Each time a new game is announced, gamers react in the same manner:
- There’s a slight pause and an intake of breath as people read, sit back and digest what they have just seen.
- The net becomes a flurry of activity with fiber optics burning brightly as people clamor to find out more.
- Repeat No. 2 as necessary until the game is released.
With each blog post and forum thread, the gaming community’s expectations rise. What cool features will it have? Will it look better than its competitor? Will it be enough to justify shelling out the cash?
But therein lies the problem. From a developer’s point of view, the way gamers react to everything from the initial announcement to the release date can have an impact on the game itself.
Gamers are a shrewd bunch. Each time developers release a new piece of information regarding their work in progress, the gaming community snaps up every shred and meticulously pores over it. With each screenshot and list of potential features, their expectations for the game gradually coalesce into a snowball of hype. And while it can cause games to fly off the shelves on release day, hype can also be fatal.
When developers release screenshots, they want make the game look nice, flashy and drool-worthy. And when they release information about a game’s features, they often err on the side of excess. Inevitably, with each snippet of information released, the chorus gets a bit louder: “This game is going to rock.” “Kick ass.” “Looks awesome.” “It can do what? Wow!” Sound familiar?
But what happens when, due to budget, time constraints, publisher demands or a whole host of other issues, they have to cut out some of those cool features down the line? What happens when they release screenshots that lack the polish of earlier images? Gamer expectations plummet, disappointment sinks in and hype quickly gives way to resentment. “Hmm, doesn’t look as good.” “Man, what a downgrade.” “Last generation anybody?” The list goes on.
It’s a delicate balance for developers and publishers to cultivate interest in a game while managing players’ expectations. The question often is, how much information should they make public? Release too little and there’s no buzz, no excitement, no word of mouth. Release too much information, and you run the risk of disappointing fans when the game is released. So which is best?
I advocate the too-little approach. By slightly under-selling a game at the outset, developers can raise expectations with each new iteration. Instead of dashing gamers’ hopes just prior release by cutting features or downgrading graphics, they can buoy them as development progresses. While the initial release of information may receive a tepid response, it’s possible to build both excitement and momentum based on real facts with each further press release. This is the type of excitement that helps sell games. And, if we think about it, is it really that important to generate buzz when development still has a year and a half to go?
The Xbox game, Fable, is a case study in the toxic effects of hype. The initial concepts behind the game seemed out of this world. Players would be able to explore a massive environment down to the smallest detail. See some mountains 20 km. away? No problem. Hitch up your britches and walk to them. Grass, plants and trees would grow organically with the passage of time. It seemed less like a game and more like a living, breathing world. And the early screenshots looked fantastic.
From the start, gamer expectations were astronomical. But, as the graphics became duller and the feature sets slimmer, the world of Fable began to lose its luster. When it was finally released, it was hard for players not to judge it against the impossibly high standards set by its early, glowing coverage. Even the creator himself, Peter Molyneux, was let down by the final product (and would later apologize for failing to deliver what he had originally promised). In Fable‘s case, hype turned a good game into a disappointment.
If Fable teaches us anything, it’s that developers should always be truthful to gamers about what a game can realistically achieve. Hype the game, but make it realistic hype. Developers and publishers may protest that they want excitement throughout the development process, but the risks of this approach may outweigh the rewards. There’s a hard-earned lesson from the automotive industry: When a person buys a car that exceeds their expectations, they typically tell one or two people. But when buyers are disappointed with their purchase, they’re likely to tell nine people on average about their mistake. Bad news travels quickly, and through this glorious medium of the internet, it can cross the globe in a matter of minutes.
The gamer experience begins the second they hear about the game, not when they first load it up. For better or worse, gamers typically form their expectations about a game long before they have chance to play it. The last thing we want to do is to dash them. We should not simply aim to match their expectations, however; we should try to exceed them. We want the gamer to put the controller down for the final time, the game fully completed, and think to themselves “Wow. I’ve got to do that again!”
Gareth Griffiths is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.