Why is video game development so secretive? Online harassment, one developer says.

Why is video game development so secretive? Online harassment, one developer says.
Game developer Charles Randall discussed the issue of toxicity in gaming in a viral thread on Twitter. Mic/GooGag
Game developer Charles Randall discussed the issue of toxicity in gaming in a viral thread on Twitter. Mic/GooGag

The world of video game development is notoriously opaque. To make a big-budget video game, hundreds of people hide away for several years, spending millions of dollars. Usually, the only thing customers see is the finished project on store shelves. If they’re lucky, fans might be able to buy a book of concept art, but the nitty-gritty of what actually goes into game development is often shrouded in mystery.

Why? One game developer gave his reasoning in a Twitter thread on Sunday: In most cases, when individuals try to be open about the realities of creating a video game — especially in the last few years — they open themselves up to threats and online harassment.

Charles Randall, a programmer who has worked for Ubisoft on titles like Assassin’s Creed 2, tweeted a long thread about his experiences in game development and the dangers of speaking publicly about it in the current culture of gaming. He cited outrage-based YouTubers and toxic online forums as major sources of the problem.

It’s a lengthy thread and worth reading in its entirety. Essentially, Randall explains that most game developers — including him — love talking about their work. However, when they do so, casual fans who purport to know a lot about game development tend to rush in and tell them how wrong they are, how game developers are greedy, etc.

Or worse. It’s not hard to find examples of toxicity toward game developers, especially abuse that suggests a misunderstanding of their work. The extended harassment campaign known as Gamergate began with the public smearing of Zoe Quinn, an indie game developer who was falsely and repeatedly accused of trading sex for free publicity.

Gamergate began with the public smearing of an indie game developer who was falsely accused of trading sex for free publicity.

That was in 2014, though the problems go back even further. The trolls have never really let up.

For example, after Mass Effect: Andromeda came out in March, angry netizens blamed its rough animation on one woman, despite the fact that it was a game in development for several years under the care of several hundred people. Even before the game was released, the Gamergate-affiliated subreddit /r/KotakuInAction targeted Manveer Heir, an ex-BioWare developer, over his outspoken thoughts on racism.

Similarly, Gamergate sympathizers like to set their sights on Tim Schafer, the head of Double Fine Productions, for what they perceive to be an insidious misuse of money surrounding his studio’s crowdfunded game, Broken Age. In short, both acts of the game ended up costing much more than originally estimated, a sign to some that Schafer somehow swindled loyal fans out of their hard-earned cash. (Double Fine released an entire documentary about the game’s development process.)

Game developer Tim Schafer breaks down the cost of game development in a thread on Twitter. @TimOfLegend/Twitter

Harassment in the gaming world is a demonstrably large problem, and anyone who dares speak up about it usually exposes themselves to abuse. Of course, this is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: If the process of game development were more transparent to begin with, perhaps there would be less misinformation online masquerading as fact in the first place.

But, if anything’s become clear, it’s that some people would rather find one person to blame than accept the reality: Game development is damn expensive and hard as heck.

Here is Randall’s Twitter thread in full:

The other day a friend commented to me, “I wish game developers were more candid about development.” He was surprised when I said we are. The caveat is that we’re only candid with other industry people. Because gamer culture is so toxic that being candid in public is dangerous.

See that recent Twitter thread about game design tricks to make games better — filled with gamers “angry” about “being lied to.” Forums and comment sections are full of Dunning-Kruger specialists who are just waiting for any reason to descend on actual developers. See any thread where some dumbass comments how “easy” it would be to, say, add multiplayer or change engines.

Any dev who talks candidly about the difficulty of something like that just triggers a wave of people questioning their entire resume. “Questioning” here being an absurd euphemism for “becoming a target of an entire faction of gamers for harassment or worse.” There are still topics I can’t touch because I was candid once and it resulted in dumb headlines, misunderstandings and harassment. So while I’d talk candidly about certain big topics right now — I know doing so would lead to another wave of assholes throwing shit at me. (And of course I face almost nothing compared to women/POC/LGBTQ+ folk.)

But here’s the rub: All the stuff you ever wanted to know about game development would be out there if not for the toxic gaming community. We *love* to talk about development, the challenges we face, the problems we solve, the shortcuts we take. But it’s almost never worth it.

I did a public talk a couple weeks ago to a room full of all ages kids, and afterwards, a kid came up to me and was talking about stuff. And I shit you not, this kid (somewhere between 13 to 16 I’d guess) starts talking about how bad devs are because of a YouTuber he watches. He nailed all the points: “bad engines,” “being greedy,” you name it. I was appalled. I did my best to tell him that all those things people freak out about are normal and have justifications. I hope I got through a bit. But I expect he went back to consuming toxic culture via YouTube personalities, and one day he’ll probably harass a dev over nonsense.

I worry about what other topical hatred he’s picking up on at the same time. I guess this leads into a bigger point. When you attack developers for “being political,” that’s a facet of the bullshit that forces us to keep things hidden from public view. The elements that contribute to harassing developers over perceived technical slights are the same elements as all the other hate out there. Next time you don’t like a game, maybe consider just moving on? What is the value of helping spread hate and toxicity?

If more people accepted that it’s okay to dislike a game and move on, rather than doubling down on harassment, things would be more open. If you are posting extremely negative things about a game you don’t like, even with good intentions, you are contributing to this ethos. Being critical and explaining why you don’t like something is fine. Dwelling on it, calling out the dev, or just talking shit is not. Let’s be honest: dwelling on something you don’t like also isn’t healthy. Spend your time on what matters instead.

Also: there’s this idea that developers are secretive of what they are doing with respect to sharing with other devs: this is false. There’s no real competition between developers. We love to talk and share, and so at best, a lot of stuff is “FrieNDA’d.” Most developers know what their other developer friends are working on, even between AAA studios. Open secret. You know why we have to keep what we’re doing secret from the public? Because of the toxic culture surrounding it. (Some people will say marketing and they are not wrong but that’s the difference between secrecy and WIDE knowledge.) God help you if you let any amount of the public know what you are working on before it’s set in stone. Games change during development, this is a universal constant no developer would argue with, but toxic culture can’t handle that.

If you think I’m wrong on any points in this thread, please compare the movie industry to the games industry. Sometimes we know about movies that are “in development” years and years before anyone even starts working on them. That wouldn’t fly here. Shout out to all my friends who do community management for games. They deal with a lot of bullshit they should never have had to.