Trust and the online lynch mob: a plea for greater understanding between players and publishers

Nathan Brown is Edge’s games editor. Illustration by Marsh Davies.

On the third day of every month, the same tweet appears in the @edgeonline mentions feed. It’s part of a fan campaign calling on Sega to give Yu Suzuki the Shenmue licence so he can complete the trilogy. Relying on a four-year-old Famitsu story in which a Sega rep said a new Shenmue could only happen if a platform holder funded its development in exchange for an exclusivity deal, scores of fans take to social media to try to make it happen.

Sega is just about the most risk-averse publisher in the world at the moment, so it’s in no hurry to finish off a trilogy whose first two entries were so unprofitable. Suzuki now says he’s looking at using Kickstarter, but a platform whose most successful project raised $10.2 million is not going to fund the game that exists in the minds of Suzuki and his Twitter army, and he’d be a fool to try to make it without the appropriate resources.

That’s because we’ve seen all too recently what happens on social media when a game fails to meet expectations. First came Watch Dogs, whose post-delay reappearance saw it clearly scaled back from its E3 2012 unveiling. Then Dark Souls II shipped on 360 and PS3 without the new lighting system shown in early media. The outrage was surprising, huge and largely misinformed. Forum threads ran into hundreds of pages, posts typed onto spittle-flecked keyboards, based on a single GIF of (admittedly damning) Watch Dogs footage. Side-by-side shots of Dark Souls II compared the same scene in the retail game to an early demo, but only in the latter was the protagonist holding a torch, which is
the most potent light source in the game. Ambient lighting and texture quality had clearly been cut back, but the tone of the debate was coloured by misconceptions.

The biggest problem with talking about games on the Internet is you’re in an enormous room that’s teeming with people, all of whom are only there to be heard. As such, it’s those who hold the most extreme opinion, and shout it the loudest, that stand out. It’s why forums can be so poisonous, and clickbait op-eds still exist. So while Team Yu, as Suzuki’s campaigners call themselves, are using social media in an attempt to effect positive change, those upset by Dark Souls II’s downgrade took to Twitter not to ask for an explanation, but to demand one. The hashtag of choice was #YouLied, which says much about the direction the debate took. Such is the level of mistrust that players feel towards publishers that both Namco Bandai and Ubisoft were accused of having deliberately deceived the world by showing off a game they knew would never see the light of day.

Dark Souls II has attracted the ire of the online lynch mob in recent months.

That’s nonsense, of course. No company in its right mind would sanction the creation of a graphically intensive demo it had no intention of shipping. To do so would mean spending tens of thousands of dollars on duping your audience into preordering a lemon, and forever damaging your standing.

FromSoftware makes fantastic games, but it is not known for its technical ability. Chances are that a few sliders had to be turned down late in the day to avoid Dark Souls II feeling like a 50-hour trudge through Blighttown. Watch Dogs, meanwhile, was announced months before PS4 and Xbox One’s specs were finalised. It was a realtime demo made possible by the same engine that powers the final game. It is a game of many complex systems and, as Ubisoft Montreal has made clear, those systems weren’t playing well together. Surely it’s far better to dial down weather effects and the odd bridge texture than it is to start stripping out gameplay elements?

Yet the old maxim that ‘gameplay is king’ doesn’t ring so true these days. At the start of a generation, we expect games to vindicate early adopters. But similarly, the final games on old hardware often wring a generation’s best-looking worlds from it, so perhaps FromSoftware really should have done better.

Both sides need to change, though. Players should understand that the target demo is the new target render, and that there will never again be something so obviously divorced from release-day reality as the Killzone 2 trailer at E3 2005. Publishers need to realise that visual and technical standards are as important a part of the marketing plan as preorder bonuses. And it’d be great if online communities took a leaf out of Team Yu’s book, using social media’s direct line between themselves and creators in order to change things for the better. After all, no one will benefit if developers spend the new generation afraid to reach for the skies.