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On Video Game Criticism

2023 was a great year for video games, people seem to unilaterally agree now that the year has come to a close.

Whereas in slower years, games like Lies of P, Metroid Prime Remastered or Final Fantasy XVI might as well have been serious contenders for Game of the Year, 2023 was so packed with hit games that those three examples did not even get nominated for the grand prize at the Game Awards.

I will not only remember 2023 positively however, with several games releasing that are now considered by many to instead be contenders for "worst game ever", or at the very least strongly disappointing given the hype they built: Lord of the Rings: Gollum, The Day Before, Diablo IV, Starfield, among others, more recently Skull and Bones. Those games attracted ridicule, a lot of criticism and even hateful vitriol for being less than decent or not meeting the expectations they set.

Starfield's developers at Bethesda have gone on record vocally decrying what they perceive as unfair criticism by gamers who have no idea how hard it is to make a video game. This has led to a lot of vitriol on both sides of the issue thrown at each other, from Bethesda officials commenting heated essays under negative Steam reviews trying to convince disappointed customers why they are wrong to not like the game actually, to online gamers creating hours-long video essays decrying Bethesda developers' supposed ignorance, arrogance, laziness and incompetence.

Personally, while I was severely disappointed in Starfield as a video game, I feel like this discussion is happening along lines of bad faith arguing and simply terrible and uninformed arguments, even though subsets of both groups have some very valid points (and for the record, the individual workers at the game studios being at no "fault" whatsoever).

1. Criticism is not hate

First of all: when you develop and sell a product, you must consider and accept that there will be criticism against the final product.

People might love it, people might hate it, and they want to be vocal in telling you and the world about it to inform others' economic decisions, or just as a way to participate in fandom culture. While it absolutely does feel terrible to work on a labor-of-love project for several years, sacrificing family, friends and yourself during months of crunch time and overworking, and then finally releasing the product to mediocre acclaim, ridicule and harsh criticism, it is unfortunately part of being a productive artist that cannot be avoided.

Some of the Starfield staff's reactions have been bizarre, telling gamers who did not enjoy their game that they were flat-out wrong. Most damningly, criticizing the emptiness, repetitiveness and lack of content on procedurally generated planets was met with an odd rant on how the real-life landing on Luna also took place on a barren moon without points of interest, and gamers who did not enjoy spending time wandering empty, randomly generated planets in Starfield probably also look down on the real-life moon landing and were clearly ignorant and wrong.

Artists and workers of all industries and disciplines in order to function must accept that there will be criticism of their work, and that that does not automatically mean an attack on them as people or artists - just on the product, if at all. The knee-jerk reaction of decrying all negative feedback as hate is understandable given the mental situation of a lot of game developers and the vile attitude of a lot of gamers, but ultimately not valid or right if thrown up against any criticism at all.

2. Hate is not criticism

All the above however applies only to good-faith criticism of the product. Being disappointed by a video game, pointing out its flaws, saying you regret the purchase or that you will not buy another game from the studio is obviously fine to say.

But calling the developers of the game lazy, entitled or even sending threats of violence goes far beyond criticism of the product, especially in a world where an individual worker has next to no influence on the larger design decisions of the entire team and video game artists especially suffer through soul-crushing crunch sacrificing themselves for the final game. You paid $60 or $70 for an entertainment product - this certainly entitles you to point out what you did not did not like about it, but if you go way beyond and start attacking, humiliating or ridiculing the individual artists involved in its creation, in my opinion you are way out of line. This is especially visible when it comes to more popular personalities in the gaming scene such as Todd Howard, who surely does not appreciate having his face and name be the subject of countless attack posts, hateful memes and insults.

I can fully understand developers who face this sort of vitriol feel anger and frustration at the gaming community and their reaction to Bethesda's so-called magnum opus. Many people seem to excuse insult, ridicule and attacks as "criticism", when it really is mockery and hate against very real game developers who are very real people with very real emotions (a human trait that many, especially young male gamers are taught is a weakness and "cringe"). The vile hate thrown at them when they try and defend themselves and their line of work is meant to dehumanize them, to treat them like service robots, to hurt them emotionally for the supposed "sin" they committed against the gaming community. They're workers. They want to earn a paycheck. Let them.

