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The Great Digital Hype


A game’s biggest fans are usually those who make it. Many developers pour their lives into projects at the expense of friends, family and natural light; it’s understandable when they get overexcited. This, however, can be poison to an aspiring game community.

The only thing worse than making a game with no hype, is making one that is overhyped. “Overhype” is when a player’s vision of what a game will be far exceeds what a developer can possibly deliver. As a result of overhype, the game is judged more harshly than it otherwise might be.

A perfect example of this is Farlan’s MMOG, Dark and Light. They launched in June and have been universally panned. Admittedly, the game is no masterpiece, but is it truly deserving of the harsh criticism it’s received? Over at my day job, the user ratings would tell you so. It is currently scored 3.4 out of 10, a full point worse than any other MMOG on the market. This includes garage games and titles approaching 10 years old. It is no coincidence that Dark and Light was rated the most-hyped game in our system for nearly six months prior to its beta. But the game shipped unfinished, and disenfranchised players responded by scoring the game negatively.

Developers have to balance their enthusiasm with what they’re actually capable of accomplishing. On one hand, it is imperative to get people talking before the game ships, especially if you have little to no marketing budget. On the other, the more fans talk, the more they dream, and the more they dream, the more they expect. If it gets out of hand, expect a violent backlash when reality rears its ugly head.

I am writing from personal experience.

Wish was an MMOG cancelled in January of 2005, despite very good beta sign-up numbers and a slew of online media coverage. We bore all the trademarks of a small independent developer. One of these was my serving simultaneously as the Co-Lead Game Designer, Assistant Producer, World Designer and Community Manager, and I was hardly the only one wearing multiple hats.

Two of those hats got us into trouble, though. I had little development experience, and when someone serves as both a senior designer and a community talking head, things can get out of hand.

My experience was in the realm of online journalism, and I knew how that worked. I took that knowledge and tried to spread the word as best I could. We relied nearly exclusively on word of mouth. I spent a lot of time answering questions on message boards and working with game sites to place features.

As a company, we knew our defining and differentiating features and made it our goal to drive them home. Our concept was called Live Content, which called for a small team of game masters to set in motion macro-scale world events so the playerbase could respond to them. Unfortunately, this was a grand concept and not easy for a small development studio to pull off.

By December of 2004, we had a decent-sized community. We had been working hard and – to us at least – it seemed like we’d come a long way from where we’d left off in the last round of testing. Combat was more fun, the magic system improved, the graphics overhauled and some small part of our defining feature existed.

On January 1, 2005, we opened the doors to the 80,000-plus players who had signed up to participate in our open beta. It was during this time that the Half-Life 2 demo had released, and I remember being quite pleased when our beta dropped it down to second on the most active list over at FilePlanet. It looked like things were going well. Famous last words …

The beta lasted only nine days. On January 9, 2005, after careful consideration of the way the beta had played out, examination of our internal metrics and an honest appraisal of the MMOG landscape (WoW launched the previous November), we made the decision to shut things down.

Wish had no single cause of death, but overhype played a huge role. Our statistics didn’t lie. At every step of the way, from signing up for beta, to downloading and installing the client, to playing the game for more than an hour, we lost huge percentages of players. In case we didn’t trust the stats, tons of players told us about their departure on our forums, as well.

On message boards, people had spent months retelling the tales of the first beta with Live Content, and by the time our next beta hit, those of us who actually created those events didn’t even recognize the tales being told. The community had gotten carried away with itself, and we’d encouraged it.

This same phenomenon applies across all fields. The Da Vinci Code movie simply couldn’t recreate the magic people had experienced when they read the novel, despite a massive marketing campaign. A politician who rises to power with big promises and high expectations can be voted out just as quickly if he’s nothing short of amazing. This is the same reason that people routinely list massive hit movies, books, games or shows on their “worst ever” lists.

For the community and marketing people, it is important to define and recognize where awareness of a product ends and inflation begins. The worst part is, they’re battling human nature. Imagination is always more fun than reality. In imagination, features do not get cut or reigned in to meet deadlines, and things like poly-counts and draw distances need not be considered.

There are people who will spend years of their life following a game’s development. During that time, they write fan-fiction, draw pictures, run websites and chat on message boards. These people are not the problem; after investing so much of themselves into the game’s progression, they’d never let themselves be disappointed. The danger comes when casual fans expect more than a developer has to offer. When that happens, usually the developers or community and marketing folks are to blame.

The key for developers is not to lie, exaggerate or promise things they’re only moderately sure they can do. Hype is not bad. Half-Life 2 may be one of the most-hyped games of all time, but fans were generally happy with the product, and it sold extremely well. The same could be said for The Sims 2. The key is that in those cases, the developers did what they said they would do.

For small and mid-sized developers, this battle can never be fully won. Usually, simple economics means they’re going to produce mid-quality titles. What they need to recognize is what niche their game fills and try to attract a community that respects that. A decent game can be sunk if the community expects more than what’s delivered and simply doesn’t buy it on principal.

The dangers of overhype can’t be ignored. It is the difference between a legendary train-wreck in the style of Daikatana and another no-name game lost to history. Whether it’s inexperience or hubris, hype can kill. But so long as it is tempered by reality, and continually kept in check, it can propel a game to unbelievable heights. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson many learn in retrospect.

Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Lead Content Editor for and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.

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