“2K very quietly launches new XCOM game that looks like shit” was the headline of this Kotaku’s article on new mobile game XCOM Legends.
Why Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett decided to give XCOM Legends grief is because in its current state it lacks “challenging tactics, roster management and bullshit shooting percentages” the XCOM series is known for. Now it’s worth mentioning that XCOM Legends developed by Iridium Starfish has only come out in soft launch for Android devices.
Since the article went live yesterday, Kotaku has changed the title as well as some of its content “to reflect that soft launches are common in the mobile space, and not reflective of the quality of the game itself.” The headline, for example, was muted to “2K Launch XCOM Game That Looks Nothing Like XCOM.”
The original headline, however, had existed long enough to aggravate a number of developers.
“I see enough cynicism & hostility online from “gamers” that I don’t need to get it from professional publications too. You can provide critique like adults w/o dunking on creators,” tweeted Nate Najda (known as Shinobi602 on Twitter), Communications Manager at Wushu Studios. Iain Garner, Co-Founder of Neon Doctrine, called the original headline “sickening, joyless, and cynical.” Rami Ismael chimed in with this tweet “I’m all aboard for “critical” and “not cutting commercial game developers slack because they’re businesses in the end” but this headline/social ain’t that.” Business analyst Mike Futter called Kotaku on being “disconnected from the reality of development.” The site’s newly embraced negativist reporting he called “bridge burning.”
Some devs, on the other hand, were actually fine with the original headline. For example, programmer Troy Martin gave the Kotaku writer credit for “opinionated honesty.”
What’s interesting, though, is how the conversation around Kotaku’s “looks like shit” piece quickly escalated to the debate around business across journalism and video games.
“The real issue is that the business model for a ton of media sites like this is basically “More click = More money” and so you get lowest common denominator headlines across the board,” wrote Niko Partners’ Daniel Ahmad.
Musician and producer Roger Sullivan has a different opinion of what the real issue is here. According to him, it is not media’s business models. It’s the free-to-play monetization scheme in mobile games.
“Why is shitting on money grubbing mobile games piggybacked off beloved franchises bad?” Sullivan asked. “Games with those kinds of business models are bad games based on exploitation of their players. Game mechanics are sacrificed in favor of psychological manipulation.”
What I think is a good answer came from Ismael who said that it’s one thing to criticise a business model and another to be mean to developers. While they definitely didn’t come up with the free-to-play business model, here’s what they did do: “A 3D model they carefully crafted to look good while using minimal polygons. Painfully optimized lines of code to get the AI to respond in a fun way. Shifting a weapon rate of fire by 2% for a more tense balance. Adjusting the bass on the SFX so you can feel it.”
And even more exhaustive answer came from game designer Damion Schubert. “Kotaku doesn’t seem to know much about the mobile gaming industry,” Schubert wrote. “[Actually,] the ENTIRE gaming press treats mobile gaming like a black sheep. It is surprisingly hard to find quality mobile-oriented writing outside of Deconstructor of Fun and a couple other niche sites.”
In an attempt to fill a “huge hole” in the gaming press’ knowledge base, Schubert went on to explain what soft launch is exactly. “We have no idea how close or far any mobile game is from launch if it’s just soft launched in a few territories. This could mean it’s going to be launched in the US tomorrow. Or this could mean the game is practically at alpha.”
Here’s Schubert’s take on the genre of XCOM Legends: “This game is a genre commonly referred to as a ‘turn-based hero battler’. Some of the most popular midcore mobile games are in this space, most notably Marvel Strike Force and Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes. Here’s the thing: none of these games have much in the way of positional placement, taking cover, etc. Because that’s super hard to do on the phone, and most people don’t want that experience on their phone.”
Finally, Schubert responded to Kotaku’s writer on why use the XCOM license in a mobile game that is not a tactical turn-based shooter: “It’s because the cost to acquiring users has skyrocketed in recent years. It now costs more than $10 in advertising to acquire a user for a turn-based battler. This makes it hellishly expensive to build a brand new IP, but if you have an IP that is well known and liked, esp. with older gamers with disposable income but less gaming time than they used to have, you can effectively acquire those players at a discount rate.”
So, it could have been just a story about a toxic / “honestly opinionated” reporter and the industry lashing back with a vengeance…
But maybe we’ve all learned something today. Kotaku has. They’ve learned to change the headline. Even if the site’s Editor-in-Chief Patricia Hernandez denies “the narrative Kotaku somehow doesn’t know mobile games.” Even if she keeps insisting that all devs offended by the original article’s attitude are batting “for the wrong thing.”