Vague Patch Notes: How do you play MMOs when you know humans suffered to make them?

Strap in, buckos.

The original Star Wars film was a passion project for a then-young George Lucas, and it was a project that nearly killed Lucas from stress. When filming started in the Tunisian desert, by complete coincidence it started raining, delaying the filming for an extended period of time due to its sheer rarity. The first cut of the film by editor John Jympson was described as a “complete disaster,” and the special effects team at Industrial Light & Magic was horribly behind schedule due to being asked to make effects that had never before been attempted. According to Steven Spielberg, during the early cut screening for executives, he was the only one who actually enjoyed the film; some accounts actually have Lucas breaking down in tears as the executives savaged it.

Now, go watch that movie again. Go ahead and watch the film knowing that Anthony Daniels was stabbed in the foot by his C-3PO costume while he sweltered in the Tunisian desert and couldn’t see due to the paint job on the helmet. Listen to Alec Guinness deliver his lines and remind yourself that he asked for Obi-Wan Kenobi to die just so he wouldn’t be asked back for other films.

Does it change your enjoyment of the movie? Does it make the film worse? Is it harder to enjoy the action on screen when you know that everyone involved was miserable and stressed? Because after Rockstar bragged about 100-hour work weeks earlier this week – and then tried to take it back, only to be rebuffed by employees with depressing accounts of crunch – it feels like the right time to talk about the conditions under which games are made and the human cost of these things.

There are other less miraculous bits.The point here isn’t to slam Rockstar specifically for what’s going on with Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s sadly nothing new for the company, but it’s also hardly something new for the industry as a whole. Pretty much every single game studio has stories like that, often for games that have been both critical and commercial successes. Naoki Yoshida talked about basically running on Red Bull and cigarettes leading up to the release of Final Fantasy XIV’s reboot. Star Trek Online was assembled on a timeline so accelerated that it’s a minor miracle the dang thing ever worked at launch. Multiple MMO devs at Netmarble have literally keeled over dead thanks to crunch. Releasing Shroud of the Avatar even drained the blood of the developers.

Wait, they did that to resell it as a marketing stunt. Forget that last one.

No, what makes Rockstar’s bit earlier this week particularly egregious is that it’s discussing a highly anticipated game before launch in which this effort is being put forth as not just a normal part of development but as somehow heroic, as if it shows that the team loves games so much that it’s willing to sacrifice health and free time to make these games happen. And it’s one thing to celebrate that as an individual, but quite another to do so when serving as the face of a company while overtly or covertly pressuring employees to also put in the same amount of time.

But more than that is the fact that this issue is, in fact, complicated. A lot of you reading this right now are probably super excited to play Red Dead Redemption 2. This game has gotten plenty of previews and certainly looks good from the outside looking in; by all rights, the expectation is that it’ll be amazing. It just gets more complicated if you’re playing the game and thinking “this basically killed the people working on it.”

Even if you’re not looking forward to RDR2, you’re probably a fan of at least one game you know had a production schedule full of crunch and misery. And that’s just the stories we know about; a lot of these stories just don’t get shared, partly because crunch is seen as something “normal” in game development and partly because there’s a certain sense of just knuckling down and fixing what needs fixing.

The fact is that we don’t want to hear about the stories about how some of the things we enjoy get made because we fundamentally want to think that these things were a product of fun and joy and good times. Nobody really wants to hear about my sitting in a house with no running water for a week after a tropical storm knocked out my power, emailing typed versions of my columns to Bree so they would still go up on time before my phone battery died. (She told me not to worry about it, but I didn’t want to miss my columns.)

We don’t want to think about an actor hiding in back rooms and crying between takes because the production environment was violently homophobic, to the point of quitting the job and putting himself into conversion therapy for two years after suicidal thoughts. You know, like what happened to David Yost.

We don’t want to think about George Lucas, current bearded flannel punchline, getting diagnosed with hypertension and nearly having a heart attack as he desperately cuts together footage so that his baby, this huge beautiful mess he calls Star Wars, won’t get completely murdered by executives. Or watching him sign over rights and concessions just so that film actually gets released.

And when we hear about these things for games, we… well, we try to shove them off. We tell ourselves that things can’t actually have been that bad, that maybe it just happened to a few isolated people (as if that makes it better). Or that things weren’t as bad as they sounded, or maybe it wasn’t the parade of misery we think it is, or someone’s still going to swoop in and finish the last cliffhanger Telltale Games left and that’s what we should worry about instead of the people stuck without severance or compensation.

Because this was the part that was personally resonant for you.

You might think that I’m about to tell you that no, these things are evil and bad and you shouldn’t support anything which has these awful periods of crunch or production errors or whatever. That’d be nice to say, but it also would be, at the very least, massively hypocritical. Lots and lots of my favorite stuff had incredibly troubled productions that I know about; I’m sure there are ones I don’t know about, too.

I love Power Rangers’ early seasons. I enjoy A New Hope. No one reading this site isn’t well aware of my love for Final Fantasy XIV, I really liked Mass Effect: Andromeda, and I’ve still got lots of nice things to say about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. And again, these are just the things I know about. There are things I love that were nightmares to work on, some of them so bad that they drove creative people from their fields.

No, I don’t think it’s necessary to boycott something with a draining, troubled, or nightmarish production. I don’t even think it’s particularly productive, because you’re not protesting something it represents but something that happened. But I think you do owe it to yourself to be aware of these things and factor them into your enjoyment and what you support, even while acknowledging that the obvious way to deny support with your wallet is not particularly viable.

And I think it is something you need to think about when it comes to what you enjoy in your free time. Not the only factor, maybe not even the most important factor, but something important to be aware of. Playing League of Legends means supporting a development team with a sexist culture that actively forces out people who try to change it. Playing Pantheon will mean, yes, playing a game by the same guy responsible in part for the parking lot firing. And playing RDR2 does mean offering some endorsement of its 100-hour work week.

I wish I could point to a clear dividing line, a place where it’s easy to say “this is exactly how bad something has to be before you should not let yourself enjoy something.” But that’s the whole point. It’s complicated, it’s not cut-and-dried, and it’s a case of lots of things you may enjoy that were, in fact, produced under terrible conditions. You have to recontextualize some of what you enjoy based on new information.

But the one thing you can’t do is avoid responsibility altogether by sticking your head in the sand and pretending nothing is wrong. Complicated problems don’t have simple solutions, and ignoring the problems isn’t solving them; it’s forcing people to do extra work in order to make you aware the problems exist.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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