Monday, April 28, 2008

All aboard the hype train! Last stop: Liberty City station

I don't know how great Grand Theft Auto IV is, but I do know this: After today, people will finally stop telling me how great it's going to be. That ranks a 10/10 on any scale.

Don't get me wrong -- I am looking forward to playing GTAIV. But there is something strange about the culture of hype that is so much a part of the gaming community. No matter how many times we get burned, we're still willing and eager to bestow "game of the year" status upon something we haven't played. We pass along screenshots, trailers, and preview pieces from the enthusiast press as though we had no idea they might be cooked. We don't consider the possibility that all these press materials are made available for the publisher's benefit, not the consumer's. It's a lesson we never learn!

Variety's video-game blog, "The Cut Scene," has a post about the troubling implications of the exclusive review, which is as pernicious a part of this process as any. The first American outlet to post a GTAIV review was IGN, which awarded it a rare 10/10. I am not surprised that the only people to have posted reviews of GTAIV prior to this weekend gave it perfect scores (besides IGN, a few European outlets gave it a go). The same thing happened last year just before Assassin's Creed was released. The Metacritic score was in the 90s until the embargo lifted, and then it dropped over ten points.

An even better example (cited in the Cut Scene post) is that of Game Informer's world-exclusive Mass Effect review. The magazine gave the game a 9.75/10, while still noting its myriad flaws. As I wondered at the time:
...what was Game Informer reviewing? The Mass Effect in front of them, or the Mass Effect they expected to arrive in stores months later? Were they willing to overlook certain problems to secure the exclusive? Were they willing to furnish a certain minimum score?

After scans of the Game Informer review popped up online, they were breathlessly reposted in a (non-game-specific) message board I frequent. I pointed out the offending paragraphs about poor AI, play control, and so on, and was told, essentially, to STFU. I felt no joy when the game turned out to be terrible, for all the reasons that Game Informer danced around.

Now, here we are again, doing the same dance with Grand Theft Auto IV. Posting screenshots. Relaying each new review as it's posted. Strenuously arguing the merits of one console version or the other. Strategizing to acquire the game at a midnight launch, as though it will rot like an avocado if not consumed immediately. Maybe it will deliver on the hype, but that would make it one of the only games ever to do so.

I'm not saying anything that people don't already know. What's strangest about a game with this level of hype is that everybody knows what's happening, and they don't care. They enjoy it. There may even be something genuinely helpful and positive about games that act as a communal touchstone, particularly when they grab the attention of casual gamers or non-gamers. But a mob mentality is always troubling, no matter what the context. There's little harm in forum wars, really, but the mindset is one that any individual should strive to avoid.

Look at it pragmatically. If you convince yourself that something is going to the greatest game ever, then the best-case scenario is that it meets your expectations. More likely, the game will fall short in some way. That's no way to live. To me, nothing is better than being gobsmacked by some under-the-radar title that I had no expectations for, positive or negative.

Of course, that's not so easy with games as it is with other media. At $60 a pop, blockbuster games have an almost prohibitive barrier to entry. Imagine if the cost of a movie ticket were proportional to the budget of the film. It would cost ten times as much to see Iron Man as it would to see Son of Rambow. But that's not the case. As a result, people can afford to take a chance on something unknown, without any marketing muscle behind it. With games, though, the cost of development is passed on to the consumer. Despite a burgeoning indie scene on Xbox Live Arcade, and a vibrant one on the PC, in the world of consoles people are going to save their money for the sure thing.

It's a shame, really, and it's one of the areas in which games still can't measure up to other popular media. Despite the massive revenues the video game industry pulls in, much of that is still due to the price of software and not its ubiquity. It's much more expensive to blindly buy an Xbox 360 game than to pick up a book with an interesting cover, or download an MP3 by a band with a funny name ("Echo and the Bunnymen? I've gotta hear this!"). If buying a new game potentially means throwing away sixty dollars, then you can't blame people for not wanting to take chances. And you can't blame publishers for focusing their efforts on hype instead of gameplay.


Anonymous said...

Good points, all. It's funny, but complaints about hype will probably get lost in the fact that GTA:IV will almost certainly be really, really good. But 10/10? It might be a little ridiculous but surely a 10/10 should be almost impossible to get. The worst thing about the IGN review is that it reads almost like an advertisement for the game. But then, an exclusive review for a game this big is the only way I'd read an article on IGN..... oh, wait.

I liked Mass Effect, and I would personally rate it as a 9/10, but I agree that it makes no sense to point out several fairly serious problems and then give the game an almost perfect score. In the light of the mess a couple of months ago, is this a watershed? Does coverage of video games stand a chance of evolving into something more sophisticated, or will it just be enveloped in 'synergy'?

Mitch Krpata said...

I am optimistic that it will be a good game, but that's almost irrelevant at this point. Really, this may just get to the inherent problems with review scores. You really do have to read the review to understand what the number means. (As one example, a 7.0 for a game with GTA's pedigree might seem like it was a disappointment, whereas a 7.0 for the latest movie tie-in would seem like it was better than expected.) And of course it's possible for a reviewer to love a game while still acknowledging its apparent flaws.

