Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

9 August, 2007

Announcing too early
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 8:08 PM

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?







13 Comments »

  1. There’s two sides to this coin – they hype by the developer and the hype from the fans.

    Yes, developers hype upon what they “want” a game to be. And if they have poor marketing skills or a poor marketing department the hype doesn’t match what the game actually is…

    But all too often you can track unrealistic expectations back to a random comment passed by a fan in a forum 3 months into the announcement of development that suddenly became canon in the design.

    There’s no easy answer if you’re counting on hype to gain you development dollars, it’s a bad way to ask for money and a foolish way to invest it. It locks you into a corner with a design that may not exist in a year and a fan base that will resent you for it.

    There’s also the very real issue of not getting your design vetted by experienced players/press and hiding it until it’s too late. (Though, this is less of a problem if you’re open to criticism by people you trust).

    I think the problem is that like anyone else, developers are people and a) want to share their ideas because they’re excited and passionate about them and b) want to hear that they’re good ideas.

    But the fans are quite honestly, the least qualified to judge early on…and the most likely to cause damage in the hype machine.

    Comment by Ophelea — 9 August, 2007 @ 8:41 PM

  2. It’s hard to argue against the action of not updating the game community, really. I guess it’s just better to wonder what a company is working on than to read an announcement and branch out a few ideal features that may never see the light of the day. I totally agree with you, PC.

    Comment by Neol — 10 August, 2007 @ 12:06 AM

  3. I think that Hype is a problem in any game, but it’s particularly relevant in MMO development because you can expect that the audience for an MMO are internet users. Also given is that for the game to remain successful the audience must participate online and interact socially with others (even if it’s just listening to ‘Barrens’ chat).

    So once something is even *briefly* mentioned by a developer, it instantly finds itself floating around in conversations on blogs and in game, accessible to an online audience. Just like chinese whispers it grows and changes and at some point one individual makes it exciting enough that it’s now considered, ‘hype.’ Sometimes fans even make stuff up and hype it without developers having a part of it e.g. leaked patch notes.

    I always remember blizzard mentioning in one or two interviews “they were thinking about hero classes” and the fans made all the rest of it up. Then a mysterious ‘leaked’ info appeared about all different hero classes (the rumor mill link you gave sums it up nicely) and 12 months later they announce a hero class totally different to anything mentioned. The Hype bomb goes bang. Unfortunately I think this is primarily the fans problem for listening to anything except official announcements. Although, saying that, sometimes it’s the developers fault for going into too much detail that isn’t true, e.g. Peter Molyneux consistently does this.

    I guess the best thing to do if you’re a developer is to hold any *ideas* back and only mention implemented features. Even then discussing features needs to be very very specific! Fans will latch onto any keyword like leeches and extrapolate all kinds of wild theories from it. Similiary screenshots can be analysed to death by some fans.

    Comment by Jpoku — 10 August, 2007 @ 2:39 AM

  4. This hype stuff is the reason why having a community manager who is actually considered part of the development team helps, and why this position should exist prior to announcing anything. Sure, it may seem like a waste of money for an indie game to be paying someone for this when you could be spending that money on something else, but it really helps to have someone who knows what the dev team is doing watching the boards and blogs able to jump out and say, “Well, the dev team has never said they’d do that, that’s a fan idea…” It helps manage expectations.

    Of course, for this type of job you might be able to get someone to do it for free at the start with the promise of hiring later if things start working out…

    Comment by Jason — 10 August, 2007 @ 4:44 AM

  5. ROFL

    Having done community management I’d never consider doing it for free…no matter how much I got paid later.

    As the “buffer” between the developers and the fans it’s an entirely thankless job on both ends. (Yes, there are kudos but you never shed those extra layers of skin.)

    I agree that it is one of the most important jobs on a DEVELOPMENT team – big companies make the mistake of putting the OCR in marketing – but don’t underestimate their value, even in the beginning.

    Comment by Ophelea — 10 August, 2007 @ 10:59 AM

  6. I think the whole Hero Class thing was a side effect of how Blizzard decided to have almost no NDA requirements throughout the game’s Beta development. On the one hand, it helped keep people interested and hyped about the growth of the game, but on the other hand, off-the-cuff dev ideas that were thrown around (like Hero Classes) got fixated on and harped about when they didn’t show for release.

    Comment by Pai — 10 August, 2007 @ 8:36 PM

  7. I think part of the problem is timing. Even your title “Announcing too early” points to this. Hype in and of itself is a necessary thing for a business, especially one selling entertainment. But, as you say, it can cause a lot of problems to start the hype machine too early. Take the WoW expansion announcement. Is there any reason this thing is announced at this year’s Blizzcon instead of next year? Does anyone seriously believe that Blizzard is capable of putting it out before the end of next year? Heck, even Gamestop is listing a November 2008 release date. It’s rather obvious from their own statements that they are, at best, barely past the design stage. So, yes, the announcement is building some positive hype and getting some players excited for what the future may bring. But it’s also turning off some players since it’s filled with “we want to do this, but haven’t worked out the details yet”. And, as you mentioned, it’s going to lead to overhype where Northrend will have to be the best areas in the game and the Death Knight better be the greatest concept known to mankind to meet the expectation that will have built up by then.

