Two narrative designers for Guild Wars 2, developed and published by the Bellevue, Wash.-based studio ArenaNet, were fired on July 5, following an argument on Twitter that went viral. The move has been widely condemned in the games industry even as many fans of the game are vocally celebrating it, which has spurred a larger conversation about the frequently-acrimonious relationship between video games, those who make them, and those who play them.
On July 3, Arena.Net narrative designer Jessica Price began a thread on her personal Twitter regarding the challenges of writing and characterizing a player character in an MMO, who is by necessity a blank slate. One of the comments on her thread came from a Denmark-based YouTuber, Deroir, which drew a sharp response from Price.
Today in being a female game dev:
"Allow me–a person who does not work with you–explain to you how you do your job." https://t.co/lmK0yJWqGB
— Jessica Price (@Delafina777) July 4, 2018
According to Price, asked to comment on the firing on Kotaku, Deroir’s tweet was a typically frustrating exchange for her on social media. “By the time that guy came along, I was so tired of having random people explain my job to me in company spaces where I had to just smile and nod that it was like, ‘No. Not here. Not in my space.'”
Price’s tweets began a flurry of activity on the Guild Wars 2 subreddit. Via Reddit, Twitter, and the official Guild Wars 2 forums, players issued a series of ultimatums and attempts at boycotts over Price’s conduct. When Price’s fellow narrative designer Peter Fries spoke up in her defense (with several tweets that have since been deleted), he got pulled into the fray.
The situation was abruptly resolved by a post from ArenaNet’s CEO Mike O’Brien on July 5, where he announced that due to failing to uphold standards of communication with players, two employees —presumably Price and Fries — had been dismissed. This was met with applause from the GW2 community, but condemnation from developers and journalists.
As Arkane Studios’s Hazel Monforton wrote on Twitter:
Gamers treat developers’ personal twitter accounts like customer service hotlines. We’re expected to have no boundaries and to take in good faith and humor everything from ignorant complaints to accusations of incompetence. As soon as we say “no”, we‘re harassed out of a job.
— Dr. Witch Hazel, PhD 🐐 (@HazelMonforton) July 6, 2018
Follow any number of developers on Twitter, past or present, independent or mainstream, and you can often see Monforton’s point in action. There’s a big gulf between developers and players, which has often led to players assuming they know more about how games are made than they do.
Further, the response to Price’s initial tweet and the number of respondents to it appear to have been vastly inflated by an Internet sockpuppet brigade, made and motivated by a relatively small group of players on the subreddit. Congressional candidate and games developer Brianna Wu claims that most of the correspondents to Price’s Twitter were throwaway accounts, typically used for organized harassment campaigns such as this.
What O’Brien has done is effectively indicate that ArenaNet can be easily and quickly influenced from outside the company via what could’ve been a relative handful of players nursing a grudge over things that had nothing specifically to do with any of Price’s actual work on Guild Wars 2. (Price in particular has been chased by fan controversy for most of the last year, starting from a Reddit thread announcing her hiring that degenerated almost immediately.)
And this is why the ArenaNet response was so worrisome. https://t.co/mgqqoTm4J7
— Rami Ismail (@tha_rami) July 6, 2018
Among other things, this has led to Price and Fries’s dismissal becoming a call to arms for unionization professionals working within the games industry.
"Nobody at ArenaNet is safe from the hand of reddit"
Every single one of us working in the games industry should be concerned by this decision. But our concern needs to lead to action. This is just one of the reasons why we need unions. https://t.co/FR5sMOgWHk
— meg jayanth (@betterthemask) July 6, 2018
ArenaNet gave a follow-up statement to Eurogamer earlier today: “We strive to cultivate an atmosphere of transparency around the making of our games and encourage our teams to be involved in open, positive discussion with our community. Earlier this week, two of our employees failed to uphold our standards of communication with our players and fans, and they are no longer with the company.”