Speaking of Firewatch yesterday, this tweet by the amazing Jane Ng went out a few days ago, and I had strong feelings about it. Jane Ng is an artist on Firewatch, which was made by the around 10-person strong San Francisco studio Campo Santo. A few months ago I gave this talk at Develop 2015, which should explain why.

My basic argument is that, unlike traditional wisdom says, actual honesty with your community is important to your community health, humanizes you as a developer and ensures audience expectations of games and game developers remain realistic. Our industry has pampered our users for far too long, while most of them are capable of acting like adults that can deal with a healthy dose of reality.

Those that don’t, don’t have to be part of your community. The transaction of buying a game entitles a player to the game, and not to participation in your community forums or discussions. They’re not entitled to you being nice just because they bought a product. You are not a hostage of the few dollars they spent on your game, ensuring that whatever nonsense they say, you should smile and nod. They spent those dollars on your game, not on you having to ensure they can shout in your forums.

I’ve started calling the traditional notion of community management the “Red Barrel” strategyWe’ve traditionally been taught that every member of the audience is a Red Barrel. If you touch it, it’s liable to explode and destroy you and everything audience Other Barrels around itself, some of which might be other Red Barrels. Any member of the audience can write a scathing review, drum up support on some online forum and cause you some discomfort – the metaphorical Red Barrel.

That traditional view implies we view our audience as things in the world without agency, though – Other Barrels. When you start considering them as player characters with full agency in a multiplayer simulation, the whole situation changes a lot. Now, we’ve got one player with a “Red Barrel” perk that might or might not self-detonate on being touched, and a lot of other players walking around. Just the notion that there might be players that self-detonate will shape every players behaviour, leading to all players having a healthy dose of distance, skepticism and pro-active aggression towards each other.

That’s why I prefer to honestly engage with posts like the one Jane responded to, or, metaphorically, engaging with any “Red Barrel” as soon as I’ve cleared the environment. At worst, you’ll find a Red Barrel, and it’ll detonate. That’ll cause you discomfort, but it’ll also let your community know Red Barrels will be taken care of and that you’ll engage with them as adults with full agency. At best, it turns out the player wasn’t a Red Barrel at all, and was just being conditioned by the potential presence of other Red Barrels. In that case, literally everybody wins.