The AAA games industry has a bit of an image problem. That’s no secret. With precious few exceptions, they’re considered to be rapaciously greedy and passionless, treating games as vectors for profit first, products second, and art-forms third if at all.
EA has been voted worst company in America twice consecutively, all while a company like Monsanto exists. Even if Umbrella Pharmaceuticals emerged, T-Virus in hand, they’d still get less flak. However, while EA’s reputation suffers in squalor, its CEO and public figurehead, Andrew Wilson, does not. There’s one simple reason for that; professionalism.
Polarizing figures can become some of the most recognisable and famous, or perhaps infamous, people in the world. Marilyn Manson, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Prince. All of them are people that sailed ever higher with every controversy, elevating their band, their name, and their music with them.
While it elevates musicians, controversy plays a very different role in the games industry. It can spell the death of a more commercial product like a video game. A product like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas lost its market entirely due to the inclusion of controversial content. In the wake of the hot coffee mod, the ESRB changed it to an adults only product and many stores pulled it from shelves. The very same quarter, Rockstar lost almost thirty million. So then, in a market so demonstrably sensitive, we have to wonder why figures that provoke controversy are allowed to represent its biggest players.
The impact on the video games industry
The archetypal examples of this is, and perhaps always will be, Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford. Who has somehow managed to bury the exciting news of Borderlands 3’s imminent release in his own personal issues. First came his miscommunication of how micro-transactions would be handled, and I believe it was a sincere mistake. Unfortunately, its impact was immediately worsened as he challenged journalists covering the story. His most notable target being Game Informer’s article.
Things only got worse as he insulted Claptrap’s voice actor, David Eddings. Eddings has since buried the man under allegations of taking royalty money intended for employees and assaulting him. To his credit, he made the right move and entered a professional silence. Instead, Gearbox crafted a far more standard statement instead of worsening things.
I doubt this will impact the sales of Borderlands 3, but it has certainly soured genuine hype for the game. It’s a wonder why Randy Pitchford was the man making the declaration in the first place. Between misleading people with Aliens: Colonial Marines and insulting people for assuming Battleborn would go free-to-play, mere months before it did, the man already had a professional reputation as a liar.
It may well be that he was genuinely excited to share Borderlands 3 with the public. Borderlands has always sat as the shining gem in Gearbox’s rusty crown. As their other titles wither and die, it stays strong. It might have been better for the game and the company if someone else was chosen for the role, while Pitchford certainly has name recognition, it’s for all the wrong reasons.
He wouldn’t be the first man to step away from the limelight for the good of his games. Hello Games director Sean Murray ceased his public presence after the scathing reviews that greeted No Man’s Sky, a game which lacked many features that Murray promised. Hello Games went largely silent and worked tirelessly to improve the product rather than leaving it to die. Since then, the game’s reputation has recovered. The promised multiplayer has been implemented and all areas have been vastly improved. As someone who picked it up years after release, I had a fantastic time with it.
Another great example is Peter Molyneux, the creative force behind the Fable series, another figure with a reputation for deceit. He made the exact same call after 22cans faced massive backlash surrounding Godus, the Kickstarter game that purported to make one lucky player the god of gods.
It’s been almost four years since his withdrawal from the public eye. Since then, he’s only ever emerged to promote a game on the eve of its release. Then he slithers back into the night to resume working. And it’s working. He hasn’t caused any kind of controversy since then.
Recently, talking to Kotaku UK’s Laura Kate Dale, he said: “I think the way I was doing things aggravated a lot more people than it actually interested.” His position allowed 22cans to use the prestige his name still holds without the mistrust and resentment surrounding it.
There is something in that, however. Divisive though he may be, Molyneux’s name does hold a lot of weight. Its attachment to a game does generate interest. There lies the complexity regarding the role these figureheads play in the industry. While a name like Pitchford’s arguably does more harm, there are plenty of names that can work wonders.
For example, following his emancipation from Konami, Hideo Kojima’s name is electric. People have been desperately scrambling for news about anything regarding the man. While Death’s Stranding is an intriguing product on its own merit, it’s undeniable that Kojima’s name is responsible for a large amount of the excitement surrounding it. After all, the man deservedly plasters his name all over his work.
Through the Metal Gear franchise and the PT Project, Kojima has built a reputation and a legacy; both are invaluable PR tools. Then there’s someone like Goichi Suda, who built a reputation for besting even Kojima’s, for now, and his cult following gives any game of his a dedicated audience. Even the status of legendary auteurs like Kojima and Suda51 can be harmful. David Cage demonstrates this beautifully.
Personally, I’m one of those monstrous individuals that enjoys David Cage’s games. Beyond Two Souls numbered among my favourite games of 2013, the same year that brought us masterpieces like The Last of Us and the phenomenal Tomb Raider reboot. Unfortunately, neither feature the magnanimous model of manhood that is Willem Dafoe, so they can’t compete.
David Cage has a reputation for two things. Minimally interactive movie style games and awful character writing. So, while he has a considerable amount of name recognition, it’s one people balk at, even outside any divisive topics.
This isn’t exclusive to big budget developers either. Even beloved creative forces in the indie world can tarnish their legacy. A figure like Phil Fish, thrust into the limelight by the critical success of Fez, harmed his game’s image as he universally slammed Japanese Games and told members of the press to kill themselves. Another indie darling that fell pray to this is Earthworm Jim. Over a decade after the game’s release, Doug TenNapel gained a reputation for homophobia after his contributions to Breitbart and his opposition to gay marriage became known to the public.
In the same vein as Molyneux, TenNapel retreated from the public eye and didn’t allow the news to grow too big. Although after a retrospective critique of the game in 2017, TenNapel lashed out at Kotaku’s Heather Alexandra, misgendering her.
Ultimately, whenever individuals become associated with a product, both become interwoven. In some cases, that can benefit the product, in others it can be detrimental.
The only way to avoid that would be to remove the public face of development entirely, which I think would rob the industry of much of its charm. I believe it would be a travesty to rob video games of the kind of sincere passion put forward by people like Satoru Iwata, a man sincerely beloved as the public face of Nintendo.
The far better option is for people like Randy Pitchford, who may well be doing actual harm to the success of their games, to follow in the wise footsteps of Peter Molyneux and Sean Murray. To recognise when they’re harming their company’s message and step back from the limelight.