The Assassination of Redfall by the Coward Phil Spencer
How to Neg A Regulator in Three Simple Steps.
I used to make a habit out of “reviewing” games I hadn’t played. Whenever a contentious flop like The Witness, Anthem or We Happy Few released, there would be my little “review” essay, broadly summarising the discourse surrounding a game in the most pretentious fashion possible and seeing whether anyone outside my circle of friends who were in on the joke would ever pick up that I was taking the piss out of the burgeoning industry of video essayist sophistry and Takes About Takes About Takes.
I stopped around 2018, largely because nobody ever did notice that I was making fun of them, and the problem of media criticism built solely on deriding notorious flops for hours to an audience of rubberneckers just looking to rinse a few more hours of enjoyment out of seeing the current object of ridicule get roasted one more time only seemed to be getting worse.
That criticism took an uglier face, too. Which is surprising, given that most of the ‘enthusiast gamer criticism’ publications I was making fun of were born out of that Ethics-In-Games-Journalism milieu of the early 2010s, but the YouTube algorithm began to boost longer-form content and prioritised the kind of low-effort/high-outrage content that led to the flood of ten hour videos asking ‘Is Rey a Mary Sue?’ to an audience of cretins and shitheads who clicked on the video expecting to have their biases that feminists were stealing their toys reinforced by another dork with a Blue Yeti and no pop filter.
It just wasn’t fun any more.
Every so often a big contentious flop of a game would make the news and I would see the usual flood of relentlessly poor criticism make the rounds and get the itch to venture down to my John Wick basement and, like a deep-fried Looney Tunes meme, Go Back To The Old Me. Fallout 76 was a close call, averted only because I actually played that game and found that the labour issues and rural Americana of West Virginia suited the strengths of Bethesda Fallout far better than the colonial homesteader fantasies of Fallout 4 ever did. Cyberpunk 2077 was narrowly averted because I was too busy putting together a Descent into Avernus campaign for my friends during lockdown to really care about the discourse until Tim Rogers started making twelve hour-long Choose Your Own Adventure videos about it.
The latest one was Redfall, a completely expected disaster that emerged as a consequence of the Bethesda-Microsoft merger when one or both of those corporate entities made Arkane, a studio known for its intricately designed single-player games like Dishonored and Prey, go off-model and work on an open world co-op shooter in the vein of Left 4 Dead and Far Cry 2.
Apparently. I haven’t played it, because I barely have time to play games that aren’t city builders and sports management sims, but the discourse sure seems to agree that it’s a buggy mess of a game that displays a disappointing lack of creativity that can’t easily be fixed post-launch with bugfixes and additional content.
I doubt I’m the only one who knew this game would be contentious from the start, when its belaboured announcement ended months of speculation that the title ‘Redfall’ was trademarked as part of a rejected pitch for an Elder Scrolls sequel and handed to Arkane Austin to do anything they could with this cool name they had the trademark for. (it wouldn’t be the first or second time an Arkane project was greenlit because ZeniMax had the trademark lying around). Worse, as a live service co-op shooter at a time when it was at peak trend for publishers to announce those, the game seemed like the obvious culmination of ‘please-make-us-money-for-once’ mandates from ZeniMax executives precipitated by Arkane’s role as a hired gun developer on quick cash-in co-op shooter titles like Wolfenstein: Youngblood.
From there, messy marketing explained very little about the game’s setting or gameplay. Nobody knew what this game was about, least of all the press, who struggled to find an adequate point of comparison. Was it Left 4 Dead with vampires? That alone drew unfortunate comparisons to previous failed attempts to emulate L4D like Evolve and Back 4 Blood.
Was it an ImSim? Kind of. Maybe. In that nebulous way marketing executives use when they’re trying to describe a game they know will be contentious without alienating their old fans.
Then came delays, and outrage over downgrades, and I expected things to coalesce into a very protracted and very stupid discourse between the ‘shorter games with worse graphics made by people paid more to work less and I'm not kidding’ crowd and the people decrying the surface-level technical shortcomings, with nobody ever actually focusing on whether the game was actually any good beyond that.
