9 August, 2007
There’s been a lot of discussion about the new Death Knight “hero class” in the upcoming WoW expansion. I’ve been reading it with a bit more interest, since my “friends” have suckered me back into WoW. (Fuck you again, Bob.)
Now, the proposed design is not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about one of the reasons why the hero class is a hot topic right now: overhype from announcing something too early.
One of the major problems here is that hero classes were discussed nearly 2.5 years ago when the game originally launched. They didn’t make it for launch, but word was that they would make an appearance in a patch afterwards. Then, when the first expansion was announced, it was said that hero classes would not be part of the expansion; the implication was they would be available as a free patch. The recent announcements, however, show that they will be part of an expansion. Or, more likely, multiple expansions since only one hero class has been revealed so far.
Okay, so they weren’t implemented. What’s the problem? Well, the problem is the rumor mill. Even when Blizzard didn’t say much, people started speculating and listening to rumors. That link is to a blog post about one of the more complex rumors, and I think it probably shaped what a lot of what people thought hero classes should be. So, when the new version of an old concept was released, we saw people complaining before you could say “You promised necromancy!”
The major sin here is that they talked about the thing too early. Not surprising; most inexperienced MMO developers paint themselves into corners as UO did in the article linked above. This can affect a single feature as we see here. Or, it can affect a whole game, as we’ve seen in some games that have been announced too early.
The major problem is that when things are announced, there’s a sense of endless optimism. Especially when talking about a whole game, it’s easy to rattle off a list of features that will never see the light of day. But, once the dreaded schedule and budget start to become less nebulous and more reality, the realization that you can’t just develop forever and eventually do have to launch the game means that something has to give. It’s what Gordon Walton so affectionately called “knifing your babies”, and is one of the hardest thing you have to do as a professional designer; yet, it is what separates the professional from the rest.
So, you announce your game and it will have everything you ever wanted. It’ll even have hot and cold running fun from every kitchen sink in the game! Players are optimistic because their favorite feature has a chance to be put in. Even if not listed, obviously the developers are cool and will put in their stupendous idea. Then, when reality hits like a truck loaded with the money you’re burning through, people get disappointed when things don’t shape up. The impossible ideal they had in their head will never be truly realized, so they grumble and play the game, but are secretly pining for the next game that will promise the sun and the moon. (I think a majority of the people that wander from beta to beta are primarily the people that get taken in by these grandiose promises that never reach reality.)
Unfortunately, this works against the way things want to work. A game developer often needs to pimp a game early in order to land a good deal. Having a group of rabid fans shows that your game has a better chance of making money. It’s also a nice ego boost to keep you going when the game development gets ugly after long hours and seemingly endless, unrewarding work.
It also runs contrary to what players expect. We didn’t announce many of our plans for Meridian 59 because we had more ideas than we can implement. If we talked about what we were working on, there would be severe disappointment if we didn’t deliver. And, especially when you’re talking about an aging game like M59, sometimes what you would like to do and what you can really do are two very separate things. But, people always clamored for more information, wanting to know what was around the next corner.
Even now I’m working on a private project that I’ve only told a few close friends about. I’m wary of announcing anything (even announcing that I’m working on something) for the reasons above. I don’t want people to get false expectations about what the project will end up being. We’ll announce as soon as we have something more concrete to show. Until then, it’s kept mum.
Okay, that’s all well and good for some small, niche title, but how can you ramp up buzz about your game if you can’t talk about it? One idea is to create a fan site about the game’s topic. This isn’t so easy if you are, for example, making a high fantasy game. (Of course, if you are and intend to compete directly against WoW, you have other problems to consider….) But, let’s say you’re creating a WW2 based game. Start up a fan site about WW2. Have discussions about the topic, post up any news stories, original work, etc. Post up your concept art for review and get feedback from potential fans. Find out what the hard-core fans expect and appreciate and would likely want to see in a game. The problem is that you can’t merely use this as a marketing vehicle. You actually have to contribute real content, and even after the game is announced, you still need to update the site. Sure, not every person on the site is guaranteed to play your game, but you’ve built up a fan base of people that will know about the game without building unrealistic expectations. By maintaining the community even after launch, you have a great way to market to fans of the genre or topic of the game without resorting to often messy or confusing (un)official boards dedicated to the game. Let me say it again, though, you need to treat this as a real community site, not just a marketing vehicle, otherwise it could blow up in your face.
So, there’s my thoughts. What do you think? Is overhyping a problem? Or, is there some other major cause I’m overlooking? Is there a way to build a community without building unrealistic expectations?