There are unwritten taboos on the internet. There are things you Don’t Say. There are replies you may not give. There are comments you may not make. There are truths you may not tell, in the world of public relations, for the public are fickle, and behave as a mob. A mob in all its feral, brutal depravity, lacking any and all of the qualities we laud upon humanity that allow us to feel so smug over all of the hapless animals that we raise ourselves over. And we are all, whether we admit it or not in public, under strict censorship of the mob. Even admitting that the mob censors our thoughts and feelings and the expression thereof is risky. Be careful! The mob may notice.
Some parts of the internet glory in the mob. 4chan exists, possibly, only as an outlet for the mob. Even mentioning 4chan is risky. It’s like standing in a city full of ravenous zombies, armed with a lowly fire axe, and shouting “BRAINS! HERE! GET ‘EM WHILE THEY’RE HOT!”. If too many zombies notice, you’re toast. They’ll silence you. So we don’t mention 4chan. For similar reasons we don’t mention /r/Games either.
We’re especially careful in comments sections on the internet. Our own blog is mercilessly and ruthlessly moderated with a low-orbit ion cannon. We’re even more ruthless on the Steam community forums, because we’ve got even less control and they don’t even technically belong to us.
But let me talk to you about the dark side of indie public relations a bit.
There’s a thing on the internet called a “troll”, which everyone is well familiar with. They are easily dealt with on your own bit of the internet. Quite often you let them ramble on, and they spool out more than enough rope to hang themselves, and as often as not, a bunch of fans will come whaling in on them. Even if fans don’t step in, usually they have left a lovely permanent record of how twatty they were for all to read. And if it’s just a bit too rude, you just vape ’em, and probably ban ’em for good measure.
Trolls are more problematic elsewhere.
When a troll starts to spout shit on some high-profile and influential site on the internet, you have a problem. It’s a very thorny problem because even discussion about the fact that it is a problem is license for the rest of the internet to start trolling you. It has been said that the best way to deal with trolls is of course, not to bait them, but unfortunately they can leave some fairly high-profile bullshit lying around on the internet referring to you, and that’s pretty difficult to deal with when it’s attached to your permanent and public facing persona as an invidual and/or a business. If it was just some random argument on some random site between a couple of random usernames… who cares? Who gives a crap? No-one. And all is well.
But woe betide you if you actually have to step in and reply and say, “Er… no. That is not true.” Especially when it’s the species of troll which plays computer games all day long.
So here are a few things you can’t say, because it upsets everyone. A lot. And I’m going to say them, in a way that will make you think for a few seconds, before you immediately burst into flames with RAGE and spew vitriol into the moderation queue.
Firstly, gamers aren’t very nice people. Yes, you. You are not a very nice person. Statistically speaking. By which I mean, independent game developers get more nasty shit from gamers than they get praise. Right now you are preparing to lecture me about how I talk to customers, or how I deserve to be broke and unsucessful. If you’re feeling particularly sanctimonious you’ll tell me you’re never going to buy any of our games again. If you’re especially spiteful you’ll also tell me that you were about to buy one of our games (for a dollar! ho ho), but now you’re not going to.
I wonder just how many other creative industries have to deal with customers like this. Then again, maybe all of them do. I just make games, so I happen to know about the games side of things. Maybe a musician can chime in and tell me how shitty people can be. Or an artist.
No matter. What does matter is you’re not allowed to point out when someone is just being a shithead to you because they can. Don’t do that. The internet hates you.
Secondly, there is a school of thought that says, there’s no such thing as bad press. Were I being politically correct right now and toeing the party line I would instantly disagree with myself. “NO! Do not argue with the trolls! You make yourself look bad!” And indeed, the internet will be right there to tell you, directly or snidely and indirectly that you’re making yourself look bad by defending yourself. Look at fucking Phil Fish! LOOK! Look at what happened to him! We all remember Phil Fish in sad, reverential tones, as he were an allegory of How Not To Handle The Internet. Poor Phil, we say. He meant well but he lost his cool. He let the internet bring out his naughty, bad side. The side that spoke what he actually thought and felt. Look what the internet did to him! Now he’s a gibbering bearded recluse used as a cautionary tale in two-bit backwater indie game developer blogs. If only Phil had kept his mouth shut, we say. If only Phil hadn’t fed the trolls, we intone. If only.
