The Weaponization of QQ

The end goal of all QQ is for a game (etc) you enjoy to be fixed or changed for the better.

If you look at something like the WoW forums, or any game forums really, you will see dozens and dozens of impassioned arguments as to why the author is quitting. I seem to recall there being an actual study that demonstrated that the vocal complainers spend the most money on a given game, far in excess of the average; considering I cannot find said link though, let us assume the opposite for now. Why tell tens of thousands of anonymous readers that you are unhappy with the game? Why not just shrug and uninstall?

The ideal scenario in an “I quit” post is for you to continue playing a game you enjoy (in most respects), and for other people to quit. It is like “voting with your wallet,” using other peoples’ wallets. As strategies go, it never seemed too effective, although obviously it is effective enough that moderators tend to shut it down pretty quickly. Besides, the only audience you can reach by posting on forums are the people who read the forums, so any damage is pretty limited.

Oh, the times they are a-changin’.

Metacritic, Comparison

Welcome to the future.

I do not know whether Modern Warfare 3 was the first Metacritic salvo in a post-Weaponized QQ landscape, but it has become increasingly obvious that it will not stand (or fall) alone.

Now, obviously, there is nothing inherently wrong with a game receiving universal critical acclaim by professional gaming journalists, while being panned by uncouth Philistines. Or vice versa! But if you dig a little deeper, an incredibly large portion of the negative reviews for those three games (and who knows how many others) stem from issues not necessarily connected to the game itself – complaints about the state of the game industry, or the existence of Day 1 DLC/multiplayer, or people who wanted a sandbox instead of a themepark.

Maybe those things are connected to the game. Maybe you do enjoy MW3 less knowing how much was copy-pasted from MW2. Maybe people have wildly differing views on what constitutes a “review.”

What I do know is that, going forward, we can expect more of this:

Head to the bunker.

That right there is the present scoring of Mass Effect 3 for the Xbox 360 on Amazon. The PC version has less reviews, but it too is 2/5 stars.

What ever you think about the ending, and how much ever it may have soured the entire experience in your mind… is the game really 2/5? Were all of the emotions you felt during the journey not worth it? I am not entirely sure I want a philosophical debate about the nature of objective experience (or the nonexistence thereof); I just want everyone to know that this is our future.

Believe me, I am the first in line to say that customers have the right to question the creative decisions of designers/writers. However… is this what we want? Do we want developers worried that any reasonably controversial aspect of their work will lead to highly visible backlash? Does that actually encourage higher quality games, or simply encourage safer games? Or are the collateral effects of public catharsis simply their problem?

I used to believe the latter. Now… I’m not so sure.

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Posted on March 21, 2012, in Philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. I think backlash is more about expectations.

    You betray expectations (however unreasonable), you get lower ratings.
    You play safe, you get average ratings.
    You exceed expectations, you get high ratings.

    The bar was too high on previous two ME games to exceed it in reasonable way, they went for shock value, and it didn’t connect due to inadequate execution.

    People expected “full game”, and they got Day 1 DLC. Being “industry practice” doesn’t mean you can ignore what public thinks about those practices as long as you peddle your goods directly to public.

    • Also, “However… is this what we want? Do we want developers worried that any reasonably controversial aspect of their work will lead to highly visible backlash? Does that actually encourage higher quality games, or simply encourage safer games?”
      Emphatic YES! Yes, it makes games better! Developers shouldn’t operate in vacuum. There is no “Ivory Tower” from which they bestow their perfect creations, and sometimes they need “reality check” to see some idea as worthless, or to see limits of their idea in chosen medium (which might have worked fine before in different place, different time, different setting, different team).

      To resonate with audience, to create compelling stories, knowing your audience is necessary. It doesn’t have to be in a way of “focus groups”, or “target audience” – sometimes you can “get it” just by being part of same society, same cultural space. And sometimes you cannot.

      • Hmm.

        I agree that designers/writers aren’t (or shouldn’t be) in some Ivory Tower. At the same time, I’m not sure I feel comfortable with naked, Michael Bay-esque pandering either. “Our audiences likes boobs and explosions, so let’s give it to them!” Games are indeed not made in a vacuum, but I still feel like the stories should stand on their own as something the writers wanted to say. I am a huge believer in narrative integrity.

