Indie Website vs. Indie Developer

May 14, 2013, Author: Andy Corrigan

I’ve toyed with the idea of writing this piece for over a month now. There’s no real point to it other than journaling some awkward discourse between myself and an independent developer. There’s no major revelation that I wanted to make, no deep metaphor or even a view-changing sentiment. It’s just my take on a recent minor event and thought it might provide some interesting insight into how strange the media/developer relationship can be at times.

A month or so ago we were approached by a vexed independent developer (who will remain anonymous) who made contact with us via our Facebook page. The developer’s tone was considered but clearly irritated, as he detailed his annoyance at a comment on his game’s Greenlight page made by one of my writers in their own free time.

In the message, speaking directly to our writer (who will also remain anonymous), the developer described the offending comment as ‘uninformed’, ‘rude’ and ‘entirely unprofessional’, before explaining that they had since deleted the comment from their page.

The email went on to detail how our writer didn’t understand the various mechanics, hadn’t learned the game properly, and how their derision of lag in this online-only game wasn’t their fault, as he chose a server with people ‘most likely’ from a different country. Ultimately, he fell back on the fact that they’re a ‘small, growing company’ as his reasoning.

The developer had clearly researched our site before making contact, making a point of noting that this is a site that relies heavily on its different personalities and the strong opinions of which, before undoing that by pretty much calling us ‘trolls’ and ending on a statement that called our integrity into question.

Now, given that this site has only ever been run on the steam of its volunteers, and I’ve never been able to pay anyone with anything other than my gratitude, you’ll probably understand that I’d be a little protective of my team. My initial thoughts pretty much boiled down to the following:

Our writer wasn’t operating in an official capacity in playing their game. We had no intention of covering it before now. He tried it as a result of his own interests, in his own free time, didn’t like it and commented to that effect. This is his prerogative as a potential consumer. That’s how he approached their game: as a potential consumer.

I don’t own him; he can do, say or think whatever the chuff he likes away from his role with us. While I admit that he could stand to learn that actual human beings worked on the games that he plays, good or bad, I would never be as draconian as to try and control anyone’s opinion. That would simply defeat the object of the site’s existence.

Even in the event that he was actually covering the game on behalf of the site (which he categorically wasn’t), I’ve worked with him long enough to trust implicitly that he’ll approach any game as objectively as he can.

If the comment focused on a misunderstanding of the game’s mechanics, I always think in these cases that there’s a chance that the game itself might not communicate those elements effectively enough. The perception of that can only come from someone that has played the game, in this case our writer. It’s not up to the developer to decide that. I also found it a bit weird that developers could potentially delete all traces of negative feedback; to me, it goes against Greenlight’s purpose. I’m a Greenlight greenhorn, though, so forgive me if I’m mistaken.

I decided that although I didn’t really care what our guy thought about a game we were probably never going to cover, it would be best to reach out and outlay my stance on it. I outlined the above but ended my email by asking to see the comment that caused the offense and how he tracked it back to us, just so I could read it over and make sure there was nothing as untoward as was made out.

A few days later I got a response, which again attacked our writer right off the bat, labelling him as someone who acted as if he had ‘no experience in the industry’. He used the ‘troll’ word freely again, and tried to awkwardly work in that infamous quote ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ (I feel I must point out that as a huge Spidey fan he failed to hyphenate the name ‘Spider-Man’, which automatically loses him some points…)

He explained that he traced our guy back to us because the site was listed in his Steam profile and that could not forward me the comment as there are no logs once deleted. While it seemed convenient, I took his word on that. He did, however, make a point of admitting that the comment ‘wasn’t super offensive’, ‘did not attack us[them] personally’, nor did our writer ‘make absurdly bold claims’.

So where was the problem then? If our guy wasn’t offensive, didn’t get personal and didn’t make absurd claims, then really, why the hell was I even involved? Simply, as described in the same email, this developer saw our writer as more of a danger to his potential sales than the ‘average user’. This was at odds with the great lengths taken to justify how his opinion was somehow less valid. Odd.

Any minor, lingering doubts I had over my writer’s innocence had completely dissipated at this point. I still had no personal interest in this developer’s game either; I’ve never been the biggest PC gamer, and I was aware of Greenlight but hadn’t actually been on to see it, so I thought now would be as good a time as any.

There's not an image I can put in here without giving clues to withheld identities. Instead, please enjoy this picture of a gun-wielding cat riding a fire-breathing unicorn.

There’s not really an image I can put in here without giving clues to withheld identities. Instead, please enjoy this picture of a gun-wielding cat riding a fire-breathing unicorn.

