Thursday, 18 July 2019

Fan Backlash & Accusations of Entitlement - A Brief Modern History

Well, this is going to be fun for the comments section.

The subject of fan entitlement has become one which seems to be brought up with everything at the moment. It was discussed with Game of Thrones, Avengers: Endgame and even Fallout 76 of late. In fact, it's to the point where it's as often rightfully brought up due to people demanding unreasonable things (like petitions to re-do Game of Thrones' entire final season) to deflections of criticism. It's a debate worth going into detail on, but this article isn't going to be focusing on that. Instead, this is going to be a short history looking into the events which led to this subject reaching fever pitch, and the serious problems which pushed it to this point.

The short answer to this is simple - The internet is responsible.

Yes, you might laugh at that, and yes it is a cheap answer. However, there is no denying that mass connectivity between fan groups has caused at least as many problems as it has benefits. It is something that has been discussed a number of times on here - usually in relation to the current fandom war which plagues Star Wars - and the echo chambers which are formed thanks to forums and the like. However, these are just the obvious answers. A greater emphasis needs to be made upon how it allowed for different forms of communication, not simply broader ones, both in terms of criticizing industries and altering the industries themselves.

One of the major things which is seemingly killing print media is the existence of the internet, and the addition of singular critics, journalists and the like. You know the sort, the people who have a one-man Youtube channel or even just a small network which was willing to go into detail on a single medium or even a single game. These have even come to overshadow more than a few of the major websites which have largely muscled out the major magazines over the years, and it has only snowballed from there. Part of what drew people to them was the convenience of it, and a preference for video over written word (yes, I am aware of the irony of writing this fact) along with a single unified platform. However, another defining factor was how the "by fans, for fans" approach earned far more trust among viewers.

The writers of major websites were always journalists and, no matter how much enthusiasm they put into a work, they would always be separated. In addition to this, the fact that they were so closely tied to the very industry they covered meant that there was a lack of trust among them. This only simmered and increased over time, and even various scandals among the Youtubers who replaced them - Projared being just the latest in a long line of these - has done nothing to reduce this disconnect. All too often, articles and pieces on the media we consume lack a critical edge of it. Instead, they come across as puff pieces and free marketing for many such pieces of media. It allowed one to seem far more trustworthy than the other, and because they were seen as being "fellow fans", it seemed to set a general mentality of following such examples and pushing for change.

To focus on gaming for a moment, you can see how this trend heavily impacted that medium over the better part of a decade. While there are no shortage of examples to find, perhaps the most famous among these can be seen in Bioware's games, specifically Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3. While the latter is certainly far more infamous than the former, Dragon Age II was where the cracks were truly starting to show for Bioware and even that gaming generation overall. The game was buggy, suffered from a rushed deadline pushed by Electronic Arts, and was so utterly on-rails that it abandoned everything which made its predecessor so engaging.

Every fan was ware of Dragon Age's flaws, and yet if you were to look into most gaming press or even basic reviews, it was treated as a near-perfect sequel. While it isn't a perfect measurement by any means, take a look at the differences in Metacritic scores here and here between those games. The difference in their treatment is obvious, and while one barely dips in critical reviews, in terms of fan reactions there is a far more negative response. This trend only continued in the months that followed, with article after article coming out to defend Dragon Age II against any scorn. A few were better balanced, but more often than not it lacked a willingness to actually call out the game for its own failings.

When Mass Effect 3 was released, the responses on both sides were only amplified due to the negativity surrounding it. The fans railed against it, and gaming journalism seemed to treat them as the great unwashed masses who wouldn't know a good product if someone beat them to death with it. This lack of trust at all only amplified the problems present, and it led to a feeling of the product being made to satisfy its creators over its customers. The "artistic vision" comment has become a joke due to how often it is brought up to defend poor decisions, from limiting a game to 30 FPS or poor colour choices. This was wheeled out again with Mass Effect 3 to defend its original endings, and every decision which ultimately undermined Bioware's own strengths.

