Should We Let Developers Manage Our Expectations?
Join John, the newest author with Podcasters United, as he talks about the recent stance most developers are taking!
There’s an old maxim commonly attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.” While I’m not prone to histrionics, particularly regarding casual hobbies, I think it’s important for gamers (like any other consumers) to be discerning in their tastes and purchases. This is why I’ve grown increasingly trepidatious when listening to the public comments of Western game developers.
Consider the recent release of Baldur’s Gate 3. This is a game that, whatever its flaws, has proven to be one of the best-rated PC games of all time and we should be excited about that. This is a beloved IP managed by a sophomore studio, carefully crafted over several years into an excellent experience and it was offered for a single up-front price with no microtransactions, season/battle pass, day one DLC, et cetera. But immediately upon its unprecedented reception among both critics and fans, a not-insignificant number of significant people began to raise the voice of caution about how gamers should manage our expectations.
This is Xalavier Nelson Jr., an indie studio head and British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nominee who’s carved out a meaningful niche for himself making cottage indie games – and to be clear there’s nothing that speaks more directly to my hipster sensibilities than a scrappy indie developer with hot takes. Unfortunately, no one’s perfect, and however diligent Nelson’s caveats may be, I think his views are well on their way to being grossly misused by the AAA gaming industry at large, based on all the online buzz around his comments. It’s easy enough to lean on rhetoric like “not every game has to be Baldur’s Gate 3”, even if he is correct, but what gives me pause is that Nelson lists most, if not all, of the best qualities of Larian Studios as if the reputation they’ve built in the last decade are unearned privileges. He specifically cites the size and experience of Larian as well as their time spent building and perfecting their work as an… unfair advantage?
Consider that we can level most of Nelson’s criticisms at most AAA games today, and they still don’t succeed like Baldur’s Gate 3. Let’s not forget Cyberpunk 2077 and how it, despite ultimately being profitable, is still overwhelmingly considered a broken game and (rightly) did untold damage to the reputation of heavyweight developer CD Projekt Red. It took Larian Studios more than six years to make the best product they possibly could, all while having to maintain a detail orientation to a famous IP (a license they paid for out of pocket) with a mountain of expectations. This is not an advantage – it’s a tremendous risk that rightly paid off. Doing that while also directly pledging to never monetize content via common predatory practice is as admirable as it is unbelievable in 2023. We, as gamers, should be excited that an overwhelmingly ethical developer like Larian has made an outstanding piece of art and is being rewarded for such by critics and consumers alike.
But while Nelson is making some valid points out of concern for the indie game market, my real concern is how we’ve seen a pernicious form of validation coming from AAA developers. Ryan McCabe, seen below signal-boosting Nelson’s tweet, is a design manager at Insomniac Games – the same Insomniac that’s set to release its third Spider-Man game. So, if our criteria as discerning consumers are that we should be wary of the megagame built on a recognizable IP with tons of player feedback based on previous play, market validation, and a large,international developmentteam (Nelson’s phrasing)… why is an Insomniac employee like McCabe trying to get a seat at this table? Maybe I’m just being cynical, but could it be a preemptive defense of the backlash bound to come from the microtransactions set to launch with the newest installment of their Spider-Man franchise?
We’ve already seen critical backlash in response to the state of gaming this year in major touchstone IPs such as Overwatch and Diablo due to varying combinations of dubious quality, broken promises, or absolute inundation of predatory behavior. Meanwhile games like Elden Ring, Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda, God of War, et al. are offering experiences worth hundreds of hours of play while distinctly not charging for anything more than the initial price of admission and maybe a hand-crafted episodic DLC or sequel well after initial release. The notion that we should be cautious of Baldur’s Gate 3 “setting unreasonable expectations in RPGs” when a multi-billion-dollar corporation like Activision-Blizzard runs rough-shod over consumers is just not a good take. Consider that after Overwatch 2’s review-bombing on Steam, director Aaron Keller responded with “it’s been great to see lots of new players jump into Overwatch 2” while simultaneously referring to their years of work on Overwatch’s promised PVE overhaul as “an ambitious project we ultimately couldn’t deliver.” To put it succinctly, the director of one of the most popular (and most monetized) games of the last decade just tacitly admitted to failing its long-time fans after expressing gratitude to an entirely new generation of suckers. Forgive my lack of couth, Mr. Keller, but I don’t think that’s rain.
A year and a half ago Reddit birthed a popular meme when a group of developers decided to take to Twitter to level criticisms of Elden Ring for mostly being the type of game FromSoftware has always made. That all but one of these developers were from Ubisoft – a publisher who tried to convince us cryptocurrency games were going to be a thing – should speak volumes.
When I worked in the private space industry my organization had a phrase which we often referenced regarding caution against lackadaisical quality assurance in vehicle maintenance: “standardizing deviation”. Essentially, any time someone wanted to break proper maintenance processes to save time, we would push back because if enough deviation is permitted, standards become lower by degrees over time until the unthinkable happens, resulting in catastrophic failure, or even loss of vehicle and loss of life. Granted, the stakes are not so high in video games, but the point remains that these are no longer isolated incidents; these are now indicative of standardized deviation in the gaming industry. Many prominent AAA developers have embraced sea-change and are beginning to push back on microtransactions, battle passes, and drip-fed content loops; but there are some holders-on. What’s worse is that they appear to be engaging in grassroots social engineering, exploiting the voices of the very indie artists they continually drive to the brink. Baldur’s Gate 3, like so many RPGs we’ve seen in the last few years, should rightly be considered the future of gaming. Not necessarily for its devotion to the source material or production value, but for the overwhelming dedication of its developers to their own ethical bearing. So, every time we see a developer poke their head out of their cubicle to tell us to lower our expectations, we should look carefully at what it is they’re really saying… and most importantly: why they’re saying it.
About the Author:
John is the newest author to join the ranks of Podcasters United! John's 30+ year love affair with gaming first started on the tabletop and eventually segued into digital dungeon diving with the original Legend of Zelda on NES. He retired from technical work on air and spacecraft in 2021 and now teaches full-time. When he's not working or gaming he's avidly writing and reading all things sci-fi and fantasy.