With the Tokyo Game Show recently wrapping up, it has become clear to me just how important the concept of ‘hype’ or anticipation is to the gaming industry. We saw a wide variety of trailers and information paraded out in front of the media and consumers with the sole intention of drumming up some much-needed attention. While the results may have varied in each individual case, simply being a part of the spotlight is an indescribably important part of the game development process these days. It begs the question though: why is this the case? Is this cultural dependence on expectations healthy, or in any way conducive to healthy game design, promotion and reception?
To give a very recent example, in previous articles, I highlighted my personal excitement for the upcoming Monster Hunter X, as advertised throughout TGS. Now, it must be stressed that I have no personal indication as to the quality of the game. Despite this obvious information, I have been thoroughly swept up by the hype train, as is so easy to do. Are these expectations and impressions I now possess healthy for how I will perceive the game upon release? Regardless of what product I receive at the end of the day, the image I have in my head at this moment will be entirely different than the game. I know this, everybody knows this, but the hype train barrels ahead at full steam, with no signs of slowing. Expectations can be a dangerous thing, as I’m sure we all know, but it’s only human to attach your wishes and desires to whatever is currently holding your attention. We may not receive precisely what we want at the end of the day, but if there is merit to be found, perhaps that arduous endeavour of waiting and anticipation will indeed prove worthwhile.
Monster Hunter X is a great example of the modern approach to video game advertising. There has been a regular trickle of information since the initial reveal earlier this year. In this way, it has solidified a place in the collective cultural consciousness. Fans are constantly exposed to any and all new information related to the title, effectively and efficiently building anticipation. Thanks to the connected and open nature of the modern gaming community and online society, even when nothing is happening, the hot new thing, whatever it may be, remains in our minds. The latest trailer or promotional piece, no matter how brief, can be thoroughly dissected for valuable information. With the seeds of anticipation planted and regularly tended to by the game’s developer, the product remains firmly within our conscious largely of our own volition. It’s a prolonged approach to advertising, but one that has seen the gaming industry become a true financial juggernaut. There’s no denying the effectiveness of this approach from an economic perspective, and it feeds the community a wealth of material to discuss, but certain downsides lie elsewhere.
Due to the pre-release marketing rush of the current industry, a vast quantity of game sales are made well prior to their actual release. Yes, pre-order sales are the new trend in the video game industry, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed. That is to say, a game can indeed live or die before its release. Watch Dogs for instance, was host to an absurd amount of pre-order exclusive content, and also held substantial hype in the lead-up to release. With a large quantity of sales confirmed even before release, Watch Dogs was almost assured financial success, even despite its eventual lukewarm reception upon release. This, alongside numerous other instances, has had the unfortunate side-effect of encouraging misleading pre-release advertising. The trend is rapidly shifting towards this pre-order focus, which can only have detrimental effects on the actual quality of the games produced. For a game to simply deliver what it promises is unfortunately becoming the exception rather than the rule.
I understand that the entire purpose of building excitement and anticipation in the lead-up to a game’s release is to generate more sales, and that’s fine. Advertising is an enormous part of the entertainment industry, as it should be. What intrigues me more about the gaming industry in particular is just how hype-reliant it is. A tepid response at E3 or a similar show can prematurely doom a game to mediocre sales. An extreme level of hype can be just as detrimental to a game’s success. Again, take a look at Watch Dogs. At its initial reveal, anticipation was incredibly high. When the game finally reached store shelves, players were immediately dismayed to find that the product in their hands was not quite what they expected. While Watch Dogs suffered from numerous problems throughout its development cycle, that initial hype level certainly contributed to the sheer disappointment of its release.
If you feel that I have been overly negative, I must state at this point that I don’t think the ‘hype train’ is an inherently flawed concept. To get wholly excited and invested in an upcoming game shows that this is indeed a hobby that you care deeply about. Anticipation is a healthy reflection of our desires and an engaging exercise to participate in for your mind. The gaming community is widespread and surprisingly tight-knit at times, so to see such a large group band together discussing and debating an upcoming title is always enlightening and informative. From a financial standpoint, such long-standing support and discussion can only serve to help keep a game relevant and promote sales, keeping the hope of future installments alive. The fact of the matter is that negative outcomes do exist and this is unavoidable. However, this shouldn’t dissuade us as a community from taking the best out of any situation.