According to Gearbox Software's Brian Thomas, cinematic director for Aliens: Colonial Marines, human beings need to be taught the art of being nice to each other. "One of my degrees is in Political Science, and I had a Political Polling professor tell us that his number one rule was that angry people have the easiest time talking to you," he explained to me at a recent preview event, discussing certain tempestuous responses to the game's interpretation of Alien lore. "Because it's a really easy thing to grasp and articulate, usually in a curse towards you. Positivity is a harder thing to grasp, because we're not trained to actively go to another person and say something positive to them unprompted."
If you're wondering why a man whose day job involves showcasing the destruction of extra-terrestrial monsters requires a background in political science, this kind of insight is now an important, even vital component of the developer skillset. Over the past decade, industry figures from every rung on the ladder - level designers, producers, testers, even CEOs - have been drawn into a continual, all-pervading conversation with their fans, thanks to the unprecedented degree of contact offered by social media, tablets and smartphones.
It's a conversation that extends far behind the barricades erected by industry PR, who must now monitor LinkedIn CVs, Twitter feeds and the depths of unofficial gaming forums for potential breaches of confidentiality - and sadly, it's a conversation that's often governed by disproportionate rage, by mind-numbing pedantry and by a lingering conviction that creators have the audience's worst interests at heart.
Holding the line
Constructive criticism or praise can be tricky to single out, Thomas admits - but then, that perhaps reflects the fact that developers are prone to glass-half-empty thinking themselves. "I think one of the cruel things that I've seen over the last couple of years is that there is a tendency for people to only view fan feedback as negative because that's the most explicit fan feedback they see," he cautions. "Forum posts, comments on threads, Facebook etc. But there's sort of an undercurrent of really positive things that we undervalue or don't see all the time.
"I see the letters and emails people write Gearbox and they're really personal stories like 'hey thanks for this game! I was in the hospital for three weeks and this is the thing that got me through, I really appreciate that'. Or 'hey I was on the forums the other day and I saw people were saying really mean things about you and I just wanted to drop you an email and say things are OK'."
Nonetheless, it's hard not to feel that the "haters" are in the majority - or at least, that they work harder. Rancour is catching, especially now that so much online discourse takes the form of knee-jerk, technologically abbreviated expressions of approval and disapproval - likes, upvotes, downvotes, retweets and shares. The recent 1ReasonWhy Twitter campaign to explore why women are so badly under-represented in gaming is possibly a case in point. As Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett observed, a more constructive way of conducting the same, vital debate might have been to express why women should get into the games industry, too, rather than focussing myopically on what's keeping them away.
Only the best
Some developers feel the belligerence of the gaming community can't be explained by appeal to generalities about human nature. Players have higher standards nowadays, they claim, to the point of unreasonableness. "One of the things I see that's different is that our audience expects perfection," Ubisoft's Jade Raymond told Jonty flatly at E3 last year. "Before, there were only, say, two million people playing games - they were real fans and they were playing every game. They were willing to forgive bugs, and try things that weren't as much fun because they were different. Now, there are 30 million people buying and they only buy the top five. They expect perfection. I think that growing up with everything being so good, so easy to use, there are certain expectations."