Gaming’s Culture of Outrage has Rendered Word of Mouth Worthless

I’ve been keeping one eye on the vampire-hunting shooter Redfall for a while. The colourful art style and vague whiff of The Secret World-style surrealism are intriguing.

A promotional image for the co-op shooter game Redfall.Of course, if you’ve been paying any attention, you know that Redfall has had an overwhelmingly negative reception. The problem is that in the current climate that doesn’t really tell me much.

Clearly the game has flaws. I don’t think the complaints came from nowhere. But there’s no way for me to tell if those flaws are minor hiccups, or if the game is genuinely a dumpster fire. These days, the gaming community seems to see both those things as one and the same.

Nowadays any time a game stumbles even a little, the brigades charge in to rage and foam at the mouth. Anything less than flawless execution is dubbed an unforgivable disaster.

Some of my favourite games from the last few years were considered to be disasters. Anthem and Mass Effect: Andromeda both come to mind. Both had issues, but those issues were relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, yet word of mouth would have you believe they were utterly irredeemable. The Secret World is perhaps the best game I’ve ever played, despite its rough edges, but mainstream opinion is that it was an unplayable mess.

Nothing’s perfect, and as I’ve often said, the mark of true greatness isn’t a lack of flaws, but excelling in a way that allows you to forgive the flaws. But according to the modern gaming community, no flaw can ever be forgiven.

Cora Harper and Scott Ryder in Mass Effect: Andromeda.Maybe Redfall really is completely terrible. There are definitely still games out there that just plain suck. But we now find ourselves in a living parody of the boy who cried wolf. When everything is called a dumpster fire, there’s no way of knowing which games are actually dumpster fires.

We’ve all seen the supercuts of bugs and bad AI behaviour from Redfall, but are those representative of an average session, or just cherry-picked to harvest clicks? When this all first blew up, one of the top posts on the subject I saw on reddit was a screenshot of someone who’d crawled up onto a roof, looked down a chimney, and found that the chimney had the roof texture at the bottom.

What an incredibly petty, trivial thing to complain about. Maybe the game really is bad, but throwing hissy fits over over meaningless things like this make it really difficult to take any of the other criticisms seriously.

(As some wiser minds on reddit point out, purely decorative chimneys like this are a real thing that some houses have, which makes the whole furor even more absurd.)

Social media and the toxicity of the gaming community itself are huge drivers of this culture of outrage, but the media isn’t helping, either. Outrage sells, and flamboyant headlines about disastrous launches and dead games bring in the clicks.

My second character's ranger javelin in Anthem.As a minor member of the gaming media myself, I’m not immune to this. I genuinely do make an effort to not be overly negative in my writing on Massively Overpowered, but honestly I’d forgive you if you never noticed. It’s human nature to focus on the negative, and it’s just much easier to write about what’s going wrong than what’s going right.

But that doesn’t mean all this is inevitable. It’s always going to be easier to talk about the bad than the good, and we should call out games when they stumble, but the culture we have now is beyond counter-productive. It’s all noise and no signal. Word of mouth, unless perhaps from a trusted friend, is less than worthless.

For my part, I’m probably going to hold off on getting Redfall at least for now, but not because of the bad reviews. I’m just hesitant to spend triple-A prices on any new game unless there’s a demo or it’s a franchise I’m familiar with.

Now, developers neglecting to offer demos, that’s something worth getting angry over…

There Is No Valid Argument Why Games Shouldn’t Have Difficulty Settings

Now that Wyrd Street is out the door, I hope to find the time to return to some more traditional blogging, though my work with Massively will remain my focus. I know I’m very behind the times on this, but there’s an issue that’s been sticking in my craw for months, and now that I have a free moment, I’d like to finally address it.

Promotional art for the video game Elden Ring.Last year, a developer for Elden Ring spoke on the lack of discrete difficulty settings in it and the company’s other acclaimed titles, saying that the extreme difficulty of these games gives “meaning” to the experience as justification for not including any kind of easy mode.

I never had much interest in Elden Ring or other From Software games, but as a fan of the art form and occasional dabbler in game design, I find this point of view deeply illogical, and I’d like to take a moment to break down just why I find it so toxic.

