Two very different games earned the same dubious honour this week - namely, the liberal use of scare quotes in media coverage about them. Scare quotes is the term used to describe a headline-writing technique that's meant to imply something dubious or underhanded is afoot; consider, for example, the tonal difference between the headline "Vaccines are safe, say doctors" and the scare-quoted "Vaccines are 'safe', say doctors". They're essentially a punctuation shorthand for an exaggerated eye-roll and a sighing "... whatever that even means any more!" after the word in quotes.
The scare-quoted term in this week's coverage was "free" (whatever that even means any more), and the games that earned this journalistic eye-roll were Fortnite and Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery. A disparate pair, for sure, but both games with claims to being "free" that earned ire from different corners of the media.
Online multiplayer phenomenon Fortnite is the topic of a scatter-gun attempt by the British mainstream press to reignite hand-wringing about games as a pernicious influence upon the nation's youth; much of the coverage has focused on the game's supposedly addictive qualities, but concerns over the amount of money people can spend in an ostensibly free game have also been given a significant airing. Newly minted mobile title Hogwarts Mystery, on the other hand, has received its roasting from the specialist press, with eyebrows being raised over the game's energy mechanisms, which seem particularly cynically calculated and tone-deaf even by the standards of the increasingly cynical mobile games market as a whole.
"The mainstream media has shown pretty much zero interest in the issues with Hogwarts Mystery"
If the scare quotes around the word "free" are the same in both cases, though, the rest of the coverage couldn't be more different. In fact, the specialist press has been quick to leap to the defence of Fortnite, while the mainstream media has (with the exception of some coverage from outlets that have made the effort to cover games with specialist writing, as they do film and other media) shown pretty much zero interest in the issues with Hogwarts Mystery.
And Hogwarts Mystery seems like a prepackaged gift to a conservative newspaper, especially given its reported tendency to prompt players to pay to top off their energy in order to resolve scenes like, er, a child being strangled. So why the gulf between the mainstream and specialist press coverage of these stories, and what does this differential mean for people creating games and thinking about business models?
It's worth noting, before going into this any further, that I don't mean for a single second to draw any equivalence between the actual facts of Fortnite's business model - which is very light-touch, focuses on cosmetic items, and really does deserve to be called free, without scare quotes - and Hogwarts Mystery's sledgehammer-to-the-face implementation of free-to-play monetisation. The reason Fortnite isn't being criticised in the specialist press is, by and large, because the specialist press understands what it is and knows that its monetisation is actually very respectful of its players. What's interesting, though, and what I think is important to unpick, is why Fortnite is being targeted by the mainstream press - and why Hogwarts Mystery, despite being far more problematic in many ways, is not.
I'd submit that there are two things at work here, the first of which is straightforward brand recognition. Fortnite is a new brand, entirely unfamiliar to most of the parents and grandparents who might read the pearl-clutching coverage about it in the newspapers. Sure, it's one of the most popular games in the world right now, a social and cultural phenomenon that spans not just the game itself but a wide assortment of media that's sprung up around it. But the horizon of that phenomenon is tight, and if you're not someone engaged with the game you probably have only the dimmest notion of what it is, if any at all.
That makes it pretty straightforward for a newspaper to run, rather unscrupulously, with an article essentially saying, 'Hey, you know that thing your kids are really involved with that you know nothing about? Guess what? It's actually bad' - an editorial line that has been bread and butter for conservative publications for literally centuries.
Harry Potter, on the other hand, is very widely known and liked; many parents credit the series with getting their kids to read books, and view it as being generally a benign or positive influence. It wouldn't be impossible to hack together a story saying, 'Hey, look at this game using the Harry Potter brand to exploit your kids', but it's a tougher sell. Parents are intrinsically less worried about their kids engaging with Harry Potter (or Marvel, or Disney, or any other major, well-understood kids' media brand) than they are about them engaging with something they've never heard of before. A major brand, in other words, can be a suit of armour protecting against a lot of criticisms of a game's business model or monetisation approach.
"Fortnite shows that sometimes even the lightest touch business model will come unfairly under fire if a game is popular enough"
That leads on to the second factor that's in play here, which is something similar but even more deeply ingrained. Fortnite is primarily a console and PC title; Hogwarts Mystery is a mobile game. That shouldn't make such a huge difference to perceptions from parents or mainstream media, especially given that mobile games are a much larger industry than console or PC games at this point - but nonetheless, there's a clear trend for the mainstream media to view things on console and PC as intrinsically more worrying or pernicious than exactly the same things on mobile.
This week's coverage is far from being the first example of this. An even more egregious example of this bias in the news recently is the furore over loot boxes, which only became a big issue when console games adopted them despite similar mechanisms being present in mobile games for years. This isn't to say that loot boxes are fine or good; rather, that the mainstream media - and latterly government regulators - only became interested in them as a problematic monetisation system when they made the jump from smartphones (where similar systems remain ubiquitous) to console and PC titles.
Here, too, familiarity plays a major role. Everyone carries a smartphone, which makes them less threatening and "weird" to parents and newspaper journalists than consoles or gaming PCs. In many households, a console or gaming PC is a device that's generally used only by one or two people, and for the others - potentially including both parents - it and its influence are a potentially worrisome mystery. Smartphones, however, have been demystified; how could everyone's favourite Facebook and Candy Crush device ever be a negative influence? (No, don't start making a list, we'll be here all day.)
It's not just smartphones as devices, either; it's smartphone games in particular, with a pretty huge swathe of smartphone owners playing games on them, including many in demographics that aren't really engaged with console or PC titles. This wide exposure to smartphone gaming has played a big part in normalising acceptance of business practices and monetisation models that would have people shouting the house down on other platforms.
These biases - a tendency to shrug off troublesome business practices around well-known brands, and to give smartphones a degree of leeway that consoles and PCs just don't receive - are easy to understand, then; but explaining their existence and foundations doesn't actually do anything to end them. It's just a reality that while smartphone games may do some egregious things with their monetisation, they're now so familiar, and the games on them are so widely played, that the sting is taken out of any media attack on them. Consoles and gaming PCs, on the other hand, remain enthusiast devices, and are often subject to a generational barrier and a degree of intrinsic suspicion from parents and other non-engaged demographics.
The point here isn't just that the media carries this bias; the point is that in a climate where this bias exists, console and PC game developers need to tread carefully and make appropriate decisions to avoid falling foul of such biases. "Mobile games do it all the time!" is not a helpful or worthwhile defence of console/PC business model decisions, because the reality is that those platforms are being judged differently. As fair or unfair as that may be, that's the climate, and wise developers will figure out how to work within it rather than railing against it.
Of course, as Fortnite shows, sometimes even the lightest touch business model will come unfairly under fire if a game is popular enough. Though if your game ever gets as popular as Fortnite, you'll probably be in a position to laugh off some British newspapers getting their boxers in a bunch.