Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

15 August, 2016

Toxic, passionate fans
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:37 PM

We’ve seen a more people being abusive to game developers recently. The most recent example is No Man’s Sky, where people are angry for a number of reasons.

The stated reasons don’t matter, but the actual reasons might be useful for knowing how to handle this as a developer.

Your most passionate fans…

When I ran Meridian 59, I got a fair amount of abuse. This was before the modern attention to abusive behavior online, and it was rather frightening at the time. Emotionally it was damaging, even though logically I knew there was only a slim chance that someone would make good on those threats since M59 was mostly about talking shit in broadcasts when you were unable to do anything else.

But, one thing I noticed was that the people who heaped the most abuse on me were the ones who tended to play the most. For people who hated the game they kept playing the game, enthusiastically even. They were avid fans, and they viewed anything that stopped their enjoyment of the game as a bad thing. Even if that “bad thing” is the person actually maintaining the game.

I also notice that the most critical people on forums also tended to be the people who played a lot. The person complaining about how the game “was ruined forever” and “could be saved by doing this one thing” were all people who played multiple accounts and played significantly more than average. The people who complained the loudest were the ones playing the most. This seemed to be a bit of a paradox.

Passion misplaced

My theory is that the most enthusiastic fans had their passion misplaced. Instead of focusing their passion on enjoying the game, they started to fixate on the negatives. Anything that negatively impacted them got blown out of proportion. A change that made them change the way they played? “Worst change ever. The game is dead now.” An adjustment to an ability that everyone swore as “must have” because of raw power? “The devs hate my character and are in league with my enemies.” Some new ability that doesn’t live up to expectations? “The game is broken. Me and all my friends are leaving.” (Spoiler: they don’t.)

Another aspect of this is the pre-release hype for an MMO. A game releases some information early in development, and people seize that information like holy gospel. Of course, this is a problem because development plans change. The classic example here is UO’s necromancy, where a developer commenting about something the team was investigating was taken as a solemn promise to put that system into the game. It was eventually put in, but most people thought it wasn’t very good demonstrating why the developers might have not been so enthusiastic about putting the system in.

Worse, people will start filling in the blanks about how something will work when there is a paucity of details. People imagine the ideal, envisioning a perfect system with no compromises that does exactly what they want. Unfortunately, reality often requires compromises and changes, which inevitably disappoint people. And then they start lashing out, because the reality of the game can’t compete with the castle in the sky created in their minds.

So, they lash out. But, it gets worse than that.

Internet echo chamber

While lashing out, they find other, like-minded people. Passionate people aren’t isolated or unique, and when they find each other they rally around the cause. They start talking to each other, and feeding off of each other.

Sound familiar? It probably does if you read my Blaugust posts from last year, where I describe how anger works online. People who are angry just get angrier and angrier. Except the enemy isn’t some nebulous group of other people, it’s a specific person or group of people responsible for that game.

So, their anger and frustration is confirmed and reinforced when they find someone else who feels the same way. Instead of cooling down, this micro-community starts feeding off of each other and the emotions run high. They lash out at the target of their frustration, which happens to also be the person or team making the game they are passionate about. They’ve built up this effigy of the developers, and they lash out at the concept rather than the reality.

To the developer, it can be shocking to see. And, it can be hard to realize these people are some of your most passionate fans.

Channeling that passion

How do you solve this? Unfortunately, I don’t have any easy answers. The traditional answer is to address the concerns while trying to show yourself as a human. When people got angry “at 3DO for those changes”, I’d often point out that the team was small, so they’re really angry at me. Talking to people directly in the game like that often softened their tone, because the had a harder time getting angry at the person right there rather than the abstract concept of “the development team”.

In another case, some players came to see me when I was at Gen Con one year showing off M59. They were all ready to get their rant on and complain about the issues du jour, but once they got there in person they had a much more pleasant demeanor. In fact, some of them became friends of mine.

But, what happens if you’re a best-selling Steam game that has aroused the anger of many passionate fans? Harder to make that direct connection and calm them down.