Even once Mass Effect 3 was given a revised series of endings, the subject continued to remain a flashpoint. In fact, it might have even made the situation worse. You see, there is nothing wrong with listening to fans. In fact, listening to fans for general ideas is generally a good way to navigate your way about a minefield of possibly poor decisions. However, if you are actually seen to be openly caving to their will or - as was the case in previous months with FemShep - openly asking them "What do you want?" It does sow the seeds which can lead to toxic entitlement. 

This build-up toward negative fan traits could have been offset in any number of ways. A particularly good one would have been by better informing the public of the complications or issues within the industry. Make them understand how hard crunch hits studios, how complex it is to program a game, or even the demands placed upon teams due to those deadlines. Nada. Rather than actually fixing this or helping fans to better understand the issue, it led to decades of sniping that fans had "broken" the game by interrupting that artistic vision. In fact, the only one I have found which does try to outline this while mentioning Mass Effect 3 can be found here, from just last week. This is in the wake of multiple high-profile situations, and is years later than what we needed.

We won't be sticking to video games for much longer with this - do not worry about that - but they also provide how this has become a problem on the industry end of things. Why? Because, beyond anything else, they have embraced the mentality of "ship it, then fix it" that has come to overshadow so many titles. Honestly, how many games have you played now which are patched right after launch? How many suffer from huge bugs, game-breaking problems or even severe balance problem, only for the company to promise that it will be fixed later on? The answer, I think, will be a lot. It has become almost an industry standard among major publishers like Electronic Arts, Activision and a few of the other infamous nutters.

Whereas Nintendo once operated on the mentality of "You only get to release a game once, make it perfect" many of the others went with "get it out ASAP, we can fix it later". The sheer scale of so many fixes, how many updates, adjustments, and modifications helped to make it seem like anything could be done. So, as a result, the more that fans saw huge changes being made, the more they treated that this was something normal within the industry. This even gradually spread out over into others as well. Everyone who has played Warhammer 40,000 for the better part of seven years will know how erratas will completely change some books due to their modifications. The same goes for minor wargames, RPGs or anything tabletop based. The corrections can be churned out faster than ever, giving the impression that anything can be fixed overnight. The same is even true of ebooks these days, given how suddenly typos or the like can be picked out and then removed between reads.

However, the issue of having rapid updates and a lack of a more informed public is only part of this problem. Another one lies in how some creators will openly thumb their noses at fandoms, if not outright ignore them. While there are many examples of this, perhaps the most recent one was Rian Johnson's statement that he would ignore fans suggestions or the like under the justification that it would still lead to a bad film. There is a logic behind this, and I can even see it being one of the more reasonable justifications for this mentality. However, openly ignoring large chunks of what an audience desires to see is something which can only backfire on a company over time, especially those invested in the stories within that universe.

That particular example was only further compounded by events cited above. Whatever your thoughts might be on The Last Jedi, there is no denying that the media seems to be overwhelmingly on its side. The moment that there was any kind of noteworthy discontent, website after website, forum after forum, blog after blog, began churning out opinion pieces boasting of the film's accomplishments. When they weren't defending the film they were openly deriding those who disliked it, or treating them as if they were holding back the franchise. Each was little more than a glorified puff piece, and they came out so frequently that you could set your watch to them. Even before that you had those deriding the pre-Disney era, with a wave of articles continually mocking and outright insulting the Expanded Universe to whip up people into a frenzy; seemingly pushing a mob mentality of "Disney Star Wars = Good, non-Disney Star Wars = Bad". When you have the creative force openly stating that they will ignore fans, and the promotional side serving as little more than marketing, it only undermines any faith in a creation over time.

Perhaps the best example of how ignoring an audience could backfire badly on its company is Games Workshop itself. Under the tenure of Tom Kirby, fan complaints were repeatedly ignored, thrown out the window or treated as non-issues. There was a total lack of any transparency when it came to the fandom, and the few times in which they did engage with it, it was only to deride them with passive-aggressive remarks. This seemed to set a trend for the company as a whole, even when it came to their codicies. Complaints about the likes of Codex: Blood Angels and Codex: Grey Knights during the fifth edition were ignored entirely, along with problems in surrounding books as well. Their creators would seemingly plow on ahead, heedless of feedback, commentary or even the general attitude the fandom held toward their books.

