Content creators and development teams: How close is too close?

In the era when anybody and everybody can be a content creator, this subject can be a little sticky. I’m going to try and approach it as delicately as possible. Please know that I do not intend it as a passing of judgment on anyone. If you’re a content creator, and you’ve found a formula that works for you, keep at it! We need independent thought and commentary about games and communities.

I’ve been watching the Elder Scrolls Online community for a few years. Previous to that, I was very active in the LOTRO community. From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of similarities between the two. Both games offer various styles of gameplay, thus both attract a wide range of personalities within the player base. All in all, both communities are generally seen as friendly and helpful, which is why any kind of drama or disruption catches my attention.

Last week, one such incident caused a bit of a kerfuffle within the #ESOfam. Let me reiterate that it is not my intention to fan the flames, but rather to take a thoughtful look back at what might have helped to avoid the situation to begin with. This incident took place during the regularly held ESO PvP event. One ESO streamer (it might be worth noting not a member of the official ESO stream team) was participating in the event by battling it out within the game’s large-scale PvP zone when some alleged incidents of stream sniping started to occur. I don’t know (nor care) about all of the details, but it sounds like PvPers, for whatever reason, were watching the stream for the purposes of focusing their aggression onto the streamer, leading to a frustrating gameplay experience. There’s some disagreement within the community as to whether this type of behavior is against the ESO terms of service or not, but there was also allegedly some in-game private messaging occurring between the streamer and the snipers. In one such exchange, a screenshot appears to show the streamer claiming to be a friend of ESO creative director Rich Lambert, though the context of the exchange was not captured. This comment evoked accusations of “streamer privilege”, which only intensified after one of the PvPer’s was, in fact, given a “time out” for their behavior, as alluded to in this Tweet by Lambert:

Thankfully, the whole matter flared up and back down within a matter of days. But it left me with an interesting question: how close is too close with regards to content creators and game devs?

I have a unique perspective with regard to the ESO community. When I attended the Greymoor chapter reveal last month, I did so in a professional capacity. I was representing Massively Overpowered, and as such was very much a member of “the press” during the announcement, complete with balcony seating and special unlimited drinks wristband (I only had one ice water). However, I’m also friends with many members of the community and a side benefit of the trip was being able to meet them in person and hang out with them before and after the event.  Interestingly, both groups (press and players) treated the dev team quite differently.

I know the term “gaming journalism” became quite the punchline a few years ago, and in some cases, the criticism was well earned. But whatever your opinion is of the state of the game press, my personal experience was that the other journalists at the event were there to do a job. They were friendly, yet professional. There were handshakes and pleasantries, but there was also some distance. Part of this might have been because most of the other journalists I met play many, many games which is required for the breadth of their job but does not allow for as much depth into a single title. But I think a lot of it just had to do with the fact that some distance between press and studios is a good thing, and they all understood that. As press, we may write some good things and we may write some bad things. Our loyalty is to the truth, or in the case of us columnists, to giving readers our honest, untainted opinion about a game, not to the game studio.

The player interaction with the dev team was quite a bit different. This segment of the community fully embraced the development team (sometimes literally) and when possible, spent time after the event just hanging out in a friendly capacity, like co-workers after hours. And make no mistake, the ESO dev team is easy to like. After all, they’re gamers. They share a passion for the Elder Scrolls world, just like the players at the events. It might be worth noting that many, if not all, of the streamers and podcasters for ESO are members of this particular peer group, the group that does not keep the development team at arm’s length. Perhaps that is why, from an outside perspective, it might seem that the content creators within this circle receive preferential treatment.

What is preferential treatment, and why should players be concerned? Admittedly, it’s a fine line we walk. It’s fairly common practice for media, and I assume streamers, to be offered evaluation keys for games and DLC’s that don’t expire. I’ve never personally used them, I prefer to buy my own collector’s edition (for ESO), but I know Massively OP does sometimes pass them along to our streamer so she doesn’t have to buy all of the games she streams for the site. My trip and accommodations for the event were paid for by the studio, something that did make covering the event much easier and timelier. I was also given one-on-one access to Rich Lambert for an interview. We choose to disclose this type of thing on our website with the caveat that our coverage has not been influenced by those who work at ZeniMax.

In many ways, streamers and podcasters are becoming the “new media”. They have similar, if not more access to the development team. Many are provided with codes for prizes to be handed out however the streamer sees fit. They are supported by the official social channels for the game, and in some cases in more official capacities (developer blogs and dedicated streamer pages on the official website). Streamers and podcasters also seem to elicit more unofficial engagement with the dev team, as ZeniMax employees will often pop into Twitch chat when ESO is being discussed. All of these types of interactions seem appropriate to me provided they don’t “influence the influencer” into holding back when it comes to criticism of the game or studio practices.

However, members of the new media should exercise caution. Players who are outside of this circle observe these informal interactions. They see the tweets depicting post-event hangouts at bars and restaurants. This could all lead to the perception that streamers have an inordinate amount of influence not only within the community but within the game, itself. If, in fact, the relationship with the dev team was used to get another player punished than I believe that the streamer was wrong. If, as Rich Lambert indicated, the streamer reported the behavior through proper channels and an actual investigation occurred, then the relationship with the dev team was not abused. The problem is, though, by sending a message that “I’m friends with the creative director” that even if the proper process was followed, the perception is now out there that the relationship has been abused. Perhaps if that relationship was kept at a greater distance, to begin with, the fallout could have been avoided.

I’m not perfect. I enjoy talking to the game developers. I understand that they’re people and not just code monkeys cranking out features and fixes. I would definitely hang out with the ESO developers in a group setting. But I also know that there are some positions within ZeniMax who are paid to make the game look good, no matter what. They might see my reach and be tempted to try to influence my writings in their favor, simply by forming a relationship. I see it in my day job all the time. Vendor account managers are specifically paid to formulate a relationship with the customer because customers who have a good relationship with you are less likely to entertain other vendors. Fortunately for me, though I’m an inexperienced journalist, I was hired to work for a site that has been running for some time, employs many more experienced journalists who I can lean on, and adheres to a code of ethics. So I’ve quickly learned of some of the pitfalls that can arise from covering a game studio, and of how important perception and reputation is. Many of the new media content creators are learning on the fly. They don’t have colleagues with years of experience and an established code of ethics. They haven’t been burned by gaming studios or communities. And to be honest, at the moment there sometimes doesn’t seem to be quite enough distance between studio and content creator. That’s a tough thing for a content creator to gauge because it’s kind of an “I’ll know it when I feel it” thing. Perhaps it’s going to take a few high profile mistakes for the appropriate distance to become better defined.

If so, I just hope it’s in somebody else’s community.

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