Toxicity, Trends and how scary things can be

One of three posts today, each dealing with me and what I do at TOO DX. But more importantly, why. Because the why matters a lot, in ways you might not think of at first. This post focuses on marketing, visibility, #GamerGate, toxicity and censorship.

It's hard work to be an indie these days; hell, it's hard to be in game development (which is hilarious, to some respect, it being a fast growing industry). There are a lot of factors both internally and externally imposed which affect the how of game development and especially the interaction of a developer with consumers and publishers. Lately, that's been made a lot freaking harder.

There is a lot of bad shit happening.

Both in the world, and in this industry. I’m gonna try to keep this article neutral, although I’d dearly love to call out some specific people on specific actions they’ve taken publicly or in front of me. But I can’t, really, and that’s what I want to talk about.

The perils of being really, really small

So, we’re a game developer. We’re interested in getting our game in front of a ton of people, each of us for different reasons. I think in metrics, and $$$, so to me I’m interested in making money. Auston is interested in making money as well, but he loves development and making interesting games/experiences for bringing people together so the money is secondary. Kareem, Don and nickelPUNK all have their own reasons for doing this, but they also aren’t directly TOO DX so I’m not going to be talking about them much.

Regardless of what our motives or interests are, we make games. For the company to survive, we have to sell those games. To sell those games we need two things: first, we need a platform to do it on. The Nintendo eShop is the platform we chose, but Steam/GoG/Desura (and Humble, kinda) are common PC ones, the Playstation Store and whatever the XBOX One uses are also big platforms. That’s the easy one, in some ways. Sure, MSFT, NIN and SONY are all slow, Valve is impossible to get ahold of (and hold all the freaking cards, which sucks) and GOG/Desura are like Steam’s ugly stepsisters, but being able to target a platform isn’t super hard.

The second thing is visibility. Visibility is the problem that the industry finds itself in today. It’s what is making the “race to the bottom” a valid phenomenon, it’s what makes every indie I’ve talked to says “I have no idea how to solve this”, it’s what is causing AAA companies to spend massive chunks of their budgets on advertising and promotional support. It’s what made the Indie MegaBooth start up, and it’s the fucking problem with it right now; it’s why the IGF and IndieCade keep getting record numbers of entries and why people who don’t make it into either showcase go and show their games anyways. Visibility is the problem.

And right now, #GamerGate adherents and detractors are making it even fucking harder.

Game Journalism

I have four lists on my computer and/or Drive account. They are spreadsheets. They all detail media personnel. The “importance” of each person varies, based on magazine size, but they get equal notice in the lists because, frankly, any visibility is vital. We have an early look at Sportsball that I still point to with great pride, not just because I like the writing (although I do, thank you Derrick!) but because it’s a sign that we exist. It’s precious, precious visibility.  Anyways, these lists have people from local newspapers up to Maxim magazine columnists, from Fox news channel commentators to entertainment weekly editors – hell, I think I have a name for someone at People somewhere, and also some NPR correspondents.

Regardless, these are all one thing to me: visibility. I’ve met several people who are journalists and liked most of them. Coincidentally the ones I’ve been able to talk with personally, been able to interact with personally, have also been the ones to write about me. Some of them are people I could be friends with, even though we’ve only met once. I drop in to find out what they are doing, if I hear about it (I’m so freaking stressed about launch right now, I’ve neglected that lately) and I like to look at what they’ve done in the past.

I’ve also had the flipside happen. I’ve met journalists that I can’t stand. I’ve even chased after journalists or “personalities” i.e. vlog/caster/names who I can’t stand, because they are precious, precious visibility if they like my game. It sounds horrible but its business. I’ve worked well with people I couldn’t stand before, because professionalism is something that it is important to cultivate and respect, and just because I don’t like someone doesn’t mean that they don’t connect with people better than I do. I’m not a vlogger/caster/name who influences people – I’m a product rep to them. And frankly, it really doesn’t matter; people who don’t see eye to eye with me might still enjoy my game, and people I like and get along well with might not. Has nothing to do with our personal rapport.

Regardless of personal interaction, I deal with them. Because they have bigger platforms than I do. Because Gawker charges $25k for a minimum ad spend. Because I can’t afford to spend the millions of dollars Destiny spent; I can’t afford to have a site reskin in my designs. My marketing budget is $0. I have to rely on retweets and the ever elusive “viral” phenomenon, recommendations from friends and reviewers. I have to wade through the comments on news sites that disparage my game (without having played it) and find out why. I have to monitor and talk and request and accept and talk more.

Celebrity Indies

You probably know the people I’m talking about. They are “Names” in the indie scene. They are the “movers and shakers”. They have lots of articles written about them. Some have been featured in movies – some have millions of people hanging on their words on Twitter.

