15 May, 2006
I read a great article over at particleblog talking about expectations. What happens when the hype machine is on too high for too long? Suddenly an anticipated game (or console) can’t live up to expectations because the hype has built things up too much.
Of course, this all seems familiar for people interested in online games. We’ve all seen games that get hyped tremendously only to fall short of their promises and potential. The game talked about in early betas becomes quite different when time and money get tight and a launch has to happen soon.
So, now we’re starting to see this more commonly in traditional offline games. Why is that?
I think one of the biggest reasons is that games with longer development cycles fall prey to this problem more easily. We saw this in online games because these games were the first to see longer development times. While the industry was making games in 12-18 months, online games were taking two or three years to develop. For a traditional game, talking about the game you were getting ready to release in 6 months or so meant that there probably isn’t going to be any major changes. For an online game, however, talking about the game 2 years or so before launch means that the game could change into something completely different.
What happens is that as you get close to launch, the game has to be much better defined. When you start developing a game you have an empty page to fill, the possibilities are endless. As you define the game more, the possibilities are reduced. For example, picking a genre instantly limits the game. Choosing to make a Sci-Fi game will be different than choosing to make a modern game. Making an RPG will require different design and programming than making an FPS. These restrictions continue until you get to the point where you have the game you will launch with. The longer development times means that online games were less defined at the beginning of their life. In addition, the fluid nature (read: numerous patches) of online games means that the game could be changed fairly late into the process.
What does this have to do with hype? Well, when the game has more possibilities you have people with greater expectations. If a developer says, “I am going to make a Sci-Fi game,” then this closes off the possibility of having a Fantasy game, or modern warfare game, or many other genres. But, this isn’t bad quite yet, because most people will start thinking about what they like about that genre. Perhaps I like a cyberpunk setting, but you like space combat. So, we both really look forward to the game because it could include either style. Yet, once the developer talks about the game some more and mentions that the game will focus on ship-to-ship combat, I start to get upset. Cyberpunk doesn’t have ship-to-ship combat! The developer has violated my expectations. Continue this process many more times as the game becomes more and more defined: “realistic” ship physics vs. arcade-type physics, alien races vs. variations on different types of evolved humans, PvP focus vs. PvE focus, etc. Each time you define a bit more of the game and close off possibilities, potential fans may get upset. Some people will get more upset than others, of course, and people who are more upset will yell louder and become more agitated about changes that go against their expectations.
So, you have a problem if you hype the game too early. The possibilities are still open, and individuals can imagine the game being able to cater to their individual tastes. As the game gets closer to launch, the possibilities close off. So, talking about a game later in the development cycle means that you will upset less people.
Of course, the problem is that you need to advertise a game to get people interested in it. Especially for an online game, you want to build your community as early as possible so that it can grow as much as possible. How can you do this without pimping your game and building unrealistic expectations? For online games, I’ve always thought that sharing your research would be a good step. Let’s say you’re building a game about World War 2. Posing up little articles about vehicles and weapons you’ve been researching would be neat. Let people see what you see. Of course, this doesn’t mean that people won’t build impossible expectations: maybe you looked at over dozens of tank schematics, but only have resources to build 6 for launch. People could get upset that you didn’t choose one of their favorites. Ideally, I think that your site showing off your research wouldn’t even necessarily let people know there’s a game being built behind it all; you should be getting people excited about the setting, but not necessarily the game itself. People that enjoy your WW2 information site will likely be interested in your game, even if you aren’t pushing the game from day one.
But, longer development cycles aren’t the only thing building unrealistic expectations. As particleblog mentions, part of the problem is the expectations from previous versions. Halo 2 was disappointing not because it was a terrible game, but because Halo 1 was so good and Halo 2 had a lot to live up to. People wanted more of the same, really. The developers wanted to mix it up a bit so that they wouldn’t be accused of being derivative hacks that release a game without any new features. But, sometimes these small changes work and sometimes they don’t. Your hard-core players that had their expectations formed from previous work get disappointed by the small changes that deviate from what they considered a great game.
You also have problems if the developer misrepresents things. That’s one problem with the PS3: Sony has never been 100% reliable when it comes to talking about new hardware. Remember when they showed pre-rendered cinematics for Kessen near the launch of the PS2, and let people assume that this was in-game footage? They never said it was or was not, but they certainly benefited from the ambiguity. People who thought the cinematics were actual gameplay were amazed that the console could render individual hairs in the horse tails! We once again see the same problem with the PS3, where the details aren’t spelled out as much as they should be. So, you have people building up expectations which are almost certain to be unfulfilled. Of course, in the case of the PS2 people had short enough memories to forgive and forget. But, with serious competition from the Wii, Sony may not be able to repeat the coup they had last time.
As I’ve said many times before, managing expectations is probably the most important thing you can do as a game developer, especially when it comes to online games.