Welcome to another issue of Currents, where video game industry headlines are broken down and editorialized. Hopefully things are warmer where you are; winter has not been terribly kind to Canada's east coast. I've mostly been spending my time indoors drilling into my backlog.
With all of the many holiday releases this year, it can be hard to dedicate time to any one game. Why play a game though, when you can watch a movie instead? Meet Andre, the black nerd. He makes dorky comedy videos on YouTube, such as this live-action Captain Toad masterpiece:
If I could ask you readers some questions this week, they would be:
- Are there any large publishers you can trust to treat you well?
- Did Watch Dogs Wii U ever have a chance?
- What are your thoughts on GTA V's removal from shelves?
You're probably tired of review embargos. It seems as though most recent high profile news stories have revolved around sketchy publishing tactics and the constraints game companies will sometimes place on professional review outlets presumably in order to save preorders. Embargos certainly have benefits as well, such as evening the playing field for all reviewers in allowing them to not have to rush their writing, but it becomes much harder to defend the concept of embargos when they are being used with the sole purpose of protecting potential sales from being damaged by legitimate criticism.
This could be a discussion solely about Assassin's Creed Unity, a game so unplayable that its publisher, Ubisoft, has spent more time suggesting optional work-arounds like turning off social features than implementing patches. Ubisoft has certainly earned its place under the microscope, considering its predatory embargo tactics, lack of quality control, and a seeming inability to apologize for what some would argue is grounds for mass recall. After all, it is Ubsioft's fault that Unity, a game that could have been an absolute triumph, has such a negative stigma to it — one that I would argue will never go away. This topic doesn't just concern one publisher though.
For as bad as it was that no one reviewer could say anything negative or positive about Unity until after it was on store shelves, that isn't anywhere as egregious as media outlets not even receiving copies of Sonic Boom for the Wii U. After playing the monstrosity that is Sonic's latest outing, I can understand why. The game is full to the brim with game-breaking bugs, unpolished graphics, and examples of near criminal game design negligence. Could it be that SEGA realized that the game would not be up to snuff after the massive staff exodus at Big Red Button months before release? Was it the timely departure of the game's producer? Whatever the reason, it's clear that SEGA lost confidence in Sonic Boom and tried to rake in some launch-day sales by neglecting to provide reviewers copies at all.
SEGA and Ubisoft have faced a massive backlash from fans and some media outlets for their predatory publishing tactics, but that shouldn't suggest that the behavior of these companies will be any different in the future. In fact, Ubisoft's The Crew debuted December 2 and not a single reviewer can tell you what the final product is like. Ubisoft didn't send review copies until the day after its commercial launch, meaning that media outlets won't be able to give you an informed perspective on whether you should pick up the game for several days.
I don't see this to be a sign of confidence. Furthermore, while Ubisoft noted in an official statement that it is not limiting discussion of the game, it seems to me that it is. That they are preemptively painting review outlets that discuss The Crew's quality before release as dishonest — suggesting that many outlets are likely to give impressions of the game based on the experience during the beta. And that is a legitimate concern, sure, but certainly not a wide-spread problem.
When it comes to reviewing, a hard reality to deal with is that many large games, especially open world games, require a lot of time to play before a reviewer can make a qualitative assessment. The decision to restrict reviews by providing copies only after launch just serves to stifle criticism for a good period of time right as people are holiday shopping, likely all in the name of sales. If Ubisoft had confidence in the game's reception, it's likely that reviewers would have had a few days lead-time to release their analysis — a fact which I feel really illuminates the often unseen relationship reviewers have with publishers behind the scenes.
I won't be so bold as to speak for all reviewers, and certainly not other RPGamer reviewers, however, I've never gotten the impression that publishers are terribly fond of our ilk. Sometimes it feels as though the words of reviewers are seen more as threats to a game's success in the marketplace than they are welcomed PR. A publisher ignoring a review of its game once it's been posted is not a unique thing. In fact, unless a review happens to have game-selling quotes or a notably high score which can be added to future promotional commercials, they can be completely unacknowledged and even undermined. Some publishers won't even retweet a review of a game that has a less than a near perfect score.
I'll concede that some smaller publishers such as NISA and XSEED do right by their customers because their customers do right by them, but the publisher-customer relationship is rarely so symbiotic and larger publishers should never be implicitly trusted. In a perfect world that relationship would be less adversarial, but as it stands today publishers have the ability to be extremely self-serving in how they interact with outlets and gamers alike. They own the games and as such get to set the terms. To that point, I strongly reiterate they should not be trusted; not because all companies are morally corrupt or greedy, but because they will always have a vested interest in taking as much of your money as possible.
Watch Dogs was recently released for the Wii U. You may not be aware as Ubisoft seems to have spent the game's entire marketing budget before its initial release on other platforms last March. That or they sent out the Wii U version to die. The later suggestion might sound preposterous and a gigantic waste of money, but bear with me: there absolutely is reason to believe that this iteration of Watch Dogs was a planned sacrifice.
Ubisoft has had an axe to grind for quite some time now. Its games sell well on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox, but excluding Just Dance and Rayman Legends it can't sell a damn thing on the Wii U. Naturally, the bigwigs at Ubisoft assume that it is a problem with the console platform itself and not the way they were handling releases. That's partially true — there's no denying that the Wii U doesn't have the built-in firepower of the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, usually making it not the best third party platform available. That being said, there are people who only own a Wii U and haven't purchased Ubisoft games for the console specifically due to how the publisher has handled those releases.