Here’s an astonishingly depressing truth. Some of them I like, some I can’t stand. How normal is that? It’s like… they are people. People with different views and different platforms. Conveniently, they’re also into games. So are we. Connection!

Let’s have a real talk, right here and now about a conversation Auston and I had about some names. We released a dope live-action trailer by Imagos Films(who are awesome and love indies, go talk to them) recently. In it, Swift Thornebrooke, the grizzled veteran captain of the Sapphire Skyhearts' champion team, talks about what it means to be a Sportsball player. After relating some anecdotes about each team Swift ends the trailer by saying “That bird was made for Sportsball. And so was I”. It’s moving stuff, a great trailer made even better by Swift being a woman. A tough, no-nonsense veteran of the skies, her gender is almost completely irrelevant.

Anyways, the conversation. We were feverishly working on sending out the trailer, and info about the trailer to people. Email after email, tweeting, research on names for outlets… working hard. All of a sudden I find myself reading about Anita Sarkeesian on the Colbert show. My opinion on that matters not at all, but I suddenly realized – she has a massive amount of people who hang on her every word, our game trailer features a strong female character and our in-game assets aren’t gender specific. We should tweet her. Cue discussion with Auston about whether we should or not (I don’t think we did, because we got distracted, although I just did now). Part of the discussion was whether it was inviting negative feedback to ourselves and our game, and whether we were participating in a culture of ostracization if we associate with either side.

For the record: I think Sarkessian’s research skills are poor, and that her first few videos were basically TV Tropes page articles spoken aloud. I also think she’s an excellent presenter and respect her marketing abilities. That being said: her page is called feminist frequency, what are you expecting when you go there? That’s all I’ll say about her or her detractors publicly and you are free to have your own opinions, naturally (and I don’t really care to discuss why you disagree with me or why I have my opinions, nor do they necessarily reflect the opinions of TOO DX as a company or Auston Montville).

Part of the problem

I didn’t have to add that disclaimer – there is no one with a gun to my head forcing me to write it. But publicly speaking on a controversial topic is a way to get yourself involved in the topic, and so I had to write that disclaimer. Because, end of the day, the conversation about Anita Sarkeesian bores me. So does the one about journalists being exploited by AAA games, or journalists covering certain indies more than others. What concerns me, and the conversation I’d like to have, is the danger inherent to indies because we are small.

  • We rely on the goodwill of others because we can’t afford to be isolated. Networking is the most powerful and successful tool in our marketing arsenal and you can’t do that with a bad rep.
  • We can’t be on the wrong side of controversial topic because we can’t afford the risk. It’s one thing to have a bad thing happen to you and make that your platform (ALA Vlambeer and cloning). It’s another to support a side that loses and be ostracized for it.
  • We can’t talk about controversial things as individuals because our companies can’t afford the risk. I have personal opinions on #GamerGate, Sarkeesian, other Indie Names, the industry as a whole, race to the bottom economics, the saturation of indies, and the responsibilities of journalists in a post-print world. I’m afraid to talk about them at all.
  • There is no protection for whistleblowing that works. If I see a journalist behave inappropriately and I call it out, most likely I’m going to lose credibility with other journalists and not get coverage. Similarly, if I see a developer act inappropriately and call it out, my reputation and credibility with devs falls apart. Not calling it out makes me a party to it and LESS likely to say anything in the future and MORE likely to be accused, along with offending parties, by consumers.
  • To an extent, we have to compromise our values a bit, and explaining why I feel that way would drag a whole host of people out of the woodwork to attack and defend a whole host of issues that are tangential at best. As a generalization: we are personally and professionally offended by a certain person yet the most we can do is talk amongst ourselves about how if we ever act like that person, that we hope the other one reels us back in.

Odds are, someone will read this and think to themselves: "They can do any of those things, no one is their boss/they're indie" etc. etc. If this is you, go back, read the list again, and realize I'm talking about the livilhood of 2 different people, plus our contractors, plus our financing, plus our commitment to several projects. That means mitigating risk. And if you don't see that, or don't agree... you're probably in the wrong place. Thanks for reading!

Here’s a sad, but awesome anecdote. I was at IndieCade, talking with the 13AMGames, Over the Moon Games and the Frima folk and we talked about things. Things I’ve never been able to say publicly for fear of the repercussions and things that I think are important. Things that I am still AFRAID to speak my mind about. Sad because nothing changed. Awesome because it was nice to feel free to discuss things for once. 

Current events being what they are, the risk on speaking out is higher than ever so...with that in mind, I’ll leave you with the simplest of questions, and something that both sides of #GamerGate (hell, people in general) might want to keep in mind.

What are you doing today that makes tomorrow a better place?

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