[Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander continues our 2011 retrospective with a look at the top 5 biggest controversies of 2011, rounding up the stories that got the industry talking this year.]
Controversies that drum up debate and discussion are valuable contributors to industry conversation. A fruitful year for video games and the folks that make them gets even more interesting when you include crossroads for major industry firms, community challenges for a powerful niche, and misfortune for the studio that made one of the year's most-buzzed games.
Here are some of the issues that drummed up the most spirited debates in the business this year.
5. The Real Zynga?
As the Facebook gaming space's biggest giant prepares to launch a long-anticipated IPO, it's come under enormous pressure. The model of designing and monetizing games on Facebook has been controversial enough in some sectors of the games business, but close scrutiny has come with the territory.
A pair of high-profile expose articles in the New York Times and BusinessWeek illustrated employees under siege, anxious about high standards, the challenge of keeping user numbers up and an excessive focus on investment return and metrics versus a creative internal culture.
If such tidings don't seem bad enough, the business outlook for the company is frequently under fire; one analyst found the success of CastleVillehasn't been significant enough to offset the decline in the company's other games, while another analyst rated the pre-IPO stock as "Underperform" based on Zynga's slowing growth. Often-taciturn Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick (whose company till now has largely avoided the Facebook boom) went as far as to suggest Zynga has "disclosure issues" and "sketchy" metrics.
With the company under the microscope more than ever, discussions and close attention are bound to pursue it as it begins trading, and as industry-watchers aim to peg it as a bellwether for the health of games on Facebook -- for good or for ill.
4. Tough Lessons For CCP
Few public apologies are as humble and candid as that of CCP CEO Hilmar Petursson following the launch of some features that outraged fans. EVE Online's fanbase -- widely reputed for its passion and loyalty -- reacted quite poorly to leaked internal documents back in June. Highly-priced vanity items, some as much as $60, threatened game balance and the community's sense of fairness.
Players believed the "Incarna" updates allowed the purchase of in-game advantages that would otherwise equate to many hours of playtime. Further, CCP was seen to have botched communications, initially suggesting that the negative reaction -- which included in-game protests -- was an expected part of a transition the company had determined to pursue.
The game industry has struggled throughout its history with the task of its own defense, facing misjudgment from circles that often sight-unseen determined their content to be some kind of social negative. After years spent advocating for gaming content as healthy for well-adjusted people, a certain social shift seems underway whereby gamers finally seem willing and ready to ask for more from the games they play.
More specifically, content that some judge as racist or sexist is increasingly met with nothing short of absolute outcry, and a failure to show progressive attitudes or sensitivity to minority groups has been roundly punished by audiences this year where they see it.
One NPC in Deus Ex: Human Revolutionbrought ire as it was viewed by some as a racist caricature, while entire internet community discussions hinged on whether the liberal use of the word 'bitch' in Arkham City was acceptable, or implied sexism. These often-heated discussions about how mature and sensitive people should expect their games to be seem to be a sign that the audience is maturing.
Wind of trouble at the company, which invested heavily in technology that was used to develop L.A. Noire's innovative facial capture system, first surfaced with complaints that over 100 developers had gone unincluded from the game's final credits. Working conditions were reported to have been highly stressful as well, with much rumor reportage pointing to personality conflicts with studio leader Brendan McNamara.
Further, it came to light that staff were owed $1.4 million in unpaid wages and bonuses, with McNamara himself claiming over $100,000 in pay outstanding, even as he battled allegations of mismanagement. The company entered administration and is set to fully close -- while McNamara ended up selling his next game to veteran film producer George Miller.
1. Sony's Mishandling of the PSN Hack
When cyber attackers rocked PlayStation 3 users in what was reported as one of the largest-scale online security breaches of all time, it took too long for the company to come clean about what exactly was going on and how it planned to fix things.
For too long users wondered what kind of attack had taken place, what the perpetrators' motives might be, and what kind of data would be at risk, and fans were outraged when they received an email notifying them of the potential risks days later. Although the company did its best to step up responsibly, further reports of exploits didn't do much to quell anxiety and discussion over whether the company should be better protecting its users and the online service in which those users had invested.
Although the massive hack brought PSN to the forefront of news and tech reporting and was undoubtedly one of the year's major events, the storm of discussion that followed over whether the company could have handled it better, spoken up sooner, apologized with more attention to humility or been quicker about delivering compensatory rewards to users put Sony in the hot seat for the better part of the year.