Christian Allen Interview—The State of #GamerGate and the Video Games Industry

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Previously, we interviewed Christian Allen of Halo: Reach, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter fame for his thoughts on the ongoing debate of ethics in games journalism that is part of the #GamerGate discussion.

One interview wasn’t enough, so in this second we’ve decided to focus a bit more on the current state of #GamerGate, and the gaming industry by extension. Where should #GamerGate focus its efforts? What should it improve on?

Niche Gamer: I’m curious what kind of reactions, both public and private, you received after doing our previous interview? Were there people condemning you?

Christian Allen: Well, my twitter definitely blew up the first night, so much so I had to turn my phone off! In general I’d say the response was generally positive. There were a few folks who said some nasty things, and a few comments that said I had been “weaponized,” although I don’t really understand what that means.

Privately, my game dev friends thought the interview went well and didn’t really see what I said that was controversial, although a few expressed concern that I would “engage the internet”. We’ve all had colleagues swatted or with hacked live accounts, etc., so there is always a concern.

NG: Has this changed your perception on GamerGate at all?

CA: Well, I definitely learned a whole lot more about it, that’s for sure, both what advocates and detractors label it as. I’ve also learned that Twitter is a very poor communication device. Things are easily taken out of context or confused, and a lot of the time it just feels like people standing in a room screaming insults at each other.

NG: Do you feel like GamerGate is a leaderless resistance to corrupt, rabid, ideologues? If not, what is it?

CA: I think one of the challenges in discussing GamerGate is that is seems that somehow the discussion has become polarized along conservative/progressive lines, and that is never a good thing. I think part of the issue that many gamers are acting out on is that they may feel disenfranchised from a traditionally liberal games media (similar to the Kotaku article I wrote on games and guns), and that is fine, but a red/blue divide is not something that gaming needs, it isn’t healthy. The games industry, and by extension, the games media, has always been a more liberal scene, that’s fine, but when people start blasting away at each other as if this is an MSNBC “debate”, that does nothing to promote games as a medium.

Because of this, instead of rationally discussing issues, people take ideological sides that often don’t seem rational, or lump everyone together on the “other side”. Also, because of the closed loop echo chamber that social media can become if you actively block everyone who says anything you disagree with (I’ve only blocked a few folks who actually sent threats, or were over-the-top racist), things aren’t communicated well in the debate. I got blocked by a few prominent folks just for responding to a post that I was Facebook friends with an “anti” GamerGater. They obviously didn’t read what I said, they just preemptively blocked me. That is not a discussion.

NG: As we mentioned in our previous interview, many GamerGate-detractors like to associate GamerGate with harassment and misogyny. To eliminate this, should GamerGate elect some form of spokesperson, and define a set list of goals/stipulations?

CA: I don’t necessarily think an individual spokesperson, that would be tough, but I do think a list of goals or stipulations would be helpful, and a consistent message that rejects hate. I know a lot of people disagreed with my take on rebranding, but when the coverage you are getting mainly revolves around doxing and swatting people, then you have a problem. I think Gamergate, if it is a leaderless movement, faces the same challenges that Anonymous, Occupy, Ferguson, etc. faced. When you have no core group representing an activist idea, anyone can say they represent it, or anyone against it can pin actions to it.

Look at it from another angle. If I go out tomorrow and swat the head of Fox News, and post #nationaldemocraticcommitte, no journalist is going to blame the democratic party, or at least they will email the democratic party and ask for their opinion. But if I do the same thing from an “Anon”-named twitter account, the headline will read “Online hacktivists Anonymous swat head of Fox News.”

NG: On the subject of censorship, the game Hatred has been getting a lot of … well, hatred. Do you feel that game goes too far, or are people simply looking for a scapegoat?

CA: I think the game is designed to elicit outrage as a marketing move, and it worked. But, I support the devs’ right create it and sell it, regardless of whether I like it or not. At the time of the outrage, I compared it to the Uwe Bolle movie, Rampage. It is the exact same type of content, only interactive. And it’s downright tame compared to something like the Saw sequels (from what I’ve seen). It’s a bit amusing to me that I reserve my moral outrage for actions that repress people’s individual rights and freedoms, not at the equivalent of a teenage boy doodling on his school book cover. I am more offended that we, as a human race, keep paying money to see Transformers movies.

That being said, I also support Steam’s ability to decide what goes in their marketplace, just like Microsoft and Sony do. I’m not going to boycott Walmart for not selling hardcore pornography. Steam is a business, and makes business decisions. But, of course, I’m not going to let my 8-year-old download whatever she wants off Steam without supervision.

NG: You mentioned the only game that should be censored is one that steals copyrighted content. Do you still hold firm in that statement, in regards to sexual/titillating games, ultra violent ones (like Hatred), etc?

