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

Physician heal thyself?

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Alec: It’s hard for me not to get carried away when a new Firaxis project is announced, though that’s not from a THIS WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING mindset and more ‘oh good, I want a new way to pleasantly while away 100 hours of time without talking to anyone this Winter, and there’s a certain quality threshold they usually meet.’ And, at the risk of saying Candyman three times into the mirror, I will always sit up and pay attention whenever Molyneux announces something new. I do so love to see and hear the high concepts despite being well aware that the actuality is often a mess.

Pip: No, but come back to me if someone announces a Midsomer Murders MMO.

John: It’s odd to realise that no, I don’t think I do. If Matthew Brown makes another puzzle game I’ll be hyped, I guess. Amanita seem flawless. But only at release, not before. When it comes to pre-release guaranteed excitement, perhaps this job has worn it away for me? Or perhaps it’s actually a rare healthy thing my mind is capable of doing. Thankfully, sheer delight at a game’s being great when I’m playing it remains and thrives for me.

Graham: More Deus Ex from the Human Revolution team, more Mirror’s Edge, and if Derek Yu were to announce a new game; all of these things make me some measure HYPE. But there’s always the thought that maybe they’ll be guff.

I think Hello Games are definitely responsible for the hype they’ve generated, but also that being at the core of that maelstrom can be scarier than just thinking, ‘Oh, these people might not like our game when it comes out.’ Past a certain point, people’s desire turns to a kind of frothing madness, and there’s been some of that in response to No Man’s Sky. People sending threatening messages over social media just slavering for a release date, that kind of thing.

Remember when all that water got into Hello Games’ office and wrecked all those computers? It was just looking for a few new screenshots.

Adam: Here’s an odd thing. In the film world, actors go around hyping a project and then move onto something else. Because there’s no equivalent of the actor in games, devs are hyping their own projects. There’s no real spokesperson who is both within and without the team – actors are basically like mercenaries, is what I’m saying.

Alec:I guess the Xbox and PlayStation heads, Phil Spencer and whatnot, do that a bit? And that Major Nelson bloke. Every release is the new biggest bestest ever thing, until the next one. I think every big publisher and developer is now trying to have a YouTube friendly community type who’s very good at saying “hey guys, what is happening?” in a big voice too.

Adam: CORRECT. Hadn’t thought of that. If only Ian Computing would come back to do the job for PC devs!

I can’t be the only person who found it weird seeing Steve Gaynor on stage at E3 for Fullbright’s Gone Home follow-up Tacoma. It just looks like the wrong environment for the kind of dialogue I’d expect. And now Tacoma is the cover of Game Informer. Do you think the fact that what we might have considered niche genres and smaller teams being part of that cycle is new, and is it a good thing? Perhaps tempering the louder shooty-noise? Or is the whole thing just a rotten big ol’ train that needs to be derailed?

John: I think it’s a rather concerning attempt by the big publishers to see what milk they can squeeze out of this teeny teat before it’s wrung dry and ew. I can see why the small studios are saying “YES PLEASE!” but I fear it will hurt more of them than it helps.

Alec: I suspect there’s some interest not just in ‘small apparently niche game sold $$$ and we want a bit of that’, but also that the console firms don’t then have to deal with / pay conniving and monolithic publishers to get them on their systems. Direct tap. The platforms want to become the publishers.

John: But of course the Gone Homes and the Stanley Parables did this without any of the publisher hype machine. So it’s the ancient creaking machine attempting to force something to happen that absolutely does not require it. That’s why it worries me. It’s millions being spent, rather than millions being earned. It’s like a corporation that makes giant nails seeing the money being made by artisan crystal sculptors and saying, “Quick, let’s get the giant hammers we use to demo our giant nails!”

Graham: I like this seven-minute talk by Chris Hecker, the designer of Spy Party, called No One Knows About Your Game. He talks about how he’s been developing and promoting Spy Party, a relatively successful and well known indie game, for years and years, but he still regularly goes to events and meets informed people in the industry who have never heard of it. Although Gone Home didn’t need the massive hype machine to be a success, it’s a rare exception, and it’s probably still true that it would have been a larger success if they’d got it on stage at E3 at any point. There are always more people to tell about your game, basically.

Relevantly, Hecker also worked on Spore. He has a line in the talk: “You cannot overhype a game, you can only underdeliver.”

John: I can see that it could have been a bigger success for a publisher investing in it, but I’m very suspicious that it could have been a bigger success for a small indie team. They’re getting the big cut on their own. They get the very tiny cut once The Machine is involved.

Alec: This is something to revisit in a year or so I think, when that first big wave of indies’ second, console-backed projects has actually come out and we found out if they earned as much as MS and Sony hoped or not. It may be like XBLA’s eventual spluttering and they then just revert to FPS sequel type again.

