With Bated Breath

It all starts so innocently. Just one little tweet.

That tweet begets a website landing page. The website begets rumors and speculation. The rumors and speculation beget more rumors, which culminate in a press release containing precisely zero information. But then, just when all seems lost, a glimmer of hope: some leaked screenshots. Or perhaps "leaked" screenshots. The website updates with a counter. The counter ends in a press event at E3. Finally, an announcement! Logos! Pre-alpha runthroughs! Flashy music! High-profile guest stars! Energy! Free swag! And what we've all been waiting for ... a pre-order link!

The marketing engine begins to gear up in earnest. Banner ads appear in the wild. PR staff are sighted sneaking into Gamestop under cover of night and planting endcaps and shelf-talkers. Print ads and TV spots appear. The rumors and/or speculation reach a fever pitch. Developer interviews are scoured for subtext hidden between the print. Various fora explode with leaked reviews. "It will be great!" "No, it will be terrible, my buddy's cousin's boyfriend who works at Best Buy said so!" "I'm going to call in sick all week to play!"

Finally, Launch Day arrives. Fans line up outside the big box vendor of their choice at midnight waiting to get their hands on that which has been the object of their affection for so many months prior. And then … and then … what?

Never before in our history have video games been anticipated for so long before release. Gamers are led along an incredibly long trail of breadcrumbs, some kind of perverse Grimm fairytale in which it's the witch who lays out the trail to lure unsuspecting victims into her clutches. Although it's certainly good for launch week numbers — upon which the industry relies too heavily — it can have an adverse effect on how we view games.

Many games, perhaps an absolute majority of them, are discussed more before release than they are after, when people have the game in their hands and can make an actual judgement call as to its contents. Some threads on this site have reached more than 500 pages of posts before the game even releases. That is an awful lot of talk before much is truly known.

"Before much is truly known?" you say. "But we have screenshots, developer interviews, Giant Bomb Quicklooks, and even demos!" Yes, we do. We have a cascading series of experiences carefully designed and controlled to create a desire to buy the game. All are hand-picked by marketing teams to show off the very best, the most polished experience. What none of these things are, however, is a game.

It's axiomatic to say that this is a misleading set of data upon which to base a decision. And yet, the desire to drive launch-week numbers is so strong that publishers continually push us all in this direction. I have seen a great many people who have decided to buy a game based on a single interview, or even a single screenshot. And though it's easy to lay it all at the feet of the bean counters, our own human psychology betrays us into falling for it every time.

Call it the Christmas Eve Effect, if you'd like: The anticipation of enjoying the thing is better than the thing itself. After all, when we anticipate enjoyment, our imagination glosses over all the little warts that may be involved. The game of our minds doesn't have pacing issues, faulty mechanics, or that one really annoying voice actor. Every game we dream about is Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way.

The problem is, no game is perfect. The more logical side of our brains clearly knows this, but in the pre-launch fervor the logical side of our brain usually gets tied up and left in the hall closet while the emotional side grabs the keys to papa's liquor cabinet. The party is a great time, and often even lasts through the first hour or two of a game experience, but eventually things reach their inevitable conclusion: emotional hangover. And, to stretch the analogy to its breaking point, the logical side escapes the closet only in time to clean up the vomit.

I've experienced this myself lately with Ni No Kuni. I fell for the hype, hook, line, and sinker. Studio Ghibli! In a game! With Level-5! And super-precious fairy sidekicks! Questing! In the Ghibli universe! WHAAAARGAARBL!

… You get the idea. And, in truth, I have enjoyed my 50-some hours with the game. But, as is usually the case, I forgot to anticipate the warts. Though the visuals are lush and the story charming, the game fails mechanically on many levels. I'm not looking to start an argument about this here, as it's not what the article is about, but you can take it up with me in the thread if you disagree. (You will, naturally, be wrong.)

The point is that after all that anticipation, I'm left with the actual thing. And, even though the actual thing may be not bad — good, even — it can't live up to my expectations of it. And therefore I view it more negatively than if I'd gone into it with no preconceived notions. Would I have liked it more had I not built it up so much in my head? If I'd bought it later (and likely for less money)? Probably.

In fact, nearly all the games that I've found truly amazing lately have been late discoveries, released with little fanfare, and that I've only found years later — whereas nearly every game I've pre-ordered has been disappointing in some way. Okay, you know — just not wow. It's far easier to discover a hidden gem and expose its radiance than it is to live up to the mind's expectations, and yet our beloved industry and our own psyches urge us to do just the opposite.

