How the Video Games Industry Created Its Own Cult of Toxic Fans (Commentary)

The games industry has no one to blame but itself for a community of fans that loves to lash out

“Your little article about ‘No Man’s Sky’ being delayed, has made me hate you to my very core. Its the only thing i live for, and you go and write that bullsh— about a delay. Instead of visiting London later this month, i think i’ll come by and say hi to you and f— you up. You think you can get away with this that easy?”

Reporter Jason Schreier, of the video game site Kotaku, received that message through Twitter because he had the gall to report last week that a video game you probably have never heard of, “No Man’s Sky,” was being delayed from its scheduled June 21 launch date to either July or August.

There was plenty more where that came from, too. The “No Man’s Sky” forum on Reddit went into a full meltdown, with some users simply attempting to debunk the report, others claiming it was an act of sabotage in some way, and others sending death threats. It couldn’t possibly be true, they said. This was an attack on fans by Kotaku, or whatever.

The delay was real, though. Two days after Kotaku’s report was published, Sony and development house Hello Games announced that “No Man’s Sky” was being pushed to August 9. And the anger and threats extended to the people who were making the game. Again, I should note, all this madness was coming from the people who were excited about playing.

Yes, “No Man’s Sky” has a fervent fanbase made up of people who have not played it, who were getting really, really angry — to the point of threatening the people who were going to deliver that game to them.

It’s not really a new thing for geeks and hardcore fans of pop culture things to be mad about stuff. We’re all human — being mad about stuff is kinda our whole thing. It’s why Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for president.

But lately it seems like folks are extra mad. Just in the past couple of weeks, we’ve had outlandish outrage over: The return of the sexist backlash to a “Ghostbusters” remake that nobody has seen starring a female main cast; Captain America being a secret HYDRA agent in the first part of a comic book story line that hasn’t been resolved; “No Man’s Sky” getting its release date pushed back by six weeks.

The “No Man’s Sky” thing is particularly interesting because it has a different blueprint from the others. We’ve seen uproars like the ones over “Ghostbusters” and the “Captain America” comic enough times that we can trace a psychological line to the cause. The super vocal anti-“Ghostbusters” crowd is being sexist, a sentiment geek culture is well familiar with. The Captain America thing is people having a gut response to something before they know what it means or how it’s going to play out — we see something similar pretty regularly when fans dislike an individual new episode of a TV show.

But “No Man’s Sky” isn’t a sequel to some beloved thing, and these fans haven’t even played it. How could they feel so strongly about it that there could even be this kind of bizarre outpouring of emotion over a six-week delay?

Retaking ‘Mass Effect’

Four years ago, Electronic Arts released “Mass Effect 3,” the conclusion to a video game space opera trilogy that is still considered one of the best things to ever be spat out of the games industry. That’s despite the horrid ending to “Mass Effect 3,” which in early 2012 sent gamers into quite a tizzy.

That ending was a complete turd, thematically at odds with the rest of the game and the trilogy as a whole, and making very little sense on its own. It was half-assed, rushed out the door right at the end of EA’s fiscal year. It wasn’t satisfying in the least.

What happened after was pretty strange. Generally when people get to the end of a longform story, like a series of movies or a TV show or whatever, they’ll get mad and then move on because it’s over and that’s that. But gamers didn’t do that. Instead, they started something called Retake Mass Effect, demanding that the series creators at video game studio BioWare make a new, better ending for their beloved series.

When I say they “demanded” I really mean it. The uproar was wild. Folks were talking about making complaints to the FTC for false advertising, as well as other legal action. What was happening was not an adverse response to a work of art, but complaints that a tech product didn’t function as intended. They were whining in the same way people whine when iTunes deletes all the music off their computer.

This is the bed that the video games industry insiders made for themselves. They don’t treat games as art, and they don’t sell them as art. They act like art is part of a larger feature set that includes cool graphics and the most realistic falling animations and as much of your time wasted as possible (time wasted, or at least the potential, being counted as a good thing in video games). They’re just selling you tech — a new iPhone every week that will change your life.

