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Worth a Look

Worth a Look

Whatever your thoughts may be about BioWare’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, there is no doubt that something happened during its development that lead to such a rocky debut, a series of choices so clouded in the public’s questions and shrouded in the mystery a company like EA’s BioWare can afford, the game was otherwise assumed to be relegated to the “well, that happened” category of games and we (as the gaming public) would be forced to move on.

This frankly bizarre secrecy around AAA game development shines a light on a major deficiency in the community––companies can bury “failed” games in mystery because they can get away with it. Though not focused on a failed game, a few years ago the BBC made a docudrama about the legal troubles of rockstar game studio, Rockstar Games, against which the developer filed suit, in a bit of irony. The development of Sony’s long-delayed The Last Guardian was mostly kept behind curtains, allowing the game to speak for itself when its time finally arrived, which had the aggregated conclusion of “it’s fine.” Though these are two of many examples, most of the community has accepted the idea that we will most likely never know how the choices were made, for better or for worse, and these companies will keep their business secreted away behind blast doors.

Peebee from Mass Effect: Andromeda. Image courtesy of BioWare and Electronic Arts.

Luckily, some people are starting to catch on to the fact that “video game history” isn’t relegated to the eighties and nineties alone; it’s happening now. Right now. Mass Effect: Andromeda got a lot of dirt piled onto it. I enjoyed it for what it was and what it’s worth, but the tidal chart of nerd judgement is rather unforgiving. If something doesn’t meet a certain standard (a standard I believe is often rather arbitrary), that game, movie, comic, or tv show is dumped upon. There is no critical middle anymore in popular culture. And such a strong negative reception can taint a studio or franchise for a long while, a stain nobody can afford to live with. So, with things like Jason Schreier’s article coming so soon after Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s release, it can shed some much needed counterpoint onto the conversation.

To be clear, Schreier’s article isn’t an apology for the game. Instead, it’s investigative; he isn’t casting judgement, but instead acknowledging that something happened and the public reacted to it and he simply wanted to find out why:

[To] those who worked on it, Mass Effect: Andromeda felt unusually difficult. This was a game with ambitious goals but limited resources, and in some ways, it’s miraculous that BioWare shipped it at all.

This is an effort to chronicle recent history rather than simply cast it in one light or another, but to try and find out the whole story so historians have all the pieces with which to assemble hindsight instead of waiting for a day when only two or three members of the team are alive to tell the tale. This has actually been a trend I’ve seen recently and it warms my heart to see members of the games press turning a historical eye to the industry instead of being the first to give readers a hot take (not that hot takes and investigative pieces are mutually exclusive). Waypoint published a fantastic oral history of Halo, a genre of historical recording of which I’m growing fonder (more on that in a future episode). Waypoint also published a fascinating look at development documents for what would have been the sequel to the 2012 Square Enix-published Sleeping Dogs. I think the industry needs to be more self-aware, or else corporate red tape could actually contribute in the hindering of keeping this medium from becoming the art form it deserves to be.

Way back in Episode 58, Andrew and I discussed our (and listeners’) “gateways to geekdom,” accepting that the road to fandom is not necessarily––perhaps rarely––a straight path. A lot of us come to our passions through strange on-ramps or off-ramps from one fandom or medium to another. Popular culture has definitely done this with superheros and their stories with the rise of superhero cinema. It certainly wasn’t the comics industry who were making amazing books that the populace grabbed onto, but filmmakers who loved the comics and finally, finally, started making good movies based on those properties. Does that make cinematic universe enthusiasts any less of a fan than comic book readers? Ultimately, no. A fan of Iron Man is a fan of Iron Man is a fan of Iron Man.

The few times we spoke with friend-of-the-site, Elijah Kaine, he mentioned his initial gateway into comicsdom––of which he has become thoroughly ensconced and well-read––was not comic books but the X-Men animated series, and this was probably the “in” for many X-Men or comic book fans. How many people started reading The Walking Dead because they watched the AMC tv show first? During my teenage years, my severe interest in Japanese feudal history and martial culture could be traced back to things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Highlander. But they were gateways for me to walk through and soak up the world on the other side of the jamb.

Doctor Fate v Atrocitus: Dawn of Injustice 2. Screenshot courtesy of NetherRealm/Warner Bros.

