If you’re an avid gamer, you’re used to being let down. To bask in the radiance of a glowing preview and then be sorely disappointed by the actual game is a ritual gamers endure time and time again, even in the face of experience.
In recent years, it’s been fashionable to criticize the press for the emotional trauma previews engender, and often for good reason. Previews rarely offer measured critiques of upcoming games, and even when they do, they usually undermine their concerns with unbridled optimism. In the worst scenarios, previews merely regurgitate the carefully crafted, gushing content generated by industry representatives.
And yet, we love the stuff.
A quick glace at the gaming section of any newsstand demonstrates the appeal of the preview. Almost inevitably, magazine covers are graced month-to-month not by proven titles but by those yet to be released. Flip through the pages of any given magazine, and you’ll probably find the preview section nestled conveniently in its very middle, accompanied by generous helpings of artwork and dazzling screenshots. Unlike the sparsely illustrated reviews, which may be laid out two or more to a page, preview articles commonly span six, eight or even 10 pages. On average, preview material takes up between 30 and 50 percent of most magazines’ non-advertising content.
Obviously, this stuff sells. Phrases like “world exclusive” and “special first look” must be music to editors’ ears.
Online enthusiast publications demonstrate a similar leaning toward preview content, albeit not always to the same degree and sophistication as their print counterparts. Instead, it’s often in the online forum and fansite communities where gamers’ voracious appetites for preview information are most apparent. One need look no further than the maniacal attention devoted to the release of the GTA IV trailer last March to see gamer anticipation at its most rabid. Online, rumors spread like wildfire, press releases are examined in minute detail and the smallest tidbits of information are deemed worthy of endless discussion by both press and fans alike.
All this fuss over advertising; and let’s admit it, that’s what previews are, at least in the eyes of the industry. They generate discussion, increase anticipation, raise brand awareness, and drive up preorders. They’re a critical component of any solid sales strategy.
But they’re also something more. Because beneath the slick sheen of commercialism that coats the pages of every preview article lays the heart and soul of gaming. In the eyes of the gamers that devour such content, previews offer tantalizing glimpses of ideas divorced from the often painful reality of their real-world implementation. Sure, previews frequently come up wanting when compared against the finished game product, but they still offer visions of what we hope for most from games.
Take a recent magazine cover article for a game editors claim is “The Most INTENSE First-Person Shooter WE HAVE EVER SEEN.” Is it loaded with hyperbole and specious optimism? Absolutely. But it’s also a thorough and compelling description of a particular game concept. And it’s chock-full of developer commentary and enthusiasm. I don’t know if I’ll like the finished game, but I’m entranced by the portrait the preview paints.
Game design evolves almost as rapidly as gaming technology, and there are few places design concepts are more closely examined than in preview articles. Previews usually discuss play mechanics, artistic considerations and other design factors in much greater depth than the simplified, buyers’-guide review pages do. In a sense, previews are like design documents distilled to their most appealing and memorable components.
And that’s what makes reading them so much fun. Just like the games they purport to describe, previews engage gamers’ imaginations and encourage us to look forward to what’s coming. In that respect, they’re no different than those Popular Mechanics cover stories that depict fantastical technology supposedly just around the corner. Does it matter that the reality may fall short from the ideal? When you’re deciding whether to spend your time and cash on the finished product, sure. But if you’re looking to check the pulse of the medium, or wonder at its most intriguing possibilities, look no further than the latest round of previews.
Appreciating preview content obviously requires the proper context, and it’s the responsibility of the press to provide that context. While it’s not especially difficult to peel back the sales rhetoric, that shouldn’t be the reader’s job. The gaming press should accompany every preview with an honest evaluation of developer and publisher claims. Some publications consistently do so, but they’re in the minority. And given the dubious relationships between some publications and their advertisers (can you say “advertorial?”), I won’t hold my breath.
But I will continue to read previews. Because after all, a little hype is good for the soul.