The 5 Worst Things Happening In Gaming Today
2019 is shaping up to be the most profitable year in video game history. And a lot of crap gets overlooked when you're fighting for a piece of a $152 billion pie. But the behavior of an industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people while still acting like they're based out of the family garage can't be ignored forever. And so, for the benefit of our readers who love games but not necessarily game news, here is a rundown of the gauntlet of madness that gaming has floundered through this year.
Developers Somehow Had No Idea About #MeToo
When 2018 brought us a deep dive into the toxic culture of Riot Games (creators of League Of Legends), it felt like a reckoning for the entire industry. After one of gaming's highest-profile companies gets called out for everything from sexual harassment to frequent rape jokes, others would surely clean up their acts, right? Nope!
In August, composer Jeremy Soule (if you've played an Elder Scrolls game this century, you've heard his work) was accused of rape by designer Nathalie Lawhead, and that opened the floodgates. Lawhead also shared dozens of emails she exchanged with her boss, a buddy of Soule's, showing that he responded to the situation by ... withholding Lawhead's final paycheck before firing her. Vocalist Aeralie Brighton added that Soule once sent her an unsolicited video of himself masturbating, then punished her for objecting by keeping her off a project.
Within 48 hours, Splash Damage developer Luc Shelton was also accused of "sustained psychological and physical abuse." Then Alec Holowka, who worked on the indie hit Night In The Woods, was accused of physical assault and emotional abuse by developer Zoe Quinn. Holowka's sister acknowledged the story after Holowaka died by suicide ... which led to harassment of Quinn, of course. A whole cottage industry of obnoxious YouTubers screamed that Quinn needed to be thrown in jail, because running the SickNoScopes69 channel does not make you a legal scholar.
There are more details and stories of abuse that we have to skip over, because we need to get to the rest of the article at some point. But there has been some progress. Riot faced a class-action lawsuit over their terrible workplace culture, experienced an employee walkout when they tried to force the suit into arbitration, then agreed to an undisclosed settlement and hired an actual adult to come in and get their shit together. So that's how a bunch of men with histories of abuse looked at what was unfolding in Hollywood and thought, "Surely, I will never get caught here in the famously stable video game industry!"
Loot Boxes And Microtransactions Are Getting Even Worse
In addition to allowing players to step into the shoes of their favorite basketball players, the NBA 2K franchise provides them with the tools to simulate a crippling Jordan-style gambling addiction.
Finally, fans of all ages have the opportunity to experience the thrill of slots, the roulette wheel, and plain old cash wagers on the outcomes of games! There's even grandpa's favorite nickel waster, pachinko! It's so egregious that it appears government regulation may be on the horizon, leading some pundits to believe that 2K is going to milk the cash cow for all it's worth until they're shut down by virtual G-men.
If your player starts to get nauseous from the smoky casino air, can you visit the track and bet on the ponies?
Last summer, Rockstar Games included a working casino in their September Grand Theft Auto V Online update. There, for extra realism, the chips could be purchased for a dollar apiece. There are several countries that have banned this feature, but there's no telling whether they care much. Although to be fair, in Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar doesn't allow players to buy virtual gambling currency with real cash.
But at least with sports / crime / old west simulators, you can make the argument that gambling makes a certain amount of sense. And what fun is gambling unless you're putting real money on the line? But spending $300 to buy all the cosmetic skins for one character in a fighting game? That's what experts refer to as a "sucker's bet," and suckers were exactly what Mortal Kombat 11 seemed to be fishing for with its "Premium Shop." But although the ESRB doesn't seem to give much of a damn about such goings-on, they did deem it "M for Mature." Such activities would certainly be taboo in an "E for Everyone" title. Like, say, a remaster of a 20-year-old Crash Bandicoot racing game, which solved its grindy progression system by making the process easier via, you guessed it, microtransactions.
Basic Attempts At Competition Are Being Bungled
If you've bought a PC game in the last decade or so, odds are that it was through Steam. Luckily, Steam has avoided the outright evil that quasi-monopolies often fall into, but they haven't been without scandal.
Would you object to a game called Rape Day (it's as bad as the title implies!) being sold on the same storefront as NBA 2K20 and Civilization VI? Steam thought no one would, only pulling it two days away from its planned March release after objections from approximately everyone. There must have been some fun internal meetings to determine how they failed to anticipate backlash over a product marketed with the image of a man shoving a gun in a woman's mouth while threatening to have sex with her corpse.
