Opinion: Should tweets be taken so seriously?
Earlier this week, the unthinkable happened: Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson got annoyed about Twitter.
Like it or not, the social network has become a prime source of news; a trend that is far from specific to the gaming press, but when one of the most open and charismatic developers in the business has so publicly bristled at his tweets being reported by gaming media, it warrants another look.
The catalyst was Persson's tweeted offer to Double Fine founder Tim Schafer to fund development of a Psychonauts sequel. It followed Schafer saying in an interview that he'd pitched the game to publishers without success, and only needed a few million dollars to make it. Enter Notch and his Minecraft war chest, offering to pick up the tab. Schafer awoke the following morning in his Las Vegas hotel room to a stream of texts telling him to check his Twitter account; he feared he was being sued.
The game press the world over reported on these few tweets, sensing the beginning of a great story: two of the wittiest and best-liked devs in the industry working together, thumbing their noses at traditional publishers. The tweets created their own reality, much to Persson's dismay – yesterday he took to his blog, warning that unless gamers and press alike stop getting so hyped up, they're "going to scare me into doing things secretly instead of being open and transparent via Twitter."
Should tweets be taken so seriously? In this specific case, it was hard not to: Persson's claim that he made his original offer "semi-jokingly" is hard to swallow given that he tweeted minutes later on the same subject with: "Also, I'm serious."
Perhaps he's been a little naïve. With its 140-character limit, Twitter isn't the place for serious business, as there's barely room to get your point across, never mind a dollop of context as well. We've no doubt that Bethesda's Pete Hines didn't mean to be so blunt when he told a fan complaining about the wait for Skyrim patches, "It's been three days. Calm down, we're working on it." That was taken as dismissive, but Hines was merely working within the constraints of the character limit and his own time.
Bigger publishers have fallen foul of Twitter as well. Activision officially followed up on a tweet saying it couldn't "guarantee if or when" the Call Of Duty: Elite service would launch on PC, admitting it "misspoke". When PS3 copies of EA's Battlefield 3 shipped without the promised free copy of Battlefield 1943, the game's official Twitter account said that PS3 owners would get early access to DLC as compensation, despite a timed exclusivity deal having been announced the month before that meant they were already getting it.
Some would contest that the press shouldn't be jumping on these twitch-reaction, context-free, 140-character posts and turning them into news stories, and it's a fair point. But Twitter moves at such a pace that it's now faster at breaking news than the wire services. And when you're waiting on a response from publisher PR that experience suggests may never come, and a community manager gives an honest answer to the same question to a fan on Twitter, why wait?
The question is especially pertinent to Persson, given that he's a canny user of social media who used the likes of Twitter and Reddit to build an empire around Minecraft. He knew exactly what he was doing when he used Twitter to reveal the Scrolls trademark dispute, painting Bethesda as the evil corporation flexing parent company Zenimax Media's legal might to keep the indie upstart in check.
In fact, it's fair to say that Persson – or, perhaps more accurately, his persona, Notch – is a native of the internet, formed by its shifting, immediate nature. Having famously generated the financial means to able to bankroll the multimillion-dollar development of a sequel to a classic, and offering to do so in full view of his 590,000 followers, does he really get to complain if the public gets excited?
Should gamers shoulder the blame, purely for getting excited about something exciting? Should the press, motivated by the need to generate page views and serve the interests of their readers, be chided for reporting on something that comes straight from the horse's mouth? In this case, the answer to both is no. Persson's admitted this morning – on Twitter, of course – that Schafer has emailed to apologise for "making it sound like I had promised him $13 million". We assume he also apologised for initially implying the game could be made for $10 million less than that.
At the same time, Minecraft's success – and by extension Mojang's, and Persson's – was built on the foundations of an open, honest dialogue with its community. It's a relationship that has enriched both the game and gamers' lives, a spark of humanity in an industry that tends to try to quash it in fear of damaging its business priorities. It would therefore be a shame if Notch were to change his ways and retreat behind the safety of a PR firewall, communicating only in carefully chosen, engineered quotes embedded in press releases, not out of fear of saying the wrong thing, but of making a promise he can't keep.
It's in our interests, then, to support his wish to be open, by avoiding sensationalising second-by-second updates, instead taking a longer view and letting events unfold before leaping upon them as fact. That goes, too, for supporting all other game-making individuals who wish to make their voices heard. Listening to them is more than simply hearing what they've said in a tweet.