All Hyped Up
In the gaming world hype is a strange and multi-headed beast, arousing a great deal more passion than, say book publishing or even movie-making. Book and movie fans are passionate for sure, but nobody can beat a gamer for wanting and consuming information on their game(s) of choice and then sharing it, usually at top volume, with anyone who’ll listen. It’s loud, it’s messy, and though I occasionally get cynical about it, I love it.
As game budgets have crept or even jumped up steadily over the past decade, so have their promotional budgets. With millions or tens of millions riding on a box release, the price of failure is high. These days, some game releases are as elaborate as their Hollywood counterparts (and often come with a Hollywood counterpart).
But hype begins long before the run-up to launch, as this very site and its hype-meters can attest. And while I’m not generally one to follow, gimlet-eyed, every snippet of news that’s released on the myriad games currently in development, I do try to stay more or less current. So every now and then when something pops on my radar, I’ll go check it out.
Most of the time I’ll do exactly that – check it out – and move on. Sometimes, though, a game sticks and I’ll start paying more attention. SW:TOR has been on my radar for some time, but it’s mostly been a light blip on the edges. The Secret World and Guild Wars 2, however, have had a bigger impact. I don’t even remember who first mentioned TSW to me, but I’ve been following its development for several years now. Which, admittedly, was rather easy until recently since Funcom resolutely didn’t pump up the hype for some time. In the world of hype, the very lack thereof can become its own form of hype.
I still don’t spend hours scouring every forum, blog and game site out there for information on TSW or GW2, but that’s largely because I have a life and professional obligations, and also because I got my forum-locust phase over and done with some years ago. But most of all it’s because I try to keep a healthy level of skepticism to go with my hype Kool-aid. The further a game gets into its development process, the less factual hype tends to get; the clean, pure information signal gets blurred with player expectations, opinions, and argument flash-fires over this feature or that mechanic.
I say all this from the lofty heights of my column-writing, because you all have never seen me frothing at the mouth when a new TSW interview comes out. That’s the flip-side of my skepticism: enthusiasm. It’s seductive, insidious, and above all extremely hard to resist. Once our personal hype-o-meter goes BING it’s all too easy to throw judgment out the door and go running down the Internet corridor like Homer Simpson waiting for his mail.
Because that’s probably the most important thing about hype, whether it’s accurate or not: it’s fun. What’s the point of not getting excited about products we buy purely for enjoyment? And these aren’t 2 hour movies we’re talking about: we’re going to spend days and weeks playing them, dissecting them, and raving (or ranting) about them to our friends. If we can’t get hyped-up about that we might as well join a knitting circle. (And before you lambast me, I do knit. I don’t, however, belong to any knitting groups.)
So I walk the hype-tightrope and try to stay balanced between hand-flapping enthusiasm and eye-rolling cynicism. I know how hype affects me and I’m aware of how transitory and illusory most of it is; but I still like to dip into it, with caution, because there’s nothing quite like sharing a passion with a million other people around the globe. I’ve been burned by hype before and I’ve even sworn off it completely on my blog awhile back, but MMO hype is exactly like MMO gaming: we don’t leave, we just unsubscribe for a while.
Right now however, I’m definitely a card-carrying hype-follower when it comes to TSW. There’s always a tipping-point for me when it comes to hype, and that’s when a game I’m interested in gets close to its beta phase; the time when hype-storm meets shit-storm. It becomes even more difficult to discern anything fundamentally useful about the game itself, but the excitement level tends to spike.
Beta means real people are going to be able to get their real mitts on a product and deliver some real (however suspect) opinions. As a long-time beta tester I detest the fact that some people feel entirely entitled to ignore their NDAs and post about a game they’re supposed to keep mum about, but let’s face it: this is nothing new, and game studios know exactly what’s going to happen when they enter the first supposedly super-seekrit beta phase. That’s why betas tend to start later than they used to, and it’s why they really are more like previews these days. The real testing gets done with much smaller batches of people – but we’ll get back to actual beta testing in another column.
The point for today is, once the wider beta stages start you can be sure the information floodgates will open. And the hype will start climbing, dipping, and zig-zagging depending on who says what and how many people respond. That’s when things get really interesting. I’m not one of those people who demands facts and only facts from the people who review games, whether it’s on a huge formal site like this one or on a forum with a few hundred users. I love subjective reviews, because that’s when the reviewer’s passion comes out, good or bad. If I want pure facts there are plenty of other places to get them, and what I want from a game review of any kind is to know how a game feels.
If a game doesn’t fire me up at least a tiny bit, I’m not going to bother with it – and, ironically, I can get as fired up by negative comments as by positive ones. If a reviewer fumes about the overly-complex crafting system, that will get my attention because I love overly complex crafting systems, so it doesn’t really matter whether they liked it or not: I might, and that’s what matters.
So by all means, follow the hype. It’s not a perfect system but it’s at least a good indicator of how much passion a game is arousing, and that in turn is hopefully a good indicator of how much passion is going into making it. Just remember: if you jump into the river of hype, you’ll need to swim for yourself; don’t allow it to make up your mind for you. Even friends and social circles can only be the most general of guides, because at the end of the day our playing experience is 100% individual, and that’s exactly how it should be.
PS: Thanks to everyone for last week’s lively debate! While I feel that most missed the point I was trying to make, that just means I didn’t make my point clearly enough. We may revisit the subject someday, since the quality of our MMOs and what we can and should expect from them is probably the biggest issue in the general gaming community these days. Regardless, thank you for taking the time to speak up!