        The distinction between that notion and my wanting a different expanded ending stems from the certainty that the ending we got was half-assed. Remember the TV show Lost? The writers “figured out” what the story was about… in Season 5. Ergo, the religious allegory had nothing at all to do with the first few seasons. I, and many others, got the same sort of vibe here. A beach scene with blue babies running around may not be in the cards, and that’s fine. The Normandy nonsense and the color-shifted explosions though, good lord.

  2. Speaking as some one who was quite vocal about the requirement of Origin PC retail copies (even for SP, offline games) and someone who has just about had it with Day 1 DLC, I honestly wouldn’t know. I didn’t buy ME3. I want to buy ME3, but I didn’t. I said that I would only buy it if a patch was issued to remove the Origin requirement for SP retail (like that will ever happen), and I am going to stick buy it. Similarly I didn’t buy DA2 b/c of its DRM scheme, and I didn’t buy Portal 1, 2, or DE:HR because they required Steam. The only exception I have ever made to my “no Steam” rule was Skyrim. I hate even making that one exception, but at least I was up front at the time about it. All I’m saying is that during the forum posting that went on across the interwebs I constantly hear people say “You claim you won’t buy it now, but we know that you will anyway” when that really is not always true. Believe it or not, quite a few of us who say we “vote with our wallet” actually do so. Have I missed out on some great games because of it? Sure I have. Do I some times wish I didn’t care about invasive DRM, reliance on online servers, and the rising popularity of bloatware (decided on a case-by-case basis of course)? You bet. That, however, does not mean that I, or other people who choose to be vocal conscious consumers, are cheating on the side. After all, what is the point of taking a personal stand on an issue if you are going to “cheat” when no one else is looking? Do I think there are quite a few people who say one thing and do another? You bet. But, as publishers start taking more an more advantage of the consumer and increase the hassle they require of those who legally purchase games, I see far more people beginning to follow through with their threats instead of just spewing hot air. Sure the “damage” that occurs from one person not buying the game is limited, but at least they can still live with their gaming-self.

    You ask if we want developers to be afraid of highly visible backlash when they take risks, and I think the obvious answer to this is usually “no.” After all, you can never please 100% of the people, and creative risks are vital if the medium is going to stay fresh. But, if you look closely at a lot of complaints (for instance with EA/Bioware since that is an easy target right now) they usually fall into one of two categories.

    Category 1: I really want to play this game but Origin/Online Passes/Day 1 DLC/Secu-ROM prevents me from buying it b/c I will not put that on my computer.

    This category has nothing to go with creative license and everything to do with the hoops one has to jump through in order to play said game.

    Category 2: Bioware (or insert other company here) you built your reputation on quality RPGs (or other genre here) and yet no longer pay attention to that sector of your fanbase. You now provide Shooters (or other genre here) disguised as RPGs (or original genre here). Instead of listening to what fans want/taking what was successful with the last game/making a quality focused game, you try to appeal to as broad an audience as possible and in doing so cater to no one.

    For the most part, I feel that complaints from either of these categories is generally legit. After all, if a developer just really hates or is sick of making RPGs and would rather make third person shooters, it would be far more honest of them to simply make a shooter and market it as such. There would be backlash, but at least the consumer would know what they were purchasing. Plus, not only are these complaints/inquiries made pre-launch, but they generally begin upon the release of a popular game (speculation about the sequel) or at the first hint that a new game may be going into development.

    Post-development complaints I take more of an issue with. Granted I have not played ME3, so I cannot comment on the ending or the actual gameplay. It does seem unfair, however, to demand changes to an already released game just because you were unhappy with the story it told. You can be angry about it, and you can have discussion about what went wrong with it. But, I feel that these comments,should be provided in regards to what can be done differently next time instead of berating the developers fortrying something out. (As always, there are exceptions to this rule, but those games usually have far deeper issues than just an unsatisfactory ending.) As long as a developer has not gained a reputation for being dismissive of their fanbase, there is certainly a point to making these kinds of constructive comments. I only see two real exceptions here.

    Exception 1: Some developers like CD Projekt RED have a history of listening to consumers post-development for constructive criticism about the current game. In those cases, taking issue with certain aspects of the current game, and targeting the current game, makes sense since consumers know that it will more likely or not lead to a patch update.