Judging by the additional note that graced the bottom of their product description, it seemed that the game had been drawing criticism for its name, which was pretty damn similar to that of a huge indie title and even shared the same graphical style. In the middle of that overly-defensive, indulgent text were the words ‘we invite your criticism’. You can be sure I rolled my eyes.

Commentaries on the superficial aspects of the game aside, a scroll through the comments thread showed that my writer wasn’t alone in his musings, but his views were deleted, because he was somehow more dangerous than the others.

Once again, I felt a pang of unease that a developer could potentially remove all negative comments from their own page. This isn’t a criticism of this particular developer, let me clarify, nor am I accusing them of that. A glance now shows that there are negative comments left on their page, alongside plenty of positive ones, I should hasten to add!

With this knowledge, I penned another response to the developer. If our guy wasn’t super offensive and didn’t cross a line, then what does it matter to me if he played their game in his own spare time and didn’t like it? What’s the fuss? Why is this a site issue, rather than a personal one?

I couldn’t let a few things go, though. I asked if our writer had not featured our site’s URL in his profile, would they have left his comment up and taken it on the chin? Against my better judgement, I communicated my ill-ease that the comment was deleted, and asked his thoughts on how this power could be misused (I made sure to stress that I wasn’t accusing them of that, nor passing comment on the quality of their game), and I also cheekily prodded him regarding his line about ‘welcoming criticism’.

It was then I was told that I misunderstood, that our writer’s comment did cross a line, despite not being personal or fantastical in his claims. It was rude, but not ‘outrageously hateful’. He also said that he had deleted our writer’s comment before checking out his profile to see who he was. He argued that our writer was absolutely representing us by commenting. He claimed that he wasn’t trying to get anyone fired… only he kinda was, judging by what came next when it all got a little silly.

He likened the situation to that of Adam Orth, recently fired by Microsoft for being outspoken on Twitter in the famous ‘always on’ debate. He made a ridiculous claim that established writers at popular sites (one I’ve written for, no less) never express negative opinions in public forums outside of their professional roles because there would be repercussions. He made a shaky supposition on what would happen if Shigeru Miyamoto criticised another developer’s games off the clock.

Every part of his argument was deeply flawed.

There is a colossal difference between a guy getting sacked for publicly attacking his own company’s consumers and a part-time writer who didn’t like a game in his own time. Colossal.

Secondly, most games writers will openly express criticism on games that their own publications reviewed favourably. I literally see it all the time. As a more recent example, Bioshock Infinite scored rave reviews across the board, but a read of the games media’s Twitter accounts would make it seem like the worst game ever created. There’s a reason for this; a review is simply an opinion and everyone’s opinions and tastes are different.

As for that weak Miyamoto hypothesis, what about the likes of Keiji Inafune? Any indie developer should know of the ramblings of Phil Fish and Jonathan Blow. It happens all the time.

That’s exactly why I made sure that our own site’s mission statement (which this developer read, going by previous emails) clearly specifies that ‘not one person on our staff will ever talk on behalf of others or the site as a whole’. The site is founded on differences; we embrace them.

In my final rebuttal to this developer, I suggested that we agree to disagree, although I communicated my reasons for disagreeing with his previous statements. I said if he wanted to contact our writer via Steam and take it up with him personally, that’s cool, only I saw no need for the site to be involved any more (or even in the first place). I concluded by wishing him well with their game going forward. I truly, genuinely meant that too.

That’s because we love our fellow indies. Our podcast features interviews with independent developers every single month, we’ve reviewed plenty of indie games over the years, editorialised about the merits of others, and we’ll continue to do so. On the Vita especially, I’ve paid money for indie games over asking for review codes, as I believe it’s best to support the teams responsible. I personally admire anyone with the courage to follow their dream and fight to make a success of it, as we’re cut from the same cloth.

I also absolutely understand the bitter disappointment of someone criticising something that I worked hard creatively on. I’m a freelance writer for other publications; I get it every time I’m published. As an indie games site, we face that battle every single time that one of our pieces goes up on N4G. I get that it’s disheartening, but it’s also what makes us better at what we do. That’s where our similarities end in this instance, though.

For me, although it all started from a personal opinion made in someone’s free time, this illustrates a clear misunderstanding of the media’s role, enthusiast or otherwise, in relation to the developer.

While rightly, the two should enjoy a symbiotic relationship, it’s not the media’s responsibility to sell or promote games, only to report on them; to discuss them; to talk about the moments we enjoyed, the moments that missed the mark, and the moments profound. In reviews we’ll recommend or discourage as we think is right, objectively as possible, of course.

We’ll take great delight when games we like do well, but let’s be absolutely clear about one thing: it’s not our fault when they don’t, and we’re under no obligation to say anything to the contrary.