You might even wonder, what's so wrong with Game Informer giving Mass Effect a 9.75 when the review itself was actually pretty fair? Does the score really matter? I think it matters because it brings into question who the magazine is working for: the readers, or the publishers.

Anonymous said...

I agree. The cult of the score is ridiculous in any case, and the text of the review needs to be the most important factor. If you actually read a review the score becomes less relevant. For example, a score that reflects bad online multiplayer doesn't tell me all I need to know because I'm not bothered about that feature, in most cases.

Your original point holds true though, and scores need to be accountable in some manner.

The Renaissance Man said...

Personally, I take any "exclusive" review with a grain of salt. That 10/10 might mean anything between an 8 to an actual 10. We just don't know. I'm confident that they won't give a good review to a flat out terrible game to secure the exclusive, but glossing over a few bugs? I've got no doubts that that's within the realm of possibility.

Daniel Purvis said...

Mitch, I love your points and I'd totally agree with you were it any other game than GTA IV.

Having friends that own stores, I paid my cash last Thursday and picked up my LE (does that make me one of the first to get a copy?) and have been playing since then, dropping in over 30+ hours on the weekend alone.

In that 30+ hours, I've not been disappointed once and there is something new to discover with every mission. Yes, there are minor framerate issues that crop up during some extremely busy firefights, or when travelling at in excess of some ridiculous speed and some missions can become confusing, or tiring. And the walking controls still have that oddness about them that GTA games instill.

However, the level of graphical detail, character development, the sound-scape, the variety of missions, mission approaches, blah blah blah, blows anything currently available out of the water.

I hate to be defending the game so whole-heartedly but I can't wait to finish work to pick up the controller again.

On the subject of early exclusive reviews, now I've purged my rampant fanboyism, I was hoping to have completed the game by the end of the weekend to post a review yesterday and thus be in the same market as the major pre-release review websites.

And it then struck me. If I'd posted a review earlier than expected, like say the day IGN had posted their review, I'd have broken an embargo I've not aggreed to. By obtaining a copy of the game early, I'll admit underhandedly, then I wouldn't have been beholden to Rockstar. Would it have soured my relationship with them? Maybe. But I wasn't legally bound to NOT publish a review and HONESTLY, what else do they have coming out in the near future they could black ball me from? Hehehehe.

So, I was thinking, how nice would it be for a website to pop up doing "Guerilla Reviews". That is, a website that obtains full copies of the game early, blitzes through and releases game reviews BEFORE any embargo was lifted. It'd certainly throw the publicity machine into a spin and it would be hard to control. In addition, something similar might spark other games press to release reviews early too.

A publisher might be able to black ball one media outlet but in the end, they rely on the gaming press to send out the word. They can't very well black ball an entire community now, can they?

So, that's what I'm going to try and do for future releases (read MGS4) - get a copy of the game earlier than I should (legally purchased as soon as the game hits store warehouses) and then try to post a review before embargo. Shit, Konami's Australian distributor, Atari, doesn't like me anyway so I won't be getting review code.

Watcha think of that approach?

Anonymous said...

shut!! you are all nerds!

Daniel Purvis said...

Arrrgh! Anonymous attacks! ... Mitch, I think you got Guerilla Commented. Hit & Run. Dammit. Now I'm trolling.

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Mitch Krpata said...

Daniel, the big difference is that you've played the game, and you have every right to be praising it if that's the experience that you have. But even if GTA does live up to the hype, there's a downside to that, too: it convinces people that getting worked up over upcoming releases actually works. It's like a rain dance.

I love your idea for guerrilla reviews. If you're not getting the game from the company, then they can't embargo you anyway. But I think you'd find the IGNs of the world did not have your back, and they'd be very happy to see the publishers blacklist you for life.

Daniel Purvis said...

Ahh, I see your point. Speed-reading at work obviously didn't pay off this time, mis-read the second paragraph and through the rest of the article out of context.

I generally try to avoid the hype train and in fact, I find writing daily news for to be an extremely difficult feat. I dislike writing preview articles on games, because they're hardly ever a true indication of a products final quality and I fail to see the point in replicating news that's already been echoed across the web thousands of time, all resonating from the same shouted press release.

I really like the way GamingSA handles reviews, actually, which is to say rather poorly. A review will be written and posted sometimes months after the initial launch of the game, which in many ways helps to put a game in proper contextm minus the initial releases hype.

On a 1Up Yours podcast, I remember Shaun B. and Garnett discussing reviews with Shawn E. and one of them, I can't remember which, mentioned that reviews should reflect that intial reaction to a game on launch. The pent up anxiety, the hype, the want and desperate need to play the game on release, and I remembered thinking to myself that was, well, wrong.

