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Pure Opinion: Epitaphs for the Suicidally Smug

Trust me when I say that being a smug a-hole almost never works, especially in your job. (I might know from personal experience.) Even when you are right, it can be a bad thing. If you need people to buy your product, it can be disastrous, and you can ruin yourself quickly. Although you might weather a PR poop storm today, your fans may leave you for the next big thing tomorrow.

This seems to happen quite often in the gaming industry. We have big personalities with big ideas and, often, bigger mouths. So much of who they are is invested into a particular release that they feel intensely passionate about it, making it an unassailable thing with almost a religious sanctity.

This is where they go wrong. People are going to criticize. I have no scientific evidence, but observation tells me that a small fraction of the population will mindlessly hate something, anything, for almost no logical reason. You may be varying degrees of right, but, whatever you do, don’t be complacent. Don’t underestimate your audience and consumer. Don’t be smug. It almost always comes back to take a chunk out of your butt. (Gaming journalists still need to learn this lesson, but that’s something for another day.)

The first example this year is Battlefield V. The game’s creative director, Patrick Soderlund, was responding to criticism about some of the choices in the game. Forget about whether you think he made the right or wrong choice. Remove yourself and the politics from the situation, and you’ll see that this is a common scenario for developers in an environment where the average fan has more access and an easier ability to make themselves heard.

Developers are often asked tough questions about a game and have to defend choices. When everyone can come up with a reason to hate something, no matter what it is, you have to expect this will happen. That’s normal, but how you respond to it is everything. It can win over people who had originally written you and your game off as something they didn’t want. It’s an opportunity to reach out to fans and haters alike to build that bridge of mutual understanding and maybe even respect.

Patrick Soderlund decided to be smug. When discussing this issue with Gamasutra he told gamers to “…either accept it or don’t buy the game. I’m fine with either or…”. To me, that’s a perfectly fine response if you genuinely don’t care if someone buys your game. I can respect that. He has his principles, and he is willing to pay the price for them if it doesn’t work out.

Except he’s not. Patrick Soderlund left EA before Battlefield V released, and it looks like he was smart to do so. After a delay, sales are much lower compared to Battlefield 1, and some retailers are already selling it for half price as soon as a week after release. It doesn’t help that the game launched with some technical issues.

The second example from this year is Fallout 76, the online multiplayer version of Fallout. I haven’t played it myself, but I have read and watched video of bugs, glitches, poor visuals, and server problems that left gamers unable to play. It’s a mess technically and continues to be a PR nightmare, but it’s how it was treated a few months ago that’s more telling.

At Bethesda’s showcase during E3 2018, Todd Howard took to the stage to talk about Fallout 76. Todd Howard decided to be smug. He mentioned the company’s games have bugs, because he read it on the internet. He repeated that he read it on the internet.

Watching this originally, I was struck by the fact that this obviously bothered him, even though he was making a joke about it. And yes, Todd, your games do have bugs. They have had bugs for years, sometimes the same bug is repeated in another game. With terrible mistakes leading to mismanagement of everything from customer information to replacing items in the game’s very expensive special edition, Fallout 76 has been heavily discounted shortly after release.

Remove the emotions and whether you think Fallout 76 would or wouldn’t be a fun game if it was technically perfect. At the time he made that statement, Fallout 76 had to have been in QA. Testing should have revealed many bugs. It’s part of development. He would or should have known this, right? Why would you make a joking reference to a history of poor performance when your game was close to release? Shortly after the enormous initial patch, Digital Foundry demonstrated the game still struggled in many areas. Todd Howard will have plenty to read, because the internet is going to keep reporting that Bethesda games have bugs.

The last example is one I worry we may repeat sometime in the future. The man who pushed PlayStation through the heady times of the PS2, Ken Kutaragi, was hyping the newly announced PS3 and doing his best to justify the $599 price of the new system. Ken Kutaragi was smug.

In statements that would be deemed to hyperbolic for your average 90s infomercial, he mentioned that “it’s probably too cheap”. It was still incredibly expensive, but Ken knew how to get around that objection as well. “We want consumers to think to themselves, ‘I will work more hours to buy one.’” Although that may be the attitude and strategy people take, it’s still not a good look, bro, and it still doesn’t justify the cost.

The PS3 had a rough launch with lower than expected sales and some rougher ports. It took a substantial effort for Sony to improve their image and demonstrate the console’s value over its life cyle. Kutaragi’s job was given to Kaz Hirai, and Kutaragi retired from actively working at Sony in 2007. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that he paid a price for the console’s struggle at launch. (Take care, Kutaragi-san. You did some amazing things.)

What can developers learn here? The most obvious answer is not to be smug with your community. Even if you’re right, you’re wrong, and you will pay the consequences. Smugness is professionally devastating and alienating in the long-term, especially with the internet’s collective long memory.

As you make your case for a decision, as you make your jokes, and as you make a sales pitch for something you want me to buy, you are making your financial and professional bed, and, eventually, you’ll have to lie in it. Don’t be a mother-smugger.

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