[In an opinion piece, SpyParty dev Chris Hecker reflects on what he sees as the damaging relationship between developers and the games press saying "someone is going to have to take their finger off the trigger first" when it comes to trust and information.]
Back in the 1990s, a friend of mine was a fairly senior marketing executive at Microsoft, and I was an opinionated twenty-something programmer who knew everything, like most people my age.
I hung out with her and her husband (another Microsoft programmer, slightly older than me, but much less annoying) fairly often, and I noticed she was always very careful and measured about how she spoke in public.
One time, I was at their house for dinner, and I bluntly asked: "Why don't you ever say anything interesting or subtle when the press is around?" Without pausing, she said: "When I was a junior marketing person on Excel, somebody from a trade magazine came by to talk about the new version."
"I gave him the demo and we talked about the new features, and it went well. Towards the end, he asked if it had any bugs, and I said 'sure, we postponed or resolved as won't-fix about 2,000 minor bugs', which was pretty good for a piece of software the size of Excel, localized into so many languages.
The headline for the article was 'New Version of Excel to Ship with 2,000 Bugs'. From that day forward, I have always been careful about what I say to the press."
What's the lesson here? The headline wasn't a misquote. The "journalist" didn't make up the quote and attribute it to my friend. She said it, plain and simple. So, fair game for a headline? Or, did it completely misrepresent the conversation, losing any contextual subtlety about the reality of commercial software product development, the nature and severity (or lack thereof) of those bugs, and was it designed merely to get eyeballs on the article, without regards to communicating any kind of deeper truth?
I think you can guess where I come down on that question.
In 2007, I gave a 'rant' at the Game Developers Conference, entitled, Fear of a Wii Planet. Rants at the GDC are short lectures given by developers that, at their best, are thought-provoking, entertaining, and controversial. They are usually given in a tongue-in-cheek style, which is not to say they're fictional or not truthful, just that the good ones try to balance comedy, veracity, detail, and rhetorical effect.
In this rant I said the following quote: "The Wii is a piece of shit."
It got a lot of laughs. I was blasting Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet in the background for comedic effect and then I went on to explain what I meant in relatively technical terms, which I'll talk about below.
But, I said it, plain and simple. So, fair game for a headline, right? And, I did work on a high profile game at the time, so no problem using that in the headline as well, right? Maybe something like 'Spore Developer Calls Wii a Piece of Shit' or something similar...
I don't think so. Journalists have a responsibility to present their readers with the context of a quote, and to not pull quotes out of their context simply to drive traffic or incite flame wars. No one at the rant, in the context, thought it was a big deal, and this included a senior Electronic Arts executive on the rant panel itself. No one who was actually there foresaw the firestorm it would cause amongst the press and fans.
This disconnect, this gap between the experience of the people in context, and the experience of the people reading the quotes out of context, is the key problem with "reporting" like this. It creates its own news, news that did not happen at the actual event being covered. The minimization of that gap should be one of the primary goals of a journalist covering an event. Instead, too often, game journalists seek to widen that gap.
Let me be clear: I screwed up, and I am sorry about it. I never should have made my points that way. However, the sad truth is, I screwed up because I stupidly didn't realize how my quotes would sound out of context. It never even occurred to me that they would or could be taken out of context. I never imagined somebody would read a single quote from a dense 10 minute comedic lecture and draw conclusions about my beliefs from that, not to mention draw conclusions about me as a person, or even about my wife, who also got insulting mails as a result of the rant and its coverage.
Some would say my mistake was assuming the relationship between the game press and game developers was not a hostile one. My more experienced friends were surprised at my naivety. They said: 'Duh, you always have to be careful around the press, they're just looking for an angle to exploit like that for controversy'. I think that's an incredibly cynical attitude, but I can't say my experience is refuting this argument very effectively...
I laid relatively low for a while, until I was inaccurately blamed for the lack of depth in Spore in a forum post. This also caught fire, and was again covered by some mainstream news outlets. This time, I hadn't even said or done the things I was accused of, and no fact checking was done at all. In response to this, I gave a rant aimed at game journalists called 'Do Your Job Well, Please'.
Now, years later, a journalist interviewed me about my new game SpyParty, indie game development in general, and my misadventures with the press. I figured enough time had passed, so I talked openly about the mistakes I'd made in the Wii rant, the context in which it happened, and how I thought the journalists who covered it also made mistakes, especially in choosing inflammatory headlines to drive traffic that grossly misrepresented the subtlety of what I was actually trying to say.
