Greetings, gamers of 2012. My name is Game Designer #9384, although I once had a mother and she called me Bobby. I write to you in secret from the dank, lightless barracks of the High Lord Gamer Melvin Fauntleroy. The year is 2020. Trans-temporal email has just been invented, so you can expect a lot more messages like this, mostly about cybernetic erectile augmentation and desperate princes in the Sovereign Republic Of Texas. Your primitive spam filters will be useless. I pray this message reaches you before Google adds the Block Future Email button. For a civilisation of game designers subjugated by an elite cadre of consumer overlords, it may be our only hope.
But how could this have come to pass? Wait, I hear the dreaded rustle of a clipboard approaching – quickly then. It all began so innocently. With the Internet, gamers around the world had the ability to band together around niche causes, making futile yet heartfelt demands for this or that. We game creators found it touching that they cared so much about our work, even half-arsed old work we could barely remember doing. If these online campaigns were occasionally successful, perhaps resulting in the translation of an obscure Japanese title, we saw no danger in it. To the contrary, what company would deny a petition to sell a product twice?
But this is where the balance of power began, imperceptibly, to shift. The tipping point – so obvious in hindsight – arrived in the year 2012, when a large group of very vocal gamers demanded a revised ending for space opera trilogy Mass Effect. The fan protest seemed like a total boondoggle, sweeping up an unwillingly partnered charity, hundreds of ironic cupcakes, and a specious Federal Trade Commission complaint in its tide of insanity. But somehow it worked.
Despite everything, it’s hard not to sympathise with BioWare. The tender fanboy petitions of yore – the sorts of things game designers could smilingly condescend to and teasingly bat around – had given way to furious organised hectoring, and the most entitled fans were already pissed at the company for selling DLC on Mass Effect 3’s release date. You can understand why BioWare caved, though it wound up being the crack that triggered the collapse. Even then we thought were still in control. Oh, hubris!
Suddenly, it was like all bets were off. Being able to hoard an English translation of Mother for years – which we had all taken for granted – seemed like a fabulous luxury in hindsight. Drunk with their new power, small militias of players rallied around their particular axes-to-grind and set about petitioning and protesting us into oblivion, until we had remade virtually the entire classic canon with new endings and features. It got to the point where no one would buy a game that hadn’t been vetted by a vigilante gamer committee.
Now at the end of Metroid you take off your helmet to reveal Seamus Aaron, an Irish bare-knuckle boxer trapped in the future, thanks to some misogynists with 6,000 digital signatures of dubious provenance. Instead of just saying ‘Thank you,’ the end of The Legend Of Zelda now features a sex scene that would make a Game Of Thrones fan blush, all because a pervy splinter group raised enough money in an hour to bake and send 300 insulting scones. Any vestige of sanity had gone out of the window by 2014, when Angry Birds 4 was petitioned so brutally leading up to its release that it went millions over budget and came out identical to Gears Of War.
Increasingly assured of their stranglehold on developers, and apparently still smarting over the Mass Effect 3 day one DLC flap, players were demanding that we package the entire contents of our hard drives with every game release by 2016. This would ensure that we weren’t holding back anything to which their purchase entitled them. Halo 7 ran to a massive 38 discs and included its designers’ tax documents, intimate photos, and indie projects they were working on. (Yes, we’re still using discs in 2020 – suck it, cloud.) Of course, you couldn’t get much work done on an indie project in those days before a 17-year-old with a clipboard came up behind you and menacingly cleared his throat, and you quickly went back to work on the prototype Flopper engine, which was dedicated exclusively to breast-jiggle physics.
By 2018, we had no need for tax spreadsheets, because we were no longer earning income. Most designers had by then been moved into the barracks of various petition masters – or High Lord Gamers as they dubbed themselves – and spent their days furiously coding chainguns into Harvest Moon under sweatshop-like conditions. By 2020, our subjugation was complete. And now I feel the breath of the High Lord Gamer Melvin Fauntleroy on my neck once again, hear the ruffle of 77 pages of signatures demanding that I file down his cuticles. The leg and wrist irons make it heavy work, but the fans have spoken. No time for graceful conclusions, I must press Send – but I plead of you, gamers and designers of the past, turn back from this path!
Illustration: Martin Davies