Predator and Prey

August 29, 2016 by Tim

Since No Man’s Sky came out, I’ve been thinking about how much damage hype does to the video games we play, and our perception of them. No Man’s Sky is hardly an isolated case, but it’s definitely a good example to use, because by the time it was actually released, nobody was judging the game based on its merits. It was instantly judged opposite this massive phantom that we’d all conjured up as the result of years of imagining what the game was going to be like. We’d all already formed opinions and ideas in our heads regarding what this game was going to allow us to do and experience, to the point where it was impossible for the actual product to not live up to those expectations.

Hype feels like it has become such a bigger part of the games industry now than I remember it as a child, and I feel like maybe that perception is due to a couple of elements. First of all, and I could be wrong here, but I don’t remember games being announced 3-4 years before their planned release date during the N64/PS1 era. Nowadays we’re teased with concepts at such an early stage, and with so little concrete gameplay at that point, that there’s nothing to do but spend the next few years filling in the blanks with our imagination as we wait for this product to actually arrive.

And second may be the speed at which information travels these days. When I learned about Super Mario 64, it was from magazines like EGM, and GamePro. Gaming news and blogs online were not nearly as prevalant or connected as they are now, where we receive information instantly, and often in small little bites because every little tidbit of news gets its own article

Hype has always existed, I certainly remember being hyped for Mario 64. I remember poring over those magazine articles repeatedly, marveling at the realistic “chrome” Mario graphics, and waiting with bated breath to finally play it. But for some reason hype feels more detrimental to the experience now.

Perhaps more and more video games means more and more titles that fail to live up to their promises, or perhaps over-promising and over-hyping has just become necessary to compete for word of mouth and pre-order sales.

Whatever the reason, it’s definitely a problem that originates with the developers. Actually, let me walk that back, because I think maybe in a lot of cases it’s less the developers themselves and more the marketing teams, the corporate teams that have given birth to the “vertical slice” that we’ve become all too familiar with these days, designed to show off a game in its best moment even if that moment is not indicative of the experience.

However while the issue originates with the teams behind the game, I think we as the consumer also bear some responsibility here. I think that often our imaginations, whether intentionally or not, do start filling in some of the missing pieces. No Man’s Sky promised 18 quintillion planets to explore. However I don’t recall them promising that those planets would be filled with NPCs that acted like more than a fancy signpost. I think that, when imagining traveling to and discovering all of these worlds, I also started imagining all of the amazing things I’d find there, none of which were necessarily promised.

Now, you can certainly argue that, in this day and age, it’s natural to assume that a game that aspires to AAA status will reach certain benchmarks. That we should be past the point where NPC’s stand in one place for all of eternity and only exist to interact with you. That, at the very least, they should kind of appear to be going about some sort of life.

So there may be expectations that we place on games regardless of what the developers say or don’t say. But the point I think I’m getting at is that had No Man’s Sky released out of the blue, with no prior word of its development, I think the reception would have been more focused on what is there, rather than what isn’t. Let’s be honest, no matter what, at some point gamers or reviewers would get to a point where they’d say “Ultimately… there’s nooooot a whole lot to do here,” because that’s a problem no matter what.

Though I also think the narrative around the game’s release would have been more focused on “Ok, so here’s a game about flying around and exploring huge planets in a massive galaxy.” In other words, what the game is would have been very clear from the get go, and we’d have had no time to imagine “Well they’ll probably have this and this and this…” What Hello Games achieved with NMS is remarkable. It is, however, not able to match what we built it up to. Instead, it released in the shadow of its own monumental hype, and we all had to scale back our expectations from ‘the game we hoped we were getting’ to ‘the game we got.’

Again, I don’t mean to pick on No Man’s Sky here, because it certainly isn’t the only title to be a victim of its own hype machine. It’s just one of the most recent examples that sprang to mind as I mused on this issue. And issue which, admittedly, I have no solutions to offer for. I don’t know how we can fix it, because promotion is advertising, and those who promise the most amazing features/graphics/innovations get the most digital ink.

I guess if I had to pick something, I’d say that I’d really love to see more games follow Fallout 4’s lead. In June of last year Bethesda officially announced Fallout 4, and it was released in November, four months later. That is practically unheard of these days, but it was such a refreshing change of pace. By the time they decided to show off the game, the years of development had already taken place, so what they were showing, what they were promising, was pretty damned close what we were going to receive at retail.

There was still hype, because it was Fallout; it’s a franchise, and one people love. But it felt to me like excitement built on something concrete, instead of doctored screenshots or amazing concept art or controlled-environment demos.

It would be nice to see more developers strive for that kind of reveal, rather than blowing their load at the mere sight of an E3 banner.

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