The video game industry, for all its qualities we love and are here for, is often a glorious and depressing train wreck of scandal and controversy ever stirred by companies, PR departments and unethically rich executives who are terminally disconnected from the real world.
All too often, mishandled game launches, features, in-studio situations and poorly thought out marketing stunts that result in some degree of controversy are made all the worse by colossally tone-deaf responses and follow-ups from companies and their representatives.
Of course, the history of the video game industry reaches back decades and is positively overflowing with calamitous blunders of the highest order, so documenting every instance of a suit opening their mouth and ruining everyone's day would be a herculean and nigh impossible task. As such, we've decided to mostly stick to recent examples of tone-deaf statements, though some of these are a bit older.
Be wary all ye who tread here - the takes be hot and cringe.
Do you guys not have phones? - Wyatt Cheng, Blizzard Entertainment
Blizzard Entertainment is in a lot of really hot water for a laundry list of awful incidents and a consistently inhumane workplace culture of harassment, but more on that later. Before those issues were brought to light, Blizzard was already miffing off fans left and right. World of Warcraft fans felt that the expansions and patches were ruining the game, Starcraft fans felt neglected, Overwatch fans also felt neglected, Hearthstone fans... are just always mad, probably.
Diablo fans had, at this time, been farming away at D3 for years, and while season after season gave players something to do and a few cosmetics to earn, there was little by way of actual new content. Understandably, rumors and rumblings about a new Diablo game got fans excited. Keep in mind, that back when this happened, we didn't know about Diablo 4 yet.
At BlizzCon (RIP) 2018, Diablo: Immortal was announced, and revealed to be a mobile-only game. The crowd went wild - in a bad sense. The reveal was booed quite thunderously, not something you typically expect to hear at gaming events like this. When asked about plans to bring Immortal to PC, the official answer was a clear no, which drew even more ire.
Do you guys not have phones?
Presenter and developer Wyatt Cheng created a meme to Blizzard's detriment in a second. Not only did this response, probably intended to be a lighthearted quip, cement among many viewers the suspicion that Blizzard didn't understand or care about core Diablo fans, but it was also a terminal case of not reading the room.
A legendary developer that built its success, its fanbase, its popularity, its fame on the PC, with practically exclusively PC playing fans (save those who enjoyed Overwatch on consoles) revealing a mobile-only experience isn't inherently a bad move, but doing so after a mainline game has been anticipated for years, then trying to deflect back at the players when they express disappointment is not a great look.
It's bad enough for PR to look like you don't understand your consumer base, but then trying to shift blame back at the disappointed fans is even worse. Of course those fans have phones - they just don't want a watered down mobile experience after all this time.
A sense of pride and accomplishment - EA Games
EA Games possesses the illustrious status of holding a Guinness World Record. Unfortunately, that record is for the most downvoted Reddit post in the history of the seminal online forum, though it was very much deserved. This particular legendary fib is just the most catchphrase-worthy in a long line of PR blunders committed by the entire AAA industry as a whole during that entire loot box-gambling saga.
Star Wars: Battlefront II was at the, heh, forefront of the entire loot box controversy with its particularly egregious progression system. As players were expressing their acute displeasure online, EA was desperately running damage control which led to someone, somewhere in the community team thinking this particular piece of golden humor was a legitimately good response to a complaint:
The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.
The post is now an eternal piece of internet history. Pride and Accomplishment has turned into a go-to form of mockery towards out-of-touch gaming companies trying desperately to dress up money-grabbing tactics as features with actual entertainment value, or as something that is done for the benefit of the players.
While recent years have been kinder to EA - or maybe it's just that every other company is being shitty in their own way, too - they'll probably never live down that particular blunder. We're curious if anyone got promoted or fired because of it.
Distorted and untrue - Fran Townsend/Bobby Kotick, Activision Blizzard
While both of the previous entries were angering in their own, minor ways at the time, shining light on an endemic issue with major companies and their relationship with their consumer bases, they're both something we laugh at now; something that turned into a meme and is used to make light of corporate silliness.
