After a long, drawn-out twitter feud last week, Phil Fish cancelled his upcoming game, Fez 2, quit videogames, and for a few days there, quit the internet.

You might know the story by now. Phil Fish, game designer, creator of the “worst map ever” award winning game, Fez, and subject of the documentary Indie Game the Movie, is prone to emotional outbursts. If you haven’t heard of him from the projects he’s been involved in, you might remember the time he said that all Japanese games suck while on stage at last years Game Developers Conference. Or maybe you know him from his frequent twitter battles with games analyst Kevin Dent. Or maybe that time he publicly stated he couldn’t update his own game after releasing a broken patch due to Microsoft’s draconian patching policies.

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And more recently, Marcus Beer, who rants as the accused Fish and Braid creator Jonathan Blow of using the press as a means to an end. He specifically cited the fact that neither gave comments on Microsoft’s self publishing policy for indie games until after the fact. This led Beer to call the two “self-styled kings of indie games” and accused the pair of only giving quotes to the press when it suited their needs.

Fish took Beer to task on twitter, fans of the two, as well as casual observers and the legion of people don’t necessarily like Beer, but definitely don’t like Fish got involved, and the rest is history.

Basically, there hasn’t been a moment in the last couple of years where Fish wasn’t in the public eye, made even more apparent by his active twitter presence. Going back through his replies and looking at forum posts about him around the internet, it’s pretty clear that a significant number of people took it upon themselves to constantly put Fish down. Heck, according to him, the reason he’s getting out of videogames isn’t because of his most recent argument, but the constant abuse he faces on the internet, day in and day out.

 

The thing is, I find it hard to blame him for this. It’s hard to make things for an audience that seems to only be out for your blood, especially something as personal and draining as a videogame. I think he could have handled it more elegantly and not quit videogames entirely, but at the end of the day it’s hard to argue with the kind of abuse he put up with.

We live in an era of facebook, twitter and e-mail, where the person who created your favourite game, song, movie or book is just a few keystrokes away. But for most people, we live in an era where the person who made something you don’t like is so much closer. It’s hard to be genuine and express your gratitude for something you like. It’s easier to find someone you don’t and by a jerk to them. Abuse is easy to give, but it’s hard to filter through for the person getting it.

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Sure, Fish has a reputation for making emotionally charged, off the cuff remarks, and he probably knows that. Yes, he could have put two and two together and realized that being constantly active on twitter and engaging with his trolls would eventually lead to a situation like this, but these days, it’s becoming impossible not to be a public persona.

Look at Super Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai. There aren’t a lot of public Japanese developers, at least not public from a Western perspective, but Sakurai has an active twitter presence, he writes a monthly column on game design in Famitsu magazine, and when developing a Smash Bros. game, makes daily updates to fans on his progress.

Nowadays, he posts pictures to the Smash Bros. community on miiverse, Nintendo’s Wii U social network. The most interesting comments are preserved by a blog called Please Sakurai, where the blog’s manager spotlights the posts made by people specifically trying to contact Sakurai.

 

Wherein Megaman is Sakurai, and DK is the fans.

Wherein Megaman is Sakurai, and DK is the fans.

As far as I know, Sakurai doesn’t speak English, but the people trying to reply to him, at least on the North American miiverse, don’t really know that. They request (mostly outlandish) characters, new info, and occasionally, get very angry and try to insult Sakurai personally for his design choices. 

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These aren’t the only mean-spirited comments on the blog, but they’re probably some of the most mean spirited. The blog doesn’t really highlight any posts that are people having rational, logical problems with the game, but knowing how the internet works, I have to imagine they’re very, very rare in the first place.

There are plenty of positive comments too, but always tied to requests. I know Sakurai can’t read these, so I’m left to imagine what would happen if he could. First of all he wouldn’t be able to do anything, because I’m pretty sure the character roster and choices about cutscenes were finalized a long time ago. But I wonder if he’d be disheartened by the negative comments. Maybe not enough to change anything, definitely not enough to make him quit, but enough to make him wonder why there are people who are dedicating their time and internet presence to attacking him.

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Not so say that communication between audience and creators is a bad thing. Look at what happened to Mass Effect. Fans got together and expressed their displeasure with the game, then found rational arguments, and presented a unified front. The organized campaign wasn’t one of personal attacks or internet bile, but of a reasoned argument made by people who loved Mass Effect, and wanted to see it end in a more satisfying way.

Whether they were right to do it, or if the ending actually sucked, or if their motivations were pure doesn’t matter. What does is that they created positive change in a game they loved by speaking with the creators. And they did it without resorting to being anonymous jerks on the internet, at least for the most part.

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The internet’s obsession with social media and reducing anonymity has opened this channel for people to communicate with creators. The audience and the artist are no longer separated by each other by security guards, PR handlers, critics, and the work they’re associated with. The two can now speak, one on one.

I think it does more good than bad. I think a lot of people have thick enough skin that an anonymous internet troll won’t affect them as much, and are more capable of focusing on the people who stay positive. I also think we might see more instances of fans banding together and creative negative change. Right now, focus grouping and the unbelievable success of Call of Duty has “told” publishers that first person shooters will always sell, and a game needs multiplayer to be viable. That’s completely different from this, but it’s not hard to imagine that publishers and market researchers will turn to the internet next, and look to the masses of uniformed fans who don’t necessarily know what they want out of a game until they get it.

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But, I also think that having this channel opened between artists and creators makes both more informed. Fans get to learn more about how the sausage is made, and developers find out more about what they people who play their games want. They can choose to listen or not, and then hope that when they don’t, the internet abuse will be worth it because they’ll know they’re right.

It’s become impossible not to be on some social network or another for people under 30, and as time keeps passing, less and less of people responsible for making the media we consume will be able to be private people. The internet has offered these people Pandora’s box. Do they want to hear exactly what fans want from them? Do they want to know what’s popular? Do they want to hear the personal stories of the people who were touched by the thing they made? All they have to do is open the box. But with that comes the abuse, the trolls, and the people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

For now, the choice is theirs. The box isn’t open for everyone just yet. But give it a few years, and there won’t be a single person left without a presence on the internet. After all, everyone always opens the box; we all just want to know what’s inside.

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