We spoke about this topic for almost an hour. We talked about how misquotes and out-of-context quotes are why most game developers never talk openly with the press, and always stay on message, even though those pre-approved messages are almost always boring and content-free. We talked about the chilling effect this has on the free flow of information in our industry. We talked about how there is a responsibility on the parts of both developers and the press to make sure interesting and accurate information is conveyed to the fans. We talked about how the title of a piece should reflect its actual content.
The article for this interview was just published with the title Hecker: I stand by my Wii is s*** rant. It's as if the conversation about the importance of the choice of title for a subtle discussion about controversial subjects never happened. The quotes inside the article present some of the longer, more nuanced discussion, but as you can read in the comments, the damage is already done. Again.
And then, of course, because the initial tone of this article is senselessly negative, this is carried across to the other articles regurgitating the interview, including Chris 'Wii = Cubes duct taped together' Hecker stands by his original comments, and the beyond-awesome Former Spore Dev Still Thinks the Wii is "a Piece of Sh*t".
What the f**k, people?!
I don't know what the solution is here. It is completely obvious to me now why most developers are not allowed to speak to the press, and why most people who do speak to the press don't actually say anything interesting or subtle. This is the situation we are in now, and I think it's going to take the cooperation of both press and developers to get out of it.
Developers do not trust the press, and why should they? My experience over the years is certainly evidence that trusting the press is risky. At the same time, because of this lack of trust, the press never gets any intrinsically interesting information from developers, and so they feel forced to amplify the controversial aspects of any story. Someone is going to have to take their finger off the trigger first.
Here, for the record, is what I was actually saying in the Fear of a Wii Planet rant:
1. Computation Power is Not Orthogonal to Gameplay
This is a technical statement, and the words are chosen carefully, especially orthogonal. This statement says the speed of the machine and the gameplay you can create on the machine are coupled. The faster the machine, the more options you have for developing the algorithms that make up the interactive systems of the game, including the AI and controls.
I am saying performance matters, and not just for graphics, but also for gameplay. I tried to be clear that a) I'm not saying anything about the importance of graphics, for the purposes of the rant I "didn't care about graphics", I was talking only about the gameplay, and b) I'm not saying one cannot do awesome games on a slower platform, only that it's harder. Of course one can make good games on slow platforms, that's prima facie obvious, just look at history, but that has nothing to do with whether or not it's easier and more fruitful to try to advance the state of the art of gameplay when you have more memory and horsepower.
If aliens came down and said we could only develop on the Wii from now until the end of time, I would still make games for the rest of my life, but I would rather the aliens not do that, just like it would have been a bummer if the aliens had stopped hardware at the Sega Genesis. I want games to fulfill their potential as the preeminent art and entertainment form of the 21st century, and I think we're going to need to make a lot better, deeper, more advanced games for that to happen, so both hardware and software developers are going to have to work very hard to make this possible.
The faster the hardware, the more software developers can concentrate on the higher level algorithms, and the more advanced interactive algorithms are possible, it's that simple.
2. I worry that Nintendo doesn't care about games as an art form.
The second part of the rant contrasted how the three console manufacturers talk about games. This is obviously a more hand-wavy argument than the previous one, but in general, I've found Microsoft and Sony executives talk about games as being peers to the other big art and entertainment forms, like film, literature, and music, while Nintendo tends to focus on "making fun games".
This worries me, because I think everybody in the industry needs to step up in terms of pushing games to be deeper and more emotionally meaningful, to speak to the human condition. I don't think aiming "just for fun" is enough to get us where we need to be, and as I've said before, I worry we will end up in the cultural ghetto like the toy and comics industries if we do this.
Again, this does not mean I don't like fun games, or that I don't like any Nintendo games, or anything simplistic like that. I just think Nintendo has earned a lot of influence in the game industry, and I want to see them using this influence to help push the art form forward in other directions besides just accessibility and fun. I think they've done some amazing games, and I do think their work on making games more accessible and mass market has been great, but we need their help in other directions as well.
I know this was a long article, but I wanted to comment on and clarify the situation in my own words, and I appreciate you reading this far.
[This article originally featured on Chris Hecker's blog. It is republished here with permission.]