Cliffski v Mark Rein – Much ado about nuthin

Earlier this week, our small corner of the Intarweb was ablaze with the usual weekly drama. This was no doubt an attempt by the powers that be to take away attention from the fact that Steve Jobs, long past his prime, just needs to exist stage left because of late he just seems to make things worse than they need to be. Plus he owes me a bumper for my iPhone4′s defective antenna.

Anyway, this spat between lone wolf indie game developer Cliff Harris (whoa!! Cliffski is not on Wikipedia! Alert the press! He wears $75 jeans and so he has to be on Wikipedia) of Positech Games (based in the UK) and the much loved and respected, Mark Rein, VP of Epic games, was much ado about nuthin’.

It started out at last week’s Develop conference and unfolded on Cliffski’s blog over the weekend.

Edit (07-21-10): Develop’s notes from the session are now online.

Quite simply, I think Cliffski overreacted.

I’ve been doing this longer than Cliffski and most. I’ve been an indie long before most – if not all – of these indies knew what the term actually meant and long before they changed the meaning to whatever tickled their fancy that month. And my guess is that I have a much larger install base than most traditional indie developers and studios. But in all those years and experiences, I have yet to come across anyone who would argue against the merits of having 1-on-1 contact with our gamers.

The problem is that once the business of video game development became mostly focused on being a business, the rules changed. At least for some. Now you have the marketing and PR people running the show and you can’t even respond to a question about what you had for breakfast without getting clearance.

Even those developers with Twitter and Facebook pages seem to just have them up just for show. Go ahead, I dare you to look up the first ten mainstream developers and see if there is anything worthy of note coming out of them these days.

Now go take a look at Cliffski’s Twitter stream or blog and compare. Heck, I think Cliffski Tweets more than Baghdad Bob himself. And thats quite an accomplishment.

Most of us passionate developers tend to reply 1-on-1 to player emails, forum posts etc. Heck, like most mainstream indies, I’m notorious for it. This is something that we – as indies – have to do because that is our connection to our player base. You know, those people who buy our games religiously and keep us in Ramen noodles. Even when we have the luxury of someone else doing it for us, there always comes a time when you have to get in there and engage – for good, bad or ugly. It doesn’t always end well though. And if you’re famous, well one wrong comment and you’re front page news. Before long, you’re declared a toxic no talk zone. Me? I’m a PR nightmare because individuality trumps everything else.

But two industry bobbleheads going up against each other? Well thats just priceless. The USA network has absolutely nothing on us. The video game industry loves drama.

Gamers – at least the hardcore ones – also tend to be very passionate about their games and the people who make them. So it comes as no surprise that most of the successful indies like us tend to stay in contact with our lifeline. However, because the industry has become so competitive and those clueless bastards in marketing and PR are now calling the shots for the most part, the proliferation of information has to be curbed in order to maintain a competitive edge. Or so they say.

Quick!! When was the last time you saw a meaningful post – anywhere on the Intarweb – from the likes of iD’s John Carmack. In fact, do you even remember who he is? Remember back in the day when you couldn’t open up your browser and not see some headline or other about a single line or two post he made in his .plan (long before we had blogs) file? Yes, that’s the industry that we’re now in.

And while you’re at it, when was the last time you saw anything coming out of Peter Molyneaux that wasn’t related to some drama riddled PR bullshit?

I could go on and on about this, but I’m sure that by now you get the picture.

These days, keeping up with the guys who make the games we all love to play, is like playing “Where’s Waldo” with a blind man. The consolidation of the industry (e.g. iD software is now owed by Bethesda. Go figure) has only made things worse as those who were once the big names and who kept in touch, were assimilated into the collective bullshit that is the PR and marketing blanket of big money.

That said, the smaller guys (myself, Cliffski et al) who continue to remain truly indie (my guess is that you reading this have absolutely no clue what this term even means within the context of game developers), not only because we love what we do but because we have no choice but to remain indie if we want to control our own creative works and not just chase the ever elusive paycheck. A paycheck which – in and of itself – is not even guaranteed to be around when you need it. Look no further than the numerous studio closures, consolidations, firings etc once a project ships or flat out bombs.

That said, at the right time and for the right price, I would gladly sell my studio and all my IP and associated assets for copious amounts of cash and could care less if I don’t have to write one more email or forum post to some dude in Pakistan who probably pirated my game anyway. I can’t think of a single indie dev or studio who wouldn’t be interested in doing just that, regardless of the consequences. Unless they’re stupid. In which case, that would explain why they’re broke and clinging onto the indie moniker like it was a badge of honor or something – all the while eating Ramen noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Trust me, when money is involved, the relationship between a developer and his game install base is but a blur. But don’t take my word for it – just go ask quintessential industry clown, Bobby Kotick at Activision if you don’t believe me.

True story. As I was wrapping up this blog post, Trillian popped alerted me to an IM by someone who wasn’t in my contacts list. Usually I would just dismiss it and block the offender. In this case, the person wisely included their name in that first IM. I immediately recognized him by his handle. This was a guy who was around since day one. I’m talking back in ’96 when my first game, Battlecruiser 3000AD, was released. He was one of the guys in the public who took upon himself to help me out with testing the game (then released by convicted felon and ex-Take Two boss, Ryan Brant) before I later released it for free. Below is the IM chat log (slightly redacted to protect his real-life identity).