I think one big thing that could help is for the fans to change their attitudes. Instead of standing by and letting the hate happen, stepping in and letting people know that anger isn’t appropriate can help. Of course, that often just makes the “dev ass kissers” the new temporary target for the anger, so that is fraught with peril, too. Ideally, the people who get angry would learn to temper their tempers, and make things more pleasant for everyone. But, if it were that easy then it would be done already.

Bonus round: “It’s easy!”

I saw this post on Twitter, someone suggesting how to implement multiplayer in No Man’s Sky:

All I want to know is what this guy’s rates are! Able to implement multiplayer in about a month? Amazing!

Funny how people who have never made game still seem to be experts on the subject. Yeah, this attitude is a big pet peeve of mine.


  1. It does tick me off a bit when a company like Blizzard declares something “impossible” in a somewhat transparent attempt to end discussion about a feature. It is never “impossible within the project time frame” or “impossible with current staffing” or something like that, it is simply impossible.

    That said, I know from long experience that very few things are “easy” to implement. It can, at times, be easy to throw together a hack that works under the right conditions. But the company that has to sell the product has to make sure a change works all the time, under a variety of circumstances, and doesn’t cause issues or inconsistent behavior in other areas. Shit be breakin’, yo!

    Some day I will get around to writing a post about implementing cut, copy, and paste in an object oriented development environment I used to work on. Cut, copy, and paste is easy, right? It is supported in the OS! Who cares if the objects in a given project depend on methods and configurations that may not exist in the project you’re pasting into, just do it! Then imagine explaining why you can’t just implement that with a snap of the fingers to a few companies that pay you millions in yearly maintenance and who call up every week wanting to know when they are getting the feature.

    Comment by Wilhelm Arcturus — 16 August, 2016 @ 6:47 AM

  2. The tricky thing about other fans stepping in to directly address the angry people is that it can often come across in a confrontational manner. Before you know it, you have two sides angrily shouting each other down, labeling the other side “white knights” or “impossible to please cynics who should just git gud or quit the game.” While this might temporarily deflect the anger onto someone else, the overall unhappiness is still there and the passionate fans confronting each other just creates an unwelcoming atmosphere of hostility and simmering resentments.

    I think it’s definitely not easy dealing with angry difficult customers, but one can take a page from the customer service industry playbook. Confronting them just makes you a target; you want to appear to be on -their- side while defusing their anger and bringing them down to a place of calm and reason. That usually means -listening- to their issues (even if you don’t agree or have to refuse their demands) and paraphrasing what they say back to them so that they know that they’ve been heard.

    Apologising where appropriate (as long as it doesn’t open up you or the company to a lawsuit) can also defuse anger.

    Then finally, bring the conversation to a place of discussing solutions and alternatives, and try to give the angry party a “choice” so that they feel like they have some control/autonomy/say in the matter.

    It’s not at all easy. It’s a learned skill and some people seem to be naturally more people-oriented / diplomatic than others and better at it. (I’m definitely not one of them.)

    Some game companies have this player communication/interaction thing down better than others too. Path of Exile never fails to amaze me at how well they communicate, for example, while GW2 schizophrenically veers between very reasonable discourse with explanations and skillfully steering fans towards giving constructive suggestions (ie. everyone on the same team looking for the best solution) and… well, the opposite.

    Comment by Jeromai — 16 August, 2016 @ 7:15 AM

  3. Hahaaaaa I’ve seen that tweet too and was grinding my teeth a bit. I’m not a developer obviously but two of my close friends are coders and dealing with customers is their greatest nightmare. I assume you’re familiar with this one: ;)

    On the other hand, nobody wants to bite the hand that ‘feeds’ them. Jeromai mentioned the importance of procedure and I think the game industry, like other industries, ideally makes life easier for devs and designers by having other units in place like public speakers, community managers etc. either from within or without the player community (although the first is definitely preferable). There’s still some professionalization to do in this business I think, because traditionally there’s this personal and direct relationship between devs and fans which is both a blessing and a curse.

    There are reasons why professional artists use agents to sell their stuff; time, know-how but also distance. It requires a certain distance and cool to deal with both passionate and clueless customers and it’s rarely great having to defend your own creation that you’ve poured your soul and life’s time into.

    Comment by Syl — 16 August, 2016 @ 12:36 PM

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