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All Aboard the Hype Train

March 22, 2013

So Irrational games’s Bioshock Infinite is coming out soon.

As the only Bioshock game actually produced by the studio who made the first, critically acclaimed Bioshock, expectations are high, to say the least.

I have never looked more forward to a game release in my entire life.

I’m expecting a game of the year caliber product. On the upside I expect Elizabeth to set a new standard for friendly AI given how much time and resources the team seems to have put into her design.

This is not an uncommon expectation in the video game community. People put a lot of themselves into video games, unsurprisingly, as it is a interactive medium, and gamers view sequels as a continuation of their own story. You want your story to be as amazing and awesome as possible, and the anticipation feeds into your expectations.

Mass Effect 3, the final game in a trilogy, certainly had a ton of hype built up around it. It was certainly helped along by its impressive ad campaign. Just as impressive as the excitement that preceded its release was the dissapointment after gamers realized it did not meet their expectations.

Starcraft 2’s expansion, Heart of the Swarm, had similar expectations, and while the multiplayer implications of the release won’t be known for some time, by all accounts the single-player offering is a solid followup to Blizzard’s previous release in the franchise.

Then there is SimCity. Would the rancour raised by EA and Maxis’ handling of that games launch been as a big of a deal as it was if there wasn’t such lofty expectation and hopes in the first place? Probably not.

By what causes people to board these hype trains at all? At best, the game meets your expectations and you come away satisfied. At worst, you feel betrayed and angry at the way your precious game was handled. Logically, it would seem, it would be best for people to take a “wait and see” approach.

There are two things that prevent that.

Firstly, technology and human nature. The Internet, and the corresponding ability to find and talk to people that share your interests, created highly focused communities. When you are surrounded by people waiting for a game release, the pressure builds and the bar is raised. It’s inevitable, and normal, to desire something more if other people also covet it. Back in the day, you had a couple school friends and a copy of Nintendo Power to convince you that Game X 2: Electric Boogaloo was going to be the greatest thing of all time. Now, finding others to talk to about games is only a click away.

The second reason, however, is far less benign. More and more frequently, corporations (shareholders, to be more precise) place goals and metrics on game releases that are somewhat at odds with reality. The expectation for sequels to well received games is to sell more copies than their predecessors. To a point, this is doable. A person who passed on a new franchise because he or she was unsure of the quality might feel safer purchasing a sequel, after the original game proved the game was worth $60.

However, all but the most general interest of games hit a certain point where there simply isn’t a audience left to market to. Unless your game is a Call of Duty-like blockbuster, there exists a maximum cap on the sales achievable.

Let’s take a look at Dead Space 3. The sales expectations for that game were 5 million, far above expectations for both previous entrants in the franchise. To me, and to many other observers if the video game industry, such a number of sales was ludicrous. I can’t name a single action/horror game that has ever sold that many copies, and to anticipate Dead Space 3 selling that many copies screams of hubris.

But that’s exactly why we saw the amount of marketing we did.

Mass effect 3 was trumpeted as “the best time to jump into the series!” This is flat out wishful thinking. Anyone at all interested in Mass Effect has already made up their minds about it long ago, and no amount of marketing is going to change that.

Similarity, Dead Space was slowly transformed from a straight up horror game into an action game in order to appeal to a wider market of gamers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but “action FPS” fans already have a game to play that fills their needs: Call of Duty and its main competition, Battlefield.

When the third game in a series is released, the best case scenario is that sales stay constant, not improve. Your audience has calcified, and if you made a niche game, don’t expect it to turn into a blockbuster.

What does that have to do with Bioshock?

Well, I can guarantee that both Ken Levine, Irrational Game’s founder and creative director, and 2K Games, it’s publisher, desperately want Bioshock: Infinite to appeal to more than just the crowd that appreciated Bioshock. That crowd of gamers that appreciated the psuedo-horror, philosophical descent into Rapture, the city of objectivist ideology, and it’s incredible criticism of both Randian thought and the illusion of choice that all games give the player,  is not as large as the crowd of gamers that just wants to shoot things in the face. For Levine, promoting his game and building the hype train is a method for him to get his message out to as many people as possible. For 2K, it is to get as much money out of Bioshock as possible.

I myself have fallen prey to the various demos, AI explanations, and Ken Levine-led dramatic fanfiction readings, and find myself desperately wishing I was playing Bioshock Infinite right now. But don’t for a moment think that you were immune to all the advertising, or removed enough from the gaming community to avoid being sucked into the zeitgeist of anticipation. You weren’t and if you’re reading this, you aren’t.

Choo Choo, motherfuckers.



From → Video Games

  1. Wrote most of this on a bus, which is why only the beginning and end have links.

  2. All the Bioshock games are a disappointment if you’ve ever played the System Shock series. I have little to no expectations for this game.

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