CA: Absolutely. Censorship is poison, regardless of the target. Of course, that also applies to people voicing their opinion. If someone wants to declare that a particular piece of content is racist, sexist, etc., they can do that all they want. But I get to decide what kind of content I get to experience. Not someone else. It they want to make a game that looks like some schizophrenics sick fantasy, have at it. I’m not gonna buy it, but a lot more people will because of the “controversy”.

NG: So gamers have the inkling that review scores are literally negotiated for, and you confirmed it previously. Could you give us an example of this, how it goes down?

CA: I do want to clarify a bit. It’s normally not as blatant as “we will give you money if we get an eighty”, it’s a bit more subtle than that. More along the lines of “Hey, before we talk about this exclusive, I got word that X game was trending in the high seventies with your guys. I know there were some issues, but you gave Y game an eighty, and we firmly believe this is an eighty title. We REALLY need this one to be an eighty. OK, let’s talk about exclusive assets now.” And bam, eighty.

There is also the practice of paying game reviewers for what are called “mock reviews.” A journalist will come in and play the game, and write a review for the publisher, with their projected score. This helps the publisher in focusing on last minute problems, as well as what features stand out for them to focus the press talking points on (as well as marketing spend). Now, from what I know, none of those reviewers ACTUALLY then went and reviewed the specific game they were paid to “mock review”, but someone else from their organization did, and to my knowledge they weren’t banned from reviewing that publisher’s future titles (although I could be wrong on that one).

I’ve also heard of publishers putting heat on Metacritic to remove outlying review scores that drag the numbers down, although the specific case I know of I don’t believe they were successful.

NG: If you were to guess, how often does this happen? Does this happen mostly at the AAA level with big marketing budgets, at the indie level, or both?

CA: It happens all the time at the AAA level. There is a whole raft of pressure, both positive and negative, that PR and Marketing folks, even legal, can bring to bear. It’s their job.

One time, I was doing press for a game, and I got seriously ill. I was hospitalized for a few weeks. When I get back, I open up a gaming magazine to read a two-page interview with my name on it. Only I didn’t write it. The PR folks didn’t want to hint that I was sick, so they wrote the interview for me, without my knowledge. That’s not the magazine’s fault, as I don’t think they knew about it, but it’s an example of the kind of things that are not divulged to the public.

On the indie level, it’s more about who you know. Indies are basically at the mercy of journalists, so the situation is reversed.

NG: Could you divulge a game this has happened with?

CA: No. Anything like that would be covered by a Non-Disclosure Agreement, in games we are NDAd out the yin yang. I will say it did not involve games I worked on, I just happened to be in the room to demo my game.

NG: How often do situations like the Jeff Gerstmann fiasco happen, i.e. a big, bloated marketing campaign from a dev/pub pressuring an outlet to silence or fire a writer?

CA: The pressure is always there, although I think the Gerstmann fiasco, targeting a specific writer, is more rare than an overall strategy to pressure publications for higher review scores, or suppressing bad ones. I have heard marketing and PR folks talking about “getting back” at certain publications for “fucking us”, and if I heard things like that I’m sure the pressure is there. Also, if you notice, a lot of times some games don’t seem to get any day one reviews, and then a week or two after release, you’ll see a flood of bad reviews. This is because often times if a game is expected to have bad reviews, the publisher will simply hold it and not send out review copies until after launch. The publications have to know this, but you never see reporting on it.

NG: Do you feel the reason GamerGate hasn’t been successful with engaging the AAA devs is because they, like you, are legally bound to numerous NDAs?

CA: Oh, definitely that is one reason. If I worked at a AAA developer right now, I would never have been able to weigh in. Interviews are tightly controlled and reviewed by PR, and oftentimes even legal. Social media policies usually restrict what devs can say related to pretty much anything. One company had legal come to brief us on their social media policy, and it was so restrictive, that by the letter of the code, we couldn’t say ANYTHING regarding any of the company’s (and parent company’s) products. Period.

Also, I’m sure some do not want to have anything to do with GamerGate because of the perception of a group of doxing trolls. Regardless of the reality either way, this is how many perceive GG, and it doesn’t help that things like the attempted swatting of a critic happens literally while I am writing this interview response. You gotta figure out a way, somehow, to separate your issues from what these trolls are doing (from what I read, for “the lulz”) that are being associated with GG.

NG: Percentage wise, through your experiences, how many of the major gaming websites are “bought” when it comes to coverage?

CA: All of the big sites are subject to it. If they are big enough to matter, they are big enough to warrant advertising and junkets. If they are big enough to warrant junkets and advertising, they are susceptible to pressure. It’s the nature of the industry. It’s the same with any fan/user based press, no different than the car industry or the firearms industry. Look up the Remington R51 and Shooting Times magazine. Same shit. Until we have a games “Consumer Reports” you will be putting up with this, and need to do due diligence get the true story.