I have to ask, what harm would have any easier option actually do? If you’d still play on the current, hard difficulty, what is an easy option taking away from you? If you feel your experience of the game is cheapened by someone else getting to see the whole game with less effort… grow up.

A less elitist argument I have also heard in defence of these games is that people don’t want the easier difficulty because it would tempt them too much. If they had the option to easy mode through the game, they wouldn’t be motivated to overcome its extreme challenges as they do now.

But if that’s the case, is it really the challenge you enjoy? Or is more that you just want the bragging rights to say that you overcame it? Whether ego is the motivation or not, if the difficulty is really what brings you joy, an easy mode won’t tempt you away from it.

Winning a game of StarCraft II on brutal.I am not much of an adrenaline junkie in games — I play most things at around medium difficulty — but there have been a few occasions where I’ve sought a greater challenge. In particular, my great love for StarCraft II and the fair and balanced challenge it provides sent me through all three of its main campaigns on brutal, the highest difficulty. I’ve also completed hundreds of co-op missions and dozens of co-op mutations on brutal, even completing one or two brutations solo after my partner disconnected on the load screen.

StarCraft II is quite generous with its difficulty settings, though. Brutal lives up to its name, but there are three levels below that, going all the way down to “casual,” a mode so easy I’m not sure it’s even possible to lose.

And never once has the presence of casual mode made me feel as if my struggles in brutal were cheapened. It did not make me crave the challenge any less, and I do not resent anyone who made it through the campaign without ever reaching so high as normal mode. Why would it? What someone else does with their game has no effect on me.

But let’s go back to the original comment, that the difficulty is what gives “meaning” to the experience. It’s a fundamentally flawed concept.

These are video games. There’s little to no meaning to playing them. They’re entertainment. You’re not accomplishing something great by beating up a pre-scripted artificial intelligence, no matter how challenging it may be.

My Covenant alt practicing her bow skills on an Ancient Guardian in New World.What meaning can be found in games is found in the ways they affect us, the relationships we form through them, the stories they tell, the stories we create while playing them. Difficulty contributes only slightly to that, and in many ways it detracts from it. Perhaps Elden Ring’s story is powerful and moving, but no one who can’t handle its difficulty will ever know (unless they watch it on YouTube or something). Where’s the meaning in that?

And what about disabled players who simply can’t play better? Yes, some people do manage to play hard games despite their disability, but that isn’t possible for everyone. How can you justify locking them out of a hobby just to stroke the egos of your able-bodied customers?

I’m used to this kind of tiresome, exclusionary thinking in the gaming community. MMORPGs have always been rife with it (despite being some of the easiest games around). What continues to baffle me is how people got these ideas in their heads in the first place.

No other medium of story-telling has this kind of elitist thinking. No one’s expecting tests of skill to let you experience any other kind of story, and when you start picturing what that would look like, you start realizing how absurd this whole thing is. Imagine if you weren’t allowed to see Avengers: Endgame unless you were able to actually beat up Josh Brolin.

Now I do want to offer one significant caveat to all this. While I firmly believe there is no valid argument why games shouldn’t have difficulty settings, there can be sometimes be valid reasons for why they can’t have difficulty settings.

My second Dragon character in The Secret World unleashes the quantum ability Polestar-Oblivion.Developers don’t have unlimited resources, especially the small ones, and implementing a variety of difficulty settings does take at least some effort. There are also some games whose nature makes implementing separate difficulties challenging or downright impossible.

MMORPGs are a good example of this. With a shared world occupied by many different players, there isn’t a clear way to allow each person to adjust the difficulty to their desired level.

In those cases, I do lean towards using difficulty levels that best align with the vision of the creators and the fantasy of the game, even if it means some people must be excluded. But even then an argument can be made that aiming for the lowest common denominator is better, and indeed that is what most MMOs seem to do. The two main exceptions I’ve played — The Secret World and New World — both wound up as fairly niche games, and I think their difficulty contributes to that.

So there are some cases where catering to every type of player may not be feasible, but all reasonable efforts should be made to be as accessible as possible. If you’re excluding people by choice, you’ve lost my respect as a developer.