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EA wants to once again Challenge Everything (almost) | This Week in Business

Apex Legends ping system exemplifies the benefit of questioning assumptions of how things are done

This Week in Business is our weekly recap column, a collection of stats and quotes from recent stories presented with a dash of opinion (sometimes more than a dash) and intended to shed light on various trends. Check back every Friday for a new entry.

"Never assume anything," the old saying goes, "because it makes an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me.'"

It's a trite and over-simplified adage, but it's also frustratingly true. And this week Electronic Arts provided a couple examples of that with the announcement that it would not enforce gameplay patents it holds on accessibility features.

No, this isn't about EA doing anything wrong -- I'm as shocked as you, dear reader -- but instead an example of how EA, the rest of the industry, and even players are benefitting from people taking the time to re-think assumptions that are often taken for granted in gaming.

Let's start with this Twitter thread from Respawn Entertainment senior programmer Rayme Vinson describing the origins of Apex Legends' ping system, which lets players in the team-based shooter communicate without voice chat, telling teammates where they're going, marking areas where they saw enemies or other points of interest.

He credits former Respawn creative director Todd Alderman with a key decision on the ping system: tying the ping action to the R1 shoulder button on a PlayStation pad, which first-person shooter players have long accepted is reserved for throwing grenades.

QUOTE | "But Apex is a team game. Communication is important. He didn't waver. And now anyone playing finds that ping button accidentally within N minutes of gametime, so we onboard from there. Now it's as easy to say 'hey lookit that there!' as it is to pull the trigger to shoot. Suddenly it's a first-class verb. And we started treating it as such." - Vinson, explaining the importance of tying the ping system to a primary button rather than having it "relegated to d-pad hell."

Vinson says Respawn tested it internally with voice chat disabled and randomly assigned user names, which let them get a better sense of how this would work in the wild and allowed them to refine it into such an overwhelming success that it achieved perhaps the highest honor in games: Epic shamelessly stole it for Fortnite (as Epic is wont to do).

Ok, maybe that's not giving Epic enough credit for the iterative genius they bring to other people's innovations. For instance, Fortnite's ping functionality wasn't bound to the shoulder button but was instead relegated to dpad hell.

Anyway, now developers can swipe the ping system without having to smother their conscience first, because EA has given them its blessing to do so in the name of accessibility. And as with many measures that clearly help people with certain disabilities, the simple fact of making a game more accommodating to various player types and playstyles tends to have benefits even for the userbase without such disabilities.

STAT | 59% - The percentage of women who hide their gender when playing games online to avoid harassment, according to a survey released earlier this year.

By removing the necessity of voice chat to communicate with teammates, Apex Legends also helps to reduce the amount of toxic behavior players are subjected to. That was something mentioned by EA's Chris Bruzzo in our interview regarding the patent news as he led up to one of my favorite quotes to ever appear in this column.

QUOTE | "And you might say 'Well, that's pretty limiting, what about the concept of free speech and being able to express yourself in any way you want?' Actually, who says that's a requirement? Why is that a requirement in video games? If I'm playing with two other people in Apex Legends, why is it a requirement for me to be able to express myself in any way -- especially if it means I'm infringing on your ability to have fun playing. That's not an obligation we have, we're not obligated to give you that freedom. What we're trying to do is create environments where everyone can enjoy the experience to the fullest." - Bruzzo, making me want to put clap emojis between every one of those 111 words.

It's fitting this quote came from an executive at the company that once had "Challenge Everything" as its slogan. This industry tolerates a lot of rotten behavior and dodgy business practices in part because it doesn't challenge assumptions.

It's partly why Apple will make such a big deal about privacy but Tim Cook can't even conceive of an App Store that didn't collect user data and make personalized recommendations.

It's partly why big media outlets have comments section overrun with sewage. Because having comments sections to foster engaged users is just assumed to be something you do, while investing the time and effort to moderate them properly is not.

It's partly why Twitch will talk a big game about celebrating marginalized communities but only act on 2% of harassment reports and apparently never once question whether the benefits of engagement are worth providing harassers with the tools they use to attack their victims.

Obviously, the word "partly" is doing a lot of work in those examples and the other part is "because doing it this way makes them the most money." But that's an assumption, too.

Apex Legends is one data point suggesting the opposite, that rethinking those assumptions and creating a product that is more welcoming for your users and less defined by the tantrums of a few bad actors can be financially beneficial on its own (not to mention providing good PR in the process).

Anyone running a community in games -- be it as part of a storefront, a multiplayer game, a Discord server, or a streaming service -- would benefit from considering Bruzzo's point. Online hate and harassment is often talked about as a difficult and intractable problem companies are always wrestling with. And I readily admit it's harder to take care of than simply swinging around a ban hammer (although that should absolutely be part of the solution).

