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Rock, Paper, Shot Takes: Hype, Bullshots & No Man's Sky

Physician heal thyself?

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A (hopefully) weekly series, in which the RPS hivemind gathers to discuss/bicker about/mock the most pressing (or at least noisiest) issues in PCgamingland right now. Hot Takes are go.

Alec: OMG THIS IS GOING TO BE THE MOST AMAZING HOT TAKE EVER. By which I mean, today we are discussing hype and videogames and if that helps or hurts them and helps or hurts us. The prompt for this is Hello Games’ chat with Pip last week, in which they mourned the crushing weight of expectation placed upon them as a result of having made some pretty good trailers for their space exploration game. I guess we’re going to struggle to avoid a touch of physician heal thyself here, but anyway. How do we feel about how the world feels about No Man’s Sky?

Adam: I’ve already started referring to No Man’s Sky as first-person Spore, which seems doubly cruel now that I’ve read Pip’s interview. It was already sort of cruel but I meant it affectionately. As affectionate a way as it’s possible to thrust a Spore into somebody. And I quite liked Spore, for what it was rather than for what it was supposed to be.

And I think that’s the heart of the issue with No Man’s Sky for me. It’s a flexible and vague enough premise – and we could even argue the title is a statement of sorts along those lines – that could be all things to all people. And we all want the ideal game, whatever that might be. There’s an inherent belief that anything is possible now, that we’ve reached some sort of plateau where development teams can achieve whatever they set their minds to because that’s how technology works these days. It’s a lovely belief but it’s nonsense, isn’t it? The everything-goes template leads to all sorts of half-finished half-baked things.

Basically, I blame Minecraft.

John: Over the years (and years (and years)) of doing this job, I’ve developed an enormously powerful barrier to hype. So I see the fuss at E3 2014, and again this year, and I think, “Those are nice trailers.” I think it’s Just Cause that has trained me better in this than anything else. The crushing disappointment that the games always let the game get in the way of the stupendous fun they show in every promotional glimpse is the lesson we all need to learn. So while those early NMS trailers showed me something with unfathomable potential, it’s instinctive now to think, “I look forward to finding out which narrow path through that potential this game will be taking.”

Graham: I can understand why Hello Games want to now downplay the hype. It sounds like they wanted to create a game about mystery and wonder, and kind of have, but are now faced with the terrifying prospect of what happens when that game comes out and the mystery and wonder almost immediately evaporate.

In response to this kind of thing, I like to do something similar to what John describes – I divorce the hype from the reality of the game. And that means that I’m quite happy to ride along, watching trailers, being entertained by what things might be. There’s a pleasure to that all in itself. See also: Star Citizen, a game bought by people who want the fantasy of ‘living’ in space, and who get that fantasy as much or more through the buying of unreleased virtual objects as they ever will from the game itself.

Pip: I don’t know that it was quite that with Hello Games. From the interview it felt with No Man’s Sky they wanted to communicate their own excitement about the game and to have an audience reciprocate that. You want to know that the potential players are excited about what you’re working on, right? Generally, Sean Murray described the emotional trajectory for developers on that front as disappointment followed by acceptance. With No Man’s Sky it actually had that excitement effect and i got the impression that that had been very much the desired but so-totally-unlikely outcome from their point of view.

I think a big part of what helped with the hype and which they’re now fighting is their resistance of a typical trailer structure with a bunch of familiar set pieces and explicit instructions or verbs. I think loosing viewers from those familiar moorings is simultaneously the thing that gave the desired excitement and also hamstrung them. We’ve said this elsewhere – Adam did just now – but it let the game be everything to all people and it did that for a long time. We know more now but that sort of imaginary feature creep is still going on because there’s enough that’s still unsaid. I guess what I wanted to say particularly is that some kinds of game hype are based on misrepresentation but I don’t think that’s the case here. Here it was, and continues to be, the result of omission.

Alec: A big part of me is happy to be probably recklessly over-excited about No Man’s Sky specifically, because that excitement comes on a conceptual level rather than a ‘man want to shoot all the guns right now please’ level. I see that space-place and I want to be in it; I like the idea of being in it, and in a way I don’t need the actuality of it, just the theory of it. I fully expect to be at least a little deflated by the finished thing, but I’m enjoying the period of anticipation, the What If? space game daydream. It’s a very different sort of excitement or hype to screaming with testosteronal joy because a game with a number in the title got announced or there was footage of a big soldierman holding two machine guns at once. It’s excitement for escapism rather than excitement for a firm cynically meeting my demographic’s tried and tested interests.

John: But do you not think there’s a danger that your deflation can be born of your imagined expectation, and as such, your opinion of the game that is, is unfairly tainted by the game you pretended could have been?

Graham: Only if you ever had the expectation that the game could live up to your imagination in the first place. And I no longer do. I’ve been disappointed by games before, of course, but now I’ve realised that excitement and expectation can be two entirely separate things. So I figure I know nothing about games until they’re out.

I’m very zen, me.