    I can’t see how making that announcement this early does any good. It’s not like we didn’t know they were working on an expansion.

    Comment by Silvanis — 10 August, 2007 @ 9:38 PM

  8. I think that there is a lot of good discussion here but the whole point of Hype / Buzz is being lost.

    An announcement that talks about how cool the game is going to be – without specifics – serves to start the buzz machine. When working on an MMO that’ll be in development for 3-4 years it’s important to try and get folks excited and plan their play patterns around your title (if you can grab them). Remember – people really only play one MMO at a time. Blizzard’s strategy is most likely to announce early so everyone (and their mothers) play and pays until they hit 70 in prep for the new expansion. It also helps to let lapsed players know that there is going to be another opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a WOW expansion – they have enough time to hit 70 and play with the big boys. Announcing early also gives them time to better understand player expectations and adjust accordingly (steal community ideas).

    Of course it’s possible to announce to early – just as it’s possible to announce too late. Each game has to take many different things into consideration when choosing a date to let the world know that they are working on something cool.

    Comment by Talonhook — 11 August, 2007 @ 7:29 AM

  9. Talonhook wrote:
    Blizzard’s strategy is most likely to announce early so everyone (and their mothers) play and pays until they hit 70 in prep for the new expansion.

    The flip side to this is that some people have said that there is little reason to play currently, because the new expansion is likely to make all the raiding after level 70 obsolete just as the current expansion made all the raiding at level 60 obsolete. This is an extreme view, to be sure. But, there’s still some downsides to announcing the next expansion so early.

    Comment by Psychochild — 11 August, 2007 @ 12:05 PM

  10. I’d personally never hype too hard too early if my budget wasn’t massive. If you’ve got a massive budget and CAN compete with WoW, go nuts. Otherwise I’d be more a fan of starting off slow and not risk creating a massive backlash because things were promised but not delivered. You can always build steam over time based on what you actually have.

    Making wild promises about things you don’t have can only go wrong, unless you’re hoping for the big investor payoff (in which case it’ll still probably go horribly wrong) or already have big big dollars.

    As far as Blizzard announcing this expansion so early, it certainly wasn’t a slip of the tongue by an overexcited dev. It was a calculated move, so I assume they saw something that leads them to believe that firing up the hype machine would be beneficial.

    One might assume that they’ll continue to slowly leak out information about Hero classes to keep people fixated and salivating. Maybe people have been losing interest.

    Comment by Azaroth — 12 August, 2007 @ 9:55 AM

  11. As far as Blizzard announcing this expansion so early, it certainly wasn’t a slip of the tongue by an overexcited dev. It was a calculated move, so I assume they saw something that leads them to believe that firing up the hype machine would be beneficial.

    What I meant was, way back in Beta was when the devs were tossing around the idea of ‘Hero Classes’ originally. Because of the lack of NDA, all sorts of their ideas were public for the fans to obsess over. The fans were excited about it, but ‘Hero Classes’ as they were described weren’t implemented in release. But because the devs had mentioned Hero Classes in the first place, people felt ‘cheated’ and still do to this day, apparently. The way that the Hero Classes are being developed now, is not how they were casually talked about back in Beta, which is another disappointment to some people, too.

    That’s what I meant by their dev’s public off-the-cuff brainstorming coming back to bite them.

    Comment by Pai — 12 August, 2007 @ 3:51 PM

  12. Lord of the Rings Online Database Launced

    [...] Brian “Psychochild” Green has posted an excellent bit about the announcement of the hero class in World of Warcraft. I agree with most of what Brian has to say (as is usually the case), but I was especially tickled to see him touch on the area of “community site”. A community site is not a fan site. A community site is run by professionals who not only understand the game, but the people who play it. Without a well planned and run community site a game is doing its players a disservice. Check out Brian’s blog here. [...]

    Pingback by Loading… — 13 August, 2007 @ 4:42 PM

  13. You can also flip the hype/rumor mill on its head and make it work for you with viral-type marketing. I am unsure it would work well in an online game where there are typically many months of developer/fanbase interaction, but it is an interesting approach nonetheless.

    Granted there are many negatives associated with a viral approach (and many different challenges), but it can tend to build hype about a product (movie, game, etc) that I think people more easily notice is “not confirmed”.

    Comment by NateE — 17 August, 2007 @ 6:17 AM

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