As games get ever more expensive to produce, it's likely that the pre-release mania only continues to increase. It's easy to get swept up in the tide. But for your own enjoyment and for the long-term health of the industry, it is wise to take a step back, breathe deeply a few times and count to ten before we run screaming out the door in your excitement. Who knows? You may enjoy games more than ever.

Comments

Just like every new crush is perfect until you get to know them as a human. (Then, if you're lucky, they're still perfect, in a beautifully flawed sort of way.)

I've been watching this develop for years now. Even more so with movies: there has long been a trailer-watching culture that I've never understood. (Related: the 'bonus features' culture.)

To me, a game or a movie is in my experience of it, not the anticipation. Why? Because I have enough cash that I don't need to pick and choose just 1 game a year, but I don't have so much cash that I can pre-order a game without knowing if it will suit me. So, I look at reviews. GWJ does an excellent job of pointing out which games might suit me. (I would never have looked at Dark Souls without this site. Thank you guys!)

One of the main bad points this culture causes is that help with a game (hints, tech help, strategies, etc) online is often based on pre-release beta trials. The information is always out-of-date, or assumes a familiarity with the content that a new gamer won't have. Further, both cooperative and competitive games will be immediately dominated by the beta-players, leaving the new players, who stupidly waited until two days after release, feeling like clumsy losers.

Maybe it can all be abolished if everyone does what I do? Wait until the second week to buy? Read reviews before buying? Maybe not. But I sure wish that the pre-releasers would pipe down more.

This article did not live up to the hype in the IRC channel.

In all seriousness however, this is why I try to go on media blackouts for games once I've passed the interest threshold for knowing I'm going to buy it. I generally do so to avoid spoilers, but it also lets me avoid hype.

Good article, and thank you for not writing "baited" breath.

The party is a great time, and often even lasts through the first hour or two of a game experience, but eventually things reach their inevitable conclusion: emotional hangover.

Something interesting I've noticed is that there are many times I reach this point in an overly hyped game, and I'll actually shelve the game for a time. Most of the time it stays shelved long after the post-release hype has died down. Then I'll pick it up again on some weekend when I am bored, and will find that my initial disappointment with the game is gone and then I can just enjoy the game for what it is.

It doesn't necessarily mean I'll be as excited as the hype warranted, but I definitely am not as critical of the game as I was during that initial emotional hangover.

edosan wrote:

Good article, and thank you for not writing "baited" breath.

psoplayer wrote:
edosan wrote:

Good article, and thank you for not writing "baited" breath.

:)

I didn't even have to correct it. It is a good day.

wordsmythe wrote:
psoplayer wrote:
edosan wrote:

Good article, and thank you for not writing "baited" breath.

:)

I didn't even have to correct it. It is a good day.

I don't get no respect around here. No respect.

As I've gotten older. I've moved away from the release cycle entirely. GWJ conference call let's me know when interesting new games come out and I take a mental note. I'll wait for an appealing price-point and then add the game to my pile. The only Game I've bought within a week of release in the last two years is Halo 4. I wanted to play multi-player with old friends, but our schedules didn't mesh and I was left feeling a bit disappointed.

The game I've enjoyed the most in the last year or more is Dark Souls. I was completely unaware of it until Andrich talked it up on the CC and I bought it at $30 a few months later. Slogged my way through the pile until that gem came up and I've been completely enthralled. I had so little hype, and so much discovery. It's a perfect game to me, partly because no pointed out any positives or negatives before I could enjoy the game. I don't miss midnight releases, pre-orders, or discovering the Capcom 'Ultimate' edition 14 months after release.

Minarchist wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
psoplayer wrote:
edosan wrote:

Good article, and thank you for not writing "baited" breath.

:)

I didn't even have to correct it. It is a good day.

I don't get no respect around here. No respect.

Quiet you! Go back in your hole and play Nier again!

Minarchist wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
psoplayer wrote:
edosan wrote:

Good article, and thank you for not writing "baited" breath.

:)

I didn't even have to correct it. It is a good day.

I don't get no respect around here. No respect.

No. I like you.

I might even ... .
IMAGE(http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_jqQkpFziDz8/TH_SANt-vhI/AAAAAAAABgg/p6ZUN3Eyb1E/s1600/likelike.gif)

After a few years in the mid-2000's of going anticipation-crazy for major game releases, it's been beaten out of me for a while now.

Anymore, it's incredibly rare for me to get wrapped up in new-game anticipation more than a week or so out from release.

