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The year of PR disasters

2019 in Review: Industry figures and companies said or did ridiculous, inappropriate, and outright harmful things... and got away with it

Every month, our North American editor Brendan Sinclair runs (what I personally think is) a pretty amusing and informative regular column: 10 Years Ago This Month.

In it, he looks back at whatever was in the news, well, ten years ago that month, and examines the eventual impacts on the industry. One segment within that column that I've watched evolve this year has been his "Good Call/Bad Call" section, where he looks at various public statements and decisions made by companies and executives and breaks them down based on how they turned out for those concerned or the industry at large. The results are inevitably almost always either ironic, sad, or hilarious.

When I was looking back on our articles from the past year to write this 2019 in review piece, I suddenly felt I was writing a weird parody of our site's own column in the form of a long list of "Bad Calls." For all the triumphs of technology and hardware and game design and community, 2019 has also been an agonizing, endless march of decisions and statements by executives, companies, and prominent individuals that probably should have gotten someone, somewhere in big trouble, given the immediate bad press attached to them. And yet, as you'll see momentarily, those involved seemed to float above the carnage on almost every occasion.

To Brendan or whoever is writing 10 Years Ago This Month ten years from now: on behalf of 2019, I'm very sorry.

Bad Call/Bad Call

Let's start with a recap in chronological order:

We did not make it two whole weeks into 2019 before Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford found himself entangled in multiple lawsuits with former Gearbox lawyer Wade Callender, who accused him of breach of fiduciary duty, contract violations, and fraud. One segment of the suit alleged Pitchford had left an unsecured USB drive in a Dallas, Texas restaurant called The Medieval Times that contained sensitive company information...and "Pitchford's personal collection of 'underage' porn."

Remarkably, Pitchford had already stepped in it a year before this lawsuit took place. In a podcast, Pitchford admitted to leaving a drive at the restaurant containing "secrets of my company and future games in development" as well as "barely legal porn" from a cam girl whose handle was 'Only 18.' Uh, oops.

But in a conclusion that will quickly become a recurring theme throughout the rest of this piece, nothing ever came of any of this. Callender, Pitchford, and Gearbox all agreed to drop their lawsuits in October...though Pitchford is now in a different legal tangle with the voice actor for Claptrap, who says Pitchford physically assaulted him.

Shareholder value

Layoffs are never good PR, and 2019 was rife enough with them to fuel a Twitter account dedicated solely to listing them. But the worst of them all this year (in terms of number of people affected and terrible headlines, anyway) were the layoffs at Activision-Blizzard in February of approximately 800 people -- announced in the same financial call in which the company reported its most profitable year ever.

Layoffs are never good PR, and 2019 was rife enough with them to fuel a Twitter account dedicated solely to listing them

The huge number of people affected, the company's handling of the announcement by revealing it in a financial call to investors before employees, and the juxtaposition of the announcement with the company's reveling in record profits resulted in the Twitter hashtag #FireBobbyKotick. The company CEO never got fired of course, and Activision-Blizzard has chugged onward as normal with the rest of its restructuring since.

Shoutout to Mark

Yeah, I know, the THQ Nordic AMA was this year! I can't believe it either. 2019 has gone on ad infinitum.

If you somehow missed or forgot about this incident, this was the one where Darksiders publisher THQ Nordic decided to host an "Ask Me Anything" on an imageboard known for NSFW content of all kinds, including hate speech, child pornography, harassment, and abuse. When the internet reasonably pointed out that this was a terrible idea, the publisher initially got defensive. "the opportunity was here and we took it," read an official tweet. "we got apporached in a very friendly and polite manner and were assured, said person (shoutout to Mark) will take care of the nasty stuff. so, here we are." Well, there we were.

Parent company THQ Nordic AB later apologized on behalf of its subsidiary, as did the publisher's marketing director Philipp Brock, and that was the end of it as far as THQ was concerned. 8chan went on to play host to posts from three mass shooters over the rest of the year, including two attempts to live stream their killings and multiple hateful manifestos.

A year of missteps...

This is very quickly getting out of hand, and we've only covered through February so far. Let's speed it up:

"We don't call them loot boxes... We call them 'surprise mechanics'

EA's Kerry Hopkins

This is not all! There were so many others I excluded for space! 2019 was A Lot!

...and a year of progress

I was originally going to headline this piece "The Year of PR Gaffes," but "gaffe" implies some sort of goofy accident. And while about a third of these are kind of funny on their faces (at least sardonically, anyway), it is remarkable how deeply unfunny most of these incidents are when you examine them more closely. And that doesn't even speak of the many stories I didn't include in this piece because they were less "PR Disaster" and more "Really Awful Thing Just Happens."

"It is remarkable how deeply unfunny most of these incidents are when you examine them more closely"

We can still chuckle at some of these and the way they played out (I mean, the original Sonic trailer is objectively funny), but the sad side of all this is that the list above represents an overwhelming lack of accountability for bad behavior. There is always a moment of shocked and appalled response when the next story of crunch or harassment or exploitative business practices or bigotry or what-have-you hits the headlines, but a significant portion of this industry has gotten all-too-good at marching onward after the latest Bad Thing. Arguably, the whole world has, not just games.

But that also might be changing. A piece like this deliberately focuses on the bad calls, of which there were plenty, but by nature misses the fact that 2019 has also been a continuation of a growing demand for that accountability the industry is missing. ExposÚs on terrible treatment of workers and exploitative bosses land once every few months now not because the industry is somehow worse, but because we are beginning to speak out loud about its decades-worth of worst offenses.

This year also saw stories of industry figures speaking out against abusers, considering unions, calling for political and social change, and promoting diversity. It's not enough to dub this a "Year of Accountability," but enough to make me believe we're moving in that direction.

Progress is slow. 2019 lasted forever, and while I'll leave business predictions to the analysts, I imagine 2020 will have its own hefty share of horrible, frustrating, outright Bad Calls. But enough people fighting to make the industry better will also, I think, continue shining more and more light on its worst decisions, and over time make this industry kinder, safer, more inclusive, and better for everyone involved.

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Latest comments (2)

Ron Dippold Software/Firmware Engineer A month ago
What makes 2019 particularly nasty is that it's crossing the streams of gaming's habitual problems and the entire world veering further into a populist/nationalist/racist trashfire (sometimes literally, as in Brazil). The 3D Realms thing, for instance, and THQ snuggling up to white supremacists.

In that context G2A's tireless but futile efforts to present a money laundering business as a legitimate businessmens' social club almost look, yes, amusing.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A month ago
Many of the disasters listed have one thing in common. The public perception and perspective spread by the public does not match the PR statements and the perception they suggest.

While some politicians can count on people being entrenched enough to spitefully parrot anything, the video game industry cannot. This defined 2019, there are still scandals in video games, because video gamers refuse to be dragged down to the level of people engaging in the cultural warfare that is politics. Any attempts of PR trying those tricks were all brutally maimed, as can be observed by reading the list above.
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