As 2004 draws to a close, there's no doubt that it's been a momentous year for the videogames industry. Characterised by the extremes of stunning commercial success and potentially hugely damaging controversy, the year has changed the face of handheld gaming forever and given us our first glimpses of the future of interactive entertainment consoles.
Today and tomorrow, we'll be looking back at a selection of five of the most important stories for the industry this year - five news stories chosen from over 1,300 articles published on GamesIndustry.biz this year, which we feel reflect the biggest issues of the year and the events which will continue to shape the market for many years to come. We kick off today with our first two stories - be sure to check back tomorrow when we finish up with three more, and look out for further review articles throughout the week.
Ban This Sick Filth: Mature Games in the Firing Line
The first stirrings came right back at the end of 2003, with a storm being raised by Haitian groups in the United States over alleged incitements to racist violence in Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The row spilled over into 2004, with a group in Florida taking out a lawsuit calling for the game to be banned despite a promise from Rockstar to remove the offending dialogue from future copies of the game.
A storm in a teacup, certainly - but it was, sadly, the shape of things to come. A flurry of cases attempting to link videogame violence to real-life murders followed throughout the year, which came to a head in July when the mother of murdered British 14 year old Stefan Pakeerah publicly made a link between her son's death at the hands of 17 year old Warren Leblanc and Rockstar's ultra-violent action title Manhunt.
Her vague comment made on the steps of the court - "I think that I heard some of Warren's friends say that he was obsessed by this game" - turned into a media frenzy overnight, with right-wing British tabloid the Daily Mail running two outraged front page features in a row calling for the banning of violent games ("Death by PlayStation", howled one, followed the next day by "Ban These Evil Games") and several other national newspapers, television shows and radio programmes quickly picking up on the story.
The actual facts of the case quickly became unimportant as the media juggernaut rolled on, with the story quickly going international and US lawyer Jack Thompson, a prolific but as yet unsuccessful issuer of litigation threats against publishers of violent videogames, announcing that he would be taking on a civil case on behalf of the Pakeerah family. Buried under the hyperbole was the fact that Warren Leblanc had killed his friend to get money to pay a debt to a drug dealer; equally unreported in the mainstream press was an official comment from Leicestershire Constabulary, the police division who investigated the case, stating baldly that they had seen no link between the game and the killing.
The mainstream media attention lasted for several weeks, and as it finally cleared, the really important questions started to be asked - such as why a 17 year old like Warren Leblanc had been able to buy the 18-rated game in the first place, let alone 14 year old Stefan Pakeerah, in whose bedroom the game was found. He and Leblanc had apparently played it together - despite the fact that neither was old enough to legally buy it. The British government, briefed by trade organisation ELSPA on the situation, agreed that better enforcement and education around the ratings system is the answer, rather than censorship - but unfortunately, the story doesn't end there.
While the government remains firmly behind the industry in the UK, the situation in the USA is less clear, with individual states regularly attempting to enact legislation controlling the sale of games more tightly and threats of litigation against publishers now practically commonplace - and the Pakeerah case often cited, usually inaccurately, as a key piece of evidence by opponents of mature games. Here in Britain, meanwhile, the mainstream media remains exceptionally reactionary on the topic - with the last few weeks seeing astonishing comments such as a comparison between violent games and child pornography being made on prime time television.
Despite sterling efforts by many of those involved - ELSPA, the British Government, and the small selection of publishers, developers and journalists who have chosen to try and speak out on the issue - videogames are certainly not out of the woods yet in terms of the mature content controversy. While there is certainly more that the industry can do to educate and inform parents and to enforce ratings, the biggest problem right now is the fact that the mainstream press has got their teeth into a juicy tabloid story - and are likely to drag it up once again every time they hit a dry patch in terms of "real" front page news. The PR battle on this front has only just begun.
Quality of Life: Development Practices under Scrutiny
For many people, the biggest surprise was that anyone was actually surprised. When the disgruntled wife of an overworked Electronic Arts employee posted an impassioned and intelligent article about his working conditions at the giant publisher to the Internet, many people seemed to be genuinely shocked by the revelations in the "ea_spouse" journal - but in reality, the practices described are commonplace in the videogames industry, as was proved by the number of people who subsequently came forward, mainly anonymously, to share similar horror stories.
Masses of unpaid overtime, bullying of employees to force them to work long hours, "crunch time" lasting for months on end and an implicit assumption that burnt out employees can always be replaced with enthusiastic young graduates for a pittance are endemic to the way many companies in the videogames industry do business from a development point of view, and have been for several years. It's unquestionably getting worse as the development process for games gets more and more demanding, though, and in many ways this was a story which was bound to break out into the media sooner rather than later.
The problems presented by this approach are several. For a start, of course, it's seemingly downright illegal in some countries, and even in some states of the USA, which is a pretty major consideration - but the other problems raised by the developer quality of life question are also important. Many commentators argue that it's bad business to burn out the creative staff who make your company's products - if they're being forced to work themselves to the point where they burn out and leave after a few years, you end up without the kind of experienced team that it takes to build a genuinely world-class product.
While such abysmal project management and poor employment practices may be bad business, though, they're even worse PR. Within weeks of the ea_spouse journal appearing online, the story had done the rounds of the industry's own news sources, made it into many of the major IT websites and journals, and the next stop was the New York Times - which is exactly the kind of exposure that a major player like Electronic Arts could do without. It's no coincidence that later in the year, a leaked memo from the firm's head of HR, Rusty Reuff, revealed that the company is planning an overhaul of employment practices including a re-evaluation of eligibility for overtime.
In many ways, though, Electronic Arts was terribly unlucky to have its name dragged through the mud in this way, because it is certainly not the only offender in terms of quality of life, and it isn't the worst offender either. While it's very important to understand the difference between a corporation which is wilfully exploiting its staff and a small team where developers choose to work long hours at times - a normal and often necessary part of the creative process - many larger developers and publishers are in the business of forcing staff to work huge amounts of unpaid overtime. The common excuse is that this is just part of the creative process - the development staff themselves are often more wont to describe it as plain bad management and exploitation.
Check back tomorrow for more of the stories that have defined this year for the videogames industry!