What can we learn as game developers, media, and fans from the controversy surrounding Peter Molyneux and Godus earlier this year? Columnist Katherine Cross examines the issue.
Though the pace of new MMO releases has since slowed to a trickle, during the heyday of WoW clones it was a common sight on the World of Warcraft general forums to see several acrimonious threads about whether X forthcoming MMO release would “kill WoW” or not.
For some, “X game could kill WoW” had all the mortal seriousness implied by the phrase, weighed down with the aspirations of players seeking novel experiences, and for many others it was an ironic gag (my favorites were all the pseudo-predictions that Hello Kitty Online would kill WoW).
Amid the hue and cry surrounding Peter Molyneux and Godus earlier this year I could only think of those sometimes serious, sometimes silly WoW forum discussions. It was such a perfect illustration of how players (myself included) so readily allow their hopes and passions to be turned to fodder for corporate hype machines, and the corrosive effect that hype has on our online communities.
So now that we’ve had some time to reflect, let’s ask: What’s the “meaning of Molyneux,” and what can we learn?
Hype and consequences
Peter Molyneux is particularly interesting because he has the distinction of being one of the figures from a time when studios used names to sell games. Because of his notoriety, even today he is in the unique position of being the face of a studio, and thus a solitary lightning rod when things go wrong (i.e. when game development happens).
"...It was an expiation of sin—a way for us critics, players, journalists, or anyone who amplified or ate up the hype—to feel as if we had no responsibility for what happened here, as if we did not 'make' Molyneux in a certain sense."
When Molyneux’s hype fails—as it so inevitably has—he does not have the luxury of diffusion enjoyed by other developers that work at larger, generally faceless corporations. (And often these days, neither do the small, independent developers that have sprouted up over the past few years.)
Molyneux got a deserved drubbing in the game press when Godus failed to live up to the immense hype built around it, not only because he is a “big name,” but because, more than most other developers, he also routinely exceeded the boundaries of good sense when it came to pitching his projects to eager players.
He did not just promise features, he excelled at promising wholesale paradigm shifts, a master class in the “this game will change everything” school of marketing that bleeds from GameStop shelves and blurbs on Steam.
The main difference was that Molyneux-styled hype occurs long, long, before a game would be commercially available. Hyping something that doesn’t exist yet is one thing, but to hype a design idea that might not work in a practical manner, and therefore might not ever exist in a product, is an especially risky endeavor. And to make such promises in open game development where your paying players can see the digital sausage being made, as with Godus, is especially perilous.
…It’s not all the developer’s fault
But putting Molyneux in the stocks of the game press served more as an act of collective catharsis (as so much online aggression does). It was an expiation of sin—a way for us critics, players, journalists, or anyone who amplified or ate up the hype—to feel as if we had no responsibility for what happened here, as if we did not “make” Molyneux in a certain sense. For all his flaws as a salesman, he was just giving people what they wanted, and he merely turned up to 11 what most game marketers keep at a more congenial volume.
It was as if we—from the rank and file angry commenter up to certain game journalists—felt that by pillorying Molyneux we would forever banish the toxicity his hype represented. Surely it was with that spirit, that righteous crusading on behalf of the spurned consumer, that John Walker asked Molyneux if he was a “pathological liar” at the start of an unaccountably hostile interview about the whole farrago.
To be clear, tough questions did need to be asked, but I also recall quite literally growing up with the Molyneux hype machine and was left asking “why now, all these years later is this such a volatile issue?”
A more robust game press perhaps? The transparency of developing a crowdfunded title? Yes, but I also suspect that underneath it all was a desire to both ride the latest cresting tide of rage and to protect ourselves as game critics from it. By this time, recall, Molyneux and his family were receiving the usual bevy of outraged missives that included death threats and the like. This in the midst of an environment where a minority of entitled “consumers” have built a movement out of attempting to destroy the lives of developers and critics they dislike or disagree with. People have reason to be afraid, to not want to be on the wrong side of virtual torches and pitchforks.
The media’s responsibility
Yet Molyneux is not a perfect victim in this either, nor are the journos. Journalists who were part of his hype machine created these mobs, and by both feeding them hype and then turning around and stoking their outrage during the wave of disappointment that follows, we are simply deepening the corrosion of our hobby, our workplaces, and, indeed, the lives we make in the world of video games.
"There is a toxic symbiosis between a game’s hype and the outrage that follows."
There is a toxic symbiosis between a game’s hype and the outrage that follows. The rage is born of the strong emotions that lead to our craving for hype in the first place, after all, and those strong emotions reward studios with much-needed attention and interest. But by failing to allow games to stand on their own terms—to exist and be judged outside of hype—we continue to not only set them up for failure, but also feed the gorgon of entitlement that leads some people to think death threats are an acceptable way of expressing criticism.
What we witnessed with this episode was the noxious environment created by how the video game business is too often run. It leads to the grotesque situation we now find ourselves in where the game press will join the mob when it finds a useful villain but cower from it through circumlocutions, omissions, and deference at all other times, even when their own journalists and critics are the targets of that mob.
Recognizing a vicious cycle
There are healthier forms of “hype” that look more like community building than firing pandering promises from t-shirt cannons. That is, developers who are on the cutting edge of open communication and transparency with their paying communities (e.g. Vlambeer, Hinterland, Obsidian) as they develop games might be the ones showing the way forward. They’ve fostered communities where people feel they have a place and a voice—though their fanbases aren’t free of toxicity by any means.
The recent furore around a transphobic joke inserted into Pillars of Eternity by a Kickstarter backer, for instance, was dealt with in a way that catered almost entirely to the sensitivities of the backer and to the outraged players who complained that removing the joke was “censorship” of a Stalinist order. There, again, is the fear: developers afraid of being swallowed whole by the fans they themselves have cultivated.
Molyneux’s pandering hype and his willingness to tell players what they want to hear, then, was not a problem unique to him; he’s merely a useful scapegoat because of his fame and his singularity as a developer, as well as the reputation he himself cultivated as something of a fabulist. We find it easy to attack an individual, but far harder to take on a system or a collective, which is a dangerous norm, as indie devs become synonymous with their games. By leaving developers like Molyneux to be devoured, we seem to hope to forestall our own sacrifice to that merciless swarm.
That, then, is the meaning of Molyneux. Unless we do more than burn one man at a digital stake and unless we stop being afraid of the monsters we helped to create, we are condemned to these poisonous cycles of hype and outrage.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.