It's been a few days since Guild Wars 2 developer ArenaNet found itself in the middle of a rather large discussion. Everything kicked off when former Guild Wars 2 narrative designer Jessica Price responded to a comment from an ArenaNet content partner known only as Deroir. The fallout of the exchange saw Price fired a two days later, alongside environment artist Peter Fries who defended Price on Twitter.
"We are committed to fostering open, constructive dialogue with our community around our games. Earlier this week, two of our employees failed to uphold our standards of communication, and they are no longer with the company," an ArenaNet spokeperson told us in a statement on the situation.
The Chilling Effect
The industry has reacted to the firing of Price and Fries in varying way. Some noted that developers are increasingly afraid to talk to the community at all. Online communities are more organized, meaning a developer can quickly find themselves standing alone against a wave of angry players. A similar situation involved former Microsoft creative director Adam Orth's firing back in 2013 over comments made about the Xbox One's previous always-online capabilities. Regardless, developers are talking about the fact that many are afraid to engage at all, with the firing acting as a chilling effect.
"Bright, insightful, warm, witty, kind people are shuttering their accounts now, terrified their words will get blown into a scandal. It breaks my heart to lose their voices. It's a loss to all of us. If you think I care more about someone's tone than my friends, you don't know me," said Anna Megill, narrative lead of Remedy Entertainment's upcoming title Control [Link].
Folks pointed to the fact that Deroir's comments were polite as a reason that Price should have engaged better with them. In response, some have pointed out that engagements are frequently in aggregate for developers; one conversation isn't the only one that developer may have had on social media. As such, it's better for companies to take to the time to talk with their employees in these situations, not move directly to firing.
"I have fucked up talking to our players a number of times. I've been rash, angry, rude when there was no reason to. Sometimes I had a conversation with someone from player relations who was like, 'dude, chill,'" said Riot Games systems designer Daniel Klein [Link]. "Being civil and polite doesn't make you less harmful. If a dozen people came up to you every day and very politely and with a pleasant voice pointed out they believed you didn't know what you were doing, and did you need any help doing your job, you'd snap."
"Maybe your employer doesn't like the way you talked to your customers. That's fair! They should raise this with you. Preferably, clear rules should be set in advance, and feedback should be given when you do something the employer did not approve of," Klein added.
The Problem is Management
Many of the developer comments relating to this situation talk about company management of the situation. Price and Fries were fired without any prior disciplinary actions made, which for many developers reinforces the problems with at-will employment. One former ArenaNet developer said the issue was one with ArenaNet's management specifically.
"Games culture has its problems but the power in play here was management over employees," said Night in the Woods co-creator Scott Benson [Link].
"I was at ArenaNet for four years, shipped [Guild Wars 2], and loved so much of my time there, but this shitty executive approach to dev/player relations existed back then, too. And I’m so sad to see that it seems to have gotten worse," said Wizards of the Coast designer Kate Welch [Link].
Some noted the long-time contributions of both employees to the running nature of Guild Wars 2, saying that ArenaNet threw the pair to the wolves.
"I don't think Jessica Price and Peter Fries deserve to be fired in light of everything they've done for the studio, the games, and past interactions with fans. I don't think they have done anything unseemly or illegal or offensive," wrote Gears 5 storyboard artist Jessie Lam [Link]. "It never fails to pain me when a company doesn't do its best to stand by and defend its employees most especially when they've done nothing wrong. Seen way too many devs and crews in and out of this industry who have been unfairly thrown under the bus."
Issues With Outcome
Other developers think that Price should've reacted better to Deroir's comments, but don't think that firing should've been on the table. One developer said that it's a bit off that all developers should be expected to stand "on the front lines talking to players," and most of that interaction should be handled solely by a community team.
"ArenaNet probably shouldn’t have fired these two writers. The writers probably shouldn’t have tweeted what they did. It’s not a black and white issue," said Zynga senior producer Tami Sigmund [Link]. "Just for clarification, I don’t believe either of the writers should have been fired for what they said. I think it was handled horribly, and ArenaNet are extremely in the wrong here."
There are some benefits to developers being so open to fans. One developer noted that fan feedback is frequently poor, but occasionally a developer might run into feedback that is useful.
As a game dev you'll always hear opinions/ideas from fans. Don't get me wrong, in most cases they will be terrible, but the answer is never to lash out against the fans. Jessica Price should have handled it better, but I really don't think ArenaNet was right to fire the 2 devs.— Daniel Moregård (@dmoregard) July 11, 2018
"As a game dev you'll always hear opinions/ideas from fans. Don't get me wrong, in most cases they will be terrible, but the answer is never to lash out against the fans. Jessica Price should have handled it better, but I really don't think ArenaNet was right to fire the two devs," said Stellaris game designer Daniel Moregård [Link]. "Besides, you want the fans to be engaged, and feel like they have a more direct connection to the devs. In most cases you will hear bad ideas, in a lot of cases you'll hear ideas you already thought about 1-2 years ago, but in some cases you might actually get some good ideas."
Not everyone developer is worried about the consequences of the situation. Some believe that Price's conduct was unprofessional and her firing was justified or understandable. (Surprisingly, not many comment on Peter Fries' firing in this case of justification.)
"How does anyone who claims to be a writer and narrative designer fail so miserably in basic communication, pulls off a masterful exercise in hypocrisy, confuses a public space for private, and then completely miss the center-point of the whole resulting kerfuffle?" asked Warhorse Studios designer/scripter Jan Smejkal [Link]. "While I don't believe it was necessary, firing of Jessica Price does not create 'a dangerous precedent', you dummies."
