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.