I had a good friend write to me for the Reader Mail Blog this week asking why games are so overhyped before they come out. It was such a good question that I decided to focus my column on not only answering that question, but to finding solutions as well. What is the hype machine, how did it happen and how the heck did it get so out of control?
My old boss used to talk about "managing expectations" all the time. It's really just a fancy term for making sure you give people what they expect. Right now, for whatever reason, MMOs as a collective are failing at this. Expectations for nearly every new release are simply too high.
The reality is that these games take an eternity to develop, and even once you launch a game you suddenly are thrown in the thick of it with patches, fixes, and updates. Why MMO companies start setting their fans' expectations three or four years before they are ready is baffling.
By the time players actually go to the store and buy an MMO, they already know every single feature, every character, every quest, even end boss content. Gamers are passionate about information that will make them better gamers. So if that information is out there we will find it, use it, and memorize it before you can blink an eye and it gets committed to memory. If you begin putting this information out early you begin setting expectations on your MMO. If your game is just a demo and a few zones with two character types, does talking about it this early make sense? Does locking in your designs and making promises this early really help in any way?
I know that from a game development perspective this is hard to do because you have to show investors that there is an interest in the game, the IP, and the design. The problem is that this is done at the expense of allowing players to respond to your game as it will actually be, forcing them to get excited about ideas that might get left on the cutting room floor. If you let your marketing and PR people loose with info on the game too early, there can and will be consequences:
The most obvious of those consequences I like to call, "The Beta Effect.":
Originally, beta tests were meant as a time for developers to put their games in the hands of players for testing. It was, and always has been, a crucial process in the design of a game and should allow for companies to make the changes needed that will help the player experience. The problem is that this isn't what beta tests are about anymore. Do you think players actually fight for Beta keys because they want to help you? Probably not. They want betas to play the game because they have to wait three to four years for it to actually launch. After that amount of time, they just want to try it out. They want to get a head start. We, as gamers, want beta keys so we can learn your game before anyone so when it comes out we are already masters. I know people will disagree with me on this, but I'm sorry, by and large, it's true. This, is "The Beta Effect."
Marketing created the beta test effect and, quite frankly, it's a mess right now. Players rush for beta keys to try out games to see if they are any good. If the beta test goes badly, if there is an attempt by the developers to actually use beta as a testing pahse, complete with balance problems and bugs, good luck selling your game. You are dead in the water. The true reason for testing is completely lost in this model. Sorry marketing, you f-ed this one up on your own.
It would be nice to be able to sit here and point a finger at one company in particular, but in the end every company out there is responsible for Frankenstein's hype monster. All of this happens because companies seem to need long gaps between announcement and release. I can name a dozen games off the top of my head that announced way too early.
Setting expectations is great, but then you have to manage them. How many MMO companies have we died in the last few years because of mistakes in managing the expectations on their games? How many more will follow?
So what are the answers to managing expectations? Both players and marketing divisions can play a role in rolling back the damage that is caused by early over-hype. I will start with the players:
Keep in mind that game companies are really trying to make the best game they can, or at least the developers are. Remember that almost every developer out there is also a gamer at heart and that they want to make games they like to play. So as a player stick with them, trust them. I am not talking about trusting the corporate monsters, business people, or investors. I am talking about trusting your developers. Also if you are lucky enough to get into a beta test early on, take it seriously. Give as much feedback as you can. Use your beta key to help make a better game. Okay, they may not listen, but you do have their ear with a beta key, hopefully they will.
As for marketing and public relations, I'll start by saying that gamers want good games. If you see the team down or are unsure on what to release, remember that for gamers, it is all about their character, good game play, and most of all a fun experience. Also play the game yourself. If you work in marketing or P.R. in this business and do not actually play video games, move to another industry. I am serious. If you come across someone who is trying to promote a product they do not understand, there is going to be a train wreck. It's a guarantee. The people representing their games to the press and to fans should know the game inside and out, they are the ones who have to sell it.
In the end I think the hype machine and the consequences it brings, creates itself. Expectations are too high, announcements come too early and fans have become so hardened on MMOs that we are way too critical sometimes. Heck just read our forums. Hopefully in the future the hype will die down and we will see better games made and less overhyped junk.