An Essay on Hype
January 12, 2008 by Bill
I see hype in the video game industry as an unnecessary evil. As gaming enters mainstream culture the industry is being swarmed by marketers trying to “help develop an emerging market.”
That is not to say the developers aren’t also to blame. Take Will Wright as an example. We first heard the name Spore in 2005, the earliest reference I found was here followed shortly by the E3 announcement covered here. Will Wright is on a tier with Richard Garriott, Miyamoto-san, Itagaki-san, and possibly John Carmack and Romero who have earned the right to stroke their own egos publicly by being great artists and consistent with high quality games. Yet I still have to question the public’s need to know about a game fully three years before release. Why did we need to see Robin Williams playing an early build of the game? Wouldn’t a playable demo plastered with Wright’s name a few months before release do enough to kindle a fevered pitch for this game?
What about developers who haven’t earned our collective respect? Jade Raymond worked on Sims Online (under Wright I presume) and left EA to work on There, a decidedly non-game Second Life knock off. Despite being virtually unknown we were expected to swallow every word she said about Assassin’s Creed’s (incidentally the hype train for that game started at E3 ’05, two and a half years before the game came out) wonderful story and game play.
I think the fact that we know the phrase “Duke Nukem Forever” speaks a paragraph by itself.
I look at the juxtaposition of the industry and I see a fanatic class of gamers who research their purchases and find a cloud of lies and sales pitches, even from “reliable” sources like industry magazines, and I see an unsustainable casual mass looking at video games to change the way they’re entertained. The casuals will buy re-hashed, buggy games with their favorite movie licenses for a while, and they’ll get burned on the experience and go back to watching movies and television. The more hard core gamers are going to be looking for a change in the paradigm.
I think we’ll get a few converts from Wii and other casual games, but if all sides of the industry continues to poison its own credibility I fear we might be heading for another video game crash – at the very least a recession. Some people may point to the holiday sales figures for PC games and say this is already happening. I’m not saying that. I don’t think this will happen tomorrow, or even any time in this hardware generation. However, if things stay as they are I do believe we will see the industry slow noticeably next generation (even if you subtract the massive growth triggered by the Wii) and it will become a serious issue by the beginning of the following generation.
I believe publishers and developers need to keep their traps shut until the game is ready (or very close to ready) and lead their advertising campaign with a demo. As Valve shows us time and time again, release dates work best when they’re malleable. Don’t make plans to ship for Xmas if your developers aren’t finished with the game in August. If your game isn’t original enough to allow you some freedom with lead times there’s a good chance we’re not interested in playing it.
The press needs to figure out a new business model, essentially. We are in a tough position of reporting on what is essentially a niche/enthusiast market. If you buy an issue of PC Magazine, you can expect to see an ad for Dell, similarly if you buy EGM you know you’ll see an ad from EA. The problem is taking that money makes you immediately suspect, regardless of what dividers you have between editorial and sales. If the Gertsmann scandal proved anything it would be that consumers believe there are shady dealings in the review sector.
Finally the fan’s need to stop buying into the garbage being pushed on them. We’re all guilty of being emotionally invested in the idea of a game. I still get hopeful and nervous when I hear a new Sonic game is coming out. But do I need to know every detail about a game before it comes out? Aren’t some things best left to be discovered through the course of the game? Maybe we should let reviews do their jobs and more importantly let the games speak for themselves.