Fuck that! Phil Fish, you fucking told them what you thought. You told them how you felt. You told them the actual score. What was actually going on. The internet however decided it didn’t want to hear it, because the internet is mob and the wisdom of crowds is inversely proportional to the square if its size. But deep down we all know, really, that Phil Fish was right. He said what we were all thinking. He said what we want to say. But you can’t do that. It’s taboo. It’s censored! Not allowed.
But this leads us to another, darker, nastier, unwritten thing, that we all think but we don’t talk about, not ever. In fact the one time I ever did allude to it I was permanently banned from the TIGSource forums for daring to say it. But this is my piece of the internet and I can say what I like. And here it is – the bombshell. The more we argue, the more we bait the trolls, the more we seem to get into a death spiral of internet hate… the better it is for us. There is no such thing as bad publicity. Phil Fish may have turned in to a gibbering bearded recluse but now he’s a famous gibbering bearded recluse. Phil Fish only has to tweet a fart and it’ll be all over the internet. Given that discovery is the #1 problem for an indie developer (and always has been), you can see that the more infamous and terrible we are … the more money we make.
But it’s absolutely, utterly fucking forbidden to ever say so.
Good old Phil is sitting pretty on a giant mound of cash the likes of which you will probably not even be able to comprehend, let alone earn in your lifetime. For every one of you that enjoyed denigrating him and thrilled at insulting him, there are now another thousand people who listen to every word he says. When he walks into the restaurant where you pitifully scrub the floor like a servile wretch in order to pay for DLC in DOTA2, you’ll call him sir.
And lastly, the worst, most hideous truth at all, and there’s a bit of history behind it.
You are worthless to us.
What? Did he just say that? I? Your fucking customer? You just said your customers were worthless! Fuck you!!!!11!1!! I’m never buying anything from you again! I’m even going to uninstall all your games you ignorant self-important cunt! How dare you speak to me, your customer, like that?
Woah there, inflamed of Tunbridge Wells. Let’s just rewind a second and analyse that statement for a moment. How did we get here? Let me count the ways.
Once upon a time, back in the early 2000s or so, games would sell for about $20 or so. Some developers did really well at that price point – I mean really well. Most of us didn’t do that well, and made beer money, but we carried on making games anyway because that’s what we liked to do, even if nobody wanted them. When we got a customer we were able to treat them like royalty. Apart from there not being that many of them, twenty bucks is a pretty reasonable chunk of money and you should damned well expect it to work properly. Of course, 99% of the time, when things didn’t work it was just because the customer had shitty OEM drivers that were simply broken. (Interestingly I don’t ever hear of people taking their laptops back to the shop – which remember cost $500 or more – and yelling at the salesmen for selling them something that didn’t work). So what would happen was we spent a not insignificant proportion of our time – time which we could have been making new games in and thus actually earning a living – fixing customers computers. Note that we weren’t fixing our game. We were fixing customers computers for them. It’s a pretty tedious affair. When the same problem turns up 20 times in a day (or even, during a sale, 200 times), and the answer is always the same, that’s the very definition of tedium. So we jokingly used to say that we sold you a game for a dollar and then $19 of support. That’s actually pretty close to accurate when you work out the time spent fixing someone’s computer for them. We relied on enough sales going through without problems to come out on top slightly, though the reality was that we never actually did.
Then Steam came (and to a lesser extent, Big Fish Games).
