5 Terms That Mean Video Game Marketers Are Lying To You
A video game could be about schoolgirls using the power of friendship to make Nazis explode, and the most fantastical part would still be the marketing campaign. Gamers have accepted sketchy marketing as the price we pay to shoot zombies (in addition to, you know, the literal money we use to buy the games that tricked us). We all know that "free to play" means "you won't have any fun unless you pay," that "early access" means "pay us for the privilege of beta-testing a game that might get finished," and that "actual in-game footage" means "we made this up for E3, just like we do every year." But there are other terms that we continue to be tricked by, so let's all agree to learn from our mistakes and enjoy two weeks of peace before marketing departments think of something else.
Once, when the Earth was young and we were all children who knew nothing of sadness and fear, you would buy a game and own it, and that would be that. Sometimes you could buy an expansion pack, which was like buying a second, bonus game on top of your first. And life was good, and the lands flowed with power mushrooms and vespene gas.
Then came downloadable content, with its sultry promise of more fun in exchange for more money. DLC is often reasonable -- 10 to 15 bucks for three to five hours of new gameplay is a good deal, considering the same price would get you a ticket to a two-hour movie or a mere 70 pages of Helicopter Man Pounds Dinosaur Billionaire Ass. Other times you just get horse armor or a couple more multiplayer maps for teenagers to teach you racial slurs on, but either way, DLC has a pretty clear message of "You give us X dollars in exchange for Y gameplay addition," and you can judge for yourself whether it's worth it. Then someone had the bright idea of rebranding DLC as "microtransactions," and that someone is Satan.
Listen, developers. There is nothing "micro" about me giving you money. I'm not paying you with tiny, adorable coins, like what a gerbil would use to buy an itty-bitty burrito. I am giving you legal currency in exchange for a product. Don't try to disguise that fact by drawing attention to how small and cute it is. That strategy doesn't work with the women I date, and it doesn't work when you try it on me.
For example, let's say I experienced a sudden loss of self-esteem and took up World Of Warcraft. Many of the available microtransactions would be purely cosmetic changes to my Warcraft ... er, which is fine. But if I wanted to transfer my Worldman to another server so I could play with my friends, that would cost 25 bucks. That's not pocket change for some cute but inconsequential bonus; that's 14 hours of work (I'm bad at contract negotiation) for a key feature. That money adds up -- WoW has an entire Microtransaction Strategy business unit, which is a lame way to announce that we're living in a science-fiction movie. League Of Legends made over $1.5 billion from microtransactions in 2015. Hey, remember when we wrote about a guy who dropped 9 grand on microtransactions in a terrible iPhone game?
They're popping up everywhere now. Dead Space 3, a game about fighting hideous space zombies, let you buy better weapons with microtransactions. That's like if, halfway through Aliens, the marines turned the tide of their vicious struggle by getting out their space credit cards and asking space Walmart for an emergency supply run. Or how about the fact that Microsoft wants 10 bucks a year from people who want to play Windows solitaire without ads? It's fucking solitaire, Microsoft! I could just find a deck of cards and not remind myself about Nissan while I deal.
I get that, to some extent, these are a necessary evil. Games are ludicrously expensive to make, but players would balk at being charged 100 bucks for one, so the rest of the money has to be made back in bits and pieces. If that means making space warlocks pay for new dance moves, so be it. But let's stop selling the ability to beat other players and win your games with ease, then pretend those features are in some special separate category of economics where the money is irrelevant because it's "micro." I can't get away with that on my taxes, so why should you in your marketing?
Hey, Assassin's Creed fans! Were you excited to preorder Unity and get an exclusive pair of pants?!
Laugh all you want, but these weren't just any fictional pants -- they were go-faster pants, because apparently Unity is so terrible that being able to expedite your journey through it was considered a bonus. Usually preorder bonuses are more compelling, but, regardless of content, "bonus" is not the right word to use.
Before games could be purchased digitally, preorders were useful. There would be only so many copies of a game available, and if you didn't get your hands on one you'd be stuck having to go to work or talk to your loved ones. But now you can download most games, and even if you can't or prefer not to, the industry has become big enough that there are almost certainly going to be enough copies to go around. GameStop might run out of Teenage Witch Touchers 4: Vulva High School Hijinks because they underestimated the number of local perverts, but they're not going to sell out of Grand Theft Auto.
