Experience Points: The Gearbox Effect: Over-promising Games
During 2012, Mass Effect 3 graced our consoles and PCs. We were brimming with excitement at the finale to Bioware’s magnum opus, and one which was deftly seen by many hardcore “fans” as a falsehood which didn’t live up to Bioware’s promises and hype. This incident led to a huge backlash and a significant amount of DLC was added to the game to quieten the clamouring of hardcore Mass Effect fans, who felt betrayed by the overzealousness of the promises made by Bioware.
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The keyword in the whole fiasco was “promise”. Speed up to 2013 and we’ve already had another major scandal involving Gearbox with their publically and critically reviled game Aliens: Colonial Marines. Gearbox has been accused of releasing a sub-par and unfinished product to fans with full knowledge that the game itself was unfinished. This was further confounded by the fact that some sketchy financial activity had occurred between Sega and Gearbox, where funding was being appropriated for development of other IPs (most likely Borderlands 2), rather than the Aliens franchise as per the agreement between Sega and Gearbox. All of which can be read up on in my previous column.
Gamers were upset by the betrayal in the trust they had placed in Gearbox and that many had wasted money on pre-orders, without reassurance of what the quality of the game was. They had not realised that developers don’t make solid promises. Gamers have slowly come to the realisation that even the most trustworthy of developers don’t keep the promises they make because it is the business of developers and publishers to excessively market their own product. They over-hype games so people pre-order a game in droves and sell the “promise” of an idea by backing it up with mere words. Like Caveshen said in the column linked, we should take everything related to a game with a pinch of salt. We can only know the true reality of game once we have actual gameplay right before our eyes, or alternatively we are actually playing the game of interest. Because even live demonstrations at E3, where tech demos are shown to the public, can be false. Much like what happened with the Aliens: Colonial Marines tech demo.
The sad reality is that over-promising and over-hyping games has become not only a standard marketing ploy by publishers and developers for their games, but is fully ingrained within gaming culture itself. It is now a natural occurrence for games to not meet the promises set out by developers. There are a few developers, and they are rare indeed, who live up to expectations. However, in some scenario, those developers could be swayed by the attraction of over-hyping their games and making as much profit as quickly as possible. That is what the whole pre-order culture for games is about, and we are at a stage now that games which have no real gameplay footage to speak of are up for pre-order.
An example of this is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag which is up for pre-order as of this week, and we only recently came to know of its existence. In the case of a game like Aliens: Colonial Marines, Gearbox relied on pre-orders to make up much of their initial profits for the game, and this seemed to be the strategy from the start, despite the unfinished nature of the product shipped to consumers. Gamers were misguided by a clever campaign of over-hyping and misinformation on the part of Gearbox. This is a worst case scenario, but it is still so relevant as this has the potential to become the norm for AAA games. This is far worse than the hype and promises of Peter Molyneux, David Cage’s equation of emotion in games with the polygon count of character models and even day one DLC.
Developers who follow such a process lose the trust of gamers, the trust of the consumers of their products. Gamers will vote with their wallets and 2013 will be an interesting year for this movement. The Gearbox Effect has now become fully realised and many fans are being critical of the latest games like DmC, Deadspace 3 and Aliens: Colonial Marines. Yet the Gearbox Effect does not only affect games. It is evident throughout the whole games industry itself. The PS4 reveal showcased all the promised features for the next-gen console, without solid proof of these promises. What the PS4 has to offer is just as valid as the promises that a AAA game may be marketed with. You can already pre-order the PS4, without even knowing what the console physically looks like and what the final state of the product will be like. Hopefully we’ll know more about the console from this coming E3.
Ultimately, gaming is a promise culture, and those who deliver on those promises are deemed trustworthy by gamers. But once you don’t live up to the promises and expectations you set, your trustworthiness is in jeopardy. Conversely, if you are Valve this is all irrelevant, because of the Valve Effect. Still the promise of Half-Life 3 is ever present, I just hope that Valve doesn’t pull a Gearbox on all of us.