Vague Patch Notes: Can anyone really cover games objectively when there’s suffering built-in to them?

Look, ma, no colors!

In July of 2021, we started a roundup tag in our tag cloud that most of us probably didn’t expect to still be using nearly two years later. It’s just “blizzard-scandal,” but that kind of says everything we need to. I wrote about it at the time, but since then it has only gotten worse. We’ve watched new studio head Mike Ybarra championing slashing bonuses and forcing a return to the office for basically no reason, non-stop union-busting antics, diversity goals that have barely been touched, and our good old friend crunch rearing his ugly head.

The internal grassroots movement attempting to fix things, A Better ABK, seems to have lost as often as it has won. For Sobek’s sake, Brian Birmingham got ousted because he rebelled against a toxic employee rating system. It seems like Activision-Blizzard has basically been digging in its heels and trusting that the people who were upset about all of this would more or less forget about it all as soon as Diablo IV rolled around as long as that game was good enough that people wanted to play it anyway.

And it seems like this plan was the right one because it looks like a whole lot of people who should really know better are willing to just treat Diablo IV as it if were any other game not coming out of Activision-Blizzard. It’s just the price of doing business, apparently.

Near the inception of this particular column, I wrote about the question of how can you enjoy video games when you know that people suffered to make them. It’s not a question with an easy answer, but… this one strikes me as even harder, and even more pertinent. Because while I could just refresh that article to ask how people can be excited for Diablo IV considering all of the first two paragraphs, I’m more concerned about the calls coming from inside the house.

Jason Schreier has a game journalism career that’s at once longer and more prestigious than mine. He was also one of the people who worked to break the story about Activision-Blizzard’s stories of sexual harassment breaking into the mainstream, after stating in no uncertain terms that he had heard about things like this for years. Through his body of work and his own comments, it is abundantly clear what his position on the company’s behavior is. And yet, on the abbreviated medium of Twitter, he’s talking about Diablo IV as if it were just another game, fundamentally no different than any other big-budget release.

I’m not here to dunk on Schreier, whom I respect; the point is that this is a conflict even the very best games journalists in our industry face. I am personally in a privileged position on the topic of Diablo because I’ve never really cared about this franchise and “we turned the saturation down like this was a triple-A game circa 2008” is not an appealing pitch to me in the first place. But I can turn the exact same lens on myself: I can talk about wrestling with this exact problem because back in November 2022 I had to figure out how you talk about World of Warcraft: Dragonflight in the exact same context.

Are you for real, guy.

If you go back and read my three-part impressions of the expansion, even the longest one only briefly touches on the fact that Activision-Blizzard is a truly terrible company. And I wrestled with it a lot. I wrestled with how best to cover this. Nor did I wrestle alone, nor was this new to us; MOP’s editor Bree and I in particular have spent many an hour over the last few years discussing how to properly cover the games from this harassing union-busting trash fire of a company. Oh, and just for extra fun, we are a small, genuinely independently owned website, and covering big MMOs is, in fact, kind of important for our survival.

When does one issue cross over into another? Is the fact that Overwatch 2 still lacks the PvE modes that were meant to be the central feature of the sequel (and let’s face it, are probably never coming) of a kind with the company’s hideously toxic culture? Can you draw a meaningful distinction between them?

Can you fence off this one company? Square-Enix operates an amazing MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV, and we’ve heard little bad coming out of CBU3… but “little” is not the same as “none.” But even that little bit hardly matters when you consider that Square-Enix as a whole is plunging headlong into an NFT project. Are there enough layers between those that it feels comfortable to critique the two things as separate entities? Can you create a meaningful distinction?

Ubisoft saw a wholesale strike. Sega is underpaying its workers. Nexon. CCP. Amazon. Disney. Companies all over doing awful things. Studios that platform terrible people. This isn’t something you can get away from, and the reality is that for a lot of players these actions don’t actually have a moral component. You recognize that you are always going to have to make some choices you don’t like, so you take the best information that you have and you decide what compromises that you’re going to make based on that information.

But as journalists, our job is to report that information. How far is too far? How tightly do things need to be related? Should we never discuss New World without mentioning the conditions of Amazon workers outside of Amazon Games? (Y’all can Google that, I’m depressed enough from all the other sources here.) When does that cross the line from informative to just being strident?

I… don’t know.

this whale is all of us

It’d be nice if I could point you to a line. It’d be nice if I could say that Diablo IV is a singularly awful game and no one should treat it like a game at all but instead a testament to a bad company trying to buy its way into a community pardon. And it is that… but there are also normal, decent people who worked on the game who are not third-act villains rubbing their hands together in glee. They just wanted to make a game in this series and hoped people would find it fun.

And the whole point here is that this isn’t on players. Life is hard and frequently disappointing, and the reality is that morality is attached to actions, not people. You aren’t a bad person if you like playing Ubisoft’s live service games even while you recognize that Ubisoft is a garbage company. Arguments could be made about buying an Ubisoft game while strikes are ongoing being a bad act, but again, how far back does the butterfly effect stretch? Should you feel personally guilty for shutting a cupboard and starting the chain of events that leads to a typhoon?

The question, for me, isn’t whether you play a game but how we should cover these things. And I don’t have an answer to that either. We live in an era when development is more transparent than ever, and we have a clearer picture of how the sausage is made than in ages past. Back when Final Fantasy VI came out, I certainly didn’t know that the game was translated by locking one guy in a room with a novel’s worth of Japanese text being told to translate it without ever touching on a long list of no-no words.

Was the press obligated to report on it back then? Did they know? Should they have said anything? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe you say it once, maybe you say it a few dozen times, maybe you never stop saying it. Maybe everything is different, maybe everything feels different, and the whole problem is in trying to make a rule because no rule is ever going to really grasp the full scope of the problem.

But I do think, just like asking about considering the suffering, that we have to ask the question. That you, as readers, have to ask the question as well. And we can all benefit from having longer memories and a willingness to keep multiple dissonant and uncomfortable things in our heads while we’re making choices. It might be difficult, and it might be complicated, and we are all going to forget things from time to time… but it makes us more thoughtful. It makes us more considerate.

At the end of the day, we can only hope that shining a light on these things makes us more compassionate and kinder. If we can do nothing else, we can all try to be more thoughtful… and more kind.

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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