts tries to rename their gambling systems and openly defies governing bodies around the world. All of these companies do that because they know so many will run out and defend them, or want to just “focus on the games” and ignore the real human cost to them.
All big companies do this, not just video game companies… but the companies that own the big “nerd” properties are noxious about it. A bit closer to home, we’ll look at LEGO. Believe us, they’re not above threatening or blackballing a fan site, maybe one that specializes in Star Wars LEGO, from participating in some of LEGO’s programs because it might post things they don’t like and occasionally refuse to take down pictures.
What does all of this have to do with the rest of my rant above? In case it’s not clear from the way I write on this site, or the other articles I’ve done on topics like this… I’ve got a little bit of an anti-corporation bend. Because capitalism likes to be predatory and those companies think we owe them, or are enthralled to them. But here’s the secret… they are entitled to nothing past the price for their goods, and sometimes not even that.
They want to control the narrative, and we cannot let them. They’ve already soiled the game industry, and they only see us according to the money we give to their bottom line and nothing else. Most don’t even care about delivering a real product any longer, only a way to trick more and more spending. It’s how they can come up with terms like whales and build entire ecosystems that are predicated on kids spending thousands from their parent’s bank accounts by accident.
They don’t want you to talk about how they use predatory mechanics in their games, overwork their employees to the point they have PTSD-like symptoms, or consistently hide and cover up the behavior of their executives. How they underpay employees, sometimes so drastically, because those employees have the “privilege” of working for a company like Blizzard, or Gearbox, or so many others… and can be replaced by some other young person wanting to break in.
There’s an ugly use cycle in this industry, that mirrors Hollywood, and it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that we’re seeing a similar reckoning. I’m a developer in real life, a job that I’ve done for a long time now. I once dreamt of going into the games industry, but didn’t want to move where most of the studios are, and found when I started taking classes that the type of work they do wasn’t really that enjoyable to me. Instead, I found that problem solving, making business and enterprise software, and generally building things that are more practical and useful than games, was much more my bag. It’s not unusual to interview someone that’s looking to jump into my industry that used to work in games, or wanted to work in games, that’s coming over because even at an entry-level position, they will make more money than they will after years in the game industry.
These companies actively exploit the passion and love that people have for games, their IPs, and settings. We’re not supposed to look at that, though, or talk about it. Nope, just focus on the games, defend lootboxes because they are only cosmetic, and continue to defend the executives even after they resign and the company admits fault. Scream that you want politics out of the discussion, even though it’s all politics in 2020. Or that the AAA companies have become so corrupt that even their own shareholders are decrying executive pay and bonuses. Or, more recently, hand-wave away anti-consumer actions by platform holders and developers to lock away content and charge the full amount for inferior products because it only hurts other people
Honestly, I don’t expect much to change. Hell, I have trouble saying no to some of the big games, that’s why I’ve been playing so much Call of Duty and will probably go back and play World of Warcraft when the next expansion drops even after I begged myself not to buy their stuff. I don’t judge anyone who wants to play the big game, but we all need to understand the cost of them, and maybe, just maybe, remind the companies that consumers should have all the power in the equation. Because without us, they have nothing. It doesn’t take much for these house of cards to come crashing down… just look at companies like Telltale Games; none of the AAA studios are putting money back into their future, only into payouts for shareholders and executives or trying to overextend their reach.
In the face of what 2020 has to offer, from a global pandemic to a complete economic meltdown, to all sorts of fascist nonsense, games have been a solace for many people… myself included. It’s shown in the industry, but maybe, just maybe, they need a reminder that most of us have backlogs of hundreds, or even thousands, of games we can go back to. Maybe we should remind companies we don’t need the brand new consoles the day they came out… especially when things don’t look like a gigantic upgrade over the last. They’ll all come out, and I’m sure they will sell, but maybe, just maybe, we’re hitting a point where the consumerism that they keep demanding of us, and the FOMO they foster until it breaks us, bites them.
Or maybe not. It’s up to each of us to decide how much we’re going to demand of them. That’s just what I’m saying here… don’t let them control the narrative. If you want to play a game, great, but understand what went into it and don’t let them polish a turd and say everything is fine. Do what you can live with, but I think the world would be better overall if we all thought about what it really takes to make all the things we buy. If 2020 can teach us anything, maybe it’s how fragile all of that, and all of us, really are.