The narrative of the "lazy dev" obviously does not make any sense; developers do not deliver a mediocre product on purpose or out of laziness or ignorance. More often than not, it is the fault of a combination of circumstances, project management, finances, technical limitations or simply miscommunication and mismanagement. Nobody wants to work on and deliver a bad game either way, and no game developer performs their work with malice against 'gamers'.

And even if it was all true and game developers really did deliver a bad product because they were lazy or out of touch: still, a video game is an optional vanity purchase and nobody is entitled to it being up to one's standards or not. It's just a video game, and it is easy to ignore a low quality product and simply not to buy it. Sure, it sucks if you were engrossed in the universe or franchise (I can talk a lot about that, being a Star Trek fan), but ultimately, it is just a game. All of these narratives about developers or other people in the industry supposedly "attacking gamers" or having some agenda tied to making their games worse easily can serve as a pipeline to even more politically hateful ideologies such as Gamergate or "anti-SJW" nonsense, and it all starts with the fairytale of "lazy devs" doing something on purpose to hurt the gamers.

3. You do not need to be a developer to criticize a game

A rather dumb point that has been thrown around by gaming staff a lot lately in response to the gaming community's negative feedback has been the "easy" rebuttal "well, call me when YOU developed a game!"

Now, I fully understand the frustration of being an industry professional, having studied a difficult craft such as game design, engine development or 3D artistry for years or decades, and then meeting people who have zero idea what you even do throwing around smug comments of what you should have "just" done to fix up the entire game.

And the developers are right: gamers often have no idea what goes into a video game, what the technical difficulty of a seemingly simple system or fix is, but are very vocal about how lazy the development team is and how easy it would be to change. But the idea that someone may only be entitled to give feedback when they are skilled in the craft themselves is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I do not need to be a master chef to say that the lasagna served to me is not to my taste or even has mold on it, and ultimately I as the customer am the litmus test whether a product is good or not.

4. If you are not a developer, keep your smug "advice"

On the other hand, without being a master chef, I cannot say whether the lasagna would be fixed simply by putting more cheese or oregano in the sauce, or by leaving it in the oven for a longer time, or any other proposed method: because I am not a chef.

Plenty of criticism against video games is incredibly smug while also being grotesquely wrong and removed from reality. A good example is any and all times gamers talk about game engines. For some reason, the choice of engine is constantly confused with the quality of the final game, the genre of the game, its features, graphics, how "new" or "old" it "feels" to play, or any other number of unrelated measurements.

Yes, an engine does determine some things about most video games: like for example, default easy drop-in systems such as lighting, controls or sound, loading methods, out-of-the box features like modding standards or default object physics, or even things like the behavior of game objects at very high coordinate numbers. Any of these could still be overwritten, hacked or patched over by a skilled development team, though, to the point where nobody could tell the underlying engine from the final product! Not all Unity games use the Unity default lighting, but some might, making them recognizable as Unity projects.

But the engine definitely does not determine whether a driveable car feels good to race or not, whether the facial animations are done well, whether the textures are muddy, or whether the game is largely linear or entirely open world. The constantly parroted narratives like "Bethesda should ditch the old-ass Creation engine", "Unity games are trash" or "Rockstar is using the same engine since 1998" are laughable and ridiculous.

And it's not just about engines, gamers are notoriously ignorant but incredibly smug about very basic technological capabilities, game design strategies and industry realities. When people spent hours in Starfield flying manually towards a planet in the starry sky in the hopes of not having to use a loading screen to get there, and then eventually hit the obviously non-colliding low quality looking skybox image of the planet at the edge of the environment, gamers were outraged by Bethesda's "laziness"! How do these individuals think video games work? Do they genuinely think the developers took their time to implement an entire dynamic seamless environment switching system when you get close to a skybox, something that only a fraction of people will ever even attempt, or even worse, do they think that anything and everything they see in a video game works "just like in real life" by default? Do they believe it's a simple switch in the development kit to turn on that says "enable simulated solar system"?

