The Dangers of the Hype Train and the Emboldening of Game Developers

In the last 20 years, the way that the gaming industry operates around marketing and sales has changed completely. To give you an idea, E3's first year was in 1995, the biggest gaming exposition in the western hemisphere is only 22 years old, that's younger than me. This age of gaming journalism and following game development closely is brand new and so too are the tribulations which accompany it. Just off of the top of my head, the number of development projects that have over promised and under-performed with their final product is rather alarming. I believe, it has much to do with the growing ability of developers to excite a fan base through their ideas rather than their actual product. The result for gamers is that we constantly are exposed and expose ourselves to investing energy and money into a project which was misrepresented to us.

Peter and the Acorn

 Credit: Lion Head Strudios

Credit: Lion Head Strudios

When I think about this issue, I can't think of a person who has perpetuated this bad behavior, in the early 2000's, more than Peter Molyneux. Molyneux is a brilliant game designer responsible for one of my favorite games growing up, Black and White 2, and is most well known for his most successful series, Fable. While Molyneux's work has always been quite good, he also has repetitively shown his penchant for wild hyperbole, to the point where he's become a bit of a joke among critics. For instance, when he most famously said, that if you knocked an acorn from a tree in Fable, later if you came back an acorn will have grown from that tree. This of course, wasn't a feature in Fable. Then, when Molyneux was speaking about Fable 2, a few years later, he assured the crowd that he would make sure the feature would be in the game. The acorn thing wasn't in Fable 2, nor in Fable 3. Now there are two ways to analyze this, the most simplistic one, is this was a flat out lie. The second option is that, Molyneux was actually planning for the acorn thing to be in the game, and then something got in the way. I tend to believe in the second option.

Throughout, Molyneux's entire career as a designer,  he has been a man on a mission. This mission has always been to create a virtual world which behaves like our own. If you follow the trajectory of his career you can see this playing out with his work on, Populous, Black and White, Fable, and even The Trail, a mobile game which came out last  year. He isn't lying when he says that this is an idea he cares about and wants to execute but, money, technology or both get in the way. But because of Molyneux's gift of gab, he doesn't speak in the confines of what could be reasonably considered as possible for his projects, he speaks in what he wants to be possible. And has seen great success in his career, despite never actually delivering very effectively on his promises. This was sort of the beginning of an era for video game marketing where the developers could more easily speak with the consumer and talk about their vision, rather than the product they actually had. 

Now, pair the increasing ease with which developers and gamers communicated, with the shifting focus of the industry towards how to build pre-order sales, and you have the rebirth of the "Hype Train". Also known as, how to build excitement for a game up as much as possible without anyone having played  it more than about 30 minutes. This became extraordinarily lucrative for the gaming industry as it made it possible for a game to be successful before anyone ever saw a review. It wasn't long until, this turned toxic.

When the Hype Train Goes off the Rails

We all know the feeling. When a game has been hyped up throughout its development, and everything we've heard from the developer has been incredibly intriguing. You watch the game trailers and they are oh so shiny but, the product, when its released, is just, meh. I could go on and on about games that have done this but there are two that I want to highlight specifically, Destiny and No Man's Sky.

Destiny

During Destiny's development Bungie promised an open world where, "if you can see it, you can go to it," but delivered something entirely different. Destiny has plenty of invisible walls stopping players from going to places they can see, and, even more offensive, places which look explorable, but if you try to go there, you just die instantly. The promise was an open world shooter, in which exploration was absolutely a focus, but exploration ended up being more of an aside. It was a lie on Bungie's part which players believed in enough to put in over $500 million before the game even launched. Bungie knew that they could create an incredible amount of hype with their claims, because it sounded fucking good. But, it wasn't true. They road that train off the goddamn rails and delivered something that ultimate was pretty crappy, given what was supposedly on offer. It was sleazy and they didn't have to do it, many people have had fun with Destiny, despite its shortcomings, but it probably would have been nice if it has been represented ethically to them. The game would have done just fine either way.