Unfortunately this article was bound to turn serious sooner or later, considering the many deep ethical problems that have been afflicting the industry for far too long. These past few years have shown a notable uptick in stories discussing these problems - this doesn't mean there are necessarily more issues, just that they're not being swept under the rug for the first time ever - and the most recent and widely discussed is the prevalent sexual harassment incidents at Activision Blizzard.
That's a whole thing in and of itself, which we've done our best to cover in-depth. The story has had its share of nasty twists and turns, with the news of Microsoft's move to acquire the company putting the biggest twirl on it yet. We could go on for pages, and have already, so let's focus specifically on the quote that got itself in this article.
When the DFEH lawsuit was initially filed, it included a wealth of reports and statements from current and former Activision Blizzard employees who themselves were victims of harassment and abuse. The official response from the company, sent as an e-mail by Fran Townsend and later revealed to have been composed by Bobby Kotick who then pressured Townsend to send it, was fuel to the fire.
The response called the lawsuit and included accounts - again, these were employees of the company describing harassment that happened to them at the company - as 'distorted and untrue', 'out of context' and noted that some of those accounts describe incidents over ten years old.
First of all, congratulations on essentially confirming that sexual harassment has been a problem at Activision Blizzard for over a decade and that you did nothing to curb it. Secondly, how anyone thought it was even remotely a good idea, in the current climate where finally harassment is being taken more seriously as a crime, to disvalidate the experiences of victims, is beyond us.
Progress has been made with the lawsuit, though it is a slow and tough march with plenty of obstacles along the way. Even so, what may seem like major steps being take are still dwarfed by the road ahead, and it will take great efforts to fight against such deeply seeded cultural problems that infect the industry - and beyond - to the deepest layers.
If you want to do a nine-to-five job, you [should] be in another business. - Brendan McNamara, Team Bondi
Sexual harassment isn't the only ethical issue plaguing the industry supporting our hobby. Unethical work practices and prevalent crunch culture has been an issue for as long as we can remember, though it's only been dealt with more seriously in the past few years, ever since journalists placed more emphasis on it and several high profile exposés were published about the horrific work conditions in some studios.
Early on you'd still get plenty of people trying to excuse the phenomenon, saying that most fields have crunch - not that normalizing harmful circumstances magically makes them okay - missing the fact that "normal" crunch is a few heavy weeks of work to finish something as opposes to months or years of unending, unrelenting crunch.
Shortly before Team Bondi was liquidated, striking a severe blow to the already weakened Australian video game industry in 2011, it had released L. A. Noire and got embroiled in a scandal relating to workplace etiquette. Apparently, developers were pulling 100 hour work weeks and had worked weekends to meet deadlines, which resulted in much deserved controversy.
The quote above came from Brendan McNamara, founder of Team Bondi and director of the project. This attitude is precisely the sort of shady attempts that executives have been trying to spread for years in order to normalize crunch for their employees, whose physical and mental health as well as social relationships are routinely damaged or destroyed by the practice. As opposed to, you know, providing fair and ethical working conditions - all because the luster and attractiveness of the video game industry which somehow hasn't dulled over the decades provides them with plenty of replacements eager, at least initially, to jump into these conditions.
While progress has been made with some AAA companies, crunch is still unfortunately much too prevalent in the entire industry even today. It's been ten years since the Team Bondi controversy - can we really not do better?
Fortunately we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity. It’s called Xbox 360. - Don Mattrick, Microsoft
Remember that whole thing where Microsoft tried to convince the world that the Xbox One absolutely had to be always online, that this was an essential feature? Remember when Major Nelson got tilted during an interview and went off on a journalist about how they're not a developer, couldn't understand, and that it isn't possible to just flip a switch and make the console stop being always online?
Remember when literally two days later that was precisely what Microsoft did?
