Fanning the Flames
Fan outrage erupts over Mass Effect 3 - but why do game creators seem willing to encourage the vocal cranks?
The advent of the Internet generation has done something deeply unpleasant and disturbing to the word "fan". It used to be that someone who described themselves as a fan of something meant simply that they really enjoyed it. You might be a fan of an author, and eagerly anticipate buying the hardback copy of their next book; a fan of a director or actor, and keen to see their next work in the cinema. You could be a fan of a genre, or perhaps of a game developer, or perhaps of a series of books, films or games, and essentially what you meant in describing yourself as such was "I like this. It speaks to me on some level, I enjoy it, and I'm willing to spend money on it and advocate it."
What it didn't mean - at least not very often, not outside of the psychopathic weirdness of Stephen King's Misery and its ilk - was "I like this, and thus it belongs to me. I own it, and I deserve a say in its future and its direction." Of course, if a band you loved made an album you hated, you'd lament their new direction, but the kind of people who'd write ranting letters to the band telling them they felt betrayed and demanding a return to the Good Old Days were quite rightly regarded as a bit peculiar and somewhat sociopathic.
The angry letter-scrawlers in their bedrooms are no longer isolated - they're connected to fellow sociopaths around the world, convinced of their absolute entitlement and the worthiness of their cause
You can see where this is going, of course. Bioware's trilogy-closing Mass Effect 3 has been met with what gets described as "fan outrage", which is an unfortunate phrase that has entered our vernacular in the past few years. The ending, apparently, is all wrong - and rather than going "oh, great series but I didn't like the ending," vocal fans have taken to howling at the company over the Internet, demanding that they change the ending to the story. Bioware, which has been pretty steadfast in its reactions to fan outrage over other issues in recent years, has made apologetic murmuring noises and talked about "clarifying" the ending.
Step back for a second, and consider what's happening here. A group of people, self-professed "fans", are demanding that the creators of a series which they claim to love should change that series because they don't like the ending which the creators decided upon. Imagine how you'd feel if this was a group of people petitioning JK Rowling with angry demands for a different ending to the Harry Potter series, or furiously insisting that Christopher Nolan reshoot the ending of The Dark Knight Rises. You'd probably think it was pathetic, and ridiculous. You'd be reminded of those weird obsessives in darkened rooms scribbling self-important nastygrams to their "favourite" bands.
So why are games different? Why do we - and by "we" I mean the media, the game companies, and sometimes even gamers in general - seem to have so much time for "fan outrage"?
Part of the problem is that games are a young medium, and they've grown up alongside the Internet - which, for all that it's one of the greatest and most empowering things that humanity has ever created, has also brought with it a deeply unpleasant wave of self-important entitlement. It has created a world where everyone can have a voice, but unfortunately has also created a culture where everyone thinks their voice deserves to be listened to. The angry letter-scrawlers in their bedrooms are no longer isolated - they're connected to fellow sociopaths around the world, convinced of their absolute entitlement and the worthiness of their cause. Games have come of age at the same time that this wave crashed over our culture, and as a result, we don't have the aloofness that other media has built up over decades.
Another part of the problem, though, is that we've encouraged this. Game companies are excited, delighted, by the idea of having loyal fans. It's understandable - lots of people working in games today started out as fans (this is true of most creative sectors, of course) and have a desire to encourage others like themselves. Moreover, the vocal, ardent fan can become your evangelist, your advocate, spreading the good word about your game and building your fan base, your sales, your profitability - that's the idea, at least.
As such, game companies have engaged with their fans, closely and directly - which sounds great, right? It sounds positive and healthy, because that's how we've trained ourselves to see it. Game companies run their own forums for their games. They nurture their communities. In Bioware's case, and god knows they're probably regretting this now, they openly talked about how important fan feedback is to them, about how Mass Effect was a series driven by its fans. It's become a creed, a mantra. The fans are important. We love our fans. We listen to our fans.