No Man's Sky

No Man's Sky was every bit as much of a disappointment as Destiny was, plus a dash of some good old fashioned lack of care. Even now on Steam, I get a little bit angry reading the description of this game, it reads:

"Inspired by the adventure and imagination that we love from classic science-fiction, No Man's Sky presents you with a galaxy to explore, filled with unique planets and lifeforms, and constant danger and action.
In No Man's Sky, every star is the light of a distant sun, each orbited by planets filled with life, and you can go to any of them you choose. Fly smoothly from deep space to planetary surfaces, with no loading screens, and no limits. In this infinite procedurally generated universe, you'll discover places and creatures that no other players have seen before - and perhaps never will again."

 Description Via Steam

 This is Shaun Murray a man who lied constantly about the features of No Man's Sky, like straight up.

This is Shaun Murray a man who lied constantly about the features of No Man's Sky, like straight up.

Now, this sounds incredible and is in total keeping with how the game was presented throughout its years of development but, then read any of the reviews, and the slimy underbelly of what occurred becomes clear. No Man's Sky is a game with garbage procedural generation, which caused every planet and every space station to appear essentially the same. Every alien settlement seemed the same, every interaction with the various, samey aliens was odd and inconsequential. The progression is shaky at best, the mechanics on release date were implemented terribly, and the entire game was poorly optimized. People felt as though the game felt like a 20 dollar indie experiment, rather than a high budget $60 dollar investment. It was a game that was just hyped up to a degree that even if it was a good game, it wouldn't have been able to deliver anything nearing the expectations people had for it. Hello Games was extraordinarily irresponsible with the way they handled promotion for this title and they knew what they were doing. 

Hello Games controlled the narrative of No Man's Sky. until the release date. The head developer, Shaun Murray said constantly, that multiplayer was a possibility, multiplayer is not a possibility in No Man's Sky. The way he wanted to pass this off was to say, well the odds of running into someone else are extremely low, it straight up wasn't possible. Hello Games held review copies of the game from journalists until after release. The narrative Murray painted was one where No Man's Sky was truly a vast, living universe, which anything was possible, the reality was that players were actually rather sharply restricted from doing certain things. Consider the description above, knowing that there was no way to crash your ship, the game would literally stop you. You had to fly a specified distance from the highest point on the planet. Hello Games rode the hype train they got in motion  'til the wheels came off and the train exploded with the conductors still inside. Many people demanded refunds for their purchase, claiming false advertising. Hello Games had to endure a lawsuit for false advertising (though they were cleared.) It was just a general mess. And Hello Games made out like fucking bandits. I had a hard time pinning down specific numbers, but hundreds of thousands and more likely millions of copies of No Man's Sky were pre-ordered and bought release day. From a certain perspective, Hello Games never actually endured many consequences for their unethical practices, because they were already made in the shade, before anyone noticed.

Sounded too good to me, personally, so I never bought it.

Blindly Betting on Horses

Pre-orders are a huge part of the new economy in the gaming industry. Through pre-order bonuses, special editions, and reduced prices, the gaming industry has incentivized the practice of pre-ordering games. It's equivalent of betting on a horse from looking at its pedigree and absolutely no stats about how that horse has performed recently. It really should come as no surprise the gaming industry has gone this way either, they can get away with making their games successful releases before they've been released. Right now titles that are not slated to release for over a year are available for pre-purchase on Steam and based on faith and the promise of beta access, people are buying it, a year ahead of ever getting to play it.  In a market like this, developers have the opportunity to rip off gamers left and right and are going for it. Early Access Games sit unfinished for years and years without progress, and the consumer is stuck in the middle.

All of this has lead to a culture where developers already know their game is going to do well in the middle of development, so why continue to improve the game much past that? The new economy of pre-ordering based off of hype and previous achievements of the people developing them has created a climate where gamers are at great risk. On one hand, this is an expensive hobby and the pre-order bonuses are powerful incentives but, on the other it incentives blatant hyperbole on the part of game developers and patent misrepresentation of their products. Until Gamers begin to think more critically about what they pre-order and when this issue will continue and No Man's Sky will happen again and again. 

She said, after pre-ordering The Escapists 2.