I was fairly sure, given the propensity for everyone involved to go on unprofessional rants to the media and get fired by their employers, that we would speculate on the development of Redfall for a few months and find out from an interview with Harvey Smith about a year or two from now, after he quits Arkane Austin to either join his fellow Arkane refugees at WolfEye or found his own studio, that Redfall was a complete disaster in all aspects of development that nobody particularly wanted to make. Then, we would all collectively agree to either retroactively appreciate Redfall for what it was in the grander context of Arkane’s catalogue, or to just politely relegate it to a footnote in the developer’s otherwise illustrious history.
This is, I think, the standard path of any prestige game that is destined for ridicule.
Then Phil Spencer said the quiet part out loud on a podcast and everyone lost their minds.
It is, at face value, an absolutely fucking insane interview, released only days after the game had launched before anyone even knew it was a failure yet. I wouldn’t exactly call it a frank interview, because his platitudes were wrapped up in corporate liability double-speak and platitudes, but it was definitely messy-- an elaborate account of the mistakes made during development and that Redfall was a relic of ZeniMax’s institutional rot that began under old management and was not adequately supported by Xbox when they took over stewardship of the project.
I bought into it too, at first, that it was very good and funny for the Head of Xbox to come out on a podcast and prostrate himself before the crowd like he was Robin Thicke dropping Paula for releasing a project that everyone knew stunk and promise that he would do right by his boy Harvey in the future.
I love embarrassed millionaires, it’s sort of a hobby of mine.
But something about the timing, in the broader context of Redfall, felt off. I started seeing every media outlet take Phil Spencer at face value, taking the statements he made on that podcast and feeding them into a broader narrative about how Xbox was losing the console war and that Redfall was a sign that Microsoft no longer had what it took to compete with the 20 million unit-selling blockbusters that Sony produces on a yearly basis.
A week before Phil Spencer started airing corporate dirty laundry on a fan podcast to make Xbox seem like an absolute mess who cannot sell or develop a game, the UK’s financial regulator CMA blocked Microsoft’s bid to acquire Activision for almost sixty-nine billion dollars.-
Let’s talk about Game Pass for a bit. The fundamental myth of Xbox Game Pass is that removing the price of entry for niche games will create an environment where studios like Arkane, who make critically beloved but financially unsuccessful games, can create works for their core audience without fear of underwhelming sales souring the perception of their games.
That’s only half true. Five years into the Game Pass experiment, Microsoft’s first-party studios (outside of those that exist solely to perpetuate the existence of a marketable brand, like Turn 10, 343i, or The Coalition) operate on the ‘one for the money men, one for me’ model of Hollywood auteurs in the Christopher Nolan mode. They make one trend-chasing game that will hopefully generate enough income through micro-transactions to fund their more experimental work.
I’ve started calling these games the Game Pass Blood Tithe.
For every Pentiment, a clear passion project from noted bicycle enthusiast Josh Sawyer, Obsidian is encouraged to make a Grounded, their ‘Honey I Shrunk The Kids’-esque co-op survival game that presumably makes enough money to fund continued development even as it elicits nothing but confusion from their core audience. Ninja Theory launched the swing-and-a-miss roller derby MOBA Bleeding Edge before announcing a sequel to their critically-acclaimed Pict-with-anxiety simulator Hellblade. Rare was only freed from the Kinect mines to work on games like the beautiful but perennially-delayed Everwild when they proved they could make Game Pass money through Sea of Thieves.
Redfall is exactly the type of game that a studio like Arkane makes to fulfil the Game Pass Blood Tithe. A largely passionless but functional product that garners middling critical reception but offers enough similarity to their previous work to retain at least some part of their core audience while also drawing in new fans who just want a co-op shooter to play with their friends.
Through frequent Microsoft Store sales and free weekends, the game could create enough of an audience that it never appears barren and generate enough of a profit from in-game cosmetics that Arkane could continue to work on games like Prey and Deathloop without fear of further reprisals from their corporate overlords.
Redfall might still do that; it’s too soon to tell if the game will garner an audience or receive long-term support. But the conversation around the game will now forever be tarnished by that single interview, offering up the game as the sacrificial lamb as Xbox begins the second phase of their propaganda campaign to get their corporate merger approved, attempting to shift public perception from them as magnanimous future overlords delivering their assurances that Call of Duty would stay on competing consoles to that of a put-upon faltering software company who desperately needs Activision to compete with Sony.
Because, with regulators stepping in to block their corporate mergers, it benefits Microsoft to look like a failure right now.