The benefit of this has been that, more and more frequently again, games are actually living up to (and often exceeding) the pre-release excitement I build up. Ni No Kuni, for example, completely blew away my expectations. I directly attribute this to me really not paying all that much attention to pre-release hype until a few weeks before it came out. And even then, I still mostly avoided detailed previews and such. Hell, I don't think I saw but a single short video preview of the game in all the time before it released.

I've gotten away from buying big name titles on release these days. The only ones I really get at release are titles from smaller developers. Xseed, Atlus, NISa, Aksys, Carpe Fulgur... And occasionally something like Ni No Kuni. Why? Because the smaller developers often don't have many copies in the stores, so there's more of a chance of them selling out and not being reordered.

The rest I can wait on until they're in the $20-40 range...

wordsmythe wrote:

Just like every new crush is perfect until you get to know them as a human. (Then, if you're lucky, they're still perfect, in a beautifully flawed sort of way.)

Skyrim and I have been in a committed relationship for well over a year, celebrating 15 months of unceasing of love and devotion with new editorial content still being published.

(Granted Edge is better than most for breaking out of the preview/review/forget cycle, and regularly revisiting old games.)

Also "shelf-talker" sounds like something from Harry Potter.

We'll be waiting for Rayman Legends some more, it seems.

Gravey wrote:

Also "shelf-talker" sounds like something from Harry Potter.

Yeah, but it's a thing. A thing for brick and mortar stores, though, so I don't have to deal with it.

EDIT: Originally typed "brink" instead of "brick." Letting slip the Freuds, there.

wordsmythe wrote:
Gravey wrote:

Also "shelf-talker" sounds like something from Harry Potter.

Yeah, but it's a thing. A thing for brick and mortar stores, though, so I don't have to deal with it.

Probably most recognizable nowadays in bookstores and wine stores, but still very common everywhere.

Minarchist wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Gravey wrote:

Also "shelf-talker" sounds like something from Harry Potter.

Yeah, but it's a thing. A thing for brick and mortar stores, though, so I don't have to deal with it.

Probably most recognizable nowadays in bookstores and wine stores, but still very common everywhere.

No one has explained what it is yet, so I'm still picturing like the Sorting Hat sitting on a shelf in GameStop, trying to chat up the customers. "Hey, see you're looking at Spec Ops. You like multiplayer in your FPSs? I bet you'd probably like... GRRRRYYYYFINDOOOORRRR. Naw, I'm just kidding, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, pre-order it now."

Spoiler:

I Googled it, I was disappointed.

I also try to go on media blackout, but it is easy for me to get swept into the hype. Also, if the game is getting good initial word of mouth, then that can compound the problem. I have been known to subscribe to threads of games that I am thinking of getting.

Some of the games I've enjoyed most have been ones where others have spat out nothing but anger or disappointment, and then by time I play them I find myself seeing all the good instead. Metroid Other M is my best and most recent example, given how many people all over hated it. I could not resist the charm of a new Metroid game by Team Ninja, though, so I grabbed it and played it.

In fact, I played it to the end, and then I played it a second time immediately after. I saw what everyone was bitching about, but I didn't care because I liked everything else.

I don't pay much attention to hype anymore either, though I'll occasionally watch a trailer or two. But most of the information I gain is at an event like E3, where I categorize games in my brain to look at, or names that get a lot of attention. It is perhaps because I never played System Shock or Thief or Deus Ex that I was able to fall in love with Bioshock and Dishonored so much, and knowing nothing about Nier I was able to be sucked in by the opening movie (y'know, the attention grabbing "Weiss! You dumb ass!" one) and start of the game.

It is no surprise then that some of my favorite games on the SNES came more out of ignorance than anything else. I saw Harvest Moon in an issue of Nintendo Power and decided "Those graphics are nifty, and a farming sim is certainly curious...I'll rent it". Or hearing a friend talk about a moment in Earthbound where a guy says "I'll take away your legs, your arms, your ears" and thinking it sounded bad ass. I knew nothing of either game, yet they became beloved to me.

Yet I have no fear of being disappointed in some games these days, oddly enough. I mean, I'm enjoying Resident Evil 6 right now, and am merely excited at playing Aliens: Colonial Marines. Maybe I'm not looking for the next big thing, but when I play a game that has such moments as, say, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron so I get one of the most memorable final levels that I'll ever play without expecting it, well, that's a bonus.

Maybe the problem is going in with expectations aside from "have fun".

And therefore I view it more negatively than if I'd gone into it with no preconceived notions. Would I have liked it more had I not built it up so much in my head? If I'd bought it later (and likely for less money)? Probably.