That isn’t to say that all games journalists are bought and paid for. I consider many games journalists my friends. But there is no realistic separation from game publishers and the gaming press. If a gaming site consistently writes bad reviews of a publisher’s title, that publisher is not going to invite that site to its events or send them early copies of the game. It’s simple. That is one reason why you see such disparity in review scores between titles from major publishers and smaller titles. It’s for a easy for a reviewer to give a title a 2/10 when there are no repercussions, but if you don’t like it and there can be repercussions, best to go with a 6.5/10. It sends the same message but you have wiggle room the next time PR comes calling.

NG: There are a few, noticeable reports of inhumane working conditions in the video games industry. Is this a common thing? Only in the AAA scene?

CA: I wouldn’t use the word “inhumane”. When I think inhumane I think of Thai sweatshops or Indian shipyards. Us game developers don’t work 18 hours a day in sweltering heat sewing or cutting up old ships while sucking in poison gas.

That being said, game devs do work long hours and deal with tons of stress, often only to be laid off after a project ships and makes millions of dollars for a publisher. Because game development is such a desirable occupation, there are hundreds of people lined up for every job, and work/life balance is often an issue. However, lots of that failure of work/life balance is voluntary.

You definitely give things up if you want to succeed. The guy or gal who puts in more hours often can move beyond the parent who works 8-5. The “stars” are the ones there at midnight, and after a decade, it’s easy to find yourself realizing you have neglected your family and are suffering the consequences.

Indie or AAA, I don’t think it matters on the work load. I worked a metric shit-ton more hours on TAKEDOWN than when I was working on what would become Shadow of Mordor. I worked more and harder because it was my own project, and I was dedicated to it. So did my crew. Working until one or two in the morning was commonplace. We had a small team and we did what we could. If anything, AAA dev is trying to change it into a more normal job, because they don’t want to get sued, and staff burnout is a real issue. As many of us get older, it often becomes a choice between a family and a career. Such is life.

NG: Would you say developers themselves, big and small, tend to go through revolving doors?

CA: Yes, I’m seeing it more and more. As a dev, you often hit a wall, or are pigeon-holed into a position, and the only way to move up is to move. Alternatively, many low- and mid-level devs get stuck in a rotation of layoffs or short-term contract work, some working years without ever getting a full dev cycle under their belt. It’s a tough situation, and one of the reasons our industry has such a high burn rate.

NG: What are your thoughts on extremely strict/debilitating DRM? Is it necessary?

CA: DRM is stupid. It doesn’t do anything good, and only burns paying customers. Pirates will pirate. That being said, I’ve had my own run-ins with DRM when I said TAKEDOWN would be DRM-free, but then it was released on Steam. I didn’t know that some people consider Steam to be DRM. I then spent considerable resources trying to make the game run without Steam, so the anti-DRM’s would be happy. In the end, it bit me in the ass. Some Steam features were not available at launch because of my insistence that the game run without it, but this affected regular Steam users adversely. The whole thing sucks for a game dev.

DRM sucks, and pirates suck. Fuck DRM, and double-fuck pirates. Pirates are people that break into your house and steal your money, and DRM is a trap on your street that slams down on passersby’s ankles. Neither is a good thing.

NG: Where do you see the industry in ten years? Are we approaching an all-digital standard any time soon?

CA: Honestly, I would have thought we would be there by now. A few years ago I honestly believed that the next/current gen consoles would be digital only. Unfortunately, the power of GameShit prevented that. In ten years, we will be a fully digital industry. What role the consoles (if any) play in that will be up to them, but we should closely watch the evolution of the TV/movie media industry and how users consume and access that content.

NG: Will there be another set of home consoles from the big three?

CA: I think we will continue to see infiltration into digital gaming from outside sources, like Roku, Apple, Google, Amazon, etc. It will be really interesting to see who the “big three” in gaming are in ten years. I suspect it will not be Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. As to another set of consoles, yes, I do think there will be at least one more generation. Publishers like consoles. It makes games much easier to develop and market for, as well as knowing the installed user base, and prices are fixed. I think Onlive scared folks away for a bit, but the future is all digital. You may be buying gift cards with download codes, but you won’t be sticking a disk into a box.

NG: What is Serellan working on now? Anything you’d care to bump?

CA: At Serellan, we have just started a new indie project, code-named Epsilon. We haven’t released anything about it yet, but I hope that folks that support indie devs will swing by www.serellan.com or follow me on @serellan to keep an eye on what we are doing. I hope to announce the project soon.

NG: For the people still out there supporting GamerGate, what advice do you have for them?

CA: Be nice. You can disagree while still being nice. Tell people who are not nice to go away. We should all be nice to each other.

I’d like to thank Christian Allen for taking part in this interview with us, as we cover #GamerGate and issues concerning ethics in the gaming industry. If you’re a game developer, big or small, please consider reaching out to us and giving us your story! We’ll even keep you anonymous, if requested.

Brandon Orselli


Big Papa Overlord at Niche Gamer. Italian. Dad. Outlaw fighting for a better game industry. I also write about music, food, & beer. Also an IT guy.