A View from Atlas Park: Eyes Fixed On A Shiny Future

The computer games industry is almost entirely built on expectations of the Next Big Thing (or NBT for short). All the marketing and PR side of computer games focuses on building hype around an unreleased game, telling you how it will change your life as a player due to [insert hyperbole here]. Once a game is out, well, that’s it – it is left to survive as best it can on the shelf. In my experience as player and games buyer, most new games have about 30 days of being considered hot before something else attracts attention away from it. In the case of releases in peak periods (eg Christmas) this hot period can be just a few days.

At this point in time, the computer games industry is about to see the launch of three of the biggest NBT’s of all time. All of them are sequels / franchise titles. Halo 2, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Half-Life 2 are set to launch in the next few weeks (GTA: SA is out now, I think) amid an absolute storm of hype and anticipation. Every one of these games have been the subject of numerous interviews, articles, profiles and forum rants, often based on the flimsiest of materials (eg how much can you really tell about a game from a screenshot?). Huge numbers of gamers are waiting with baited breath to get their hands on one (or all) of these titles.

And the sad thing is that about a week after release, these NBT’s will be old news. The reviews will be out, people will know how they play and accusations will be flying around about what these games didn’t have. I’m willing to bet (no, not money) that at least two of these three titles will generally be condemned as “not as good as the original”. Expect to see forums filled with people who have spent six months saying how kewl Game X would be start spinning posts full of badly spelt vitriol because Game X didn’t meet their lofty expectations.

This is the nature of the beast. When an entire industry is built on hyping expectations up as high as they will go so that games will fly off the shelf on launch day before anyone knows better, raging and noisy disappointment has to be expected.

It is also gamer culture. We love to hype things up and to tear them down. In many ways we have become the Comic Book Guy, willing to yell “Worst Game Evar!!!” at the slightest perceived failing(s) of a game.

MMOGs are perhaps even more vulnerable to this than “regular” games. A mmog is expected to create a community and exist for years, yet they exist in a market where most games are only hot for a month. They are expected to provide a player with a unique social gaming experience and often promise a lot of features that might not make it into release – two aspects that are bound to disappoint some (if not a lot of) people.

Firstly, the social gaming side – it means relying on both other people and technology, neither of which are reliable. Technology fails and people can act like, well, people. Secondly, the promised features are often expected to come in at some point but don’t due to a number of reasons (which players are rarely told) leaving players feeling like they were lied to. Both these problems are great for feeding player dissatisfaction and their exit from a mmog.

MMOGs also rely on the NBT to keep players involved. World of Warcraft and Everquest 2 are both getting a lot of attention now that players are actually “testing” these games before release. Most of the press-managed reviews that are floating about are fairly glowing and rely on three little words (ie “still in beta”) to deflect any criticism that exist. And they are a franchise title and a sequel, respectively.

CoH has City of Villains as its NBT, with its announcement just prior to the release of COH being a stroke of absolute genius. By announcing CoV for release at some point in the future, Cryptic managed to remove the biggest criticism of CoH – that it had no player versus player content (pvp) – and simultaneously gave players something else to hang their expectations on. Let’s face it: there is very little information about CoV’s pvp set-up other than vagaries that “you don’t have to if you don’t want to”. This hasn’t stopped a lot of people (myself included) looking forward to the promise that CoV holds.

Oh, and CoV might not be a sequel, but is definitely a franchise title. Spot an industry trend, anyone?

All up, this reliance on hype and expectation probably isn’t good for the computer games industry. The simplistic answer is say that game devs should release better games and not hype them, but good games don’t necessarily sell and few studios can afford to have even two or three titles not recoup their costs plus a bit of profit in any year. It would also be nice if players could tone down their expectations a bit, but that probably won’t happen in a year where blood will be spilt to get that last Collector’s Edition Halo 2 box off the shelf.

The computer games industry is still young. Hopefully it will learn not to rely so heavily on the NBT, because if you keep raising peoples’ expectations and not delivering, you are going to find one day that no-one cares anymore what you have to say.

With the release of more information, it does look like the Fifth Column (5C) are increasingly likely to be replaced in CoH with something else. This Paragon Times article has led to a lot of comment that Nemesis, leader of the 5C, is actually a Nictus. The CoH Newsletter indicates that a Halloween event where I’d expect that the Nictus will reveal themselves, the 5C will splinter into separate groups and the lead up will begin for the release of the Kheldians as the first epic archetype.

So, the rumour appears correct, but the reasons I mentioned that may have been behind it haven’t been confirmed. Still, it will be interesting to see what happens on Halloween and what the fallout is for the heroes of Paragon City.

– UnSub [email protected] October 26 2004

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