Video game companies have more to worry about than simply making great games: They have reputations to protect. They have annual budgets to meet and shareholders and executives to please. They have legions of die-hard fans, many of whom have high expectations and unrealistic demands the very best. It's a lot to manage. Too much, in fact. No one company can do it all.
And so, sometimes, your favourite developers, publishers, and retailers do things that are kind of scummy, and then simply do the best that they can to keep you from learning about it. That doesn't always work. No matter how much the game industry might've wanted to keep the following secrets, well, secret, reporters, government agencies, and game-makers themselves brought these fiendish schemes to light. Consider these stories a warning, and keep your eyes open in the future: you never know what the game industry will try to get away with next.
Microsoft vs the Red Ring of Death
The Xbox 360 was a great console. It was also fundamentally broken. The console didn't always work, some said. Sometimes, an Xbox 360 would up and die completely.
The issue became known as the Red Ring of Death in honour of the three red lights that'd appear around your console's power button, letting you know that your Xbox had shuffled off the mortal coil. If you had an original Xbox 360, it probably happened to you, or at least someone you know. Third-party estimates say that the Red Ring of Death hit 54.2% of all Xbox 360 owners, which was caused by overheating brought on by the Xbox 360's stylish but ultimately ill-advised design.
Here's the thing, though: as reports of dying consoles began to flood the internet, Microsoft denied that anything was wrong. Early on, the house that Bill Gates built contended that the Xbox 360 failure rate was somewhere between 3% and 5% — in other words, industry standard. A year and a half later, the company refused to comment on the issue. Microsoft eventually changed its tune and instituted a warranty-extension that cost a staggering one billion dollars, while 2010's Xbox 360 Slim put the Red Ring of Death to bed permanently. But the company still hasn't released official statistics on how many Xbox 360s failed. At this point, it likely never will.
The best reviews that money can buy
According to market research firm Superdata, online videos about games are a $3.8 billion industry that reaches over 468 million people annually. That's a lot of people, and some game companies will do anything to get their attention — including paying for positive coverage.
Now, there's nothing wrong with the sponsored content, assuming its marked as such. Not letting your audience know that you've received money to promote a product, however, isn't just unethical: according to the Federal Trade Commission, it's illegal. That's why fans got in such a tizzy when they learned that Machinima, a popular gaming media company, gave creators bonuses if they posted positive videos about the then-upcoming Xbox One. Microsoft, of course, claims that it wasn't aware of the specifics of what Machinima was doing, and promptly terminated the relationship.
Warner Bros., on the other hand, doesn't have the same excuse. In 2016, the FTC revealed that Warner Bros. had shelled out thousands of dollars to video creators, including big names like PewDiePie, to promote Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Some, including PewDiePie, added a disclaimer to their videos. Many did not. That's not fair to viewers, who often take YouTubers at their word, so it's a good thing that the FTC said something. We just hope that publishers have learned their lesson.
Game development's human cost
Despite what you might've heard, making video games isn't a glamorous job. Game developers work hard to deliver functional, fun games by the pre-appointed release dates. That's not easy, and it's no wonder that talented people are leaving the industry in droves.
And yet, even in an industry as taxing as gaming, "crunch" is a special kind of hell. As games near their release dates, it's standard practice for studios to go into overdrive, forcing employees to work inordinately long hours to see their titles reach completion. We're talking 80-hour work weeks. Typically, developers aren't paid overtime for the extra work. Crunch can ruin people's health and decimate their relationships, and when it's all done, many employees are rewarded with layoffs. It sucks, it drives good people away, and it may not even help the games all that much. When you're that tired, you tend to make lots of mistakes.
All that, and we probably wouldn't even know just how bad it'd be if one developer's pissed-off wife hadn't come forward. In 2004, a LiveJournal post by "ea_spouse" shed new light on the video game industry's abusive tendencies and brought the rigours of crunch into the open. A decade and a half later, things are getting better, but there's still a long, long way to go.