State of Play 2013: Xbox One-eighty, Adam Orth and online tyranny

Microsoft pulled an unprecedented 180-degree turn in the wake of Sony’s E3 conference, at which it was revealed that the PS4 would not only be cheaper, but also require neither an internet connection nor any fees for used games.

Not so long ago, arguing with someone online was as good a use of one’s time as phoning up a random stranger and shouting at them. Unfortunately, that’s not quite true anymore. The web may sometimes be an obnoxious voice-colony overrun by ear-piercing extremists, life-sucking idiots and attention seeking opinionheads, but it nevertheless carries a massive and growing influence. Developers of games consoles and software are now listening intently to those loud voices, and are even making extraordinary changes to their businesses in order to pacify detractors. In 2013, whining became the locomotive of history.

Back in April, when ex-Microsoft creative director Adam Orth was swarmed with death threats across his email, Twitter and Facebook accounts as well as his mobile phone, those close to him suggested perhaps it was best to take the matter to the police.

“People urged me to do this, but I never really considered it,” he said months later, during a speech at the Game Developers Conference. “I mean, how do you report the entire internet?”

On April 4th, gamers across Twitter were venting their outrage from a then-unconfirmed report suggesting the Xbox One (still unannounced at this point) would require an always-online internet connection to function.
Then, in the middle of the afternoon, Orth posted a 140-character message, in which he claimed he didn’t feel an always-online requirement was controversial, before ending the tweet with the hashtag #dealwithit.
Today he doesn’t deny this was a phenomenal mistake, not least because his Twitter bio showed he was speaking as a creative director at Microsoft Studios. For the hundreds of thousands of people who read it (and shared the screengrab) across Reddit, Twitter and NeoGAF, Orth’s offhand rejoinder was unofficial confirmation of an always-online Xbox. In the eyes of many, it also exemplified Microsoft’s aloofness in the face of a particularly volatile issue that had dominated discussion boards for months.

Adam Orth’s comments on Twitter provoked a storm of furious replies and even death threats against him and his family.

Orth resigned from Microsoft, via e-mail, four days after posting his tweet. He went into hiding, locking his social media profiles and – due to threats from people claiming they would destroy his personal finances – restructured his bank accounts. As the death threats kept pouring in – some of which targeted his family – Orth moved home.

“I felt like an outcast. Complete human garbage. I was dejected, embarrassed and ashamed of myself. I had destroyed my career and endangered my family’s life,” he said.

Online trolling carries a paradoxical perversity in that a single throwaway comment can have a permanent and profound effect on a person’s life. Games developers and journalists learn to desensitise themselves to it (there’s little else they can do), but unless you are sociopathic, it is deeply unnatural to not care what others are saying about you.

Phil Fish, the developer of the critically acclaimed Fez, clearly cares what others think of him. He loathes criticism – even when he may deserve it – despite his own partiality for making acidic outbursts against others. But outspoken or not, the comments section on Fish’s personal blog reveals that he has been a target of malicious online abuse for years. Eventually, he decided enough was enough.

In July, Fish publicly declared he was axing Fez 2 – a major upcoming indie game – due to incessant attacks from internet dwellers. It is unclear what he is doing now, though the suggestion is that he has quit games entirely.

“I’m getting out of games because I choose not to put up with this abuse anymore,” he wrote on his personal blog. “This is isn’t the result of any one thing, but the end of a long, bloody campaign.”

Orth, meanwhile, has been on a personal journey since he awakened the internet kraken. He now runs his own independent studio and appears reinvigorated. But the story of what happened at Microsoft after he left is perhaps the most extraordinary example of how avid and opinionated gamers can reshape the industry.

Fez creator Phil Fish loudly and publicly cancelled the game’s sequel, citing internet abuse as the reason.

The Xbox One was initially both a disruptive and progressive vision for a games console. It was intended to be a living-room PC, alive and evolving through its symbiotic attachment to the internet. At the core of the console was a set of features which necessitated an always-online internet connection, and at the heart of its business model was an additional monetary penalty for those who sold or traded their games.

Such audacity by Microsoft, to build the industry’s first digital-native and anti-retail console, was only equaled by the company’s panicked loss of nerve when Sony was praised so highly for taking the opposite route.

At E3 in June, SCEA president Jack Tretton revealed that the PS4 would not require an always-online internet connection, nor would it apply fees to the trading of games. As a bonus, the system was priced at around $100 and £80 cheaper than the Xbox One. These announcements, and the almighty applause they generated, punctuated what will be remembered as one of the most unequivocal E3 victories in living memory.

One week later, and after months of merciless lobbying from core gamers, Microsoft buckled under the pressure and reversed its policies to match Sony’s. For better or worse, it marked perhaps the biggest ever change to a company strategy driven by an online community. In the aftermath, Microsoft executives are now routinely engaging with gamers across social networks – Larry Hryb chats on NeoGAF, Albert Penello posts on Reddit, and the majority of the Xbox team answer questions on Twitter.

If the events of 2012 showed the industry entering an age of the entitled gamer, the developments one year later show that even the mightiest companies dare not challenge it. The online games community is a force that grows in influence each time a games executive or developer registers on a social network. The problem is that no-one is allowed to disagree with this subculture, and the tragedy is what happens when they do.

Community feedback is not new for the games industry – forty years ago, Atari arcade machines were tested by measuring how many coins each one picked up in their first week. But with gamers now actively funding projects via Kickstarter, now publishing games via Steam Greenlight, and now volunteering as testers during public betas, their influence has reached previously unimagined heights.
Whether they will guide the industry along the right track, and whether the industry is right to follow their lead, will be a key question of this next generation.

This article has been edited slightly to rectify an inaccuracy at the request of Adam Orth.