Another part of the problem is that we've encouraged this. Game companies are excited, delighted, by the idea of having loyal fans.
Tell people that often enough, and they start to believe you - and on the Internet, there are a whole lot of people who don't need much of a push to believe that they're important and must be listened to. So when Bioware actually goes and does creative things which a group of "fans" disagree with, the reaction is powerful and vicious. Gay romances and options to focus on narrative rather than action both took beatings from vocal fans, culminating in the horrific hounding of a female writer working at Bioware - and both of those things are optional. The ending of Mass Effect 3, however, is the end of Bioware's story, and it's not optional. There are alternate versions of the ending, but the core narrative structure is the ending to a story arc the company started telling years ago. It's Bioware's story to tell and Bioware's story to end - and needless to say, that has ignited passions, fanned angry flames and set keyboards around the world clicking furiously.
Of course some people don't like the ending. They're entitled to dislike it. They're entitled to fling the game out of their windows in a rage, as long as they make sure they don't hit any innocent bystanders with it (and pick up the litter afterwards - those things aren't biodegradable). But it's not their ending to rewrite, or to demand changes to, and this is what has changed in our culture - and, sadly, what game companies have encouraged and nurtured. Real fans don't have to like everything a studio, a writer or a musician makes - they just have to enjoy their work enough to anticipate the next piece, and to want to share the joy with others. These new "fans", the entitled fanatics, know better than the author or the artist. They want things done their way. They've bought the game! They've posted on the forum! They must be listened to!
Other mediums handle this with a little more grace. Sure, there are forums for popular films, Facebook pages for bands, Twitter accounts for authors - but they create a little distance between themselves and their audiences. They're willing to engage with their fans, to reach out to them, but never, ever, ever to bring them inside the creative process, or to hint that they have an influence. A perfect example is author Neil Gaiman's wonderfully phrased put-down to a fan who expressed anger that his favourite fantasy author was working on other projects rather than finishing the next book in an ongoing series; "George RR Martin is not your bitch." I encourage everyone to read it, and consider how it applies to the games business, and where we've gone wrong.
This isn't a popular position to take, I'm sure. We've become so used to the endless mantra of "The fans are important! We work for our fans! It's all about the fans!" that we've forgotten how to question it - and worse, we've forgotten that creativity isn't about the audience, first and foremost, it's about the creator. It's about a talented person, or a group of talented people, making something amazing - and that act, when it's really making magic, is usually the most selfish thing imaginable, because they make something which they and they alone think is amazing, to satisfy their own creative urges. When the door is unlocked and the light streams in, and the fans get to see what's been made - then, of course, people want their new baby to be loved, but the process that happens before that is behind a closed door for a reason. It's not about the fans. Or at least, it shouldn't be.
We've forgotten that creativity isn't about the audience, first and foremost, it's about the creator
Yet we're pushing ourselves more and more in that direction, which is a little worrying. Consider Kickstarter, a funding process which - for all that it's an amazing way to get cool things made outside the existing system - actually gives people the ability to say "hey, you're working for me, I paid for this". With the existing model, you produce a game, sell it to someone, and that's it - your transaction and your relationship is over (even if entitled fans don't quite get that, and game companies have been happy to let them believe otherwise). Kickstarter turns this on its head. It'll be interesting to see what tone is taken with creatives like Tim Schafer or Brian Fargo when their respective projects start making decisions that some of their vocal fans - who are now vocal "investors" - disagree with, and how they'll deal with that.
This isn't a situation that'll change overnight, not least because immense inertia defines the role of "fans" in our industry - but it's important for game creators to realise that things don't have to be this way. Engagement with fans doesn't have to mean letting the lunatics run the asylum, or even giving them the impression that they've been given the keys to the office. Real fans - the people who love your work and love your creativity - want you to put your head down and make the next amazing thing. By listening to the vocal minority, letting them influence decisions or drive product design, the people you're really betraying may well be those who really love your work - and the most betrayed of all could be your own creative talent.