Why does the preview/review cycle of gaming lead to a game looking great before release, but then becoming a disappointment at the final hurdle?
It’s a pretty standard story in the world of game marketing – game is announced, people get excited, game gets previewed, journos get excited... game is launched...
And the game pretty much sucks.
The latest iteration of the cycle is Danger Close’s Medal of Honor: Warfighter, and it’s pretty much the platonic ideal of the situation. On every occasion that I’ve seen the game in action, I’ve either loved it, or come up with excuses why it wasn’t ideal at the time, and so didn’t judge it too harshly. So, I know there are likely folks out there who have pre-ordered the game based on what I and other reviewers have said, only to now feel remarkably disappointed.
The same thing happened with Homefront. Played well enough at preview events, seemed fantastic in small chunks, and then, at release. A stinker.
So how does this happen? What makes a game seem great in short, controlled bursts, but underwhelming at launch?
We are you (koo-koo-kajoo)
Part of the... well, I don’t want to call it a problem; issue? Yeah, issue. Part of the issue is that a lot of game writers, like me, are gamers. We like games, and a lot of the time we’re damn excited to be getting the access we have to code, developers, events, and all kinds of cool stuff. So you’ll rock up to a preview event, and there’ll be beers being handed out, killer gaming PCs (or, you know, just consoles – more on that later), industry mates, and maybe a big name developer or two.
Hell, at a Duke Nukem Forever event, there were pole-dancers.
So these events are designed to give anything a positive spin – and, often, it works. After all, this is the job of public relations, and there are a lot of really good people in the Australian gaming PR industry. I’m not saying there’s anything dodgy in this practice, mind – but it’s worth noting that this is how things work. And PR and spin, especially at big events like E3, is a huge part of the hype process – it’s their job to make things sound exciting and cool
It is our job to offer relatively honest and fair opinion, to try and cut through to the truth; but that can get skewed by the hype around a game, by events and trips and all kinds of fun stuff. We’re only human, and at times there’s certainly the unspoken worry that if you get too critical on a game you’ve been flown to New York just to SEE a half hour of, well, you won’t get that opportunity again.
So, while there’s always a lot of hype to see past, the way games are often shown off in preview form has a huge impact, too. Take Warfighter, for instance. In two out of three previews, I loved the game. At E3 and at our own community event at Atomic HQ, the game played smoothly and was an absolute blast. So how then is the game we played and loved both in Los Angeles and Sydney that different from the final product?
Well, for one thing, both those preview events ran over a LAN. LAN play is missing altogether from the final game, and without access to proper net-hosted matches, you just don’t see the flaws of the final version – and that’s usually the point. The code we get to play on is usually highly polished code designed for the preview process, so, often, it works very differently to full, final games. Over a LAN, Warfighter’s multiplayer was a tense, exciting affair that worked flawlessly – except for when forum regular Krispy89 kicked the router and killed our network.
Over the net, in reality... it’s an obviously different affair. But then, it’s an obviously different product. Preview code doesn’t have to handle match-making, or map transitions, or more than a limited number of players.
The hardware a game is previewed on can also have a pretty heavy influence on how that game is viewed. Personally, I’m a PC gamer, and I have a bias toward that platform. Run it on PC, let me play it with a keyboard and mouse, and I’ll usually be a bit more disposed to like a title; the reverse is also true. I kinda suck at shooters on console, for instance; which means I’ll often be more forgiving with a game. That’s what happened with my one dalliance with Warfighter’s singleplayer before release, which was on Xbox.
Though, actually, there were three issues in play there.
One was the aforementioned wow factor of the event itself – I was on pretty good adrenaline rush, so you could have put cardboard cutouts in front of me and I would have been excited. But hardware was a big issue too – being a shooter, I discounted the way it played because of my own personal shortfalls at console-based shooters. I basically gave it the benefit of the doubt, because I’m just not much of a judge of console games.
The third issue is something else that can often lead a writer to err on the side of a positive preview – context. At events we often see mere snatches of a game, and usually from somewhere in the middle of a narrative in the case of singleplayer, or with pre-levelled or boosted characters in the case of multiplayer. It’s a somewhat artificial experience, and you tend to forgive any sense of confusion in a game’s story as being due to the fact that you’re missing out on no-doubt important bits.
Ultimately, though, I think there’s a pretty heavy degree of wishful thinking that goes on in the entire process. No one actually wants to see a bad game released, so it’s almost like there’s a degree of, I don’t know... polite collusion going on? I’d much rather look at everything I see and play as having the possibility of being good, especially when I’m seeing so little of the game at any given time. And that little bit is always heavily managed toward the positive to begin with.
It does occur to me that it might be unfair to the game-buying public when writers look for the positives in a game; but it would be just as unfair on the developers to look at a half hour of gameplay and then be overly critical.
There is a middle ground to be walked, of course, and sometimes we manage that. But, sometimes, we do become little more than another – albeit unwitting – part of a game’s promotion cycle. I don’t really have a solution to that one, either, apart from maybe suggesting that while it’s important to read and critically consume previews, trailers, and the rest of the hype, it’s perhaps also important to wait, to ignore pre-order bonuses (as shiny as they are), and just see what those first-week reviews (and yes, always read LOTS of reviews) say, see what your friends think, and keep an eye on forums and other social media.
You’ll save yourself money and grief, and maybe make me feel a little less guilty.