I’m the kind of gamer who gets sucked into the ideas of what a game could be. Too often, though, I’ve found myself disappointed in what actually gets put into the disk drive. I’m partially to blame, of course. I’ve allowed marketing language, carefully crafted screenshots and fancy cinematic trailers to cloud my vision. I’m trying to be better about that; to cut through the fanciful promises and get a feel for what the final product will really look like.
I’ve been a good boy. I’ve let others cover Diablo III not because I was disinterested, but because I knew that if I allowed myself to learn one thing, I would want to know all the things. Hello, my name is Mike and I’m a hype addict, but I’m in recovery.
I finally cracked this weekend, bathing in the flood of information that will bubble inside me for the next week. I’ve picked my starting class, immersed myself in Flint Dille’s wonderful Book of Cain and made sure that my Battle.net Authenticator is linked to my phone. I’m confident that after watching the user-generated videos on YouTube, and reading the in-depth material issued by Blizzard that what I’m seeing is close to reality. That’s also because it’s Blizzard. They tend to hold information until they are sure it’s an accurate representation of what players will experience. Their development dictates the release schedule, and not the other way around. They’ve earned their credibility.
If only more developers and publishers followed that path.
Life has been a bit easier in this regard since I became a journalist. I’m fortunate, because I’ve had a lot of opportunities to sample games in advance of their release, and it helps temper enthusiasm with reality. Most gamers aren’t that lucky, though, having to rely on the promises of developers and publishers to determine what a game really will be when it ships. Lately, it seems, the practice of over promising has led to good games receiving significant fan backlash. Quite frankly, it’s about time.
This isn’t a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination. Peter Molyneux has been a perpetrator of the overpromise/underdeliver approach since Fable was announced for the Xbox. I remember hearing about trees that will grow naturally from seeds over time, quests that would be time-limited because of other Heroes in the world, a sidekick feature and an aging process that would feel organic. The hype for the game festered and mutated until its release. To say that Fable was a bad game would be an egregious lie. It was quite enjoyable and innovated in some ways, but the lingering thoughts in so many gamers’ minds about missing features tarnished the experience. That kind of thing, especially after becoming a pattern with Fable II and Fable III, leads to resentment. It doesn’t help people on either side of the purchase decision.
More recently, EA and BioWare have come under fire from fans over promises made about the Mass Effect series’ epic conclusion. The uproar became so intense that a movement was formed, FTC complaints filed and cupcakes mailed. OK… maybe that last one doesn’t seem like punishment. Still, what was, by most accounts, considered a good (if not great) game was ruined for so many because of what it was promised to be. Had EA and BioWare tempered expectations with realistic promotion of the game (even if you consider most of what developers said to be “puffery”), things may have turned out differently. Would people have been disappointed? Very likely. Would they have felt that they were lied to? Probably not. I have to wonder how many angry Mass Effect fans were responsible for EA walking away with the not-so-coveted Consumerist Worst Company in America Award.
This is the difference between excitement and hype. The former is generated through careful distribution of factual information about a game. The details are doled out when they are almost assured of being represented in the final product. Most importantly, excitement benefits everyone. Developers and publishers cultivate an eager player base that is ready to drop their money at the register at day one for this product and the next one.
Hype, though, is the dark side. Often, this results from premature (whether accidental or planned) sharing of information from the design phase of a title. Sure, some of the described features might make it into the finished product in some form, but there’s no guarantee. If the Mass Effect 3 debacle taught us anything, it’s that gamers are ready, willing and able to hold developers and publishers accountable for their promises. No matter what ends up happening with the expanded ending BioWare has planned for Shepard’s story, there are gamers that will never trust them again. The reminder of choices A, B and C will stick with them forever.
I don’t like the hype machine, but I get it. It’s a crowded market, and games cost a tidy sum to make, especially AAA titles. During the holiday season, publishers and developers need to go out of their way to make their games stand out from the pack. Does that make it acceptable, though? Just ask the members of Retake Mass Effect and you’ll have your answer.
As independent games grow as a segment of the market, as more and more choices emerge and as titles become more expensive, cultivating a loyal following will be more important than ever. Publishers and developers need to respect the gaming community. We’re getting older. We’re getting smarter. We’re getting louder.
The companies that view each title as another step in a life-long relationship with consumers are the ones that will survive in perpetuity. Those looking for a quick buck, though, might find themselves with not a tear shed when the doors close permanently.
Michael Futter is the Managing Editor of @RipTen. You can follow him on Twitter @mmmfutter.