Publishers will do anything, including annoying people with endless countdown clocks, to hype a title's announcement. But does all this effort actually make any difference?
Announcing games these days seems to be like watching an episode of 24, full of cloak-and-dagger secrecy and relentlessly ticking clocks.
As E3 time comes and goes again, and months of rumor building give way to the inevitable hollow disappointment, we all remember why this method of doing things was abandoned in the first place. Try to announce a new title that isn't Legend of Metal Gear Halo during the three days of the show and your game will be lost, shown on the front page of the major websites for about 15 minutes before being pushed off again in favor of an update from the Twitter account of some developer you have never heard of, who thinks that there are too many homeless people in downtown LA.
Conscious of this, publishers announced a flurry of titles in the days before the show kicked off - NIER, Trauma Team, the latest episode of GTAIV DLC, Sonic All-Star Racing. Timed "leaks" and Twitter rumors mix with genuine screw-ups like that of the PSP Go, in a desperate attempt to extend a game's time in the news cycle - the spotlight of blogs and website coverage that is, apparently, crucial to a title's success. The result - the most torturous, needlessly-dragged out E3 in memory - and I write this before it even begins.
And torturous would be a good way to describe the most egregious example of news cycle hogging that has been Kojima Production's never-ending sequence of countdown clocks to announce their latest title - a sequence that hopefully is now over, as I write this just before Microsoft's conference kicks off.
I am not a fan of the Metal Gear series, so it was easy for me to be amused, and there was a delicious irony in watching gaming blogs and commenters deriding the drawn-out countdown clock tease, while simultaneously doing exactly what it was designed to do - get people talking about the games without even having to give any information away.
Hell, here I am right now, talking about a game I don't even care about. For the mere price of a little flash design and server costs, Konami have had the whole Internet talking about Metal Gear Solid 5, or whatever it actually ended up being, for the better part of two weeks. All this without revealing any more about the game than they would have at a standard unveiling. You can buy that kind of publicity - but it usually doesn't come anywhere as cheap as this.
Having said that, I think we'll all be happier if publishers could put away the countdown clock strategy for a little while. I'd even take teasers over Twitter ahead of it for a while. This year alone we've had countdown clocks for Final Fantasy XIII, From Software's PSP ports, End of Eternity, Prototype, Marvel Vs Capcom 2 and about 15 different games from Sega, all of which I have forgotten. There's an ad on Kotaku right now for an "Exclusive Gamestop Villain Map Reveal" for Batman: Arkham Asylum that ends in 53 days. I hope it's a mistake. And to be perfectly honest, it's so poorly worded that I don't even know what it's advertising.
Countdown clocks strike me as a fumbling fallback for a business which does not really understand how to use the Internet yet. We are all agreed on the idea that visibility for your game is a good thing, and that more blog posts about your game translates into more visibility. But is the equation between visibility and game sales as clear-cut as it seems?
There have been many who proclaim to show that Metacritic score has surprisingly little impact on games sales. I would be interested to see a study that would correlate the number of articles about a given title on major gaming sites to actual game sales, and see how games like Zack & Wiki, Beyond Good and Evil, Ico and Okami would perform. And on the reverse side, games like Carnival Games, Wii Fit, or even games like FIFA, which regularly tops the annual UK all-format charts, but which rarely seems to make a dent in my corner of the Internet.