There’s something wrong with games media coverage. It’s a complex problem that I’m not sure I fully comprehend yet, but I started thinking about it when I began a new playthrough of Pokémon Red a few weeks ago. I remember being so young I was probably only a few weeks out of the womb when I first picked up a copy of Pokémon Red. The completely unique world of monster dueling and exploration was something I’d never experienced before, and it was a wonderful revelation. And before I acquired it (probably through incessant parental begging), I knew close to nothing about it.
It’s this mystery and ignorance that makes gaming better. So much better. Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to avoid the marketing hype for big releases. Expectations are invariably influenced by what you see in an advert, teaser trailer, or press release. I want to make it clear from the start that I wouldn’t prefer some sort of total blackout on games media coverage; just a nice middle ground. Also, the irony of reporting on this issue is not lost on me. We at Gamer Professionals contribute to the proliferation of mass media coverage on anything and everything that happens within our realm, but all of us here try to show gaming the proper care and reverence it deserves. The same can’t be said for the companies that market the products.
In some ways, having so much information available is a good thing. We’re extremely well-placed to make informed decisions about what to purchase before we part with our hard-earned cash, but we still somehow come away disappointed in many instances. You’d think the greater transparency would ensure we’d have absolute certainty about what a game would be like before it came out, but we’re consistently shown that this way of thinking may turn out for the worse. We’re blasted with so much information that we think we must have the full picture, but then a game is released, and reviews start going up, and all of what we were lead to believe was incomplete or even false. To once again beat the dead horse, No Man’s Sky is a prime example from this generation. There were so many claims about how the game would work that bore no resemblance to the final product, even though they did eventually address some of these issues with updates. A less severe example is Mass Effect: Andromeda; the gameplay footage that was shown to us masterfully avoided the hilarious facial animations and glitches.
Nothing is lost if a game lives up to the hype – Breath of the Wild for example – but I’m left feeling cheated and far more upset if a game I was really looking forward to turns out to be bad. In the old days if game was bad, you’d be disappointed, but you hadn’t been bombarded by games media coverage across the multitude of media channels for weeks beforehand, and so there was no expectation of greatness. To get the most out of a truly good game, you need to start from a point of neutral expectation, and let the game prove to you why it is good, rather than being told by the media that a game, like Mass Effect: Andromeda, is going to be amazing even before anyone outside of Bioware has got their hands on it. Jet Force Gemini for the Nintendo 64 exemplifies this for me perfectly. I literally had zero knowledge of its existence before playing it. I just randomly chose it from the shelves because the box art looked interesting, but I remember being blown away by the experience because I came from a point of neutral expectation. If a game has been hyped and you’re at a point of positive expectation, but it turns out to be bad, the disappointment is far greater than if you’d known nothing about it beforehand.
This is a problem in itself, but the unrelenting games media coverage creates an environment where there is no mystery left in gaming, and this eliminates the journey of discovery that gaming depends so heavily on to impress you. My partner has been playing Mass Effect: Andromeda recently, and she adopts the media blackout approach to gaming, so knew next to nothing of the story and characters before starting. And she’s loving it. Of course the crap facial animations still make her snort in hilarious derision, but there have been so many instances where she’s been terribly excited by something, such as the new alien race Angara, and my response is simply “Oh yeah they were shown in gameplay trailer #217”. This made me sad. How much more of the game do I know about simply because I like to (and need to, for my contributions to this website) keep my finger on the pulse?
Somehow, all the games media coverage surrounding Horizon: Zero Dawn passed me by. I didn’t know a thing about the glorious festival of robo-dinosaur-smashing mayhem before it was released. I had simply heard of it, like I had done with Pokemon Red and Jet Force Gemini all those years ago. Coming from the position of neutral expectation made my enjoyment of HZD so much more intense, not only because the game is fantastic, but because this fantastic-ness far exceeded my expectation. I had a hugely positive expectation of Mass Effect Andromeda, and after watching my partner play it a little bit, and after reading a few reviews, the whole game now has a pall of musty blandness hanging over it for me.
The effect seems to be amplified with console releases. The games media coverage around the release of the Nintendo Switch was phenomenal. We were saturated with information from leaks, hypotheses, and opinions on the eventual reveal of the console. Initially I was excited about buying a Nintendo Switch, but being immersed in the discussion for so long lessened that excitement hugely. The information just turned into noise; one example of many being people on one side complaining that the Joy-Cons will be useless and gimmicky and overpriced, and others on the opposite side screaming back that the Joy-Cons are great and innovative and totally worth it. Having access to so much information invites this discussion, and discussion on the internet invariably turns into argument, and arguing about something like gaming, a past-time that’s supposed to bring happiness and joy, is so sad and pointless that I sometimes wish we’d go back to internet-less days where we knew next to nothing about the next big release. And now Project Scorpio is just around the corner, and I can see it happening all over again.
I don’t know if there’s a solution, or even an alternative. There are so many mediums through which news can get to you now: Twitter, Facebook, the internet in general – they aren’t ever going to go away. And of course the marketing divisions of game companies are going to keep utilizing them because why wouldn’t they? It seems to me that having so many channels of communication open to them increases their power over us. They can shape what we see of a game or console before we physically own it, all in the effort of making a sale. Getting us to pre-order is their ultimate goal, the ultimate driving force behind their techniques. By getting a customer to pre-order, a game is paid for on Day One of release, potentially before the a slew of negative reviews can alter a customer’s expectations forcing them to cancel. On Day One, they have your money, so they’ve done their job.
It’s us who need to adapt, and I think we’re starting to. No Man’s Sky was a big event. I don’t think what happened should ever be forgotten because it taught many people to temper their expectation with experience. I know a lot of people who were cautious about Horizon: Zero Dawn before it was released because they’d been burned before, and only took the dive once they learned it was safe to do so. It isn’t really possible to revert to a state where we’re exposed to less information regarding upcoming releases, but we can change how we react to the information available by not succumbing to the hype generated by incessant games media coverage. If we do this, we take back some measure of control, and maybe then things will change for the better.