    Exception 2: Technical issues, like the inability to import faces made in ME1 (HOW did that slip by QC?), have every right to be voiced. Shortly after ME3 released, most of the Amazon PC comments that didn’t have to do with Origin had to do with facial import. Since the ability to import one’s Shepard directly affects the in-game experience and the ability for one to play the game (provided you are RPing it and just using it as a fantasy shooter) then comments targeting the current game have every right to be voiced. But again, like comments about DRM, this has nothing to do with creative licenses or storytelling risks. It has everything to do with rushed deadlines and poor QC.

    Wow. That ended up way longer than I thought it would be when I started typing … Sorry for dumping a bound volume on your comment wall.

    • You never have to apologize for well-spoken arguments. :)

      What I do want to respond to is the notion that there is such a thing as “post-production” anymore. DLC exists. I sacrificed my life following in the footsteps of my father in Fallout 3… and woke up “two weeks later” in the Broken Steel DLC. We live in that kind of future, now. Bioware can and/or – if the rumors are true – will release content that clarifies the ending, if not change it completely.

      If games are services now, why not demand better service?

      At the same time… I was kinda shocked at the two-star rating on Amazon. I did not know about it at all until my friend, whom hasn’t bought ME3 yet, was trying to decide between the PC version and the PS3 version. My reaction to the ending has changed back and forth over the last week or so, but personally, there is no way the game is less than 4/5 stars even if you felt the last half-hour of the game was the worst thing imaginable.

      I’m sure there is a back-story to your no-DRM stance, but I’d personally prefer if Steam were the de facto DRM for any game that required it. Steam is streamlined, provides community across a huge library of games, and most importantly actually adds value by virtue of its sales. Maybe Amazon matches/beats its prices these days, I dunno. But I certainly would not be on such a big indie game kick if not for Steam.

  3. Day 1 DLC is due to CE’s. Plain as that. But let me reverse this question. How would the general public feel if instead of day 1 they withold the DLC till day 30? Think of all the bitching that would bring. But without it you don’t have CE sales. And rthis is about a character that was not essential to the game! His only real difference is his banter IF you take him to Thessia. So this day 1 DLC whine is pure QQ at best.

    I read the leaked script and knew what was comming. While I thought Bioware made mistakes, these were in the form of not sticking to cannon (exploding relays, instead of just turning them off), or not enough background info. For example why was the Normandy traveling? this could have been settled with a 10 second cutscene wher Hacket says Shepard is down and tells Joker to go to place X to pickup someone, or to drop them off.

    But people want a happy ever after ending and they are mad that they didn’t get it. Yet one of the best RPG games of all time never really had a happy ever after. Planscape Torment received rave reviews and it was a bitersweet ending (the best of their choices). I read way too many posts where people wanted to see blue babies on a beach.

    I always like Bioware because they told a story. Some argue that ME3 is not a RPG and who knows what a RPG is anyway. Bioware is about a story. And the whole ME series was one heck of a story. And jsut like a writer of a book the author has a right to diect how that story ends. I might have gone a different way but they are telling the story they want to tell. We are a character in that story and can influence it but never dicate to it. We make choices but the results of those choices are decided upon by the writers. Reread this sentence:

    We make choices but the results of those choices are decided upon by the writers.

    This is what most narcissitic people don’t understand. They want it their way. They want the choice and the outcome to be what they decide. And that is where most of the low ratings come from.

    Scattered about in any thread on any forum about how bad the endings to ME3 was and how they will never play it again are post after post of great story points and things that they just loved. They talk about how certain scenes impacted them and even say no other game ever got to them that way. Yet here they are at the end giving it a 1/10 rating.

    It’s like you were married for 20 years had a great marriage, raised 2 great kids but got divorced. Somehow that divorced charged all those 20 years from great times into a living hell. And this is what is going on with ME3.

    • Javik actually changed the entire nature of the Mass Effect lore for me, and I never even took him on missions at all.* He demystified the Protheans, and inadvertandly justified the Reapers – Protheans would have subjugated and destroyed humans and all the other ME races, had they existed in this cycle. The Reapers did us a favor there; honestly, making room for biological diversity when there is a predisposition for galatic homogenization would have been a perfectly valid reason for the Reapers to do their thing, now that I think about it.