The Xbox One would go on to achieve success in this not-always-online state, but before overwhelming negative feedback pushed Microsoft to not constantly spy on you and your family, the executives and PR folk of the company were adamant about defending the decision. This included Don Mattrick, who dropped the snide comment about their previous-generation console on the heels of the bone's reveal.
Responding to criticisms about an upcoming product, during a time when more and more laypeople became cybersecurity aware, with a flowery version of "then don't buy it" (or, since this is a corpo we're talking about, "buy our other thing") was just about the worst look the company could muster.
Microsoft did roll out a slimmed down Xbox 360 with a new outer casing alongside the One, as a budget alternative, so maybe Don was just experimenting with the most scummy approach to marketing imaginable, but we'd rather not give the benefit of the doubt.
Surely, aside of people who didn't want their Kinect looking and listening to their every move, those who lived in placed with poor internet service were similarly displeased with the initially revealed functionality.
We are convinced that we are probably from an industry view under monetizing on a per-user basis. - Strauss Zelnick, Take-Two Interactive
Do we really need to say more? Oh, fine.
GTA Online, one of the most notorious games for its microtransactions, has acted as a main financial pillar for Take-Two ever since it was launched. While not specifically about GTA Online, the above quote came from an investor call where the executive would go on about the topic of monetization in less than favorable terms. Discussing microtransactions, he stated things like:
You can’t give stuff away for free in perpetuity; there’s no business model in that.
Which, obviously (though plenty of free-to-view media subsists on things like ad revenue), but given the context it is being said it seems like a thin justification for things like:
But we’re not trying to optimize the monetization of everything we do to the nth degree. My concern is, if you do that, the consumer knows. They might not even know that they know, but they feel it.
Wow! We've all pretty much known that the only reason these big companies are exercising even a modicum of restraint with monetization is that being too blatant will stir up too much controversy, but it's quite something seeing it said out loud like that. The implication that they expect the average player to be too dumb to even pick up on it beyond the instinctual is rather staggering.
Meanwhile GTA 5 is gearing up for yet another re-release, so make sure to get yourself monetized again!
We don't call them loot boxes... We call them surprise mechanics. - Kerry Hopkins, EA
We already spoke about EA's tangle with loot boxes and controversies earlier. Pursuing its noble and not at all profit motivated quest to ensure that all players can feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, EA heroically defended loot box features in the face of international authorities.
When the issue of loot boxes got so big that it became a legal matter, with regulation and legislation on the horizon, one of EA's attempts to defend the practice was the above, calling it 'surprise mechanics'. This attempt, unsurprisingly would fail and loot boxes would go on to be restricted and regulated in various ways across a number of countries.
Defending business practices and features in front of a court is a very different game than defending these in front of a general public, but this argument ran afoul either way. Eventually the restrictions placed on the practice, with it being ruled gambling in many cases, resulted in some measure of improvement as far as monetization went in the broader AAA market.
More specifically, it forced EA to alter Star Wars: Battlefront II - the worst offender at the time - in significant ways that ultimately turned it into a really good game. Not a redemption story we would have foreseen, but the title turned away from the dark side. A surprise to be sure, but a welcome one.
There will be no playable female characters because of game lore and more importantly—the huge amount of work needed with animations, gear fitting etc. - Battlestate Games
Imagine using such a flimsy excuse to exclude the fifty-odd percent of the human population from your fictional FPS in the year 2020. This kind of thinly veiled exclusion may have flew years ago - even though it never should have - but plenty of games out there have stood as examples to the contrary. That 'huge amount of work' needed to have playable female characters alongside male characters is something that smaller, less-well funded projects have managed to pull off at no detriment to the main experience.
Battlestate Games choosing not to include playable female characters in their realistic (citation needed) first-person tactical shooter indicates either an inability to tackle the minor development task which just about every other company could easily surmount, or an unwillingness to recognize the fact that women have been serving in armed forces across the globe for decades, and that includes the Russian Federation. Women have also been in plenty of leading roles across military or military-adjacent fiction.
