Few forms of human expression are as complicated as video games. Developers need to marry visuals, music, story, and gameplay together in a way that satisfies as many people as possible. That's a difficult task by itself, but things get even more complicated when a new entry is added to a beloved series. If the new game doesn't live up to a franchise's legacy, backlash is guaranteed.
Oftentimes, discontent over a new game bubbles up before said game is even completed. Trailers, teasers, previews, and demos can generate hype for a title, but there's always a risk the hype will turn sour for one reason or another. The Pokemon Sword and Shield controversy is a recent, strong example: Once news got out about Sword and Shield's truncated PokeDex, some disappointed fans declared they'll have nothing to do with the Galar Region. Particularly angry Pokemon masters are calling for a formal boycott of Sword and Shield until Game Freak promises to put all the Pokemon into the Galar Region."
Will Pokemon Sword and Shield's sales numbers suffer as a result of the anger, bad press, and calls for boycotts? Maybe. Maybe not. This hardly marks the first instance of perturbed players vowing not to touch a game for one reason or another. Sometimes their anger prompts publishers to fix the reason for their ire. Other times a tantalizing launch trailer helps cool the heated landscape. Here are a few notable examples of game boycotts-or attempts at boycotts-and how they ultimately turned out.
Left 4 Dead 2 (2009, PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox 360)
Out of all the games on this list, the pushback against Valve's Left 4 Dead 2 is most deserving of being recognized as a serious boycott. When Left 4 Dead was released in 2008, the co-op zombie shooter quickly garnered a strong fanbase thanks to its intense gameplay, interesting weapon selection, and warped sense of humor. But when Valve announced Left 4 Dead 2 just as the first game was picking up steam (so to speak), fans worried DLC and other support for the first game would drop off. The Left 4 Dead 2 boycott group subsequently sprang from the fanbase's irritation.
Even though the complainers were dismissed as whiny babies by some, Valve took the movement seriously enough to fly two of its key members to its offices, whereupon they were invited to play an early build of Left 4 Dead 2. The reception to the build was positive, the boycott group's rage petered out. Left 4 Dead 2 ultimately sold like mad.
Did Valve's peace offering to the Left 4 Dead community prevent thousands of lost sales? It's impossible to say for certain, but the goodwill generated by the gesture was surely worth the price of a couple of plane tickets.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002, GameCube)
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was revealed long before social media was a mainstream concept, but gamers of the early Aughts still managed to make an exclamation go viral across popular message boards and Usenet groups: "Zelda? More like Celda."
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask made N64 owners comfortable with a darker take on the beloved franchise, so when Nintendo tried to take Link back to his brighter roots with cel-shaded graphics, fans of the series rebelled in a big way. The colorful Hylian child we now know as "Toon Link" didn't make a splash when he debuted at SpaceWorld 2001, even though the modern populace now largely acknowledges he's cute as heck.
Doubtlessly the backlash was fueled in part by the GameCube's SpaceWorld 2000 tech demo, which featured a brief clip of adult Link sword fighting with Ganondorf. People expected GameCube Zelda to revisit the Ocarina of Time, albeit with better graphics. When the internet watched Toon Link perform Looney Tunes antics to foil Moblins, it rioted.
Though fans had time to simmer down by the time Wind Waker came to GameCube, the game didn't sell as well as Ocarina of Time, nor did it move systems as effectively as its predecessor. While the controversy over Wind Waker's graphics might have dampened excitement for the adventure, console gaming was generally on the decline in Japan in the early Aughts. Toon Link hasn't made a return to console Zelda games outside of The Wind Waker HD for Wii U, but he's featured in Nintendo DS titles like The Phantom Hourglass and (the frankly underrated) Spirit Tracks. It's unlikely people will start kicking in windows if Toon Link stars in another mainline Zelda game, but Nintendo seems happy to leave the task of saving Hyrule to adult Link for now.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009, PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) and Black Ops 4 (2018, PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4)
When a series is as prolific and popular as Call of Duty, suggested boycotts are bound to pop up around it. 2009's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 alone invited a handful of controversies, not the smallest of which was news about the PC version of the game doing away with dedicated servers for the shooter. Fears about lag inspired an online petition asking developer Infinity Ward to reconsider its decision, and said petition quickly garnered tens of thousands of signatures. The pleas and threats of boycotts weren't enough to budge Infinity Ward, and Modern Warfare 2 smashed sales records regardless.
Interestingly, 2018's Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 brought back dedicated servers, but it ignited a fresh wave of discontent with controversial monetization schemes like loot boxes and microtransactions. Nevertheless, Black Ops 4 broke some sales records of its own.
Bayonetta 2 (2014, Wii U)
We're all familiar with that infamous scene from The Simpsons where Homer attends the opening of a Krusty Burger fast food joint and beats the hell out of the "Krustyburglar" actor while a distressed child wails, "Stop! Stop! He's already dead!"
That clip plays back in my mind whenever I read the words "Bayonetta 2 boycott." Sales for the Wii U were sluggish by the time Bayonetta 2 was announced, and given the original Bayonetta's cult status, it's unlikely Nintendo ever believed the second game would make a huge difference in the Wii U's fate. And, unsurprisingly, it didn't. It did, however, cheese off Bayonetta fans who wanted a sequel to the uniquely sexy action-adventure game but didn't want to dish out for a half-dead system to play it on.
Everyone won in the end, sort of. Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 are on the Switch now, and Bayonetta 3 is in production. But whereas the backlash against the other games named in this piece generated a lot of heat and noise, the Bayonetta 2 boycott produced a mighty "Ehhh...?"
Given the range of publisher reactions to game controversies, not to mention the varied outcomes of attempted boycotts, it's hard to confirm or deny whether said boycotts are effective in changing publishers' minds when fans push back against a design decision. That said, there's no doubt game studios have their ears to the ground. The recent outcry against Joy-Con drift, for example, finally prompted Nintendo to get off its duff and take the issue seriously. That wouldn't have happened if people hadn't reacted negatively to the recent news about incoming new Joy-Con colors.
It's clear the squeaky Pikachu gets the poffin. If you're not happy with the direction a game is taking, it's OK to make your voice heard. Just remember to keep things civil.