This Week in Business is our weekly recap column, a collection of stats and quotes from recent stories presented with a dash of opinion (sometimes more than a dash) and intended to shed light on various trends. Check back every Friday for a new entry.
Tuesday morning, someone shared some screencaps with me of a Far Cry 6 marketing email that had been sent to them with the subject line “You disappoint me, [name].”
It included a quote from the game’s antagonist thanking them for giving him free rein over the fictional island of Yara, and a note that the person had played the game for three hours underneath the words “Surely you can do better than this.”
I posted the screencaps to Twitter with the requisite bit of snark and disdain for the obnoxious zeal with which publishers seek to juice their engagement numbers and went about my day. But the tweet blew up, with 6,700 retweets and 34,000 likes. It drew about 1,000 replies and more than 2,000 quoted tweets, which were largely split between people sharing my distaste at the marketing campaign and those who thought it was clever or didn’t think it was worth complaining about. Somewhat bizarrely, it also served as the touching off point for a number of news articles, some in the gaming press and some not.
The whole experience has given me a few scattered takeaways, so I’ll just address them here in no particular order.
I think some of the divisiveness people talk about in social media comes as a result of the way we experience it flattening our view of other people’s positions. A not insignificant number of the responses to my tweets were from people mocking me for being overly sensitive and manufacturing outrage over something trivial. They didn’t get to see that I gave the thing just a few seconds of thought before posting it and moved on.
They just saw the engagement numbers and assumed I had been up all night gnashing my teeth and sobbing over this, desperately hurting because I opted into marketing communications from Ubisoft at some point and was made to delete a spam email, or click an unsubscribe button. They saw something other people were amplifying by the thousands — thus making “a big deal” of it in the Twitter economy — and came after me as if I thought this was a matter of life and death.
It reminded me of the way some people read too much into being blocked on Twitter.
QUOTE | “People will always be like ‘lmao they actually blocked me’ yeah man I pressed two buttons to get rid of a weird guy and I’ll do it again.” – Author Dan Sheehan in a Twitter post from February.
The flattening works in the opposite direction as well. A not insignificant portion of the responses were from assholes, basically.
Now I don’t take it as a personal offence or a sign of poor character if anyone disagrees with me about Ubisoft’s marketing email being overly intrusive and crassly manipulative attempt to draw someone back who very well might have more important stuff going on in their lives or simply hated the game. But this subset of responders and quote tweeters tried to insult me by likening me to things they must consider truly contemptible, which mostly turned out to be women, disabled people, and children.
Obviously not everyone with a “What’s the big deal?” post was such an asshole, but outside of the slurs and other name-calling, the sentiment and text of their posts were pretty much the same. And when you’re getting dozens of notifications every second and seeing a constantly-scrolling wall of reactions from strangers, it becomes very easy to group the posts you’re getting into “those who agree with me” and “those who are more bothered by my irritation at Ubisoft than the bigots they’re making common cause with.” You start to see patterns among the people posting with anime avatars, the people with different acronyms in their usernames, or those who have added some strange character to their username that can be easily mis-parsed as a verified user checkmark.
I don’t think any of that is good or healthy, and despite my best efforts to the contrary, I’ll probably still make snap judgments about people based on some of those things. But I’ve got a new appreciation for just how much Twitter and similar social media are designed to push people toward those kind of judgments because that kind of dynamic breeds engagement.
(Related to this, some NYU researchers this week published an editorial in the Washington Post suggesting that Twitter prioritized tweets from right-wing politicians in its algorithm more strongly because they were more likely to get “ratio-d” for terrible tweets. It didn’t matter that everyone was dunking on them for saying reprehensible things, because Twitter just wanted people to be engaged, so it served up whatever content seemed to be most engaging, and in the process biased the platform toward Bad Takes.)
Now if you’ll let me indulge my inner cranky old man for a moment — yes, I still consider him “inner” although he will inevitably subsume me and take control entirely any day now — I do miss the days when game developers tried to make games fun.
I don’t want to overly romanticize the past, so I’ll recognize that developers then and now are most often doing the exact same thing: trying to optimize for profit. But you can’t really design a game to maximize profit directly, so you have to focus a proxy quality you can maximize that will in turn maximize profit. In the old days, that proxy would often be “fun.” Make a really fun game, the reasoning went, and people will buy it and tell others how fun it is, and then those others will also buy it and tell their friends, and so on.
But despite the best efforts of entirely too many people over the years, there’s no proper objective way to quantify fun despite many people’s best efforts to the contrary: Review scores, focus test surveys, sales, how long you can play it before seeing a crate (indicative of the moment developers ran out of ideas), and most recently, engagement metrics.
How much are people playing? How many sessions a day? How many players stick around for three days? Seven days? A month? How do we get them back into playing the game? Why aren’t they playing right now? They’re telling us something about spending “quality time” with “loved ones.” What are those? Can we get them to play our game as well? Can we design a mechanic that will guilt them into engaging out of fear of disappointing those “loved ones”?
It’s said that “what gets measured, gets managed,” and it turns out engagement is a lot easier to manage than fun, or review scores, or sales. (The crate thing is even easier to manage, but developers apparently love crates too much to let them go.)
Games are sort of naturally good at engagement to start with. They were gleefully advertised as “addictive” for years before the modern metrics-driven development push, and the addition of RPG grinding and unlock trees to every genre, direct-to-consumer communications, digital distribution, games-as-a-service update schedules, and compulsive behavior creating patterns lifted straight from the gambling industry have only extended their ability to keep people playing. Throw it all together and you’ve got a can’t miss recipe for a World Health Organization gaming disorder classification.