"This is what I don't understand, not only are people not criticising her frankly awful behaviour, they're suggesting that she has an absolute right to be a toxic as she likes towards her employer's customers and be utterly free from any negative consequences of that, it's absurd," said Hutch Games product owner Ian Griffiths in a comment on Gamasutra. "Being criticised is annoying, but if it's respectful and you don't like it, you can just ignore it. You don't have to be mean to be people, it's arrogant and just sets a precedent."
"I have written in both of my previous responses here that she probably shouldn't have been fired, I think a disciplinary action would have been enough," Griffiths said in a further comment. "Calling a customer of the game developer you work for an 'asshat' for respectfully stating a difference of an opinion could very well get you fired, that is not a surprising notion. Asking that developers interact respectfully with their audience does add to the gaming community."
[Writer's Note: After the publishing of this article, Griffiths has pointed to other comments he made on Gamasutra, arguing that the firing itself was not necessary. One of those statements has been added above.]
A Need for Clear Social Media Guidelines
One developer, Opaque Space, used the situation to address the company's social media guidelines in regards to private accounts. They think of the firing as a problem with industry process.
Opaque Space Official Response to Harassment of our Developers. pic.twitter.com/l2XNQf7ACH— Opaque Space (@OPXSpace) July 11, 2018
"We view the firings of Jessica Price and Peter Fries by ArenaNet as a catalyst for many companies having to openly discuss and publicly state their internal mechanisms for dealing with harassment of their staff. Opaque Space has very specific policies about how private accounts are owned and operated by our staff, and what they do in their own time with those forums," said the company on Twitter.
Opaque Space is the developer of NASA-collaborated virtual reality title Earthlight. Emre Deniz, director of Opaque Space, noted that Peter Fries' firing followed a 12 year career at the developer and his response "mild, polite and only asserted that Price was right". Deniz noted that there is a "huge message" behind both firings. Deniz is not only reacting to the situation, but messages aimed at the company about game design lead Jennifer Scheurle. Scheurle noted that she had been receiving messages on social media since making a tweet about the lack female CEOs within German companies.
I usually don't directly share these but I need y'all to see how stories such as Jessica Price's and her firing from ArenaNet have serious consequences beyond just one company and instead spread like poison through our entire industry. We got this message at Opaque about me. pic.twitter.com/sgx1ngFY8W— Jennifer Scheurle (@Gaohmee) July 11, 2018
"It's been 6 days of people screeching at me about talking about the lack of female CEOs in the German games industry," Scheurle wrote in a follow-up tweet [Link]. "Jessica Price's firing from ArenaNet emboldens people to ask for people like me to be lectured at best by my employer, fired at worst."
Jan MacLean, executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), backed up the sentiment of companies needing better guidelines. In a blog post, MacLean noted that developers should be asking management what are the guidelines for social media use, especially in situations where an employee is expected to make responses on personal accounts and could suffer risks for doing so.
"This incident makes very clear the perils of social media for game developers, especially when transparent and well-understood guidelines for staff members are not in place. Without clear information from an employer on social media use, interacting with people as a game developer can jeopardize someone’s job and career, and even their personal safety," MacLean wrote. "Game developers are also frequently targeted for harassment, particularly if they are members of under-represented communities. Companies must plan for how they will support their staff members in the event of online harassment, and should clearly communicate the resources they will make available to their team to have safe, productive, and positive interactions online, especially if they are expected to do so in their roles."
On Twitter, MacLean noted that most companies simply don't have clearly communicated social media guidelines for employees. Companies lack guidelines for employee protection related social media, or how running afoul of social media guidelines could trigger disciplinary action. Remedy narrative lead Anna Megill noted that companies need to figure out their strategies handling such situations immediately. Kitfox Games boss Tanya Short said that her studio had already worked out harassment policy guidelines and she was willing to share them.
Time For Unions?
Finally, the situation has improved the case of Game Workers Unite, an organization that seeks to build a unionized game industry. Apparently, firing your employees without warning or previous disciplinary actions tends to make other employees look towards protections. Game Workers Unite made a lengthy statement about the situation on one chapter of the organization noted that membership increased this week.
"It is important to understand the context in which women, people of color, and queer folks regularly exist while online, which is often a seemingly endless deluge of people commenting on, critiquing, and offering unsolicited advice on their craft," said the organization in its statement. "The game industry also has a well-documented history of predominantly women and marginalized workers being tormented into abandoning social media, driven out of their workplaces, and sometimes even forced to leave the industry altogether. Within this context it is grossly unfair to expect a veteran narrative designer like Jessica to be anything but defensive about these kinds of player and developer interactions."
"Regardless of how one feels about Price's actions and regardless of where one draws the line between rudeness and exasperation in Price's tweets, the fact of the matter is that there is an entire spectrum of responses ArenaNet could have taken, but chose not to. The company could have done anything from pulling their employee aside and discussing their behavior, to giving them an internal reprimand and offered them additional training. Instead, ArenaNet, under the clearly inadequate leadership of Mike O'Brien, made the knee-jerk reaction to fire a member of their team. No dialogue, no nuance, no empathy," the statement continued.
GWU Bay Area's membership increased over 25% this week, with new members citing @ArenaNet's unethical firings as what motivated them to join. One new member wrote "I saw Jessica Price and Peter Fries get fired so what chances would I have without a union?" Let's build one https://t.co/AEV1Ig42vb— GWU Bay Area (@GWU_BayArea) July 10, 2018
It's likely that the discussion around this will continue for some time. Game developers are just people and people have differing opinions. But the latter part of this discussion, talking about the nature of employment in regards to social media and protections for employees, are important conversations to have. Hopefully those will continue on long after this situation has faded on the same social media it started.