2016 has seen the launch of many new AAA-games and gaming franchises. It was a year where developers were desperate to launch their own long-running franchises that would bring in the big bucks, doing whatever necessary to make it happen. Yet a surprising number of the games released have utterly failed to hit the mark. In some cases, the hype surrounding these titles completely enveloped the games they were trying to serve. In others, it was failure upon landing that undid the potential, relegating a good number of titles to afterthoughts. Has 2016 finally taught the industry an important lesson about the dangers of over-hyping, and will the industry listen to this lesson?
One of the biggest casualties in terms of hype has been several new franchises that tried and failed to launch themselves into AAA-gaming royalty. Ubisoft’s The Division arrived in early 2016 to an almost deafening amount of talk about potential sequels and spin-offs, the game being touted as the next generation of multiplayer action games. Yet despite initial sales breaking records – it very quickly disappeared from the gaming subconscious. It didn’t take long for stories of the games user base drying up among tales of cheaters, slow arrival of patches and a lack of genuinely interesting content to rise up. Sure some of this was being prodded by a gaming media desperate to pick at the carcass, but gamers spoke with their feet. They weren’t turning up to play and it left the game feeling dead by the summer.
Was it a bad game? Not really. Reviewers at the time praised the general framework and compared it favorably to other third person offerings. The big issue was Ubisoft went too hard on the hype – creating the illusion of a game that didn’t exist. What was a competent (if slightly unfinished) third person shooter was being heralded as something more; and when gamers bought into that dream and got something a little less exciting – the disappointment was inevitable. There’s nothing wrong with hyping your game, but to place so much stock in a title that’s not guaranteed or established seems almost ludicrous. It’s taken almost nine months for The Division to find its feet – yet most of those who bought into the game at launch probably won’t ever return to see those improvements. First impressions count.
Yet that failure pails entirely in comparison to the abject failure on the parts of Hello Games and Sony. In the build up to No Man’s Sky, the media at large were desperate to caress information from Hello Games founder Sean Murray. A number of high profile websites ran incredibly flattering pieces, from the BBC to the Guardian to Polygon to IGN and beyond. Yet what frustrates looking back, none of these outlets were being critical with the space they were being given. Instead of asking the questions gamers wanted answering, they made Sean Murray sound like the second coming of Christ – a man who could do no wrong. They took everything he said at face value.
Some even went beyond this; painting Murray as the kind of visionary that would change the industry (as this BBC article awkwardly slants towards). Yet where was the evidence of this? Hello Games revealed next to nothing about the game in the 24 month build up to its release. When it won all those Game of E3 awards back in 2014, we knew next to nothing about the title. Two before release we still knew next to nothing – despite all those wonderfully flattering pieces. Where did the critical analysis go?
It meant that hype became a dangerous presence. Talk of infinite planets and trailers that ultimately didn’t reflect the true experience were creating an ever shaky ground for the hype machine. It got so bad that the The No Man’s Sky community became exceptionally hostile – lashing out in incredibly unpredictable manners. The gaming media feeding the beast with careless previews, failing to critically hit the game or its lack of information. Things only got worse when the game finally landed, and it was revealed that the content didn’t come close to the fantasy being painted by media outlets. The hype imploded and No Man’s Sky became one of the biggest gaming bombs ever dropped. It created such a negative tide of feedback and discussion that we’d be amazed if Hello Games or Sean Murray is ever taken seriously again.
Hype is an important part of any video game.It’s not as easy as saying it “should” or “should not” exist. In an industry that relies on word of mouth as heavily as the video game industry – hype is the natural reaction. Yet there’s a feeling that in recent times its come to represent something of a lumbering shadow hanging over some titles. The failure to deliver isn’t entirely on the video game developers; it’s the marketing machine that surrounds them which lets these games down. No Man’s Sky could easily have existed as an indie darling – the developers had already carved out a niche as such for themselves. Yet it was Sony’s decision to elevate the game to a AAA-title, throwing appearances on Conan and putting Sean Murray in front of the international press that ultimately made the game seem bigger than it was.
I don’t believe for any amount of time the game would have been lauded on such a scale if this hadn’t happened. Likewise if The Division had been allowed to grow its fan base organically – it wouldn’t have suffered such a public failing. Yes it’s important to get returns on video game investments as soon as possible – but when the cost is the risk of such negative feedback and such lasting scorn on a brand – is it really worth it?
All this discussion is without addressing some of the years other big bombs. The likes of Street Fighter V (Capcom) and Battleborn arrived with huge hype but crashed out the gates. Lack of communication suffocating the discussion around them and condemning these games to negative press. There have been other titles too that fell foul of marketing mismanagement. Gamers not told what awaited them when they purchased or failure to build hype adequately.
How can this be fixed then? It requires effort from all sides for change to ever truly be enacted. Publishers need to be realistic with their games; and stop trying to create AAA-hits out the gate. If a game isn’t ready for showtime, tell gamers. We live in an age where games can be improved on and patched – so why not take advantage of that? If SFV had been released to this, maybe it’s early reception wouldn’t have been harsh. It might also have saved titles such as The Division from awkward reactions when they landed.
As well as this, perhaps the gaming press at large needs to stop being drawn in by such unknown entities. Instead of writing fluff pieces and conducting endless swooning interviews with developers; perhaps it’s our role to be more critical in the build-up to a video games release. Part of the reason hype runs so rampant is that journalists attempt to cosy up; preventing proper critical discourse. If gamers aren’t being given the proper information they need, how can they make a truly informed decision.
Hopefully lessons can be learned from 2016’s biggest flops. The games that promised much, but fell to hype.