Short lead times on games was one of the features of this year's E3 - and it's a trend we like.
I’m not sure I should be admitting this on the internet, but here it is: I’m not the biggest Beyonce fan.
There, I said it.
I like her songs well enough, but I’m probably never going to see her in concert. More than half the time I see her on radio or TV, I turn it off. Nothing against the Queen B, of course. Just not my thing.
With that in mind, let’s solve a mystery. Why, in November of 2013, did I download an entire Beyonce album and listen to the whole thing in one go?
The internet has a short memory, so let me reboot. In November 2013, Beyonce released an entire album of new songs, complete with film clips for each track, completely unannounced. There was no preamble, no Taylor Swift-style lead-up with one or two catchy singles. It just showed up one morning on iTunes.
It’s a gutsy move, and one only someone with the kind of cultural cache Beyonce has could pull off. It caused a massive stir and sparked a flurry of discussion about the future of media distribution and marketing.
But while Beyonce may be one of the few to wield this type of power, we’re now seeing this type of release strategy more often.
Just two weeks ago, Bethesda Softworks vice president Pete Hines stood on stage at E3 and announced Fallout Shelter – and that it would be available that same night. The internet, or at least the gaming-focused part of it, lost its mind. The next morning Fallout Shelter was at the top of the iOS chart.
Even Fallout 4 itself has been a surprise. It’s coming, Bethesda said last month – and it’ll be here in November. That’s about a six month release window. Rare for games of that kind of calibre.
This isn’t the first time E3 has played host to this type of surprise. At the very first E3 in 1995, Sega announced that the Saturn console – which had already been pegged for release three months later – would be available immediately.
Expect to see more of this. As the internet creates a culture in which the “here” and the “soon to be here” are given greater priority than content released a few months or even weeks ago, immediacy becomes the only true currency business can bank.
This type of strategy sits in direct opposition to the status quo for films and games, which have historically relied on the long-tail of anticipation for announcements. Ubisoft confirmed The Division two years ago, and it’s still another year away. Blizzard announced StarCraft II in 2007 - and released the game in 2010.
It’s fair to say fans are growing wary. Especially when delays are inevitably announced.
Firaxis knows this. It’s why XCOM 2 was announced last month and is arriving later this year. Of course, this strategy can backfire – U2 found itself on the receiving end of the internet’s short stick last year after forcing its first album in five years onto everyone’s iTunes library. But the principle remains; it caught people’s attention in one way or another.
The causes of this type of culture are obvious. We have access to more content than ever before, so that which catches the collective consciousness is an easy way of filtering the noise. It’s why we’re keen to talk about Game of Thrones when episode 10 hits, and forget what happened just a few weeks later.
This is true in games. A few months ago, Bloodborne discussion was flooding social media, forums and podcasts. It’s barely a few months after the hype and we’re onto something new.
I’m partly convinced this is why developers are creating more episodic content. Better to have a little discussion of your game – and anticipation - five times a year than a burst and a quick fizzle into nothing.
Such is the nature of the industry. The creation of “curator” accounts and recommendations on Steam are good ways of solving this problem. But this is a cultural shift which shouldn’t go underestimated by aspiring developers.
Because as we enter the culture of immediacy, we also leave a culture of misplaced anticipation.
Now, anticipation has its place, of course. And it can still cause a stir. I’ve never heard fans cheer as loud as Marvel’s did when Kevin Feige announced Avengers: Infinity War – and the films won’t be out until 2017 and 2018.
But consider what’s happening in the games industry. Titles and hardware that have been announced for a long time are now starting to put a sour taste in the consumer’s mouth. A little anticipation is a great drug – but you can overdose, and quickly.
Star Citizen is the most successful crowdfunding project in history. But the public nature of the game’s announcement – two and a half years in the making – means every delay is made public. Just last month we saw the FPS module of the game has been delayed indefinitely.
Virtual reality, which at various points over the past few years has been heralded as the second coming of gaming, is now starting to receive this backlash. We don’t even have solid release dates for hardware, and the Oculus Kickstarter finished nearly three years ago. Fans are growing impatient.
This is understandable, of course. This stuff takes a long time to get right. And it’s good not to release something before it’s ready. But this is why companies like Valve, for as much as we joke about the time it takes to get their projects off the ground, don’t announce anything before the details are finalised. The prospect for backlash is simply too much.
Yet this is the dilemma developers face in the “age of now”. It’s true that an announcement made too early can breed disappointment – but it’s also necessary in order to build the type of community a developer needs to build interest in a game.
At the Game Developer’s Conference this year I spoke with Soren Johnson, the former lead designer of Civ IV and now the head of Mohawk Games. Its title, Offworld Trading Company, is getting a nice following on Steam Early Access. I remember him telling me quite emphatically that Early Access has been a really good way to get feedback the team otherwise wouldn’t have gotten.
And that’s the rub. As good a developer as Johnson is, and as good as the game may be, the team simply doesn’t have the type of cultural recognition that would allow a surprise announcement like Beyonce or Bethesda. They require the type of build-up to refine the product, followed by a more traditional marketing push later on. The game wouldn’t be nearly as good otherwise.
There is no right answer here. For most small developers, they simply can’t afford to play the “surprise” approach and could benefit from a longer development time – especially for relatively unrecognised personalities who can fly under the radar. For bigger studios, too long a development is a thorn in their side – I would bet money Ubisoft may be regretting announcing The Division back in 2013.
There’s a caveat here – surprise announcements require a certain amount of established anticipation. Beyonce was always going to release a new album, and Fallout 4 was inevitable. It’s only useful announcing a surprise when everyone’s eyes are looking your way.
Of course, these surprise announcements may do independent developers even more damage. Could you imagine a developer releasing a humbl pixel art platformer on the same day Valve suddenly decides to announce Half Life 3 – and oh, by the way, Gordon’s next adventure is available to download right now on Steam?
There is one guiding principle here, which is, ‘create good content’. But that, of course, is not enough and never has been. In the age of the ‘here and now’, developers aren’t just going to have to wrestle with the traditional challenge of getting heard above the fray. The growing burden will be to make their announcements as original as the games themselves.