The continued efforts to ignore fans only led to ever greater hostility among the fandom, and boiled over into coordinated efforts to see certain books fail by "buying around them". More than a few infamous statements such as listing "They can never be Ultramarines" as a failure of other chapters were treated as gospel, until it continued to alienate more and more of the fanbase. This finally culminated in a massive 42% loss in profit overnight, and Tom Kirby trying to escape like a rat feeling a sinking ship. All while the company had a near-monopoly over its medium and their franchise was a byword for the hobby itself. None of this was done with efforts to placate the audience, or even repeating anything outlined above. Just by ignoring them, and making the fans feel growing contempt, to the point of needing to yell ever louder. The fact that - with some occasional troubles - Kevin Rountree has been able to so rapidly turn this around simply by appealing to mass desires shows how terrible a mistake this truly was.

None of this is to defend the worst of toxic fan actions, nor even the stupidity of those who churn out petition after petition demanding things from their shows. There is no excuse for that, and all too often it's the result of spite as much as sheer blind idiocy. However, there is always a bit more than simple toxicity at work with these situations. I hope this article has outlined how some industries can all too easily cultivate the very backlashes which so dramatically undermine them. There are always two sides to every story after all and, even when it seems like a black and white situation, it always becomes more complex the more people that you involve. Combined with a lack of understanding or even problems with adjoining industries, and you end up with a mess. At best it's something like the Mass Effect 3 protest. At worst it's Gamergate.

1 comment:

  1. This might be a bit of a controversial opinion: do not write or make any fiction with your future audience in mind. Do not factor your future audience into what's going to happen and what should happen. If you're doing a series and somebody figured out the twist, ignore them.

    I've never seen a case where factoring in future audiences and their responses to the fiction being made ended up more positive than negative. As far as I'm concerned, getting the audience to react is so much worse than just trying to make a good product. If somebody thinks "It would be such a good twist if X was to happen" then they need to go through their story to make sure that it can happen, and that they didn't wall off their chances of doing that earlier. They also need to think about what is coming so that they don't ruin the next part of their story with this twist. This means that even if they might've started adding the twist because they thought it would be a good twist, they're now writing it in the context of making a cohesive narrative and building a better story as a whole.

    If you didn't do this, and just decide to add in a huge twist for the sake of it to surprise your audience, then you get bits like in Dallas where a character wakes up to find another character in the shower and it turns out all of the recent part of the show was a dream. Likewise if you want to make a film where your audience was intentionally divided on it, you get the utter trash like the Last Jedi. If you want to have pointless fanservice and/or want to manipulate the fans for emotional reactions, you get the last two seasons of Game of Thrones. This is why I think that whatever you're making needs to be made without thought of how your audience will react to it. That doesn't mean you cannot have standards, based on similar works, and it doesn't mean that you can make whatever you want (that's a different discussion), but it does mean that trying to manipulate your audience should not be a part of your agenda. You should be bringing your audience along for a journey on something you made, think of it as being like a tour guide to something incredible you've developed. You should not be toying with them the whole way through and enjoying when they end up lost, confused and especially when it makes them angry.

    Now where do critics fit into this? Easy, consider them part of the writing process, not a part of your fanbase. Think of them as a test that your work needs to pass, should it be well received enough then you can think about releasing it. I've also mentioned future audiences above a lot because if you want to treat audiences as critics that's also fine, you can learn from what people criticized about your previous works and then remember that as a lesson for future works, but as soon as you go "People didn't like X in my previous story so now I'm going to give them the opposite" you again hamstring yourself, trying to focus on writing your story around your audience rather than writing your story around its plot, characters, setting, actions and so on.

    It's a bit hard to fully describe this stance, but I hope I've gotten the point of it across.