Most people have opinions about things. Many of them have also been known to share those opinions, be they positive or negative, particularly regarding whatever popular (or unpopular, as the case may be) work of fiction they have recently consumed. Living in the golden age of the internet and 24/7 unrestrained global communication, as we do now, it has become easier than ever before to broadcast and discuss our feelings, opinions, and thoughts on even the most seemingly insignificant aspects of a work to the rest of the world, and to engage in vigorous debates on a broad array of subjects with like- and unlike-minded individuals. This site itself is proof enough of that.
But before we continue with this line of thought, it must be noted that there is much worthy of praise in this phenomenon.
It serves as an effective bar raiser for the realm of entertainment as a whole: access to the internet has raised our expectations considerably with regard to technical and scientific plausibility (if not accuracy) in our fiction, among other things, and tired cliches are identified for what they are, labeled, categorized, pedantically indexed, and ultimately retired in an endless cycle of conceptual reinvention to keep things fresh and relevant for each new generation, until they’re eventually resurrected decades later in homage to and remakes of works of bygone times.
More objectionable elements and works can find themselves subjected to scrutiny that they might have previously escaped, and can draw the widespread outcry and condemnation that they deserve.
When one person’s observation can enlighten thousands in a matter of minutes, however, there is no aspect of a work that is not potentially fertile ground for discussion. Characterization, plot holes, pacing, plot twists, cinematography, and gameplay will all be thoroughly dissected within mere hours of a work’s release (if not before it), and a consensus judgment passed upon its ultimate worth within days.
There’s nothing theoretically wrong with this process. The audience is best-positioned to evaluate the finished state of a work: the nature of the creative process means that what producers and publishers see during development is very often a vastly different creature from what finally makes its way to shelves for public consumption. Keen-eyed readers and experimental players can swiftly pluck out minute flaws and errors that went overlooked for months precisely because they had no hand in their creation and no blind spots born of multiple drafts or versions of a work floating around in their heads.
Where the ideal can, and often does, falter is in its execution. Fan reactions are commonly heated, passionate affairs that make political debates look like bastions of civility and compassion by comparison, dominated by knee-jerk reactions and seething personal attacks directed at those they perceive as having wronged them. The human desire to find someone to whom they can attach blame is a strong one: it is unfortunate that, in many cases, due to the strength of their feelings outweighing their knowledge of the creative process, their target is the wrong one.
Careers have been ended and death threats made over something so simple as a single statement taken out of context. Even when their target is arguably the “right” one, the results are little better: within our own franchise, the fallout of Karen Traviss’ clashes with the fandom is well-known. Is it any wonder that so many authors maintain policies of not reading reviews of their own works or engaging with their readers, when this is what the outcome looks like?
In other cases, fan outrage has been so great that a completed, released work had to be revised in order to better satisfy their expectations. The now-infamous conclusion of Mass Effect 3 prompted the release of a free expanded ending, while a similar incident occurred with one of the trilogy’s tie-in novels, which had to be partially rewritten due to a number of inaccuracies and inconsistencies with pre-established lore that were noted by readers. More recently, outrage and negative reviews over the bug-plagued release of Assassin’s Creed: Unity prompted its publisher, Ubisoft, to offer another new, entirely free game of players’ choice to anyone who had purchased their “season pass” subscription to upcoming downloadable content as an apology (or perhaps “ritual sacrifice” might be a more appropriate description).
Even during the development process itself, more than a few leaked scripts have been known to undergo radical rewrites after widespread negative reception (or simply after being leaked). While such cases may genuinely result in a greater degree of fan satisfaction, they likely do little to engender warm feelings in the hearts of creators toward a mob with pitchforks and torches perpetually at the ready. We’re not content with simply being dissatisfied or disappointed with our purchases: now we demand compensation for our perceived losses, and the heads of our enemies offered up on a silver platter.
Nowhere do the lines between fan and creator blur more than crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, which has drawn much attention in the past few years for succeeding where a thousand petitions before it failed, as video game developers have come to use it as a springboard for projects that would never have seen the light of day under a major publisher.
Instead of merely paying for a copy of a completed product, fans of a game donate their own money to fund its development and are often permitted to offer input on the process, along with a host of other bonuses and incentives designed to persuade supporters to dig deep into their wallets. Of course, with this unprecedented level of fan involvement comes the problem of what happens when a project fails to meet the expectations of its backers, or worse, fails to see completion entirely, especially since Kickstarter stated that backers can pursue legal action against developers if certain conditions are not met.
Kickstarter likely represents the closest we’ll ever come to equal partnership between fan and creator, but it also illustrates many of the difficulties that come with such fan entanglements. They’re not a monolithic hive mind, but a vast and formless eldritch entity made up of a thousand different (and frequently clashing) ideals, with a sense of ownership and investment due to past purchases (that is most certainly not shared by the owners of most franchises – who have actual shareholders they’re expected to please), a feeling that their opinions and desires should always be of paramount importance, and a frequent disregard for some of the more practical realities of the development and publishing processes.
It’s simply not possible to please everyone: at least some of your fans are always going to be alienated by anything you do, and the nature of fandom means that the risk of things getting out of hand always lurks in the background.
But if Kickstarter is where fan and developer are almost as one, then the traditional publishing model still used by the majority of the entertainment world represents the opposite extreme. Very often, the people who make the decisions that offend fans the most aren’t even known to them, and the creators and authors we’re familiar with are the fraying rope caught in the middle of an endless game of tug-of-war between two unpleasable masters.
Oversight gives them ever-shortening deadlines, tightens their budgets, demands sweeping changes based on its own ideas, and cares first and foremost whether or not the work will be as profitable as projected, for even an ultimately profitable creation can be deemed a failure if it doesn’t turn out to be sufficiently profitable.
The most meaningful feedback they can receive comes not from us, but from alpha and beta testers and editors, who can offer productive and constructive feedback at key points in the development process while there’s still time for something to be done about an issue. None of these things are relevant to fans. They deal only in finished projects, and whether or not their expectations are met and their desires satisfied.
To illustrate the difference in perspectives, one need only look at any series, be it film, game, comic, or novel, that was beloved by fans but discontinued due to lack of sales. Or the reverse: a series, poorly reviewed, that has its existence prolonged for as long as it continues to return profits. Despite critical and audience reviews that have been, at best, consistently mediocre (when not outright scathing), Michael Bay’s series of Transformers films continues to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars with every new release, with no end in sight.
And, for as long as they continue to do so, production will likely continue with little to no change in the formula, because it’s one that has repeatedly proven profitable, and that’s the one factor that’s always guaranteed to make publishers and studios sit up and pay attention. It’s the same logic that has seen it recently become increasingly common for film adaptations of novels to be split into two parts – two blockbusters are always better than one.
Star Wars fans have enjoyed a position of incomparable prominence in one of the most indulgent major franchises in existence for years, greatly aided by the fact that there existed so few new major releases with widespread appeal to attract new readers and viewers who might displace us in executives’ affections. Our whims were catered to, and we enjoyed an unprecedented level of access to A-list content creators. It’s important to recognize that with the Sequel Trilogy on the horizon, that age is very likely over and done with.
The Expanded Universe that so many were so strongly attached to became more of a liability than an asset, and was swiftly disposed of so that it would not interfere with the release of new products. Major, life-altering events for our main characters have been reclaimed by the big screen, with comics, novels, and games once more relegated to the role of filling in the blanks. While the sudden shift may seem jarring to those of us who became accustomed to the many luxuries we were showered with, all we’re really seeing is a reversion to a more traditional form of fan/creator relationship.
We can shout into the void about it all we like, but there’s no reason to expect anyone to be listening.