Unfortunately, new games hit shelves every week and it's the new games that take up 7 racks at EB. It's their one time to shine, and if they fail at launch, the bulk gets removed with only one or two copies of the game remaining to be picked up by stragglers still purchasing magazines. I've noticed the difference walking into video stores, actually, where films may consume the same number of rows for months (which also reflects the decline in quality Hollywood fiction).

I don't feel that we'd be experiencing this "culture of hype" so much if it weren't for the Internet, however. Games and previews are sold, yes, to major outlets such as IGN and GameSpot for a shot on the front page, previews coverage and exclusive interviews but it's the nature of the net, the high turn around speed, a lust for new information and message boards which are like a petri dish to viral infection.

Not enough people have an opinion, take the time to read AND question, and are lazy thinkers.

I'm not sure the hype thing is necessarily a problem with the way the game industry works but more generally a problem with the people who inhabit the net and voice their, often regurgitated, "opinion".

PS. Mitch, hope you don't mind me rambling? ;)

Mitch Krpata said...

Daniel, ramble on! I always enjoy reading your comments.

On a 1Up Yours podcast, I remember Shaun B. and Garnett discussing reviews with Shawn E. and one of them, I can't remember which, mentioned that reviews should reflect that intial reaction to a game on launch. The pent up anxiety, the hype, the want and desperate need to play the game on release, and I remembered thinking to myself that was, well, wrong.

That's appalling. I don't necessarily subscribe to the notion of the critic as infallible deity handing down pearls of wisdom, but it certainly is our job to think critically about what we're playing. Acknowledging hype is one thing, but willingly succumbing to it is quite another.

I agree about the problems with news and previews and stuff, and in fact without even consciously doing so, I've found myself drifting away from reading anything in advance of a game's release. GTA is hard to avoid if you're keeping abreast of the industry, but for the most part I try to pay attention to what's coming out when, and leave it at that. Just like yours, my reviews tend to run about two weeks after the game comes out, which means there's no pressure on me to fluff something in order to get attention. I like it that way.

Gotta say, too, that I've now played GTAIV for a couple of hours and found it to be... almost exactly like every other GTA game I've played. I'm far from being able to render any kind of verdict, but it's not grabbing me like I'd hoped it might.

Daniel Purvis said...

Oh? See, GTA is like every other GTA game I've ever played and it's only now, after 30+ hours (as I keep saying, over and over again, it would seem), that I'm starting to get a little bored with the repetitive mission structure.

In the end, the game boils down to "get to A, watch cutscene, get to B, kill, evade police, get back to A or C". Should you die at Kill, you need to repeat all the previous steps, which kind of shits me.

However, I love the friend mechanic and I'm still prone to blowing off missions to go Bowling (which is actually one of the better bowling games out, aside from that in Wii sport).

It's the story though, and especially the lead character Niko, that keeps me ploughing through. I love the people you mingle with and I love how Niko reacts to the people he's around.

But yes, GTA IV is just another GTA, albeit with an absolutely unbeleivable engine and incredibly detailed city. My initial *gasp* at seeing the city from a helicopter has now fallen through and I think because of that, my excitement has piqued and now dwindles. That said, you never know what the next mission will have in store or what story twists will happen.

Anonymous said...


This is a good and intelligent post with good comments.

I was originally going to sit here and say that the hype does not bother, but I'd then be lying about being super-excited and waiting on line at midnight for Halo 3.

For me, giving in and not giving into the hype depends on the game. I thought the last GTA games were great, but not 10s. I had problems with combat controls and the difficulty for some of the missions were absurd, not to mention the fact that if you failed them and you were some ridiculous amount of digital miles away, I have to find my way back to the person who issued the mission and struggle with the stupid map. I'd also have waste money buying weapons each and every time.

The new GTA addressed these issues, and so I looked forward to it.

On the other hand, a franchise like Splinter Cell will probably never get my money again, no matter how pretty the new installments look.

It is quite important to look at the context in which certain reviews review brand-new, hyped up pre-released games. It's likely that they're being paid to add to the hype and affirm sales for Rockstar from their readers. I don't take reviews with a grain of salt, but I note what they do and don't like about a game before going by their judgement.

P.S. That wasn't right of those forums idiots to tell you to STFU. Those are the people you should probably take with a grain of salt. However, I have to disagree with you about Mass Effect. Despite some unrealistic (or just plain absent) dynamics, I think it's one of the best 360 games released yet.

Mitch Krpata said...

Daniel, I actually think Roman is a much more interesting character than Niko. I think it would be a more compelling game if you were playing as him. But again, I'm not too terribly far, so that could change.

Clandestine Samurai, if I'm being completely honest, part of the reason I'm speaking out against the hype here is because I burned out on GTA years ago. On the other hand, I'm a big Batman fan and I'm pretty well plugged into the marketing for The Dark Knight -- and I don't mind at all. But in fairness to myself, I don't have any vested interest in being objective about a Batman movie. I do have that responsibility when it comes to games. But I shouldn't pretend as though I don't understand why people would be excited about this game.