      While I would typically agree with you that a “happily ever after” ending is naive… well, how incongruent is that really? Across all three games, I lost four crew members, and THREE of those four were NPCs at the time. I imagine that someone who lost half their crew in ME2 would have a different level of expectations going into ME3 than someone like myself who lost no one. Bioware gave away that level of control over the narrative to players, and it’s Bioware’s responsibility that when they take the reins back that it fits with the themes already presented.

      I dunno. I agree with the notion of artistic integrity, but I reject the notion that an artist is incapable of producing half-assed work.

      *I always have a paranoia about DLC party members, in that I assume their small-talk will be worse than default members. After all, the game company has to be sure the base game adheres to a high standard of quality out of the box. Besides, not everyone buys DLC, so having meaningful discussions becomes more difficult that way.

      • While Javik and the Protheans were the Roman Empire that doesn’t mean the 1000 civilizations that proceeded them were empire based. It might have only been that last cycle.

        What Javik did provide was a discussion on how they created AI and had to fight it as it rebelled against them. This was the central theme that AI will always revolt against their masters. The war was still going on when the reapers attacked. While this is central to the game it could just as easily been brought in by another Prothean beacon if there was no Javik.

        Happy ever after doesn’t really apply to the NPC’s but to Sheppard. And if Shep died it was a critical mission failure. Those that want a happy ever after want Shep on a beach drinking with his LI and watching blue babies etc. Maybe Sheppard had to be like Bruce Willis in Armageddon.

        As for day 1 DLC check out the video on penny-arcade about ME3 DLC. I have to agree with their point of view.

      • While Javik and the Protheans were the Roman Empire that doesn’t mean the 1000 civilizations that proceeded them were empire based. It might have only been that last cycle.

        Right… but the Reapers did us a big favor there, just the same. And I would never have gotten that impression had I not had the DLC.

        At the same time, $9.99 is entirely too much money for such a revelation.

  4. I think this is an interesting topic and one that merits examination, but I disagree with your conclusion.

    Publishers have already proven to be fanatic about their game review scores, even without grudge-voting. Maybe if both game producers and game players stopped getting all overwrought about a 7/10 this would be less of an issue.

    Look at the games you selected from Metacritic: MW3 sold $750 million in copies in the first 5 days. SWTOR had sold at least 1.7 million copies according to their last press release. I haven’t seen numbers on Mass Effect 3, but judging by all the people I know who are talking about it I can’t believe it hasn’t already sold a gajillion copies. People can downvote on Metacritic all they want, but EA is still carrying wheelbarrows of cash to the bank, and that speaks loudest of all.

    Expecting customers to be able to separate their anger at the ending of ME3 from the fantastic hours of play leading up to it, for example, is asking for a media literacy usually reserved for professionals. It is unreasonable to ask them to consider the effect their vote will have on innovation. (Ostensibly that is why we have game journalists, although whether they actually fill that role is often debatable.) They are just a dude who paid $60 + DLC to play a game that disappointed them in the end.

    Basically if producers want to help ensure better ratings, they could stop Day 1 DLCs, stop stupid DRM practices, stop trying to intimidate reviewers into good ratings, and maybe not slap together a stupid ending that insults everyone’s intelligence. Those are much greater crimes to me than John giving SWTOR a 2 on Amazon because his friend said it was dumb.

    (For what it’s worth I’d give ME3 an 8/10 because 98% of the game was everything I could have asked for. I’m really MAD that I’d have to give that ending an 8 to be fair, though.)

    • I suppose part of me is lamenting the continued erosion of (game) reviewing in general. Everyone expects professional reviewers to be bought and paid for (and the score range of 7-10 doesn’t help), but for a while user reviews seemed to be a pretty safe place to gauge how a game (etc) would play out for you. I barely read Amazon descriptions of products; I immediately scroll down to the bottom, because I know that the customer reviews will tell me how it is straight-up, without all the bullshit marketing.

      You are 100% right that these companies don’t need my sympathy, and will probably be just fine, controversy or no.

      I’m just sad that I cannot trust user reviews any more. I hate Day 1 DLC, but that has about as much to do with the quality of the game itself as the infuriating plastic packaging on electronics these days, e.g. nothing. Did Reviewer X really dislike the combat system, or do they simply have an agenda based on the DLC or ending?

      Perhaps this is indeed not about weaponization, and more about my own disillusionment and deepening cynicism.