That's an extreme example of the quality control problem Steam has long struggled with. For every great game, there are ten barely playable Hunt Down The Freeman-esque pieces of garbage trying to scam consumers. That's the environment in which Epic Games wanted to launch its store, which promised careful curation and more generous revenue sharing with indie developers. And then they took what should have been a slam dunk attempt at healthy competition and repeatedly slammed the ball directly into their own crotches.
The Epic Store acquired some big-name games like Metro Exodus as exclusives ... even though Exodus had been advertised on Steam, leaving Steam users who had preordered it in the lurch. One indie developer slammed Epic for trying to buy them away from Steam after building their marketing around Steam availability, arguing that any money gained from switching to Epic at the 11th hour wouldn't be worth the blow to their credibility. And of course, an indie developer who did make the jump to Epic was bombarded with death threats, antisemitic hoaxes, and shots at his marriage by the famously stable community.
Epic will likely fight through its teething pains, and could be great for many indie developers. But what should be a battle to give consumers options is instead making them fragment their game library among an ever-growing number of exclusive-wielding digital services. And each one has a legion of fans willing to go to comment section for their chosen corporation instead of pointing out how inconvenient this all is. At least Steam and Epic's race to self-inflict the most wounds has created an opening for mid-tier services like GOG ... which, uh, can't stop making cheap jokes about trans people on Twitter. Jesus Christ, does this industry employ anyone in PR?
Theft Is A Legitimate Business Model
Nowhere outside of a Shanghai DVD stall is piracy as prevalent as it is in gaming. Hey, speaking of: Recently, Blizzard Entertainment was compelled to sue the makers of a Chinese game called Glorious Saga for blatantly ripping off World Of Warcraft.
Simply taking someone else's idea and running has been a time-tested recipe for game success for a while now. Saints Row piggybacked off of Grand Theft Auto, while the mechanics from successful games like The Legend Of Zelda and Dark Souls are cribbed without mercy. And if you think it's not much of a problem anymore, take a look at the phenomenon of Fortnite.
Even if you don't know a damn thing about gaming, you're aware of it, if only because of the obnoxious dances. But Fortnite would likely still be a mediocre zombie shooter survival game if it didn't hitch its wagon to the Battle Royale juggernaut (as did the also-popular Apex Legends). This genre was pioneered by PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. That the guy behind it, Brendan Greene, chose "PlayerUnknown" as his online handle seems like some sort of sick joke now, given that his creation will likely survive as a footnote to the more lucrative copycats.
Workers Are Still Treated Like Indentured Servants
Gaming has long been infamous for the crunch, when work weeks ramp up to over 80 hours in a madcap rush to get games finished (or at least shippable) by their release dates. But after years of bad press and increasing union action, crunch is now ... still a huge thing. Fortnite, Mortal Kombat 11, Black Ops 4, and Anthem are just some of the latest titles made in upscale Dickensian sweatshops.
Black Ops 4 QA testers worked 12-hour shifts, received no benefits or paid time off, had to use a separate, more isolated parking lot, and were warned against talking to other employees. They must have been thrilled when Activision's new CFO received $15 million in signing bonuses.
MK11 developers spoke about being threatened with replacement if they didn't turn in 60- or 70-hour weeks in a "loud, obnoxious, super toxic" environment rife with contractor exploitation and gender discrimination. One woman learned that some male colleagues were giving all the women in the office crude nicknames, and hers was "Dyke Bitch." Who the hell ran their HR, Mel Gibson?
Over at Fortnite, a constant need for new updates led to interminable 70-100-hour weeks that caused health issues. During the development of Anthem, dozens of veteran BioWare employees quit, others took doctor-mandated stress leaves, and according to a Kotaku expose, one routinely needed to find a private room to cry in. "Depression and anxiety are an epidemic within BioWare" was not the quote they went with for the front of the box.
Many game companies are, of course, perfectly normal workplaces. But there are so many desperate people wanting to follow their dreams and make games that exploitation like this can run pretty much unchecked. Anyway, uh, who's excited for The Outer Worlds?
E. Reid Ross has a book called BIZARRE WORLD that's on store shelves as we speak. Or you could just order it now from Amazon or Barnes and Noble and leave a scathing/glowing review. Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.
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