Now the only purpose of preorders is to build marketing hype (announcements of preorder bonuses make it easy for gaming sites to regurgitate press releases and then take an early lunch) and to let developers and retailers get a sense of how sales will be. But to fans they're saying, "Give us your money in advance, before you have the chance to read any reviews and, if the game happens to be good, your gamble will pay off. If you wait to see feedback before you buy, like an intelligent consumer, we will punish you for your lack of faith by making you buy those bonuses as DLC. Sorry, we mean as microtransactions."
Take Alien: Isolation. Its preorder bonus was a pair of missions that let you play scenes from the original movie. That obviously sounds fun, but the last Alien game, Colonial Marines, is an orphanage fire disguised as a video game. Isolation did end up being well-received, but fans who were quite understandably doubtful then had to fork over additional money for those cool extra levels. They were punished for acting rationally instead of blindly throwing their money around.
Preorder bonuses ask you to guess whether a game will be good, and they're often not. No Unity players were able to enjoy their vroom-vroom pants, because the game was a rushed, buggy mess. But by the time buyers found out, it was too late -- between the marketing hype, a review embargo, and the fact that the series had previously been good, gamers had no way to know that the game was garbage before shelling out preorder money. It's even worse when the "bonus" is something that gives players a clear advantage in multiplayer, or when the "bonus" is exclusively available at a certain retailer. "Trust us, our game will be great! Just make sure to buy it from our friend. And beg. Beg for it like the little whore that you are."
"Game Of The Year"
A "game of the year" edition is when an already-released game is thrown in a special new box, often while packaged with all its DLC, and has the price raised accordingly. It sounds fine in theory -- the game won a prestigious award, the developers are capitalizing on its success, and gamers would like to easily know which games are worth their time. There's only one problem, and that's the fact that "game of the year" is a bigger lie than when I claimed to have won a Nobel Prize in Keeping It Real.
There's no gaming equivalent of the Academy Awards, which are universally recognized as the top honor in movie-making. You may disagree with the Academy's decisions, but when someone says "best picture," you know what they're referring to. But "game of the year" can be decreed by anyone from the relatively well-respected D.I.C.E. Awards to Blitzkrieg Bill's Racial Purity In Gaming Weebly blog. Countless industry groups, professional journalists, and fan sites give out awards, and developers don't give a shit who declared them game of the year if it means they can slap the words on a box and bump the price up 10 bucks. And that's how you end up with a GOTY edition of Dead Island, a mediocre, barely finished zombie game that came out the same year as Portal 2 and Skyrim.
Someone, somewhere thought it was the game of the year, probably because that was the only game they played that year, and that was enough for marketing. There's also a GOTY edition of Two Worlds, a game that's sitting at a sterling 65 on Metacritic and is described as "unbalanced" and "dull and generic" by critics, and "like a butt grew another, vastly inferior butt" by me. Dungeons, a game called "mind-numbing repetitive," has one too, and it's so generic it might as well be called Video Game: The Game.
There's even a GOTY edition of Final Fantasy XIV, a game so notoriously terrible that they had to apologize to fans, blow it up, and start from scratch. That's like declaring yourself handyman of the year because after your first attempt at fixing your toilet flooded your entire condo building, your second try went better. That's not a scenario where you get to congratulate yourself.
Even if the game is actually good, the label loses all meaning when 10 other games right next to it on the shelf all share it. No other medium gets away with this. If some random blogger declares Paul Blart Mall Cop 3: The Scorch Trials his movie of the year, the filmmakers aren't going to redesign the Blu-ray, launch a new marketing campaign, and insist that moviegoers would be fools to miss it. But a game receiving praise from anyone is worthy of a ticker-tape parade. That's why I'm going to go ahead and declare Dan McFox: Head Hunter Cracked's 2016 game of the year. Sure, the year is still young, I haven't played the game or consulted any of my colleagues, and it's clearly terrible, but go ahead and slap "Game Of The Year" on it anyway. You've earned it.
Do you have a friend who insists they're hilarious, even though their sense of humor revolves around quoting Family Guy? How about a friend who swears that they're generous, even though their idea of giving a waitress a tip is writing "Get a better job!" on the bill? There are certain words that are great for other people to describe you as, but make you sound arrogant if you use them as self-descriptors. And in the gaming world, "emotional" is the most arrogant word of them all.