Mike Diver’s article hints at something a bit more nuanced. He discusses the fact that he’s learning about DC’s characters by playing the fighting game that uses them. Sure, he’s also jumping online to mine wikis, but the fact is he’s actually getting a strong sense and knowledge of these comic book characters by playing a video game set in that world (but in its own continuity). In fact, it may be fair to say he’s becoming a fan:

Here I am, playing, and learning—and with superhero fiction such a staple of modern entertainment, it’s good to get deeper into its (to me, at least) weirder corners, via the accessible “in” of an easy-to-pick-up fighting game.

This intersectional literacy is probably the most common method of knowledge creation and meaning-making, more than traditional, antiquated, or teacher-centric educational models would lead us to believe. While my previous examples were my gateway to an interest in the topic, sometimes there are non-traditional texts––like video games, comic books, movies, tv shows, etc.––that actually gives the user information that would otherwise only be learned in that actual field. I wonder how many people learned legitimate history from playing games like Age of Empires, or gained a knowledge about different aspects of our world’s cultures from playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? How many learned about the intertwined influence of economics and politics by playing Crusader Kings or Civilization? How many people developed an interest in the hard sciences because they watched Star Trek? The answer to all of these questions is likely the same: many more than you would think.

Worth a Look

Worth a Look

That the comics industry works through strange machinations puts the whole situation mildly. It’s an industry perpetually flailing for readers and sales, but its movies are making more money than any other adapted medium in history. Combined with all of the crossovers and events that “The Big Two” (Marvel Comics and DC Comics) push––and the associated bumps and crashes in sales––there is no doubt that there is something funky about how the comics industry works, but it also that blame has been mercurial, shifting scapegoats depending on the ails of the current generation: people aren’t reading comics anymore because of video games; people are waiting for the trade paperback collections instead of buying individual issues; the movies and tv shows are more accessible and modern than the books; print versus digital distribution, etc.

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source: The Outhousers

The problem this has caused shows that the blame-shifting that moves the industry has done its job rather well, getting the industry to blame itself rather than looking for a deeper seed. This Outhousers (what a name) article does a fine job at pointing the finger away from general culture (which does have its share of culpability, just not nearly as much as we apparently want to foist upon it) and toward the one constant in the last, at least, thirty years of the industry: a monopolized distribution system.

Diamond Comic Distributors is the only distributor for the Big Two as well as the other top-tier publishers such as Image, Dark Horse, Oni, etc. While that in itself is not inherently bad, a look at its practices and demands upon the publishers (and creators) reveals a rotten core tethering together the ever-changing problems from which the industry suffers.

It’s a bold statement, but also not much of a surprise––as an independent comicker, if you want to get any ground in comic stores around the country, you must meet the demands of Diamond, and their barrier to entry is unreasonably high. Some of it comes across as honest gatekeeping, which is fine to a point; you want only good comics to make it to stores, but it also puts an extreme burden on pretty much any independent creator unless you have found word-of-mouth/viral success through the internet. Even then, it’s still best to pitch to a publisher and have them deal with the distribution.

The Outhousers article shines a bright light on the issue, but being an independent blog in its own right, I wonder how much change it can actually inspire. I’ll just do my part, then, and keep the conversation going.

For all of the video games that land onto store shelves or on the front page of an online retailer, it’s astounding to see how many games are out there right now. From what I have come to understand, mostly from listening to gaming podcasts that have interviewed developers (to having interned for a startup developer myself back in the late nineties/early aughts), what astounds even more is how many games don’t get made, despite going into production.

source: Vice Gaming
source: Vice Gaming

Development is shut down all of the time with apparently little cause given, in many cases. Luke Winkie’s article presents a fascinating case study into one example of this, through the lens of a developer who worked on the nearly-finished Infinite Crisis, a MOBA featuring all of DC Comics’ major characters, before it was shut down.

I argue that the saddest part of a game getting shut down mostly has to do with the ache of possibility, that a game with promise won’t ever see the light of day. What’s heartwarming, though, is that an unreleased game seems to have little effect on a developer’s resume, often because it’s not the developer’s fault that a game got pulled. It usually has to do with business decisions from investors and the like, people gauging the market and finding it unfit for whatever they had already pumped thousands or millions of dollars into.

What this tangentially touches upon is another heated conversation in the gaming world right now, one about the poor working conditions afforded to people who work in the industry. If there is a bright spot, it could be that despite all the other issues you have to face as a game developer––working within strict budgets, big teams, time crunches (and long hours), aggregate review scores, etc.––working for years on a game that never gets released doesn’t damage your possibilities to continue working in the industry at all. In fact, the bigger the “failure,” the better it could be for you.