Throughout my gaming life I’ve always been a sucker for hype. I’ll always be the guy pushing in line at the ticket office, making sure I get two seats booked on the hype train. With videogames gaining ever more exposure in the mainstream media, it’s hard not to jump on board, and I do like to put my feet up from time to time. But more often than not the trains are shoddily built from cheap materials, and they soon derail; sometimes even before the’ve left the station.
If game developers are lucky, and have an excellent marketing campaign, they can turn an appalling excuse for a game into a work of art before it has even hit the shelves. All thanks to the hype train.
Did you ever play the original “Alone in the Dark”? Well, back in July 2008 Atari felt the need to publish a reboot of the aforementioned game, which had been six feet under for many years. Sadly, the gravedigger should’ve dug a little deeper and hammered a few extra nails into the coffin, because this is one game which, despite the best efforts of the hype train, should’ve stayed underground.
Alone in the Dark, undead edition, was released on PC, PS2, PS3, Xbox360 and of course the Wii. What you guys probably don’t know is that, despite being strictly Xbox 360 at moment, once upon a time I too owned a Wii (I even bought it on launch night). After watching numerous trailers and reading endless articles (to be honest, I just looked at the pictures), I was looking forward to Alone in the Dark, more than any other scheduled Wii release in 2008 in fact.
It was like no game I had ever played before, and its visual style really appealed to my love of the paranormal, BUT the stupid hype train got the better of me. I got up early to buy the game on it’s first day of release, and I finished the game at around midday the same day. Yes, it was that short. There are no words to describe how terrible this game turned out to be. I consider it to be the worst game ever made and I’ll probably take that to my grave…in fact, now I think about it, I might have that as my epitaph. Anyway! Alone in the Dark single handily killed my already rocky relationship with the Wii, and it was all thanks to the f*cking hype that had surrounded it!
But, my friends, it doesn’t end there. Did you ever play an RPG game called Lost Planet? Back in 2006 it was one of my favorite games. I’ve been a fan of third-person gameplay ever since I got my grubby hands on a copy of Resident Evil 1 on my Greystation (thats Playstation 1 for those of you that aren’t cool), and shooting aliens never gets old. Combining the two, Lost Planet came with a crisp look and an abundance of huge enemies to slaughter, with a unique storyline to tie it all together.
The sequel on the other hand, oh boy was that a big disappointment, even bigger than it’s enemies (with are MASSIVE by the way). This time around there was a heavy focus on online co-op gameplay, something which any gamer will appreciate: exploding aliens that are larger than your house is even more satisfying when you’re with your friends, yet somehow CAPCOM failed to deliver.
However, Lost Planet 2 was marketed very well. First of all they let us all in on two very impressive demos, one demonstrating the single player aspect of the game, and another for the multiplayer, and after five minutes on both, I was sold. There was practically nothing about the game I did not like and it was hard to find reasons not to buy it on launch day. Add a nice spoonful of TV & internet advertising and it sounded like a recipe for success.
On the day of release, I was once again first in line at my local game shop; I couldn’t wait to find out what the rest of the game was like. Once again though, the hype train had hit me hard. Though my experience with the demos had been great, I just didn’t enjoy the full game as much as I had expected to. For some reason Lost Planet 2 had Lost (see what I did there?) its charm, and most of the critics agreed with me too. Capcom had made a few designs missteps which hindered the game. Camera angles were dodgy, AI was stupid, and I felt like I needed to buy some insurance for my controller because the game is so frustrating at times I almost smashed it against my cell door.
So…. We’ve established that a bad game can still sell, but what about the games which don’t get the hype train they deserve? Take Batman: Arkham Asylum for instance. There have been a lot of Batman games released during Bruce Wayne’s tour of duty, but none of them had ever really met the expectations of the fans of the comic books. The films were not exactly Oscar material either mind you (Dark Knight excluded), so it was understandable when nobody really believed the hype around Batman: AA. We had videos and screenshots floating around the internet like band-aids in a swimming pool but it just never caught anyone’s attention, it was dismissed as nothing more than a Splinter Cell clone. That is until it was released in August 2009. The game was brilliant, a great success. It had solid gameplay and some of the best fighting mechanics seen in a video game for a long time. It had a cool and dark narrative, and most of all it was bloody good fun. For once, a game had exceeded everyone’s expectations and ultimately lived up to the hype surrounding it. Batman proved he was still the king of all flying rodents, and the best superhero by far.
As a consumer, by jumping on the hype train you are also becoming a sheep. All games should be judged on their own merits, but the opinion of the masses all too often overshadows everything a game has to offer. If you can get everyone on the internet raving about it, and you are lucky enough to have a TV ad campaign, you will most likely shift a metric ton of discs. That said, it will be hard to recover your reputation after gamers find out your games can’t live up to expectations. In the short term though, it’s the hype that will determine whether the latest games end up on the top shelf or in the bargain bin.
This is one of the many reasons why independent games have become so important in preserving originality throughout the gaming industry. Downloadable games from XBLA and PSN are getting better; becoming more impressive and visually spectacular as small time developers churn out more engrossing content. At the same time, these developers are not subjected to the hype which all the big wigs inevitably receive.
The fruit based title Apple Jack is a prime example. Apple Jack is a simple platformer, with the main objective being to kill all the enemies in each stage by throwing them into one other. Levels start simply enough, but quickly become challenging as you progress, introducing all manner of puzzles. Sometimes foes will be the only solution to completing a puzzle, as you use them as platforms to reach areas that would be otherwise inaccessible, while others border on the bizarre, with some levels completely covered in pandas and washing machines, as well as the return of the dreaded spiked maze.
Apple Jack is mechanically solid, and has a great sense of humour. Enemies and stages are named after British towns and counties, which is a delightful addition, and whats more, it looks fantastic. But despite how well this game was received, it amassed a hype percentage of zero: I had no idea it even existed until recently, but its one of the best indie titles out there.
Ultimately, the situation is unlikely to change. Smaller developers have smaller budgets, meaning that they have fewer options for promoting their games. Sadly, that means that all too often they don’t get the recognition they deserve. The games industry is a circus, and creating buzz around games gives gamers a reason to be excited and journo types stuff to write about, but those that ride the hype train are going to be left disappointed. So keep your heads on, stay calm and keep your eyes and ears peeled, because whilst you drool over the brand new and the shiny, you may be missing out on some absolute gems.