Things changed fast. So fast that in other industries it would have been seen as a cataclymically disruptive event. The upshot of it is, within 5 short years, the value of an independent game plummeted from about $20 to approximately $1, with very few exceptions. Steam is great! You can sell loads of games! But only if they’re less than $10. Technically Valve don’t actually dictate the prices we charge. Actually, they do. Utterly. It’s just not talked about. In fact technically, I don’t think anyone’s allowed to talk about it.
Then came the Humble Bundle and all its little imitators.
It was another cataclysmically disruptive event, so soon on the heels of the last. Suddenly you’ve got a massive problem on your hands. You’ve sold 40,000 games! But you’ve only made enough money to survive full-time for two weeks because you’re selling them for 10 cents each. And several hundred new customers suddenly want their computers fixing for free. And when the dust from all the bundles has settled you’re left with a market expectation of games now that means you can only sell them for a dollar. That’s how much we sell our games for. One dollar. They’re meant to be $10, but nobody buys them at $10. They buy them when a 90% discount coupon lands in their Steam inventory. We survive only by the grace of 90% coupon drops, which are of course entirely under Valve’s control. It doesn’t matter how much marketing we do now, because Valve control our drip feed.
Where does this lead us to?
You are worthless to us.
Where once you were worth $20, and then you might have become a fan and bought another 4 games off of us for $20, you were worth $100. We only had to fix your computer for you once, as well, so the next four games amortised the cost of the initial support. If we were lucky you were a gamer and already had drivers and liked our stuff and bought the lot. Sometimes you’d tell your friends and maybe one of them would buy a game from us.
Now you’re worth $1 to us. If you buy every one of our games, you’re worth $5. After Valve and the tax man and the bank take their cuts, you’re not even worth half a cup of coffee. So, while we’re obsequiously polite and helpful when you do contact us for support, even if it’s just the same old “please install some actual video drivers” response, you really should be aware that you are a dead loss. Even if you buy everything we ever make again. Even if all your friends buy everything we ever make again. You just cost us money. Not just fictitious, huge-piles-of-filthy-lucre indie-game-developer who made-it-big money. All our money. We barely scratch a living, like most indie game developers. You quite literally cost us lunch because the shop sold you a computer with broken software on it.
So you’ll understand now why customers aren’t worth anything much any more. You’ll realise why we’re actually happy to see you go if you feel like insulting us. You might add two and two together and realise that for four, we’re not going to cry ourselves to sleep over the loss of your custom when we don’t take your shit.
But we’re not allowed to say it, because it makes customers feel bad. Customers all think they’re worth everything in the entire world to us. The funny thing is, you are. Without customers, we’re dead in the water, homeless and living in a cardboard box outside Berko sewage plant. But individually, you’re like ants. And all of developers secretly know it and don’t talk about it. You’re not worth supporting. It’s far, far better to completely, totally ignore support, if you want to make a living. Developers don’t like to talk about it, and they certainly don’t want to make customers aware of it. Some developers right now are bristling with public-relation-inflating indignation, waiting to burst into my castle in shining white armour championing the cause of their customers, and how they treat their customers like royalty still. But I know, and they know, they’re only doing that because it’s actually yet more Dark Side of Public Relations. It’s a lie. The numbers do not add up. I’ll show you where they do add up – on Steam, on the App Store, on Big Fish, on Google Play. That’s where all of the money is going these days, great sucking, black holes, spewing out tat on their event horizons and hoovering up pennies from wallets worldwide. You can yell about how important you are into the black hole if you like. No-one cares. You can “take your money elsewhere” and “never buy another product from you again, EVER”, and the black hole will continue to treat you exactly as you deserve – with impassive, voracious, inexorable silence, and still ever-growing. Because you’re worthless.
Does anyone think we wanted it to happen this way? Seriously?
Don’t talk about it though. It wouldn’t do to let anyone talk about it. 4chan are coming. I’m going to get my head down and keep writing games, because that’s what I like doing. PR sucks.