Gully Bell and the Infinite Foolishness: On Video Game Hype

There goes my attempt at playing with the title of that Smashing Pumpkins album. This isn’t about somber moods though, but more on a mix of grief and consternation that comes with the release of a Triple-A game, especially one that has so much hype behind it. It gets so much praise and wanton desire even before it’s released, but then becomes a letdown once it’s out and people start acting as if family members died. It’s a puzzling bit of human behavior in regards to consumerism.

Some blame the publisher’s marketing department for promising so much, while others blame the developers for not fulfilling those promises. Then there are those who lay blame on the consumers themselves who had built themselves up so much, only to be let down later on.

I wish to attempt at analyzing it from my own perspective and give my two cents on video game marketing and prerelease hype. There will also be future posts on related topics like early access games and pre-ordering.

Watch Dogs

Watch this video and see if you’d still want to play the game afterwards.

That’s not including the ludonarrative dissonance (fuck, that term again) that seems to be everywhere in this game. I’ll write more about ludonarrative dissonance, examples of it, and my thoughts on the phenomenon in a follow-up article.

Suffice to say that while the game is still fun for the most part, the hype that Watch Dogs created and the disappointment it propagated upon its release is what I want to talk about here.

I wanted to like this game so bad, and it wasn’t just because of the hype.

Hype and Triple-A Games

The Internet is always inundated by the promise of gameplay nirvana to be released 6 months to 2 years from current time. Games like Grand Theft Auto V and even the first Assassin’s Creed had such extensive marketing campaigns prior to their releases, and it did well to sell them. GTA5 became the best selling entertainment product in history (I myself bought it at full price) and Assassin’s Creed became Ubisoft’s top franchises. Building up hype isn’t merely optional for big companies, but mandatory in order to profit from a project.

There are other excellent games from major companies that did not get as much marketing dollars and suffered in sales as a result. A good example is Sleeping Dogs, which is also an open world game like Watch Dogs and GTA5, and it’s perhaps one of the most underrated titles in the genre. (It’s mind-boggling to see just how few people there are who don’t appreciate or even know this game.)

thumbnail_sleeping-dogsHowever, it didn’t get as much marketing before its release on August 2012, it coincided with Ubisoft’s release of Watch Dogs teaser trailers (which made Sleeping Dogs look like a prequel of sorts, as ridiculous as that sounds). It also went up against FarCry 3, which turned out to be one of the biggest hits of 2012 and also happened to be an open world game.

Sleeping Dogs’ publisher Square Enix had declared at around March 2013 that the game, along with Tomb Raider (which did get a lot of pre-release marketing) and Hitman: Absolution (which suffered the same fate as Resident Evil 6 in the hands of Capcom), failed to meet their commercial expectations. That’s not exactly a good thing for a company to say, especially since they’re supposed to be boosting investor confidence.

Tomb Raider sold 3.4 million copies within its first few weeks, and they still call it a commercial failure. That seems more like a public relations faux pas, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that saw a drop in their stock prices after that.

Maybe it did, as shown here. They’re doing better now in 2014 though, with that huge spike upwards on January 2014 being due to Dragon Quest Monsters Super Light, a smartphone game. Maybe that’s why Square Enix badmouth their own major releases.

Screenshots and Trailers

The art of trailers and pre-release marketing hype seems to have been perfected, up to (or better than) the standards of the corporate world and Hollywood, so it’s now easier than ever to impress people even before they get to see the finish product. (But then again, the art of spin also persists in politics, which is why we keep voting for incompetent fools in the first place who just so happened to have a good public relations team.)

The screenshots and teaser trailers that we see of games that are still under development with tentative release dates are all alpha builds and mock-ups. Anyone can come up with a computer-generated imagery and get the dogs wagging their tails at the treats. There are even cases of reading too much into those trailers and making themselves even more hype.

Let’s take a recent example of this in the new Mortal Kombat X trailer.

