We’ve all been there. We see a trailer and think “That’s the game for me.” Look at those graphics! Look at what you can do! The scale! The scope! You’re so excited, you rush out and pre-order, then spend months waiting and waiting until, finally, launch is here. You grab it, pop it in, and prepare to be blown away.
But you’re not.
In recent years, there has been a lot of talk around overhyping games, from companies overselling their products, to the borderline propaganda seen at events like Spike and E3. But in this age of pre-order bonuses and hype, how can we tell the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, the Bioshock from the Haze?
Well, the first sign is:
It Looks Too Good To Be True
Oh man, how many times has this gotten me? Watching E3 at 2am, devouring trailers with my exhausted eyes, and just reveling in the endless possibilities. Thousands of ways to play! Hundreds of endings! Steampunk werewolves! 18 quintillion planets!
Half the time, these promises are empty, or at best half-truths. Sure, there are werewolves, but there’s only two in the whole game. Yeah, there are hundreds of endings, but the differences between most are a single line of dialogue or a different slide in the ending credits. We’ve got your 18 quintillion planets right here, shame there’s nothing to do on them.
Basically guys and gals, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
The Developers Are Unknown
Before you start, I know this is unfair. A lot of brand new studios turn out great games, like… Like… Huh, good point.
Look, there’s no reason a new or indie studio can’t put out a truly phenomenal game. But let’s be totally honest, how often does that happen? There are exceptions and standouts, obviously, and I almost always tend towards giving the benefit of the doubt because I want to believe they can do what they’re saying; but I’m almost always disappointed by the result.
Some stranger telling you they’re making the greatest thing ever, with no track record of doing so, should absolutely not be trusted. I don’t care how great the concept is, how cool it could be, I need to see concrete proof before I throw my dollarydoos at them. This is why I don’t follow the crowdfunding craze, because I’ve seen so much disappointment, and I won’t do that to myself. If you’ve got money to burn, go for it.
Graphics Over Gameplay
This entire list could be No Man’s Sky, because it’s a very pretty game with no real substance beyond Minecraft in Space. But that would be mean. I’m actually going to go back to The Order 1886, because that game was, and still is, beautiful. It’s a shame it’s a Gears of War clone strapped to rails, but it’s very pretty. Everyone was raving about this framerate, that texture, and barely mentioning the gameplay. Which is fair, I guess, since it arrived with so little gameplay, but we should’ve seen the signs.
Point is, the technical accomplishments of the engine don’t make a good game, they add to it. Let’s throw No Man’s Sky in here now, because it’s incredibly impressive, but pretty procedurals can’t take the place of actual shit to do. If the devs are only talking about the pretty colors, exercise extreme caution.
The Developers Are Being Too Loud
Look, I’m not going to name names. They rant. They rave. They announce a billion years in advance. Some of them board the next hype train before the first one has reached the station.
Look how quiet Bethesda was before Fallout 4, or Skyrim. Look how hushed Arkane were before Dishonored (the first one, because as far as I’m concerned they’ve earned the right to scream from the rooftops about D2). They acknowledged the game, sold it well, but delivered on their promises. Really, that’s all we ask.
I guess you’ll want an example that isn’t No Man’s Sky, huh? I’ve got two words for you: Colonial Marines. Sega raved about that, and look at it. But don’t look directly at it because, you know, you might go blind.
No Gameplay Trailers
The Technomancer is the worst game I’ve played since Haze, and I should’ve known that going in. There was almost nothing from Spiders beyond vague concepts and two fairly pitiful trailers, neither of which showed actual gameplay. That set off my alarms, because when they don’t want to show you how much fun this game is to play, it’s almost definitely not fun to play. Compare this to Bethesda’s 45 minute long Fallout 4 gameplay at E3 2015, or the ton of footage coming out around Dishonored 2 (man I’m gonna look stupid if that doesn’t turn out great), and you’ll see the difference.
This can also apply to gameplay in heavily scripted scenarios. No Man’s Sky and The Order 1886 went absolutely nuts with this. The Order showcased an on-rails 5 minute trailer set on a blimp, and always shouting about how damn good it looked (not felt). This adds insult to injury, especially when the end product is such a disappointment. NMS showed off a cool world with pink Brachiosaurus, and has anyone found anything remotely like them yet?
Horizon: Zero Dawn looks like it’s shaping up nicely and, while their demo was small, it was a demo, and gameplay vids are still floating around YouTube. That’s how you hype a game.
Ok, this seems super unfair, but bare with me. Similarly to the unknown developers, you literally cannot know how a new property will pan out. Notice that many of the games I’ve mentioned here (The Technomancer, Haze, No Man’s Sky, The Order 1886) are the first in their series. I know a pattern when I see one.
I’m really ragging on No Man’s Sky, I know, but let’s be real; those delays should’ve been massive warning flags. Not only that, but a gigantic patch just before launch? I don’t know why I expected anything different when I picked it up. That thing was a snake rattling its tail like a maniac, and we all tried to hug it anyway.
New IPs are often hit with severe delays, and there’s a technical aspect to this too; hardware capabilities change over time. Look at The Last Guardian, which was beautiful at it’s announcement, and now seems very much a product of that time. Will it hold up? I don’t know. But it’s definitely not earned any kudos from that half-decade long delay, and I’m not nearly as hopeful as I was in 2009.
This is the kicker; the one we most want to believe, and the biggest one to look out for. The worst games I’ve ever played have all promised reinvention of genres and breaking moulds; Haze swore it would reinvent the FPS with that cool drug mechanic (that lasted two levels), Naughty Bear was going to be Manhunt with teddies, and just look at what The Technomancer did while trying to innovate the action RPG.
There are some that work. Hell, there are plenty that work, and they’re considered some of the best games of all time. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind arguably changed the entire face of the fantasy RPG genre, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has shown what developers have to strive for. I bought Assassin’s Creed at launch, and it turned out great. Dishonored did beautiful things with stealth. But for every Fallout 3, there is The Order 1886; for every Assassin’s Creed, there is a Technomancer; and for every Witcher there is a Haze. You just can’t know.
I’m not saying never trust developers, and I’m not saying to never give in to hype. Hell, I bought No Man’s Sky at launch and hated it, but I still preordered the Collector’s Edition of Horizon Zero Dawn, because that looks phenomenal, and I believe it’ll be great. I also bought Assassin’s Creed and Dishonored at launch and you know what? Great ideas.
It’s about managing expectations, and being realistic about what your product is going to achieve. Sure, we all think our kids are cute, but we know that our neighbor with the dog-faced boy probably thinks the same.
If you see some developer bragging about how their super-shiny game will revolutionize the genre, and won’t let anyone else play it before launch… Well, you know.