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Flameseeker Chronicles: When good Guild Wars 2 commentary goes bad

Anatoli Ingram

I'm aware that not everybody who reads this column loves Guild Wars 2, and I'm cool with that. Occasionally I'm baffled by a comment or two left by people who apparently just swung by to give a brief, negative review of the game, completely independent of the topic of the article they left it on, but that's mostly harmless. I appreciate the vast majority of thoughtful comments, whether positive or negative; I like to think that most of you love MMOs as much as I do, and I believe that a person doesn't necessarily have to like a game in order to have something insightful to say about it and its role in influencing the industry.

I mention all of this because I want to make it clear that when I talk about toxic GW2 commentary, I don't mean people leaving negative criticism in general, or saying that they don't like the game. In fact, the majority of what I'd like to discuss comes from people who apparently play the game regularly and who are deeply invested in it. Some of them say that they love it. And because they love it, it's easy to see why they might feel protective of it and take perceived threats to it personally.

Biting the hand

Any creative person who is honestly interested in improvement will appreciate constructive criticism, and based on the steps ArenaNet has taken to respond to feedback, it definitely wouldn't be fair to accuse it of not being interested in improvement. The majority of GW2's major content releases have revolved around polishing and enriching the game; the developers have gone to great lengths in many cases to comment on feedback in return and to explain how they plan to change things for the better. I'd be lying through my teeth if I claimed not to be anxious about the direction of the game now and again; like everyone else, I have my pet peeves and pet gameplay priorities, and it can be frustrating to feel as though they're going neglected. In fact, I sat down to write this piece after I started an article on lacking roleplay features in GW2 -- twice -- and realized I sounded too bitter and fatalistic to even take it seriously myself. There's been a recent uptick in incidents where fans have apparently decided that the things they care about will be perpetually ignored, making it justified for them to lash out at ArenaNet and try to get attention in any way possible.

It's not justified. And if we want to be taken seriously, we, as a community, need to raise the level of discourse.

It's unfortunately common to see fans complaining that ArenaNet uses "PR speak" to address fans, and that it isn't honest or transparent with us. I don't think it's the developers' intention in the slightest to come off as a monolithic, faceless entity and to refuse to answer questions or share exciting ideas, but if they have, it didn't happen in a void. I haven't been following GW2's development as long as some fans have, but I've been following it since the first trailer was revealed in 2009, and I remember most of the hard lessons ANet learned along the way about talking to fans before the game had even launched. Over time, the developers have stopped giving estimates of dates; they've largely stopped discussing ideas for future content if they're not set in stone. We may be frustrated when the answers they give us about Cantha, or future playable races, or more game modes, or player housing amount to "Nothing is off the table," but we've taught them that the best way to avoid fannish backlash is to not say anything at all unless they can be reasonably sure they can deliver results.

I don't think that these are necessarily bad lessons to learn. There are a number of development studios which have discovered -- with devastating results -- that over-promising and under-delivering is generally something that gamers don't easily forgive. ArenaNet, as a company, isn't perfect, nor is every design decision it makes for GW2 above reproach. Those facts don't, however, add up to a reasonable expectation of no consequences for players acting like jerks toward the developers.

This is an industry-wide problem. Game development is largely a labor of love, and I suspect anyone who has read Massively for a few weeks could tell you that it's not the most stable career in the world. Developers don't typically hang around expecting fat checks from making MMOs; games get shut down, layoffs are common, and sometimes the projects they pour their time and hearts into never see the light of day at all. I'm pretty sure more than a few of us would still jump at the chance to be involved in MMO development because we think it'd be worth it, but if we whittle away at the reasons for it to be worth it, the obvious result is that fewer people will want to make games.

Cause and effect

Truthfully, I think most people know it's irrational to say things like, "ArenaNet absolutely hates World vs. World and wants it to fail," or, "I don't think ArenaNet cares at all about Rangers and it may as well just remove them from the game" (both things I've seen said). That's anger, disappointment and frustration talking, and those things breed hyperbole and make the people who appear to be causing the anger, disappointment and frustration seem like enemies. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that ArenaNet can't love GW2 if it won't see and prioritize the blindingly obvious issues that are ruining your enjoyment of the game. And if you don't think they care about the game, it's hard to see the harm in letting them know how much that hurts you. Maybe you're not even trying to create change at that point; maybe you think the change will never come, so the only thing left to do is to create a patch of scorched earth so that the developers and other fans know that you were there and what you were very upset about. This in turn manifests itself as spamming GW2 livestream chat with "GvG" and insults over and over again, or in trolling the official forums in an attempt to derail them entirely.

Toli, you might be thinking, in that vague, hypothetical way general "you" so often does, you're spitting into the wind. You're tugging on Superman's cape and messing around with Jim and metaphorically doing a lot of other things which require effort but are nevertheless counterproductive and self-defeating. I have to admit that might be true. People behaving badly on the internet is hardly a GW2-specific problem, and in fact it's usually treated as inevitable -- so inevitable, in fact, that it's kind of surprising when it doesn't happen. My counter to that is that we're one comparatively tiny sub-community, and we do have the power to make things a little better in our own corner. Most of us want ArenaNet to see us as human beings with important feelings toward the game we care about, and we get upset when we're presented with what seems to us like a cold, cautious corporate facade. At the same time, many of us disdain the necessity of treating the developers like human beings, because on some level it's expected that any public figure should suck it up and learn to deal with abuse as though it were a force of nature that can't be stopped or reasoned with.

We can't have it both ways. This is sheer cause and effect. If we don't stop expecting individual developers to have skin thicker than the walls of Constantinople in order to interact with us, we'll end up dealing more and more often with the collective corporate face that isn't an individual human and can't be personally harmed, or experience work-affecting stress, or quit and decide to do something where people don't treat them as badly, or say too much, or reach a breaking point and start interacting inappropriately with players in kind. It also can't express sincere excitement, or doubt, or have honest back-and-forth discussions with us about things we think need improvement, but that's the price we need to be willing to pay for saying whatever we like, in exactly the form in which it first comes into our heads. Plenty of other game companies and media outlets have provided filters on their end because the public wouldn't do it on ours.

Call me crazy, but I think the GW2 community can do better.

Flameseeker Chronicles When good Guild Wars 2 commentary goes bad
I'm going to take my own advice and wait a bit to bust out my harmonica and start the roleplayin' blues until I can be a little more constructive and a little less...well, whiny ("But Moooom, why can't I sit in chairs like the other kids?! You hate me!"). I am looking forward to trying out the new Aetherblade path in Twilight Arbor, especially since the Nightmare weapon reskins might be just about perfect for my Guardian.

What are you looking forward to most in this week's update? Or would you care to join me in subtly oscillating in an attempt to speed the passage of time ever more quickly toward the return of Halloween? Do you really, really not like GW2 and want to let everyone know why? Comment away (okay, maybe chill on that last one), and I'll see you in the Mists!

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's weekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.

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