Or even more infuriatingly, the idea of "just copy and pasting" that seems to be so pervasive in online gaming discourse. Starfield would have been better if they "just copied and pasted" the space flight from Elite, the trading system from Galaxy on Fire, and the combat of Monster Hunter. Ubisoft games just "copy and paste the same game and switch out assets". The utter disconnect in those statements about how development works, how even simple things such as a preview outline for a placeable 3D object can take weeks, is really frustrating to me, especially when it is coupled with accusations of laziness. Obviously, you can not "copy and paste" anything at all other than maybe assets (and even those often must be converted and prepared before use), because every code base is radically different. A particularly related pet peeve of mine is the usage of real technical terms by people who have zero idea what it means: "game design", "engine", "asset", "optimized" just being some of them.

In my brief stints as a little indie game developer, the most important piece of advice when it came to feedback was: players do not know what is wrong with your game, but they absolutely know THAT something is wrong with your game. Their feedback is invaluable to find things that don't work like they should, but their proposed solutions might be naive or outright wrong. If a large number of players complain that Dark Souls is too difficult and that it needs an easy mode, then the immediate feedback is valuable and valid: these players were frustrated and put your game down for this reason. It's childish to argue against it and that the players are simply wrong, because ultimately, players enjoying your game is the whole point of developing one (commercially). But their suggestion, an easy mode, might not actually be what fixes the problem; and that is where your expertise as a game developer comes in. Perhaps the game is frustrating for entirely different reasons, like the run-back time to a boss you failed at, and not the difficulty of the boss itself.

Or in other words, it's childish for Starfield developers to tell gamers that they're outright wrong or stupid if they don't enjoy the procedurally generated planets. Sure, you don't have to indulge their unrealistic proposed "solutions", but the fact that they complain in the first place is an invaluable piece of information that something just doesn't work.

Epilogue: The bottom line

Gamers should be a lot more quiet a lot of the time. Most of them have zero idea what goes into a video game, how they work on a technical or managerial level, or even what is and is not possible with the technology we have. They act incredibly entitled towards the media they consume to a point where it gets ridiculous when you consider the amount of work that goes into it compared to the potential profit margins. A lot of their smugly articulated feedback goes against how computers and programming work in general, and a lot of it can be considered personal attacks such as accusations of laziness or greediness against the individuals working on the game.

On the other hand, all this is not an excuse to deliver a mediocre product and expect everyone to be fine and dandy with it. No, it is not the individual developers' fault if that happens, and they absolutely do not deserve harassment or threats addressed to them, but it also does not absolve the team as a whole from all kinds of feedback, let alone lashing out at good-faith criticism. Games still compete against others, and if another game does something better than yours, that's a sad fact of life and not the fault of people who enjoyed one game over the other, let alone a personal attack.

Player feedback can ultimately tell you what is wrong, but not how to fix it. Someone telling you that a game or a system within the game is "not fun" helps pinpoint a problem: because ultimately, gamers are the quality test for your product, not how proud the creator is of it or how much time it took to deliver a potentially mediocre end result. But how to fix that apparent issue is your job as someone who has the technical knowledge in your role, and gamers more often than not have zero idea about how to fix an issue they rightfully pointed out. It does not make the feedback itself malicious or worthless, or their opinions automatically wrong.

If there can be a moral takeaway from this post, I'd say that game developers need to remind themselves to not let their frustration at their project's reception lead to a knee-jerk reactionary stance against all feedback they receive, convincing themselves that it is the customers who are entirely wrong and the project being without faults. Starfield failed critically for a reason, and not just because ignorant gamers cannot appreciate true art. But the gaming community should also really reconsider the way they perform criticism and feedback; because a lot of the time, they really are entirely clueless about how game development works, and the only thing they are qualified for is pointing out that it does not work, not why.