The Unproductive Visit

“Two?” asked the man, holding a laptop bag at his side. It was a reasonable assumption– floor two of this building was the residential apartments, a logical destination for the awkward-looking twenty-something opposite him. But he wasn’t quite right.

“Uh, three,” I answered. The man raised an eyebrow, leaned forward, and pressed the button for the third floor. As the elevator doors shut, I realized that we had the same destination, and my mind was suddenly full of questions. It seemed likely that his was as well, as he was gently staring at me. But instead, we both simply stood there as the elevator drifted upward, the silence between us thick and heavy. The doors pinged open, and then man stepped out without a word, and marched off to the left. I took a more timid step outside, and peered cautiously into the unknown: the main offices of Volition, Incorporated.

The awkward elevator ride was on par with the rest of the awkwardness that had led to the visit. I’d gotten it into my head that an interview with a member of the team at Volition would be a great way to put myself on the map– write an article with new information, not just parroting what others had already reported. A call had gotten me nowhere; the automated answering service had led me in several delightful mechanical circles before I gave up. No, I thought to myself, I’m not going to get results this way. If I want results, I’m going to have to show up at their doorstep.

There's an independent games store to the bottom right, incidentally.

There’s an independent games store to the bottom right, incidentally.

Luckily for me, this was an option. I live in Champaign, Illinois, which is the home of Volition. I used to walk by the office every day on my way to work. Even back then, I toyed with the idea of dropping by, asking them to autograph my ancient Freespace CD. But now that I actually had a purpose worth pursuing? Hell yes I was going to drop by.

So, after a quick shower and change into a snazzy outfit (at first too snazzy– I nearly went with the three-piece suit before I determined that it would be dramatically overdressing), I hurried through the icy January air to the offices of Volition. Now I was inside, and Christ, it was like doing a math problem in front of the class in grade school. I was sure that everyone knew I didn’t belong there, and that I was going to make an ass of myself.

The lobby was blissfully empty, save for the receptionist typing away behind her desk. I gazed about the lobby, and my nerves were momentarily forgotten as I spotted the memorabilia decorating the walls: a picture of the mission control officer from Freespace, the iconic sledgehammer from Red Faction Guerrilla, and of course plenty of Saint’s Row artwork. After taking in the sights, though, my uncertainty returned with a vengeance as I stepped up to the desk.

That guy isn't me, for the record.

That guy isn’t me, for the record.

The conversation with the receptionist was brief, uneventful. I introduced myself as a local amateur journalist hoping to write a story about Volition, and she made a phone call. Then she politely informed me that all requests had to be made through THQ CEO Jason Rubin, and printed me out some contact information. I was grateful to her for being helpful, but inside, my heart sank. I knew then that it wasn’t going to happen. If I was there, in person, talking to someone, I could get results. But just sending an email, I looked like some kid playing reporter. Maybe I was.

When I got home, I immediately drafted up a formal request to send to Jason Rubin, explaining the situation, and my desire to write about a local studio that was near and dear to my heart. The answer was a swift, and very polite “no.” The answer didn’t surprise me. I knew it was coming as soon as I heard I would have to run my request by corporate. I don’t think that it was a bad call on their part. This is how the industry has worked for years– information is distributed to the press at the publisher’s convenience. Certainly, they have no obligation to let in anyone they don’t want to. They create incredible things, and what more can we ask of them, really?

But I wonder if maybe it would be better if it was different. Denizens of the internet vent their rage on forums and message boards, calling publishers thieves, calling developers greedy, calling artists lazy. DLC is a carefully crafted attempt to screw the consumer, a late patch is inattentiveness and malaise, an annual sequel is exploitation of the most heinous degree. To gamers, the ones who make the games they love so much are shadowy, nebulous things– intangible, barely real. We see their press releases, we hear their canned interviews, but they often don’t feel like actual people. And when they don’t seem concrete, it’s too easy to assume the worst of them.

The game that started my Volition fandom.

The game that started my Volition fandom.

Kickstarter has been a good example of how openness can make all the difference. Many of the projects Kickstarted have been kept in far closer contact with their fans than the typical studio, and it has paid dividends. When Tim Schafer wanted to make a new adventure game, he couldn’t convince the world that there was a market, but when he went straight to his fans and opened up to them, they responded in unprecedented force. And Mr. Schafer’s Double Fine is just one of the many game developers that traded closed doors for wide open ones, and found that to be their salvation. People are more patient, more understanding, and more sympathetic if they see a face and hear a voice, than if they read a calm press release.

You don’t have to be a crowdfunded project for open communication to make sense, either. When three Canadians rode down from Vancouver to camp out in front of Valve’s headquarters in Bellevue, Washington to demand a sequel to Half-Life 2 Episode 2, Valve did not simply watch from their windows. Instead, founder Gabe Newell came down himself to talk with them, give them a tour of the studio, and provide them with lunch. The protesters had nothing but nice things to say about the experience afterward, generating goodwill as the story spread across the internet. Had my similar (but less epic, certainly) trip to Volition been anywhere near as warm and receptive, I would be a very satisfied customer myself.

To see the damage that a lack of communication can inflict, one only has to look to the headlines of any gaming news site. When SEGA and Gearbox shipped the much-anticipated Aliens: Colonial Marines, the expectation among the fans was an engaging love letter to the Aliens franchise. When the product they received was quite different from what they were hoping for, they turned to the creators with two words: “What happened?” And while the truth of the matter is no doubt ugly, it can’t be half as ugly as the rumors and speculation that ran rampant in the face of Gearbox’s tight-lipped silence. In refusing to answer, they let imaginations run wild, and tempers went with them.

There are cons to this, of course. An open dialogue is a two-way street– listening as well as talking is required. And keeping the public informed is a lot of work– at times, a full time job. I’m sure there are those for whom it would do more harm than good. But for an industry so tight-lipped, it’s worth taking a moment to think about what a little more openness can get you.