The elephant in the room: our role in all this. I like to think that we’re not as breathlessly susceptible to marketing as some other places, but we do get excited sometimes and we do say stuff like ‘cor, you should watch this.’ We sow seeds even if we’re appalled if we then see a bunch of people going ‘ok, pre-ordered’. Is there a way to safely divorce our honest excitement about what something might be based on our knowledge of its creators and what is technologically or financially plausible from the potential effects of sharing that with people who perhaps aren’t as… seasoned in hype-dispersion as we are?

John: I think our efforts to say, “This video is really cool, but we don’t know what the game will be like,” are a big part of fighting against it, really. Also, we’re quite good at saying, “DO NO PRE-ORDER GAMES, YOU COMPLETE TWITS.”

Pip: Something I try to do is keep in mind that I’m not a normal consumer of this stuff anymore. I read a lot of the Advertising Standards Agency’s rulings and used to read copyright law stuff and a lot of the time it’s about working out how a reasonable person would interpret given information. “Reasonable” isn’t an exact quality here, but I keep the idea of that person in the back of my mind because it helps to pick out or flag up potential problems with advertising materials like trailers. I also keep track of weasel words/phrases like “In-engine footage”.

But because we write as individuals with personalities I also like to communicate when I’m excited about things. Right now I’m excited about the upcoming Talos Principle expansion but in writing about it I still set out the reasoning (the original being one of my best games of 2014, great puzzles, strong writing, and the expansion bringing back the same team and promising more puzzles). I guess it always comes back to how you explain your excitement and, in the event that you’re doing something like a preview interview, it’s about making it clear that these are the developer intentions rather than finished product, and giving some indication of how well they’ve substantiated them so far.

Alice: I’ll never have time to play even a minor fraction of the dozens of games that are released every day, so I’m happy to experience them as ideas passing before my eyes and through my brain.

Adam: I can quite happily divorce the marketing from the reality of the eventual thing but if I’m not seeing anything that communicates how the game will actually function, I lose interest no matter how well-crafted a trailer or thingummy might be. I like the Dishonored approach, also in Dishonored 2’s out-of-engine video. “These are things that you will be able to do but it won’t look quite like this.” The trailers are fun and they tell me something – it helps, of course, that the first Dishonored actually delivered on what its early cinematic videos showed. Blink seemed like such a ludicrous concept, to make fast exciting edits in a video, but it worked.

Do you think Ubisoft’s proposal to banish the bullshot is meaningful in any way? As in, will it actually happen and will it make any difference even if it does? There was a lot of stink about The Witcher 3 just after release because of the ‘visual downgrade’. I can see that it happened but a) I don’t care because it looks fantastic and b) I don’t know the reasoning behind it and don’t assume that it was entirely due to intentional deception. But maybe I SHOULD care more about that sort of thing. This is the problem with divorcing myself from marketing too much, perhaps.

John: Ubisoft does like to say it’s going to do things.

Alec: I pretty much presume that anything I see in an initial video or on stage at a big conference will end up looking a whole lot less impressive once I’m squinting at it from my sagging office chair in a year or two’s time, but then I’ve spent 15 years peering professionally/cynically at the games industry and might not be the norm. I was surprised by the response to The Witcher thing, in a ‘well, duh’ sort of way, but maybe in a sense it was a protest against that behaviour being a given rather than an attack on that specific game. If between that and Batman publishers now opt for more realistic or honest marketing I’ll be very happy, though I can’t imagine it will last – it’s a perpetual graphics arms race out there, after all.

John: My conclusion is, treat game trailers how you treat movie trailers. They’re a fun thing to binge watch of an evening, with no expectation that it could be representative of the final product. But enjoy them! Enjoy the experience of them. Just don’t let them pre-determine your experience of a game you’ve not yet played. Don’t pre-order, wait for reviews, and enjoy the heck out of the game when you’ve got it.

Alec: Unless it’s an adventure game. Definitely don’t enjoy those.

Adam: But movie trailers ruin really bad movies! Except this one, which Graham and I were enjoying earlier this week:

Alec: But hey, that remote-controlled rocket-fist in MGS V looks like the best thing ever, right? I pre-ordered it nineteen times on the spot.

Alice: I am hopeful that No Man’s Sky will introduce a new generation to the pleasures of walking simulators.

John: *favourites Alice’s sentence*

Alec: Say something controversial, Alice. Everyone wants it.

Alice: I don’t think Dear Esther is a real walking simulator.

Alec: GASP

John: Dear Esther wasn’t a proper anything.

Adam: I am one of the only people in the world who adored A Machine For Pigs and yet Dear Esther left me cold and grumpy.

Alec: The problem with you people is that you just don’t want to jump off radio masts. Oops, spoilers.

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Alec Meer

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

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