But you can respect and serve your users without giving them free reign to hurt each other, and doing so will make your community a better place to be. You don't need to do things the way they've always been done, especially not if "the way they've always been done" has led to these supposedly intractable problems in the first place.

Of course, as we'll see in our round-up quotes and stats from the rest of the week's news, there are some assumptions EA doesn't want challenged.

The rest of the week in review

QUOTE | "Do we really want to eliminate a mode that allows people to collect real-world players into a team and play with them in a video game? Is that really our intent, to reduce player fun and choice? We want to take that away? Why? So, I think we just have to have more constructive conversations about this, as opposed to just hyperbole." - Bruzzo deflects criticisms of FIFA Ultimate Team's loot boxes apparently assuming nobody will notice that it is possible for games to let people collect things even if they don't have exploitative business models.

QUOTE | "Because a lot of the artists have been working on our competitive games, we kind of default into creating these things that look like they're defensible or attack oriented. We had to really sterilise and wipe down a place, and that was a challenge from the art side. It took quite a while to nail it, to be honest." - Supercell art producer Ken Taya talks about having to challenge developers' assumptions while making the "peaceful" mobile game Everdale after so many years on competitive conflict-driven titles.

QUOTE | "1.) Twitch needs to hold a round table with a group or groups of marginalized creators who have been affected so that way open and honest discussion can lead to the creation and implementation of proactive tool sets.

"2.) Proactive protections that could be used or implemented immediately would be enabling creators to choose the account age of prospective chatters, adding a accept or deny button that mods can use to monitor incoming raids, requiring 2FA for all accounts, etc.

"3.) Remove the ability to attach more than 3 accounts to a verified email.

"4.) Provide us with transparency in time frame for implementing these tools."

- Twitch streamer and #ADayOffTwitch organizer RekIt Raven lays out the concrete actions the campaign is asking the streaming platform to take to help address hate raids against Black streamers.

QUOTE | "I don't really feel like there's much of a choice about these things. The way things are going is not something I feel like I have control over. You look at what happened with streaming in other media and it's just unstoppable." - Double Fine founder Tim Schafer responds to criticisms about subscription services like Game Pass further eroding the notion of ownership in the games industry and creating new gatekeepers for developers after years of work trying to lower barriers to the market. (Double Fine's Psychonauts 2 launched into Game Pass this week.)

QUOTE | "Defendants refused to produce documents regarding complaints and investigations of discrimination and harassment by asserting that they did not exist or that they were privileged and confidential because attorneys were involved in the receipt of complaints and the investigations. Defendants also withheld as privileged and confidential the documents and correspondence on compensation and pay equity analyses purported to address gender disparities because the analysis involved attorneys." - In a new amendment to its lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing accuses the company of shredding documents and breaking even more laws in its effort to avoid punishment for lawbreaking.

Note for companies: Simply involving your lawyers does not make things subject to attorney-client privilege. Having a lawyer around is not a cheat code to let you break the law.

...I mean, not in an ideal world, anyway.

QUOTE | "As we continue to discuss how we best live up to our values and to demonstrate our commitment to creating a game world that reflects them, we believe it's necessary to change the name of the hero currently known as McCree to something that better represents what Overwatch stands for." - The Overwatch team, in a statement released amidst a harassment lawsuit against Activision Blizzard and two weeks after Blizzard lead level designer Jesse McCree was dismissed from the company.

QUOTE | "This was a creative choice that reflects how Vanguard represents the next major installment in the franchise." - Activision explains that the lack of the company's logo on the trailer for the new Call of Duty was not at all a reasonable marketing decision taken by a company concerned about years of institutional negligence negatively impacting its commercial interests.

STAT | £180 million ($247 million) - The amount of relief claimed last year as part of the UK's Video Games Tax Relief program.

STAT | 5 weeks - The span of time between dozens of Fusebox Games staff raising concerns with sexist content in its games and the studio deciding on layoffs and switching to an external development model.

QUOTE | "...we can say that we have a thorough review process, and we have not nor will we support programs where we knowingly violate our principles or values." - Unity CEO John Riccitiello reassures employees that if its AI work is being used by the US military for anything untoward, the government is at least clever enough to hide it from a commercial video game engine maker.

QUOTE | "Reporting on rampant industry sexism when our brand clings to a late-90s 'LOL SEX' connotation is beyond the pale." - Game Developer publisher Kris Graft explains why the outlet changed its name from Gamastura this week.

STAT | 14% - The percentage of the money owed to former 38 Studios employees at the Rhode Island developer's office that they will actually receive after their final paychecks were sent out, some nine years after the Curt Schilling-owned studio's collapse.

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