Good games can absolutely induce emotions. The Walking Dead makes you feel protective of a fictional child. Spec Ops: The Line makes you feel like a monster for enjoying violent games. Destiny and The Division remind you that life is fleeting and you're wasting yours away on stupid bullshit. But that's how players describe them. Developers see the appeal and market their games as emotional too, even when they have the emotional range of a goldfish. It's like watching a high school quarterback write poetry to impress his girlfriend. Take this trailer for Call Of Duty: Ghosts, which shows off the "emotional" aspect the developers swore in interviews that they were heavily invested in.
That looks like a compelling story about brotherhood and what it means to be a soldier in a time of tremendous pain and desperation, absolutely none of which is explored in a final product, where you use your Freedom Boner to commit war crimes against South America and occasionally pat your dog in a story that has all the nuance of a red scare propaganda flick. Or how about this infamous Gears Of War trailer?
Generic Space Marine Man isn't just shooting monsters; he's somberly contemplating the horrors of war to a moody soundtrack. It's going to be more serious and thoughtful than your average shooter, right? Now, here's a scene from the actual game, where Generic Space Marine Man's Stereotypical Black Sidekick gives a profanity-riddled speech about how the antagonist is a "skank-ass."
Now watch the trailer again, but turn the volume off and imagine that someone is shouting, "Fuck you! We gonna whup your momma's ass! Woo!" at the monster, and you'll get a sense of what the game is actually like. The Gears games are fun, but they're about an interchangeable group of angry steroid abusers swear-grunting their way through a horde of monsters. The game's emotional climax is when you hop into multiplayer and get sad when 12-year-olds yell at you for not chainsawing enough aliens in half. And we fall for this all the time. Most of the comments on that trailer are about how deep and moving it is, as if they actually got to play the game that was being advertised. Here's the Dead Island trailer, which is essentially a well-made but completely unrelated short film:
And then Dead Island and Gears Of War both pulled the exact same shit with their sequels, only to again fail to deliver. They're like exes who promise they've cleaned themselves up, then vomit tequila shots all over you when you give them one more chance. And no one wants that emotion.
If "emotional" is how developers pretend that their dude-bro shooters have depth, "cinematic experience" is how they pretend that their games have the look and feel of whatever blockbuster movie they're aping. And it inevitably means there are a lot of cutscenes and "shocking moments" in lieu of actual fun.
You know what a true cinematic experience is? It's going to a goddamn cinema. Game developers realized that people enjoy watching movies, but there's no gameplay in those silly things! So even totally forgettable gameplay would be an improvement over none at all, right?
Take noted game design supervillain David Cage, whose credits include Indigo Prophecy, where you use magic kung fu to fight an evil Internet; Heavy Rain, which has a story that falls apart if you sneeze on it; and, more recently, Beyond: Two Souls, which stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. The marketing hyped up how perfectly their bodies would be re-created, the gripping story was played up, and the game even debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Then reviews pointed out that, while the game is a technical marvel, it actually isn't very fun or interesting. It's the Avatar of games. The story is disjointed and clumsy, and the shallow, tedious gameplay boils down to responding to basic prompts and watching the game continue on anyway if you fail them.
There are lots of great games that are light on the game part, but they use the strengths of the medium to tell their stories. Developers who make "cinematic experiences" use the style of movies, stretch two hours' worth of story into 10 hours of Ellen Page showering and hanging around her house because gamers get annoyed if their expensive games aren't long enough, slap the vague trappings of a game on it, then get defensive when people call them out for being boring.
I don't want to start a debate on what constitutes a game, because we all have better things to do, but when "cinematic experience" gets used in marketing it's a sign that they're hiding a major flaw. Beyond: Two Souls is a "cinematic experience" because it fundamentally fails to be a video game. Call Of Duty games have been "cinematic," but they fail to mention that the films that inspired them are the shitty Rambo sequels. The Order: 1886 is "cinematic" because, while we thought "1886" refers to the setting, it's actually a reference to the seconds you're in control of the game.
As a counter-example, The Last Of Us could be described as cinematic, but it isn't because there's an actual, you know, game underneath the visuals. It is more than game developers adding quick-time events to their rejected screenplays. So if you see "cinematic" being bandied about in marketing, remember that it's code for "We had to steal ideas from another medium, because we're not terribly good at working in ours."
Mark is on Twitter and has a collection of cinematic stories.
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