I’m going to bring up once again how EA CFO Blake Jorgensen in 2017 bragged to investors that people could spend 5,000 hours a year playing just one of EA’s games. I do this partly because Jorgensen is planning to leave EA next year and it won’t seem nearly as relevant after so I have to use this while I still can, and partly because 5,000 hours a year is almost 14 hours a day, every single day, and I don’t know if there’s any scenario where that’s even remotely healthy. But that’s what publishers are going for. It’s what their games are designed to support.
QUOTE | “We spend very little time trying to get people to spend more money. We really try to spend most of our time getting people into the funnel because we know once they’re into the game, they’ll really have a good time, and they’ll play it for a long period of time.” – Jorgensen, shortly before his 5,000 hour comment, explaining how EA is optimizing for engagement.
So even if Ubisoft’s email was just an attempt to be clever with the usual re-engagement communication that landed flat with me, it’s still indicative of some industry trends that are pushing us forcefully in a bad direction.
Because as anyone who has gone viral with an opinion on Twitter before could likely attest to, “engagement” is not an unqualified good thing, and it is absolutely not a good proxy for “fun.”
Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is now a metaverse company going by the name of Meta with a Founder’s Letter full of nonsense quotes.
QUOTE | “Think about how many physical things you have today that could just be holograms in the future. Your TV, your perfect work setup with multiple monitors, your board games and more — instead of physical things assembled in factories, they’ll be holograms designed by creators around the world.” – Mark Zuckerberg’s imagination for the future is apparently limited to taking things we already do on monitors and having us do them on VR headsets or AR glasses instead, even if the advantage of such a format over traditional screens is poorly articulated (to put it mildly), and little more than fulfilling some ’90s marketing agency’s idea of what the future should look like.
QUOTE | “Most of all, we need to help build ecosystems so that more people have a stake in the future and can benefit not just as consumers but as creators.” – Zuckerberg invokes the specter of metaverse users making a living off the platform. Because who doesn’t want to take Facebook and its ever-shifting take-it-or-leave-it policies and terms and make it a key gatekeeper to their ability to earn a paycheck? I’m sure this will be great for workers because it’s not like Silicon Valley has a lengthy track record of making profits by side-stepping the sort of regulations and laws intended to prevent exploitation and turning what used to be proper full-time jobs into gig economy nightmares. And then spending $200 million to ensure those workers don’t get overtime pay, paid sick leave, or worker’s compensation.. That sounds like a spectacularly good idea that will in no way hurt people who are already barely scraping by.
QUOTE | “We’ll continue supporting side-loading and streaming from PCs so people have choice, rather than forcing them to use the Quest Store to find apps or reach customers.” – Zuckerberg, conveniently leaving out that Oculus introduced a Facebook log-in requirement just last year. The company has said it would lift that requirement in the future, but this is something the company pushed into place despite a) plenty of negative feedback from users and b) pledges from the time of the Oculus acquisition not to do that exact thing.
QUOTE | “Privacy and safety need to be built into the metaverse from day one.” – Zuckerberg pays lip service to two things that Facebook has shown itself to not care about. At all. Repeatedly. Quite recently, even.
The rest of the week in review
QUOTE | “Really it is very simple: here’s a problem or situation, you can talk to the guy, you can ask a couple questions, he reacts to it, you got a bunch of things that you can do, and oh my god everything’s on fire. That’s appealing to everybody.” – Larian Studios CEO Swen Vincke explains the secret behind the company’s approach to Baldur’s Gate 3.
QUOTE | “For indies, I think having a very powerful handheld device to port our games onto moved indies away from niche or experimental games to more traditional or mainstream experiences. I think it also widened the appeal of indie games to a lot of markets and particularly Japan.” – Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story developer Benjamin Widdowson is one of numerous indies who spoke with us about the Vita’s ultimate impact and why they kept supporting it long after Sony lost interest in the platform.
QUOTE | “It can take a year to get stuff over from China right now. Manufacturing will complete pretty fast, but just trying to get stuff on a boat and get it over here is just absurd.” – Limited Run Games CEO Josh Fairhurst talks about the company’s six-year anniversary and the supply and demand effects of the pandemic.
QUOTE | “The Register recommended expanding the existing exemption for diagnosis, maintenance, and repair of certain categories of devices to cover any software-enabled device that is primarily designed for use by consumers.” – Consumers get a partial win as the US Copyright Office has changed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to ensure that consumers can repair optical drives on their consoles regardless of any console-maker’s anti-piracy efforts.
QUOTE | “For any Activision Blizzard employee who chooses not to arbitrate an individual claim of sexual harassment, unlawful discrimination, or related retaliation arising in the future, the company will waive any obligation to do so.” – In an open letter to staff, Activision Blizzard Bobby Kotick outlines a number of changes at the company.
I wanted to underscore this one because it specifically relates to retaliation “in the future,” meaning the publisher is reserving the right to enforce mandatory arbitration clauses for any offences that have already been committed, much as Riot Games swore off mandatory arbitration clauses in 2019 but still argued in court to enforce pre-existing ones this year.
QUOTE | “Whatever the event looks like in the future, we also need to ensure that it feels as safe, welcoming, and inclusive as possible.” – In announcing the postponement and reimagining of BlizzCon 2022, this sentence was the closest Activision Blizzard came to acknowledging that it would be weird to have its usual fan celebration, what with all the harassment and discrimination lawsuits.
STAT | 26 – The number of games that will soon support some of Stadia’s streaming-enabled features which had been an original selling point of the service. That’s 26 out of more than 200 games on Stadia. Two years after the service launched. And about nine months after Google pulled the plug on its first-party studio system.