The Proof is in the Preview

Expectation Reality.jpg
(Left) Preview screenshot. (Right) Release day screenshot.

As news of Nintendo’s new NX console continues to not pour in, I’ve decided to focus my efforts elsewhere for a while.

Okay. That’s a lie meant entirely as a segue. I’ve honestly given up on the NX already, because that was my policy with the Wii U about three minutes after I heard it described. It was also my policy during the last year of the Wii’s life cycle, where they’d clearly given up on it but kept saying, “Well, maybe we’ll do another Zelda game or something for it? So, you know, one game released per year is pretty good for a system, right?”

Actually, that’s got a weird sort of symmetry with the Wii U now. “Don’t give up on the Wii U. There’s a Zelda game coming out for it eventually. Maybe? So, you know, one game released every two years is pretty good for a system, right?”

But I digress, which I should probably stop doing while I segue.

I recently watched a video that was basically just thirty upcoming game trailers cobbled together. In hindsight, it’s not a good way to digest the information. Because at the end all you’re left with is a vague sense of confusion and you’ve actually forgotten the name of the game six minutes in that looked sort of interesting. You know the one. It was right after the “Metal Gear” spin-off with zombies. Or maybe any trailer would’ve looked good after that one.

Alas, I’m not here to point out the highlights. Even before I watched this trailer ball I’ve been burned by so many good-looking games in the past that turned out to be garbage that I’m incredibly wary nowadays. And my historical average of deciding which games were worth recommending based on trailers alone is low enough that I don’t think my readers deserve more of my horrible guesses.

No, this is more about game marketing itself.

Game preview articles tend to be a bit better, if only by virtue of not being a series of flashing images of explosions meant to dazzle you without any real substance. But they’re far from perfect. In fact, the thing that prompted this article in the first place was reading several previews and realizing that once I’d scrolled down far enough that the title was no longer visible, it may as well have been a preview of any game coming out in 2017.

But it’s more than just having the information run together after reading so much of it. Even games in wildly different genres (say, first-person shooter versus action RPG) are more or less pulling from the same shared script. And the worst thing is that, in addition to being just copied and pasted, I’m starting to realize that none of the words actually have any meaning to begin with.

Here are a few things I keep seeing in game previews that tell me literally nothing.

“Story-driven” games or games “with a narrative focus.” The more I hear this, the less I’m sure what exactly it’s supposed to mean. After hearing a reviewer say this about “Overwatch,” a game that literally lacks a story mode, I can’t even say that it’s code for “our game has a plot.”

Granted, they have released a number of animations for it that look amazing. But those aren’t part of the game. It’s like the stories in the manuals of NES games. You can make the manual a 160-page comic but if I can’t squint at your pixels and roughly tell what’s going on, it’s not a story.

But even when games have a story, I’m a bit skeptical of developers who tout their games with these words. I’ve never seen a restaurant describe its clam chowder as “so-so.” Yet, I’ve eaten bad clam chowder before. Those experiences have taught me that even if taste didn’t vary from person to person, the last person I’d trust to tell me about food would be the people whose profits hedge on whether or not you eat there. In short, leave the previews to players and game reviewers.

At least when those reviewers acknowledge that to be “story-driven” the minimum price of admission is, you know, having a story.

“1080p,” “4k” or “60 frames per second.” Graphical resolution is a lot like a garnish next to a high-priced meal. I expect it to be there, but it’s probably the least important thing on the plate.

So what’s wrong with having games with fluid animation and graphics so clear they make reality look like I just rubbed sand in my eyes? Well, nothing – at least not inherently. The bigger issue is that frames per second has become a bit of a lightning rod for gamer angst that more or less boils down to one number being bigger than another. That’s when you start to see angry forum denizens post things like, “Oh, sure. The demo clocked at 60fps but the benchmark tests looked closer to 56. And unless you play it on a native 900p, it looks like garbage.”

And I’m just sort of nodding along before asking, “But you still shoot at bad guys and they drop power-ups, right? Or…no?”