The Wii U iterations of Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Assassin's Creed 3, and Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag all had significant frame rate and bug issues. Furthermore, each of these Wii U releases were subject to slashed features and content from their PlayStation and Xbox counterparts. Without a doubt, the worst way to play Splinter Cell and Assassin's Creed was on a Nintendo console. To contrast, the technically flawless and content rich Rayman Legends sold well, in spite of frustrating Wii U owners by forcing a massive delay. In response to this Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot told Game Informer that the Wii U version of Watch Dogs would be the last M-rated game the company publishes for the platform, as Nintendo gamers didn't buy mature games.
Interesting, as Bayonetta 2, a recently released mature title, debuted #1 on the eShop sales charts. Who knows how many physical copies the game shipped, but there is clearly an audience on the platform. Is it possible that the problem wasn't being an M-rated title on a Nintendo platform, but rather Ubisoft not investing a terrible amount of effort into timely, quality releases for the Wii U?
Watch Dogs, predictably, shipped almost no copies when it launched on Wii U. Lacking most of the DLC on other versions and launching six months late, Watch Dog's for Wii U failed to make it into the top ten selling games for the console for the week of its release — coming in fourteenth overall and falling since. What was really responsible for the Watch Dogs face plant? Was it the nature of Wii U owners, the massive delay, last-gen graphics, lack of downloadable content, or abysmal online support? I think it was Ubisoft.
Ubisoft sent Watch Dogs Wii U to the slaughter. The publisher knew full well that the game wouldn't sell well on the platform, and put as little effort in as possible to make it a success. There were no ads, no demos, no improvements — just a mediocre looking game released six months late with fewer features. Finally, Ubisoft can use Watch Dogs as a perfect example of why the Wii U and its owners aren't worth publishing for in the future. All they had to do was sacrifice one game.
Source: Game Informer
Over the past few issues we've covered a number of change.org petitions. Each one was based on what I argued to be unreasonable consumer demands. That trend continues today. This latest petition is aimed specifically at Target Australia, with the demand that the organization remove Grand Theft Auto V from store shelves as it "encourages players to commit sexual violence and kill women" — the first of several patently false statements made by the petition's creators.
The petition doesn't pull any punches. "[GTA V] is a game that encourages players to murder women for entertainment. The incentive is to commit sexual violence against women, then abuse or kill them to proceed or get 'health' points — and now Target are stocking it and promoting it for your Xmas stocking." Referenced in one of the paragraphs is a gameplay clip that shows a woman being run down, set on fire, and repeatedly shot. This was used as basis for the claim that GTA V is "misogynistic" and "links sexual arousal and violence." Going a step further, at one point the game is described as a "scapegoat for male violence" that is "grooming yet another generation of boys to tolerate violence against women."
As you can imagine I have a few logical problems with the framing of this petition, the first being that GTA V exists in a gritty crime world full of mature subject matter and violence. It is completely fictional and in terms of content isn't terribly dissimilar to any crime movie or television show. There certainly is violence on display, but it is fictional and never glorified. So, how does it encourage the player to murder women for entertainment?
Numerous studies have been done since the late 80s around the effects of explicit video game content on players, and not a single study has been able to establish a correlation between that content and violence — sexual or otherwise. But even if there was an effect on gamers, this game certainly can't be accused of "grooming young boys" to become women abusers and rapists. After all, it's an M-rated game; boys shouldn't be able to play it unless they are over the age of 17. It isn't Rockstar Games or Target Australia's fault if ignorant and negligent parents choose to buy a clearly adult oriented and restricted game for underage children.
The thing that really gets under my skin though isn't that the subject matter has been highlighted as being unfit for human consumption based on ignorant speculation — it's the fact that GTA V was called "misogynistic" for giving players the freedom to do whatever they please, including attacking women. GTA V isn't misogynistic. Both women and men are victims of in-game violence. In fact, a significantly higher amount of men will die on an average play though. Players often have to go out of their way to harm women, and that action isn't without immediate punishment. Police are notified of what you've done and your criminal notoriety increases along with local police presence. GTA V absolutely does not incentivize women abuse. It punishes it.
Not that logic seems to matter. Target Australia has agreed to remove GTA V from shelves due to customer feedback. Jim Cooper, Target's General Manager of Corporate Affairs, recently took to the company's Facebook page to issue a press statement. "We've been speaking to many customers over recent days about the game, and there is a significant level of concern about the game's content," Mr Cooper said. "We've also had customer feedback in support of us selling the game, and we respect their perspective on the issue. However, we feel the decision to stop selling GTA V is in line with the majority view of our customers."
All of this is enough to make me want to pull my hair out. I'm certainly not against curtailing content that is legitimately sexist and inappropriate for its audience, but what we're witnessing here isn't reasonable. A perfectly legal game is being blocked from sale because people who have never played it are making unfounded, damaging statements about its content. It's the kind of ignorance that you can only really find in a pack mentality, and it reminds me of my favorite Men in Black quote: "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it."
Sources: Facebook, Change.org
That's it for this issue of Currents. You'll see another issue again in a couple weeks, but stay tuned to RPGamer for all the latest RPG news, reviews, previews, and interviews.
Your dork from the Great North,
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