Every game is “revolutionary” and “an experience unlike anything you’ve ever played,” even though neither of those things is ever really true. They sell gamers on the idea that they’re in on the ground floor of the future of entertainment. We buy it, because it makes the gaming habit feel like it’s more special than just a way to waste time between dinner and bedtime every day.

And that’s how something like Retake Mass Effect comes about. The “Mass Effect” games are about making choices that will dictate how a story plays out, and BioWare promised that all those choices across three games would matter in how it ends. But they didn’t, and so fans claimed this tech product was missing an advertised feature.

The cult of community

A friend of mine in the industry remarked to me a few weeks ago that video game marketing isn’t selling you a game, but rather a membership in a cult. That video game marketing is, essentially, weaponizing fandom.

In other parts of pop culture, it’s simply incidental that kind of intense brand loyalty would spring up amongst a small group of fans. Disney, for example, isn’t trying to foment an intense and rabid fanbase for Marvel movies because Disney knows that kind of fanbase doesn’t need help to grow, and those fans are already in the bag. Disney has to concern itself with everyone else — aka normal people. “Captain America: Civil War” doesn’t rack up $1.1 billion at the box office on the backs of geeks. That money comes from having a mass audience full of people who don’t even remember what happened in the last Marvel movie. Heated nerds are a fringe element there.

But in games, that fringe is the entire target audience. The industry caters to their whims at all costs, attempting to foster that possessiveness so as to keep gamers under lock and key. You’ll be able to see this clearly in a couple weeks, when the big video game publishers hold their year’s multi-million-dollar press conference extravaganzas ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (or E3).

My friend made the comment about the cult of video games in response to gamers losing their minds over any dissident opinion about “Uncharted 4.” I didn’t like that game, and I wrote as much here at TheWrap. That review was met with a barrage of comments calling me a “disgrace” who should be fired for the transgression of disliking a video game that holds an average rating of 93 out of 100 on the review aggregator Metacritic.com.

Elsewhere, somebody made a petition on Change.org to have The Washington Post’s negative review expunged from that Metacritic average — a petition that one of the stars of “Uncharted 4,” voice actor Troy Baker, happily shilled from his Twitter account, fanning that nerd flame.

Negative comments about “Uncharted 4” were treated, essentially, as an attack on the fabric of gaming itself — and by extension an attack on gamers, whose identities are eternally wrapped up in loyalty to gaming and gaming brands. The brand in this situation isn’t just “Uncharted,” but also PlayStation and Sony — as “Uncharted 4” is produced and published by Sony and is available only on the PlayStation 4.

And lately, Sony has been as adept as anyone in gaming at fostering brand loyalty. In 2014, they even started simulcasting their press conferences in movie theaters.

There’s just something special about watching the news and excitement of E3 together with fellow PlayStation fans that makes this an event I look forward to every year,” Sony’s Michael Steranka wrote on the PlayStation Blog. “Between the loud cheers that, honestly, probably ruin movies for people in adjacent theaters (sorry not sorry), and the camaraderie felt in the air from being surrounded by the PlayStation Nation, there’s no better way to experience E3.”

What we’re talking about here is ads. Get excited to bond with fellow nerds over two hours of ads and outlandish promises about how all these amusing tech products are going to dramatically increase your quality of life with their hundreds of hours of #content that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before (unless you’ve ever played any other game).

PlayStation is a family, you see. Maybe your grandma doesn’t get your obsession with blowing all your free time and disposable income on dozens of slightly variable experiences, but all these people in these theaters will.

The use of a sports-like identifying term for fans like “PlayStation Nation” — pretty much any sports team in the US has its “[Team Name] Nation” — is telling. This isn’t Sony just getting people to buy a device. This is encouraging brand loyalty above the games themselves. The industry has been doing this for decades, which is how the “console wars” (Nintendo vs Sega, Xbox vs PlayStation, etc) came about. You aren’t making a careful decision about which video game console provides the best value for your tastes, but rather deciding which large corporation to swear fealty to until the next series of game machines comes out.