In short, I sort of gravitate between not really understanding the Sudoku-like jumble of numbers and not really caring. Because numbers.

And when it comes to 4k, it’s even worse. My TV doesn’t do that. Yet, it’s still too nice a TV for me to put on the curb and drop two grand just to make that set of numbers go higher. And unless I get the new, more special PS4, my games still won’t look better anyway. So when someone says a game plays at 60 frames per second in 4k resolution, I briefly consider the seventeen different things I’d need to upgrade to even notice (one of which being my own eyes) and then go home and admire the pile of $3200 I’m saving.

Oh, right. I had a kid. So…not so much.

“There are lots of collectibles to find!” I’m not sure when adding tedious work to games became acceptable. I’m even less sure of when it became a selling point.

Don’t get me wrong. I like finding secrets. In an excellent game, it can give you a few extra hours of enjoyment on something you’ve beaten in practically every way imaginable otherwise. And when it’s done organically and/or offers fun rewards, it can push those 40 hour games into 60+ hour territory while still leaving you wanting more.

But more often, it’s done in the most slapdash method available. They give you a list with a bunch of greyed-out words that you want to be white. No special character conversations when you find an object. No reward for completing the list. You’d essentially achieve the same sense of victory by turning up the brightness settings on your television.

“An expansive open world to explore.” Okay. Now I’ll preface this one by saying that it’s only a bad thing about half the time. But when it’s bad, it can transform your epic fantasy adventure into little more than a walking simulator.

skyrim-map
And I actually had to cut off one side of the map to make it fit.

“The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim” is an above average example of open world success. While it didn’t necessarily manage to make the people living there look like real people who actually exist in between your visits, the world map is insane. Sure. You can beat the main game in something like a few hours if you put on your blinders and go straight ahead. But if you feel like turning over every rock and investigating every run-down shack you come across, well, let’s just say that I never finished doing it. And I’m the obsessive type.

The trick to wide open spaces is putting lots of things in it – especially things totally unrelated to the main quest. Side quests, crafting nodes and teeny tiny Easter eggs can be found almost everywhere. It’s just a matter of picking a random direction and heading that way. Or even just pointing yourself at a random bookshelf, since all the books are actually readable.

Will it be your cup of skooma? Not necessarily. Some people don’t like to read. And once you’re outfitted in top-tier gear and there’s little chance of actually finding something worthwhile in a hidden chest, I realize it loses a bit of its allure. But that still leaves treasure hunts, finding the aftermaths of interesting events and entire villages tucked away just out of sight.

Blackreach, for example, was an entire subterranean country that I just happened upon that had nothing to do with the main story.

As far as bad examples, I won’t throw any games under the bus. But there are more than a few open world games with literally nothing of interest between towns. And while the scenery is sometimes pretty to look at for a while, even that gets boring when you realize there’s no reason to wander off the main roads to go in for a closer look.

Cough. “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.” Cough.

Okay. So I will throw one game under the bus here, which I hate doing, because I actually really enjoyed the game otherwise. It was fun to play and had very visually distinct and interesting places to walk through. But it didn’t take me long to realize that was largely the extent of it – walking through them. I mean, sure, you got attacked by random enemies. Though, saying that’s actually fun is a little like saying it was fun to move around in Pokemon caves because you ran out of repel and a Zubat is attacking you every three steps.

So…maybe I have a couple games to throw under the bus there.

I’m once again trending toward a column with no solid point at the end, but it is what it is. The gist is this, though. If your game is great, you’ll have more than enough honesty available to sell it. And if it’s lousy, I admittedly understand wanting to talk it up and, you know, actually make some money off the thing you’ve been working on for the past sixteen months.

If I had anything like a point to make here, though, I think it would be a warning to not stray too far from the truth – even when it’s not pretty. Unless it happens to be the last game you plan to make, keep in mind that gamers remember. And they aren’t often kind to liars who bilked them out of $60 when the sequels come out.

Which sort of makes me wonder how or if they’d try marketing “No Man’s Sky 2.”

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