  5. To me, what’s really interesting is the relationship between positive/mixed/negative and user score. (Though you clipped the first from Call of Duty).

    SWTOR has many more negative reviews, but a higher score than ME3. I think that illustrates nuance. People who disliked ME3 *really* disliked it, probably in an almost visceral fashion. Whereas people didn’t really hate SWTOR, but they didn’t rate it highly either.

    It’s hard to capture nuances like that in a simple score. More and more, I’m coming to the view of the New York Times, which doesn’t score movies, but simply provides a review.

  6. I haven’t played ME3 yet, so I can’t comment. However, the questions you ask at the end can be asked of many games as your post pointed out. I stand where Liore does on this.

    I’m working on a piece (or two) examining the perceptions of value in them by varying groups of player communities. The “weaponization of qq” as you’ve put it isn’t what you’ve made it sound like. Your article only illustrates the ratings wars between people who get paid for the release of the game and those who have to pay for its release. That’s it. You’re witnessing a standard situation of the takers versus the givers. There’s no weaponization of player opinions anymore than there is a weaponization of corporate marketing (paying for good reviews) (in case it was too subtle, there’s absolutely weaponization of corporate marketing and there’s an equal “weaponization” of player backlash in proportion to that).

    The macro picture shows something you didn’t call out in your article: This is 3 Bioware titles in a row receiving crazy backlash for their products (Dragon Age 2, SWTOR, and now ME3). *That’s* a trend worth noting. Is this a product of their alleged catering to a broader market? What is it indicative of? That would be an interesting topic.

    • This is an especially perplexing trend when you consider how successful, and how well loved DA:O is. That, believe it or not, was only released in 2009.

    • While I would agree that game developers have been waging “rating wars” via marketing (and other methods) for some time now, I believe that, at least originally, user reviewers were about helping other users make decisions about products minus the PR-bullshit. If they weren’t, then they should have been.

      Nowadays, there is a benefit to someone writing a bad review or down-rating a product without even having purchased or used said product: to punish these companies for perceived slights.

  7. “Does that actually encourage higher quality games, or simply encourage safer games?”

    I don’t think that such backlash would inevitable lead to safer games, just consider how many not-flawless but original and fresh indie games are receiving great scores (like Bastion, or To the Moon, or Limbo; the latter I didn’t find that enjoyable). Perhaps that would be the case of AAA games, which in any case never attempted much that was unexpected and original. See the case of Blizzard’s games. They are the safest in terms of plot that you can play, but their quality is one of the highest. True, they cannot be compared to the type of games that Bioware delivers, but they are still high quality.

    For what is worth, I think that such reviews are much more useful for fellow consumers than the critic’s. In the case of the DLC issue, which as undermined the DLC content, I would take into account the score only marginally, and seek for actual opinions about the DLC, which I haven’t been able to find, but in any case I wasn’t going to buy it. The same applies for games that are graded because of other circumstances that are not related to the game. For other games, such as Dragon Age 2, which also received terrible user scores, I considered those reviews much more carefully, and found out that they were right in the most part, although the numbers were certainly off.

    It is somewhat like voting. Some people vote the party that is the direct opponent of the one that they don’t want in power. In Metacritic, you vote and review with all your might or scorn, so that the rabid other-party doesn’t win. That strikes some balance in the end.

    • User reviews used to be more useful than the professional critic’s. Now? How exactly can you trust them when the entire ediface has turned into a political struggle? Was ME3′s battle system really terrible, or did that person just not like the Day 1 DLC? The unspoken premise has changed.

      Maybe user reviewers were never as pure as the driven snow. But it always seemed to me that people wrote reviews to help fellow gamers, not “score points” about this or that. Fellow gamers are no longer the end, but rather the means to an end (e.g. voting with other peoples’ wallets).

      • That’s true, but only applicable to a couple of cases which had one way or another stirred up trouble, and in any case I believe that user reviews can still be trusted regarding their content: some user might have given the game a score of 3 (which could never be considered an objective appreciation that takes everything into account, it is a political statement as you argued), but this same user discusses some points which have led him to such appreciation (ending, combat system, lack of consequences, whatever). If we sound the reviews looking for reasons instead of numbers, they still prove useful and honest. Users might get unreasonably unrealistic, but they are seldom wrong when it comes to pointing out failures in a game.

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