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Surprise Me: Why Games Should Be More Modest

A concealed weapon is always more effective

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate faced a Sisyphean task. Ubisoft lost a lot of favour with last year’s Unity, and even before that trainwreck the franchise’s annual release schedule had soured many fans on the AC formula. Too many games, not enough surprises. Guitar Hero suffered from the same over-saturation 5 years ago, and ultimately had no choice but to put the franchise on ice in order to save it from total destruction. But now Guitar Hero is back, and its hibernation has treated it well. Its new MTV-style Live mode takes advantage of the social framework the industry has adopted, and the positioning of the game as a platform rather than a single product is a wise move both from a financial perspective and in terms of keeping players playing without succumbing to the endless iteration that plagued the series last time around.


Guitar Hero’s successful resurrection is a pleasant surprise - and that surprise is key to its success. Rock Band 4, its arch-nemesis in the plastic-instrument rhythm-game genre, has not fared quite as well with its revival, and much of that is due to its predictability. Excluding its initial announcement, Rock Band 4 is all about meeting expectations, rather than subverting them. Familiar mechanics, support for old DLC, minimal changes to the formula; the game isn’t bad, it’s just entirely by-the-books. Its adherence to tradition was adequately communicated from the get-go, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s kind of a bummer it doesn’t try anything new.

Guitar Hero, on the other hand, revealed its new direction while keeping mum about its specifics. Often, for big-budget titles, a lack of coverage can be a dangerous sign - take Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5, for example. In Guitar Hero’s case, however, the restraint worked in its favour. Because its new modes and mechanics weren’t demoed to death, they were able to surprise and delight players and critics alike. Activision recognised the importance of moderation, much to its advantage.

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Ubisoft looks to have learned the same lesson with Assassin’s Creed. Unlike its predecessors, Syndicate received only a few previews and a refreshingly modest media presence - by Assassin’s Creed standards, at any rate. It released with what might be the least fanfare of any AAA game this generation, and, to the surprise of pretty much everyone, it’s enjoyed favourable reviews practically across the board. The strains of the series’ yearly release cycle are still evident, but the simple fact that Ubisoft kept its cards close to its chest this time meant Syndicate could buck expectations and surprise the player in ways that the usually excessive advertising campaign would have spoiled.


Perhaps the best example of a drop-the-mic game announcement came at this year’s E3. When Bethesda revealed Fallout 4 with just a trailer, a gameplay demo, and, most importantly, a release date less than 6 months away, fans went into a frenzy. Pre-orders for the US $120 Pip-Boy edition of the game sold out less than a day after the announcement, and subsequent runs were snatched up just as quickly. Fallout Shelter, the free mobile game Bethesda released in conjunction with the announcement, enraptured players to the tune of $5.1 million in the first two weeks, sucking them back into the Fallout universe without spoiling the surprises awaiting them in Fallout 4. Bethesda’s marketing has proven incredibly successful, and it’s not hard to see why. Absence only makes the heart grow fonder.


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On the other side of the marketing mantra, you have a game like Destiny. Disregarding its recent Taken King expansion, Destiny has been an almost universally disappointing game. Not a bad game, per se; it simply didn’t live up to expectations. Much of that is due to the way it was advertised. Press releases promised an expansive universe populated with all your friends - a far cry from the discrete levels the game actually shipped with. Videos and screenshots revealed enemies and environments that supposedly represented just a sliver of the game’s content - in fact, the previews spoiled nearly all Destiny had to offer. Most notably, the open beta allowed players to complete the entirety of the story content on Earth, one of only four playable planets in the full game. When participants realised the slice they had experienced accounted for approximately 25% of the $60 package, many lost interest. They decided to wait, much to their benefit - recent changes have brought the game closer to the vision originally pitched. Activision felt the pinch; its excessive marketing campaign cost it a lot more than the hundreds of millions it poured into Destiny’s budget.


Activision isn’t alone, though; before Ubisoft learned its lesson with Assassin’s Creed, it condemned its upcoming RPG-shooter hybrid The Division to death-by-overexposure. Having been announced way back at E3 2013, the game has been hit with a slew of delays and is currently slated to arrive in March 2016. In that time, it has featured prominently at three separate E3s, received more trailers and sneak peeks than the new Star Wars movie, and has been previewed so many times even the enthusiast press have struggled to maintain their excitement. This glut of marketing material has spoiled many gamers’ appetites, turning interest into ambivalence. When it finally comes out next year - assuming it does - it won’t hit with the same oomph it arrived with 2.5 years ago. Even if it’s a great game, it will bear the weight of its exhaustive overture and suffer for it. It’s hard to get excited when you know what to expect.

With so many games vying for our attention, publishers would be wise to adopt the less-is-more approach in their marketing campaigns. Encouraging pre-orders and satisfying investors might be valuable, but over-loading the marketing train only makes it more likely to run out of steam before it reaches its destination. So much of the joy of playing games comes from the excitement of exploring an unknown world; if we’ve seen it all already, where’s the fun in that?

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