From a marketing standpoint, they have to push this angle simply because the audience for all this stuff is so small. This isn’t like Samsung vs Apple in the smartphone market, where there’s plenty of room for both to thrive because those companies are making bank on each phone sold. Video games are war, because both Microsoft and Sony desperately need core gamers — the few million people who are the only ones who are going to spend a bunch of money on games every year — to go their way. Sure, plenty more people have bought and will buy a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One besides just core gamers. But Sony and Microsoft’s gaming divisions don’t make much money off people who only buy the new “Call of Duty” or “FIFA” every year, because the profit margin on the consoles themselves is very slim.

So at the end of all this you have a community that has been granted a tangible sense of ownership of the entertainment they’re consuming. We’re all in this together, it’s us against the world, video games are our thing. Sony is definitely doing all the things they’re doing because they care about you as fans, not because they see you as dollar signs. They’re doing it for the players!

The video games industry long ago perfected the marketing approach that a lot of other kinds of companies have been trying to pull off in recent years on social media, with Twitter accounts that talk to you like they’re real people just like you are. Video game companies have always been like that, putting forth the awkward businessmen at the top of these companies out there to gives these megacorporations a face. And it’s worked remarkably well. Remember that time Nintendo’s CEO died and fans made a weird animated tribute to him?

“No Man’s Sky,” by the way, is being published by Sony on PlayStation 4, and has been featured at Sony’s E3 press conference each of the last two years. It’s been subjected to more than its share of that extreme rhetoric about revolutionary gaming experiences. “No Man’s Sky” is a game about traveling through an immensely large digital universe, which contains more than 18 quintillion planets that players can travel to and explore, and where they can kill all the locals or do whatever else their whims might inspire them to do. This is a game that promises so much, and these fans who melted down over its delay melted down because they’ve bitten on that rhetoric. Hard.

They’ve been sitting there hyping themselves up about it for so long — they’ve had to, because the marketing for “No Man’s Sky” has consisted of little more than a series of very similar trailers and lots of buzzwords from Sony and Hello Games, and it’s impossible to tell if it will actually be a satisfying experience once the initial novelty wears off. That “No Man’s Sky” is included under the PlayStation Family umbrella only heightens that emotional attachment for a lot of these folks.

Choosing your friends unwisely

This all adds up to a defensive volatility amongst this cult of fans that the games industry, intentionally or not, has spent decades encouraging. The industry’s continued focus on quality as some quantifiable thing — if a game has the right set of features, and good enough graphics, and is assembled with enough general competence, it is objectively good — gives those volatile fans ammo when something goes wrong.

So when somebody has an outlier opinion — such as that “Uncharted 4” is not good — that person is treated like an outsider who can never be part of the family and will never understand what brings them together.

And when something goes a different way from what gamers had been told — when “No Man’s Sky” is unexpectedly delayed a few weeks before its scheduled release date, or when the ending of “Mass Effect 3” is bad and doesn’t pay off the series in the way that had been promised — there’s a sense of betrayal.

“You were my friend and you lied to me,” is the prevailing sentiment from gamers toward the multi-billion-dollar megacorporations that fuel their gaming habits.

“I’m so sorry,” the megacorporations respond. “Let me see if I can make it better.”

The payoff to the story of Retake Mass Effect is that BioWare actually did make a new ending for “Mass Effect 3,” releasing it as a free update — as if the original ending was nothing more than a bug in the software that needed fixing. They patched in a better ending, spending millions of dollars and several months of development time on it. Because that’s the extra mile you go when you wrong your good friends.

Especially the sort of good friends who threaten to murder you if you don’t go that extra mile.

But, hey, that’s the kind of friend you wanted.