Why preview when you can review

5 10 2005

Premature Articulation

Early promises, long regrets

The arrival of the holidays means a huge spate of new releases, some of which we’ve been following for years. For consumers, it also means a huge spate of delays, disappointments and frustration when long-anticipated games turn out to bear little resemblance to the ambitious original design the publisher announced in 2001. This experience has become so routine that it’s hardly cause for comment. Wild over-promises are pretty much the standard announcement method these days. Games now have a firm reputation for promising big and delivering little, and consumers are so used to being maltreated by the industry that they rarely complain any more.

In wild frenzies of zeal, publishers and studios leak information far too early and follow up with an avalanche of press that sometimes goes unabated for years. Interesting concepts that drum up genuine excitement turn into eye-rolls of nearly Duke Nukem Forever proportions. These games endure countless delays and feature subtractions until their potential – or, rather, their potential potential – is utterly demolished. The industry counts on the fact that gamers will buy something based on that potential rather than the reality. This trend of announcing games that barely exist in developers’ imaginations, let alone in code, has gotten out of hand. It impacts sales and antagonizes our most loyal fan base. But far worse is an oft-overlooked fact: it is one of the chief reasons that innovation has stalled in recent years.

Seem far-fetched? Consider this: games in general are complicated. Innovative games (the kind that are usually announced a decade ahead of time) are even more complicated, since they explore things as yet untried in the medium. Remember that persistent worlds, 3D, physics, multiplayer, it was all innovative once. And getting it right is a difficult, expensive, lengthy and failure-prone ordeal. For every Indigo Prophecy there is a Trespasser . But innovation is nonetheless essential to the business; especially now when technology is reaching a point where we can’t get more real than real. Innovative games, which naturally require more effort to develop than the usual crap, are very, very important. They keep us fresh and creative. Games like this don’t need the added pressure of an outlandishly premature coming-out party.

When a publisher announces an ambitious game and feeds the fire with tantalizing images and overwrought press releases, potential buyers get excited. The game goes on lists. Fansites are constructed. But when years pass and all we see are recycled screen caps on IGN and a torrent of press releases that say less and less about the game’s supposedly ground-breaking contents, consumers become frustrated. The game is removed from lists. Fansites are disassembled. Eventually consumer boredom turns into resentment. One of the first serious instances of this was Zelda II , back in 1987, and it has been getting worse ever since.

Now look at what’s happening on the inside during the sad plunge from promise to infamy. Long-delayed games are systematically eviscerated of features, usually on orders from a once-eager publisher now sick of throwing good money over bad. In time, a stripped-down version of the game may appear on shelves. But what had once been billed as a revolutionary title is now just another ho-hum FPS or RTS, bullied through production because PR couldn’t keep its mouth shut. When a game is off schedule and customers are making noise, the novel stuff is the first to go.

It is exciting to announce new titles, but there is an important lesson to be learned from Oblivion. Bethesda quietly started work on that game pretty much the day after Morrowind shipped, yet the public has only heard about it in the last six months or so. It is (as far as I know) right on schedule, and there was no added pressure of countless press releases promising features that developers already knew wouldn’t make it into the game.

Bethesda wised up after Daggerfall . That game was too ambitious and was announced too early. What people don’t seem to perceive is the connection. Bold design elements are hard to add and easy to remove; that’s why untimely proclamations have such a deleterious effect on creativity. Bethesda had been pimping Daggerfall ever since Arena , they shipped a broken game, and it was a disaster. With Oblivion , they got it to where they wanted it before the announcement. Half Life 2 was supposed to work the same way, though Valve did get a little overeager in 2003. Still, imagine how much worse it would have been if we were deluged with Half Life 2 trivia from 1998 until release.

A lot of things are wrong with games today, in business and substance. The issue of early announcement may or may not be one of the more serious. But look at it this way: the games industry is guilty of consistently promising content that’s not delivered in the product. It happens in hardware, too. The solution is not to promise less. It’s important to dream big. But keep quiet until the game can be evaluated on its own alpha-level merits. Or if the temptation to blab is just too great, consider an alternative distribution model. Tale Worlds is doing quite well on beta sales of Mount & Blade – they’re basically selling an unfinished game, at an unfinished price, and releasing new pieces over time. Valve’s episodic model for Half Life semi-sequels could easily be employed for similarly as-it’s-finished distribution.

Personally, I would prefer to buy games finished, in a box. But that’s not happening now; the pressure to get the games into the box has outstripped the expectation that they be finished. An industry that feeds on anticipation had better deliver, or it will pay when that anticipation turns into disappointment or anger. “When it’s done” is never an acceptable release date. By the time gamers hear about it, the developer should know when it’s going to be done. A product announcement isn’t a sacred trust, but it should be more than an excuse to get a preview feature.

by Matthew Sakey

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