There's a subtle shift happening in the game development community: more studios are publicly pushing back on toxic player messages.
Two recent examples in game development have may show that this trend is expanding. The first comes from God of War: Ragnarok developer Sony Santa Monica.
In late June, a series of (ultimately untrue) rumors indicated that the game's release date would be announced on June 30, 2022.
When that day didn't come, fervent fans began sending sending angry messages to developers. Some even sent sexually explicit messages demanding information on the release date.
Producer Cory Barlog first tried to quell fan anger with a message from his personal account, but a few days later, the studio released a statement on its Twitter account decrying toxic fan messages.
Was this an isolated incident? Maybe. But earlier today, the developers of Hypercharge posted a similar statement, saying "it's not okay to hurl abuse at us and demand a release date."
It's not okay to hurl abuse at us and demand a release date. pic.twitter.com/HB8uRtlTTv— Hypercharge | Xbox Players, Sign Up (Check Bio) 👇 (@HyperchargeGame) July 2, 2022
This isn't the first time that game studios have pushed back against fan toxicity. In 2020, The Last of Us and Uncharted developer Naughty Dog pushed back against fans harassing developers who were angry over the game's plot. Earlier this year, DICE pulled back from engaging in the Battlefield 2042 subreddit after fans targeted developers with death threats.
Just a few days ago, Return to Monkey Island developer Ron Gilbert ceased his blogging about the game's development after having to moderate an untamable flow of hateful messages from fans bitter about the game's art direction.
We also saw a different version of this pushback from employees at Activision Blizzard, who are demanding that management better protect customer support and community management developers who receive increased abuse whenever bad news hits the company.
Is harassment getting worse, or are developers more fed up?
It's not clear if this increased pushback is an indication of increased player harassment, or if developers are becoming fed up with abusive player messages after years of varying tolerance.
What is notable is that the video game history has historically favored angry players over beleaguered developers. EA and BioWare's reaction to fan backlash in response to Mass Effect 3's ending in 2012 was one high-water moment of this practice. As hateful messages poured in to the studio, the developer chose to acknowledge said anger and speed up a free expansion that added more context to its multiple-choice endings.
Then in 2014, the online hate movement Gamergate expanded from an isolated incident of domestic abuse to a sprawling harassment campaign that engulfed individual developers. Few major studios made any comment.
You would hope that things improved after Gamergate, but as recently as 2018, companies like ArenaNet have chosen to fire employees at the center of social media furor rather than look out for their interests. Public support for beleaguered employees is definitely a recent development.
Backlash fueling hate and abuse
What's understandably difficult about this process is that sometimes player backlash can have a clear and understandable motivation. (The sale of XP boosts in Marvel's Avengers and Sony's brief window of not providing free next-gen upgrades for Horizon Forbidden West are two recent examples that come to mind). Players might have good reason to be upset, but many will respond with abject hate.
Given how often developers reverse course or accommodate players in these moments, it's not hard to see how some players get the message that abuse works. Monkey Island voice actor Dominic Armato pointed out that this phenomenon has extended outside of games, with fan backlash to the Sonic the Hedgehog film's original art style successfully driving Paramount to spend millions of dollars delaying the film and creating thousands of new VFX shots.
It's Sony Santa Monica and Digital Cybercherries are publicly pushing back against clear-cut abuse, but this trend will only have meaningful impact if studios take similar stances when players are responding to a genuine mistake or unpopular decision.
What action should studios take in those moments? The demands made by Activision Blizzard's Worker Committee Against Sex & Gender Discrimination are a good starting point. Employees need tools to report harassment by customers, and studios should set up public policies stating that players will be banned if they abuse employees.
And, as we've seen in the last year, just making public statements is a huge step forward as well. Developers need to know they'll be protected by their employer, not flung to the wolves as penance for decisions made by people who never have to read player feedback.