Sometimes the Best Way to Hype a Game Is to Let People Play It
Many, today, will have cancelled their weekend plans. Thousands of dates, dinners, and drinks will have been cried off, and why? Because many will prefer to spend their time numbing themselves in the nose-dripping cold of a Siberian Dam. I canʼt blame them. GoldenEye 007 is out now on Xbox and Nintendo Switch, and, though we were aware that it was on the way, we didnʼt know when. On Wednesday, 25th January, the word went out: the game would release on Friday. If we had known its scheduled release date ahead of time, perhaps plans could have been postponed with a little more decorum. Then again, if we had known ahead of time then we would be deprived of the exquisite thrill of the last two days. Two days. Long enough to stoke us into a blaze of nostalgic excitement, but not so long that our anticipation stretches and dwindles into frustration.
The shadow drop is a precise art. Essentially, it entails telling the public about the game and then hitting them with a startlingly close release date – bonus points if the release date is that very day. Hence those moments, during showcases, where the host will roll a trailer and then proclaim, with barely suppressed mania, “You like that? Well itʼs available right now!” This week, those who arenʼt interested in zipping back to 1997, with GoldenEye, can zip forwards to the candy-coloured future of Hi-Fi Rush – their trip made all the sweeter for not having known that they would be taking it when they woke up that day.
Hi-Fi Rush is from Tango Gameworks, the studio that gave us The Evil Within and Ghostwire: Tokyo, two horrors that suffered, slightly, under the weight of expectation. The knowledge that the same developer was working on something so different from its previous output is a real kick precisely because it wasnʼt knowledge. A quick look at its hero, who sports a robotic arm and appears to have an iPod lodged in his chest, like one of Tony Starkʼs power cores, and I was reminded of two things. One, another hero, from long ago, who had music in his heart and delivered his share of verbal beatdowns: PaRappa the Rapper. And two, the citizens of Night City, in Cyberpunk 2077, whose bodies were smelt together from an array of metals and looked highly conducive to smashing.
If ever you needed an example of the opposite of the shadow drop, of a game buoyed on the super-heated fumes of hype, and burnt by them, Cyberpunk 2077 is it. It was announced in May of 2012 and came out in 2020, by which time it couldnʼt possibly have lived up to expectation – even it hadnʼt arrived riddled with glitches, blighted by accounts of crunch, and borderline unplayable on last-generation consoles. A shadow drop would have been impossible for a game of that size; the gears of marketing had to churn and shunt it into place, the better to insure that the work, time, and money of the developers at CD Projekt Red were met with a cash-softened reception. The month of its release the game sold thirteen million copies.
Not that Triple-A games are incompatible with the shadow drop. Apex Legends, which was made by Respawn Entertainment (the team behind Titanfall and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order), and whose development had been kept secret, was launched on the day that it was announced. In an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, the senior director of brand marketing at Respawn, Arturo Castro, described the process of delivering the game: “We knew if we were going to do this, we really just needed to rip the band-aid off.” He was talking about scrapping the Titanfall name and giving us something fresh, and about the seriesʼ fans, who, if tipped off way ahead of time, would perhaps voice their displeasure at not getting something that more closely resembled a Titanfall 3. The notion of a long marketing campaign being something to which you are yoked, something that you wish to yank free and discard, is a telling one. And there remains something complaint-proof about giving people something to play, rather than something to think about, or stew over, for months and years.
Any criticisms that one may have for the likes of Fallout Shelter, say, which was announced and released on the same day, seemed churlish. Given that there were no stakes, no sense that this had been rumbling through the pipes at Bethesda for an age, there wasnʼt much to complain about. You just got on with your day. The average Fallout game has to release into a landscape not unlike the one it depicts: hungry and hissing, irradiated by volatile opinion. Bethesda opted to dodge the usual crucible and short-circuit any skepticism. Likewise, no wonder Konami chose to launch Castlevania Advance Collection mere hours after its first trailer; that studio is used to coming under fire for its lack of activity on the likes of Metal Gear and Silent Hill, so a quick Castlevania-shaped gift must have seemed a good idea. The only downside to this approach is that people start to expect the next collection – a bundle of the Nintendo DS Castlevania games, letʼs assume – to be ticking away behind closed doors.
Of course, the shadow drop is only truly successful if you are confident that people will respond to the surprise, whether the game comes from a developer of real heft, or else it has a name. Hi-Fi Rush, for example, springs from an intriguing creative team. Tetris 99 (which landed on the Nintendo Switch hours after its showcase) had the luck of being Tetris, whichever way you span it. And James Bond will always be James Bond. If the last few days are proof of anything, itʼs that sometimes we are better off shaken than stirred.
Sunday, January 29, 2023 @ 08:25 AM
It never benefits the game because it results in frustration from some gamers when it then releases years later, or for some people, they set their expectations so high from the years of hype, only to be let down when it's not what they expected. Especially nowadays when so many of these games release buggy and broken.
One thing I miss greatly are demoes. I remember in the 360 era, almost every game had a demo. Pubs either lack the confidence in their game or they know their game is broken or sub-par and fear showing it in a demo, thinking they'll lose potential sales.
While yes, this may occur where playing a demo enabled one to dodge a bullet on a game, it also has the reverse effect by allowing someone to try out your game. There have been a number of games on the Switch that looked interesting that I wasn't willing to be buy, but played the demoes for, and eventually bought in sales. Likewise, I once tried an Artifex Mundi game's demo and loved it's relaxing, laid back design that I now buy every Artifex Mundi game whenever I catch them in a sale.
Long story short, if you let people try out your game, it might just entice them to buy it.
Sunday, January 29, 2023 @ 12:35 PM
Sunday, January 29, 2023 @ 01:45 PM
By which I mean when they go gold [game is finished and playable, and being sent out for printing to disks,] at a MINIMUM. 3-6 months is plenty time for "Hype" and it avoids the pitfalls of: Cancellations, Delays, features being advertised and then cut, fake trailers that don't represent a finished product/gameplay, years of unrealistic expectations, etc.
The is absolutely no reason we need to know a new game is coming when it's not even in pre-alpha yet and likely to be 4+ years away.
Sunday, January 29, 2023 @ 01:51 PM
That said, I'm not asking for them to be a PART of the advertising. I don't want them to release before the game does but, WITH, the game.
Don't spend the time and resources creating a vertical slice demo, just take a segment from your finished game and use that.
OR, just let us download the full game on release and play it for X minutes/upto a set point as a trial and then buy the game to continue playing [with progress retained and achievements unlocked,] like used to be the case for probably 90% of XBLA games on the 360.
We live in the age of all games having a digital release version, this should be standard practice now.
Monday, January 30, 2023 @ 06:45 AM
I also should've clarified that demoes should be from finished games, as any demo I've ever played was from a finished/already released game. If demoes were made to be marketing/hype pieces to play far ahead of a game's release, then it'd be no better than the way things are now with announcements and hype building.
Monday, January 30, 2023 @ 12:09 PM