But it doesn't matter. You bought the game. Marketing isn't about making you like the game, it's about getting you to buy the game.

I also agree that having no preconceptions makes a huge difference. Look at last year's Dishonored, for instance. I didn't hear about it until a day or two before it came out, and I ended up being completely bowled over by it, blown away as I was when games were new. And I suspect that I will probably not like Bioshock Infinite nearly as well, because I've been anticipating it for so long, even though I'm fairly sure that B:I will be a better game. But there's no way that it will be able to live up to my preconceptions of what it could be. Dishonored has tons of flaws, but I loved it passionately, where I suspect I'll be kind of numb and jaded about Infinite, purely because of the hype and marketing.

That said, I've preordered a Songbird edition. I am spending $150 on that game. (plus a cool statue, of course.) I would never have done that with Dishonored, because I didn't know anything about it. The marketing hadn't reached me, so $50 was about as far as I was willing to go.

So, yes, what you're saying is true, but marketers don't care about that. Their job is to get you to buy. Once you've plunked down your cash, you're someone else's problem.

Malor wrote:
And therefore I view it more negatively than if I'd gone into it with no preconceived notions. Would I have liked it more had I not built it up so much in my head? If I'd bought it later (and likely for less money)? Probably.

But it doesn't matter. You bought the game. Marketing isn't about making you like the game, it's about getting you to buy the game … So, yes, what you're saying is true, but marketers don't care about that. Their job is to get you to buy. Once you've plunked down your cash, you're someone else's problem.

That might be true of bad marketers, but it's not true of good ones. How can it be? Their job is not only to make you buy the current product they're hawking, but also to establish long-term goodwill that will make you more likely to buy any future products. A company that has successfully gotten your buy-in on product A but ensured that you will never buy product B, C, and D is a failing company. You would be hard pressed indeed to find a publisher who preferred a one-off success to a yearly cash-cow like CoD or Assassin's Creed.

EDIT: I should say though, I think you're correct in that my basic premise not really being a marketer's concern. They would be happy if they could find their spot on the excitement/annoyance curve where they got the maximum number of short-term sales for the least number of long-term burnouts, which is a different thing than what I'm proposing above. But then, I'm talking about our mindset as consumers, not the marketer's.

S0LIDARITY wrote:

As I've gotten older. I've moved away from the release cycle entirely. GWJ conference call let's me know when interesting new games come out and I take a mental note. I'll wait for an appealing price-point and then add the game to my pile. The only Game I've bought within a week of release in the last two years is Halo 4. I wanted to play multi-player with old friends, but our schedules didn't mesh and I was left feeling a bit disappointed.

Yeah similar here. If it has multiplayer and I know a lot of people around here are getting it, I might jump in early. Or if it's a limited print run like Xenoblade Chronicles was last summer. But mostly I can wait until stuff is sub-$30 or for Steam sales, even sub-$10.

S0LIDARITY wrote:

The game I've enjoyed the most in the last year or more is Dark Souls. I was completely unaware of it until Andrich talked it up on the CC and I bought it at $30 a few months later. Slogged my way through the pile until that gem came up and I've been completely enthralled. I had so little hype, and so much discovery.

I'm still surprised when I see people say this. Demon's Souls (the predecessor to Dark Souls) was named game of the year or at the very least in the discussion at a lot of major gaming publications when it came out in 2009. It was a game that almost no one was excited about, and had no hype, and probably the best gaming experience I've had in a long time.

I don't do the whole anticipation->realization->deflation cycle when it comes to any form of entertainment. Do I hear about a slated game release and go "I'd like to buy that when it comes out"? Sure.

Do I obsessively trawl through gaming sites looking for the latest information about the latest news about a game in preproduction, watching every leaked youtube video, and speculating on what the game will or won't do this site or on Facebook? No.

I'm sure that there's some entertainment value in being excited about a game, but I rather experience the game, than the marketing foreplay.

Now, I am a marketer, and I think Minarchist is right: my job, and the job of game marketers, is to attract a following, get you to buy things, and keep you buying. So maybe that's why I discount the whole game marketing pre-sale, because I know the tactics, because I've used them myself.

But the proof is, and always is, in the playing, and too many times games have not lived up to expectations, both stated, or imagined, for me to really engage in the cycle anymore.

You can get the reverse effect with preconceptions as well. It took me a while to get around to seeing Prometheus, and the massive wave of disappointed reviews lowered my expectations so much that I quite enjoyed the film despite its flaws.

I have +2 resistance to hype, painstakingly earned after the "Tiberium Sun" incident.