Including playable female characters was also allegedly clashing with the "lore" of the game. We don't know if Battlestate Games is aware of this, but they are in charge of the lore of their own game - that means that even if this completely nonsensical argument holds water, it is because they made it that way. Incidentally, non-playable female characters didn't break the lore, or pose a challenge for the animation department.
Not negligible to this entire story is that Battlestate Games developer Pavel Dyatlov once said in an interview about Escape from Tarkov that “We came to the conclusion that women can’t handle that amount of stress," and “There’s only place for hardened men in this place.”
The history teachers of the folks on the Tarkov dev team must be feeling awful, because it seems they have failed these misguided, ill informed young men.
The world is really screwed up right now. Right now, your political orientation determines which fast food chicken restaurant you go to, and that's really dumb. - Tim Sweeny, Epic Games
Tim Sweeny from Epic Games apparently thinks that choosing not to financially support a company the political stance and actions of which you disagree with is "dumb". While Sweeny's quote uses the Chick-Fil-A controversy over its past donations to anti-LGBTQ+ groups as a frame, it cannot help but be relevant to the industry when it is coming out of the mouth of someone with so much influence in this field.
Such a statement especially ring ludicrous when large, organized groups of fans have successfully applied pressure to video game companies that were trying to pull some shady stuff. It's almost like the rich boss of a megacorporation used to being allowed to do whatever he wants doesn't like the idea of not being allowed to do whatever he wants without consequence. Who would have figured?
Most recently, widespread public outcry has successfully managed to nip several NFT-related gaming initiatives - more on those later - in the bud. Consumers inherently have the power to cease buying things sold by companies that are engaging in activities said consumers disapprove of; mainly because they are predatory and blatantly anti-consumer.
The power of voting with your wallet has been, with great deliberacy, downplayed or painted negatively precisely because it is pretty much the only thing in the world that these huge corporate entities have anything to fear of. So no, dear reader, picking what businesses you support based on their politics is hardly dumb, especially when those businesses are funding organizations undermining the human rights of a huge, already oppressed demographic. Keep doing that - it's your greatest and very nearly only form of economic agency.
So, it’s (NFTs) really, for them. It’s really beneficial. But they don’t get it for now. - Nicolas Pouard, Ubisoft
Yet another example of a company mouthpiece patronizing customers who rightfully called out the latest money grabbing tactic as just that. NFTs are the latest, detestable fad that has gripped the tech sphere, and it's began to rear its ugly, sketchy ape-lion head in gaming too. As mentioned before however, luckily a great deal of well justified outrage has stymied most early efforts - for now.
We could write an entire article dedicated to all the harm NFTs have done and could do (we might, actually!) but the specific issues they pose for gaming amount to the current, already exploitative monetization format getting cranked past 11.
Video game company executives have already started throwing around terms like "play to earn" to give us a handy preview of the kind of hellscape they have envisioned for our hobby, lest any of us continue entertaining any notions of "fun" and "relaxation", or "escapism". Oh no, you've got to take work home, too - or, well, more home. You know, what with the pandemic and all.
Particularly egregious about this statement is another example of the patronizing assumption that players not liking this new thinly veiled exploitation scheme is just a result of them not understanding it in some form. Ubisoft is rapidly replacing EA as the most derided AAA company in recent years, and this latest move definitely didn't help. They're one of the few companies that stuck to their announced NFT plans even after just about everyone shouted at them to stop.
While we've hardly covered every instance of an overpaid suit saying something infuriatingly stupid, we figured we'd stop before our readers completely lost faith in the industry - there are still a lot of hard working, creative and passionate developers working often under less than ideal conditions to bring us the games we all love to play. As the fans and customers putting the money into the industry, we have the power to improve things, and even though it isn't our responsibility, it's increasingly looking like nobody else will.