[08:36] cmdr Kenington: Hey Derek hows it goin Kenington here!
[08:36] dsmart-3000ad: hey Kenny, fine thanks. Just busy as usual
[08:37] cmdr Kenington: cool bought most of your games great Job! fantastic been out of the loop for a while back so whats new?
[08:38] cmdr Kenington: Im sure you have quite the team by Now!
[08:39] dsmart-3000ad: yah, still hanging in there
[08:39] dsmart-3000ad: been awhile since I saw you on the forums
[08:41] cmdr Kenington: i cant even remember my passcodes to get in anymore you still have bc3000ad site? havent been ther in a while..
[08:41] dsmart-3000ad: what is your email address? I can locate and update your forum records for you and send you the new links.
[08:42] cmdr Kenington: ok great ****@****.com
[08:43] cmdr Kenington: i did not even think you would remember me i just took a try to say hi see if ya did.:)
[08:44] dsmart-3000ad: I remember all my fans from the early days :)
[08:45] dsmart-3000ad: anyway, I will have someone look into it and have the new credentials sent to your email address later today, along with the forum links. The site is still at (Link: http://www.3000ad.com)www.3000ad.com
[08:46] cmdr Kenington: Excellent~! well I will come in to say hi:) great ty im sure your make tons $$$ you deserve it for sure! wow remember those days!...back in the 90s
[08:46] dsmart-3000ad: yah, those were the days. So you still a hardcore gamer?
[08:46] cmdr Kenington: Absoulutely
[08:46] cmdr Kenington: fantastic..
[08:46] cmdr Kenington: i still have my notes
[08:46] cmdr Kenington: from all the bugs we fixed
[08:46] cmdr Kenington: belive it or not
[08:47] dsmart-3000ad: wow! thats nuts :)
[08:47] cmdr Kenington: is nt that wild! :)
[08:47] dsmart-3000ad: Anyway, the last title in the Battlecruiser series was Universal Combat Collectors Edition v2.0. Check the website
[08:47] dsmart-3000ad: yep
[08:47] dsmart-3000ad: Did two different types of games back in 2009, called All Aspect Warfare
(Link: http://www.allaspectwarfare.com)www.allaspectwarfare.com
[08:48] cmdr Kenington: ok ty..:) great!
[08:48] dsmart-3000ad: anyway, gotta run off. ttyl
[08:48] cmdr Kenington: il look into it
[08:48] dsmart-3000ad: kk
[08:49] cmdr Kenington: cool have a great day nice chatin with ya..see ya in the forms see how the rest of the dirty dozen are doing:)
[08:49] cmdr Kenington: ty again:)
[08:49] dsmart-3000ad: sounds good. see you around :)
[08:50] cmdr Kenington: "cmdr Kenington (ce7878)" signed off at Tue Jul 20 08:50:24 2010.

As game developers, the closer we are to our gamers, the easier it is to identify genuine gamers and those annoying little shits whose sole purpose in life is to harrass and attack others in order to feel good about themselves. Sort of a way to bring meaning to a life less ordinary. And the closer you are to your install base, the higher your blood pressure is likely to be. Where passion is concerned, emotions tend to run high and unless you have the patience of a saint, things can quickly get out of hand. So some devs just don’t bother. And what you have left then is either very little communication or a lot of rubbish from the marketing and PR folks.

Which is exactly why gamers tend to mostly ignore anything and everything that is coming out of publishers and developers these days. The minute something goes out on the wire, if it’s not coming from the object of their [questionable] desires, it is quickly discarded and discounted as “PR Speak”. Even when it is coming from the developers themselves, as long as that speaker is associated with a large studio or publisher, gamers tend to read between the lines and can still spot “PR Speak” from a mile away.

But the fact is that Mark is right. Period. End of story. And what he said below in his email apology to Cliffski is exactly what I concluded from what happened at Develop.

But I did want you to understand that it was not my intention to criticize the fact that you reply to your fans’ emails or discourage anyone from doing that. What caused me to speak up was when I heard you talk about revealing important news items about games through 1-on-1 emails and in forums. My opinion is that doing so runs the risk of these things no longer being ‘news’ when you need to use them to get publicity for your game.

Despite Mark’s mistake of rudely interrupting the session in order to make his point, I think Cliffski simply overreacted – something that most of us tend to do.

For my part, if I’m at a roundtable discussion and someone interrupted me in this fashion – regardless of the reasoning behind it – I’m not going to wait until I get to my browser – then write up a vitriol laden blog post about it. I’d probably engage right there and then. A quick “Why don’t you just shut the hell up?”, the first thing that comes to mind if you’re really pissed about something like that, not only does the job, but it also guarantees that it is probably never going to happen again. There is a reason that such behavior is called Scorched Earth. There is no chilling period. At all.

The fact of the matter is that people tend to forget that we game developers are human beings (I make no apologies for Bobby Kotick – who is most definitely from another planet) and as such are susceptible to mistakes, emotional outbursts, delusions of grandeur, narcissistic tendencies, Napoleon complex and everything in between.

On a forum during a heated discussion between devs and gamers, an industry colleague once put it this way:

Game developers are just human beings who happen to make games for a living.

If you want to hold us up to higher standards of conduct, then go ahead

…but don’t be surprised if we don’t uphold them.

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