Alec: There are two entirely different No Man’s Skies as far as I’m concerned. The game, and the fantasy of the trailers. I don’t actually conflate them. It’s more of an ‘oh, wouldn’t it be nice if a game could find those soaring, sensory emotional triggers?’, like music, rather than an actual belief that it’s going to achieve anything like that. It’s a game. I know what games do and don’t do, the vast majority of the time at least, and I don’t expect anything to make my jaw drop. (Though VR has at least some potential to change that). Like Adam, I’m expecting something like Spore, but more coherent and elegant, from the game itself. The fantasy game is almost the fantasy of a romance before you know the person; it’s fun to imagine the idealised wonder of being with them, without going so far as to believe it would truly be like that, unless you’re a frightening stalker. Most game reveals and footage don’t do even that, however: they’re just tentpoles ordering you to be excited about explosions. I guess admiring No Man’s Sky’s concept from afar is a game in itself. But I doubt everyone is consciously having this sort of dichotomy, and that’s the ULTIMATE SPACE GAME dilemma No Man’s Sky finds itself in, as what’s in reality an exploration game is suddenly being interpreted as Star Wars.

John: I think it’s fair to say, as well, that Hello Games are a little guilty themselves. Even in the recent IGN video, there’s an element of “Oh, um, yeah, maybe,” about elements like ship building, multiplayer and whether it even exists, piracy, and so on. They keep throwing away little comments that are such massively excited tidbits, that also seem like they’ll be a touch unlikely to be fulfilled.

Adam: Maybe this is a slightly tedious way of looking at it but with No Man’s Sky, I was waiting for the ‘verb’ to drop. What will I do? Looking and flying and walking seems like enough, but depends on enormous variety (which I haven’t seen enough of yet), great art design (which they do seem to have) and a good feel (which I can’t get a sense of at all – looks floaty).

I think I’m getting a handle on the rest of it now and the shooting doesn’t look very interesting and the data collection seems like ‘looking at things’ converted into a way to grind for resources or experience. This might make me sound dour. I tend to assume things are going to be a bit shit – or at least a bit like at least a dozen other things I’ve played – until I’ve had a chance to prove that they’re not a bit shit. I love being won over though. The Witcher 3 completely won me over and I did not feel excited about it at all before release. That’s a better feeling than any amount of Hype.

strong>Pip: Thing is, that worked because you got a copy of the game as part of work, right? That game had a chance to win you over because you had that copy to play. We play a lot of shit and we get used to that but as a consumer you wouldn’t take that approach. You wouldn’t buy something expecting it to be mediocre or disappointing and then have that lovely sunshine moment. Or at least not unless you had more money and free time than [SOMEONE THAT HAS A LOT OF MONEY AND FREE TIME – MAYBE SOME KIND OF OLD TESTAMENT KING LIKE NEBUCHANEZZAR].

Adam: You should have mentioned ‘sense’ as well as free time. I bought the first two Witcher games because people I respected and trusted told me that they were good, and ended up hating them. I’m just about stubborn and foolish enough to have bought the third one as well, based on how excited people were once it had been released. And that’s the important part, I guess. I was quite happy to let my doubts drift away as soon as people had it in their hands, were playing it and articulating why it was good, or interesting, or the Best Thing Ever.

Pip: That’s fair – I was going to go on to say that that’s where reviews or friend recommendations start to come in but I got bored with typing and started to eat a mango. From the publisher’s point of view, none of that is money in the bank, though, which is why there’s such a huge push for pre-orders and so on – basically anything that circumvents those critical or uncertain processes. Obviously we all know that. But something I’ve found interesting is the ways the hype can be attractive and feed on itself. I’ve never midnight-queued for anything before or since but my sister and I were kicking around at home years ago and realised it was a Harry Potter book launch night. I’m not a massive fan and neither is she but we thought it would be fun to go and be part of the hype.

So it’s just after 11pm and we pile in the car – her, her now-husband and me – and head off to the Asda just outside town. There’s a queue of people snaking through the store, some people are dressed up and the guys just ahead of us in the line are singing a song from a Harry Potter puppet video that had gone viral. Music from the movie is coming over the sound system and I could hear snippets of conversations where readers were speculating about what would happen next. It was just pretty great, sitting in this bubble of other people’s excitement. I’ve sometimes wondered about midnight-queuing for Call of Duty, just so I can see if it’s the same but I guess that’s a fading thing now because of day zero early access and the like.

I know a lot of hype is rubbish and results in disappointed consumers, but I wanted to make sure to say that it’s sometimes a fun and nice thing to get caught up in and there’s value in that experience even if the resulting product is a bit duff.

Adam: Definitely. I was so excited about Dark Knight Rises that I saw it at a midnight screening and then the next day with a different group of people before I decided it was a bit of a duffer. Wouldn’t trade the experience of being excited beforehand though. Collective positivity is rare enough as it is.

Alec: It doesn’t necessarily need a physical crowd. I’ll never forget the day Half-Life 2 was due to unlock on Steam. It was pre-twitter, but IMs, texts and message boards were going crazy everywhere – is it now, have you got it yet, when when when? It wasn’t about the game itself, it was about getting the game, the dream of the game, a collective fantasy. I wouldn’t give that kind of thing up, even if I would prefer there to be less crazy hooting at marketing material.

Adam: Do any of us have a designer, studio (ERK) franchise or (VOM) brand that we GET HYPE for? I noticed some stirring of loins when Deus Ex and Warhammer are mentioned, I can tell you. Silent Hill does it for me, even though they’ve been bloody awful for ages. There are developers that I have a certain amount of faith in though. Earned and not blind, but faith nonetheless.

On page 2 – The team’s favourite studios, Ubisoft and bullshots, big corps vs indies

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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