There are various things going on in that trailer (especially that Wiz Khalifa song that does NOT match). Never mind the fact that it’s odd to see a new Mortal Kombat game this quickly after MK9 (but Injustice did essentially kill the MK9 community, and Perfect Legend kept winning everything). UltraChenTV (popular fighting game commentating team) discussed this in their Tuesday show with Mike Ross (pro fighting game player and TwitchTV representative).

Aside from the questionable decision of using that song (which is almost along the lines of giving Snoop Dogg his own stage in Tekken Tag Tournament 2), they hit the nails regarding CG trailers and how they tend to not represent the final releases that well. Always take teaser trailers with a grain of salt and then add some more condiments in it for good measure.

Recently, new screenshots of Dragon Age: Inquisition and a new trailer for Witcher 3 were released. While the preview screenshots and trailers do look nice, only time can tell if the actual games will live up to their promise. Most of the time, they don’t.

Maybe we can still be optimistic, as long as we don’t set ourselves up to be let down.

The Unhyping

When the game finally comes out, that’s when the cracks on the walls start becoming apparent. Soon enough, those cracks can turn into big holes, and the whole structure may come crumbling down if it weren’t strong in the first place. We’ve just witnessed what happened with Watch Dogs, and there had been many more before it. These titles have left broken promises and desolation in its wake, with such titles like Mass Effect 3, Diablo III, SimCity, and so on, just to name a few.

With Mass Effect 3, it was a flaw in the narrative that hit the nail on its coffin; the omissions of various gameplay elements from Mass Effect 2 (the best in the trilogy) only help to highlight its inferiority to its predecessors. As for SimCity 2013 and Diablo III, they are launch issues related to their always online requirement, which we’re learning now to be something that makes launch day issues to be almost inevitable. Disappointments on launch can come in different forms.

thumbnail_thief-2014The new Thief is another good example of this. It got quite a bit of hype as a reboot of the old stealth game franchise by Looking Glass Studios. But then again, as with most reboots go, many elements were lost in translation and the game ended up being mediocre fare, despite the best intentions.

Being an old Thief: The Dark Project fan, I was already skeptical of the new game’s chances when I first saw the trailer. There are inherent deficiencies in the old games that new players immediately took as weaknesses, mainly the combat system (or lack thereof). The problem was that the Thief franchise was never about combat in the first place; confrontation was to be treated as fatal.

Ignoring what got lost in translation, the other aspects of the game that contributed to the unhyping include the lackluster writing, the limited level design, and so on. They did their best with letting players turn off features like HUD elements and waypoint markers, but it still wasn’t the same. Perhaps most people wouldn’t understand just how bad it really is as I’m speaking of this as a fan of the old games, which were not that popular to begin with.

thumbnail_dmc-devil-may-cryThat’s what happens when an old game gets remade after at least 5 years. You have to market it to an entirely new audience altogether. In this case, this kind of unhyping is what happens when a publisher gets a hold of an old intellectual property and has the developer twist it into their own image, which usually corrupts it altogether. But then again, the resulting disappointment can usually be circumvented with good execution, as was the case with DmC: Devil May Cry by Ninja Theory.

What we saw with Watch Dogs is that of unhyping in a new IP, which was also what the first Assassin’s Creed had suffered when the game also didn’t live up to the hype that the trailers (and Jade Raymond) created. As with any sort of new original title, we have to look past the flash and flair in order to see it for what it really is to us.

Conclusion

It’s inevitable that we encounter things that we get hyped about, despite warnings and logical arguments towards the contrary. I myself am hyped about CD Projekt RED’s upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 as I am a big cyberpunk fan (both the genre and the RPG, as well as Shadowrun). Just look at how good the trailer is.

That’s a CG trailer, just like with Mortal Kombat X. I may be contradicting myself by being hyped about it, but I can’t help it since it’s a game that I’ve always wanted. But if the things I’ve mentioned in this editorial are anything to go by, I may be in for some serious disappointment, even though CD Projekt RED is known for having a good track record.

With that said, I’m ready for whatever may come.

ADDENDUM: You may also read a revised and amended version of this article [here].



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