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.
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
- Randy Pitchford reappeared in the headlines at the beginning of May, announcing at a gameplay reveal event that Borderlands 3 would have "no microtransactions." When several publications wrote up clarifications from Gearbox that the game would indeed have cosmetic microtransactions, Pitchford went after Game Informer on Twitter for *checks notes* reporting accurate information about the game.
- That same week, we got our first look at the Sonic the Hedgehog Movie. Due to a vocal, if unsurprising, fan reaction, it looks a little different now.
- At E3, Twitch streamer Guy 'DrDisrespect' Beahm had his badge revoked for filming in a public bathroom. I thought that was a pretty bad decision at the time, like maybe the kind that results in legal action, but I guess I was wrong since now he's getting his own TV show.
- "We don't call them loot boxes... We call them 'surprise mechanics'" - EA's Kerry Hopkins. That's all.
- In July, two artists working on multiplayer first-person slasher Mordhau described a pretty terrible-sounding feature that would toggle women and non-white custom characters off, so that players could see every other player as a white male. Developer Triternion then explained that this was never a planned feature, the artists were mistaken, and that their team was too small to keep racial slurs from showing up in top threads on Mordhau's official forums.
- If you went to E3 as media in 2019, the Entertainment Software Association leaked your personal info, including whatever address and phone number you used to register.
- Surprise! That last point is also true if you attended E3 in several previous years. E3 registration for 2020 is coming up in a month or so and the ESA still has not publicly said anything about how it's going to keep this from ever happening again.
- Epic Games eventually got around to denouncing a "disturbing trend" of harassment toward developers that publish games on its store. Of course, it took the Ooblets developers receiving "thousands, if not tens of thousands" of threats and hateful messages for Epic to get to this point despite these issues simmering for months.
- We wrote a lot about G2A this year, from developers suggesting players pirate games rather than buy keys from the marketplace, to G2A offering a key blocking tool that only 19 studios showed interest in, to a G2A representative trying to pay websites for positive sponsored articles that would not be marked as sponsored, to their weird fudging of their own history in response to accusations that G2A was responsible for chargebacks on stolen keys. G2A claims it's trying to rehabilitate its image, but after a hectic year of headlines I'm not sure that's going to plan.
- For a brief, shining moment, Ion Fury developer Voidpoint and publisher 3D Realms had made a good, appropriate apology after developers were screencapped using ableist, transphobic, and sexist language, while a slur and a homophobic "joke" were found in-game. They then bafflingly followed it up by walking back the apology, saying they wouldn't be "censoring" the game. Then, they removed the slur anyway (the "joke" remained).
- Ng Wai 'Blitzchung' Chung deserves a segment all his own for his support of Hong Kong protests. The PR disaster here was Blizzard's response: banning him from Hearthstone for six months and sparking a month's worth of headlines. Instead of including a recap of that here, we named him one of our People of the Year.
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. Exposés 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.