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

Physician heal thyself?

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

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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