The more I think about it, the less I’m into the whole PR hype machine. Inundated with trailers, screenshots, and extensive details about new mechanics and features prior to release, the entire process seems to have removed most of the surprise from what should be a wonder-filled experience. Press releases and conferences have revealed things that would have dropped most jaws when played in the game, but Uncharted 3’s “Burning Chateau” level and Halo: Reach’s “Space Combat” just became things you knew were coming at some point.
Perhaps announcing new modes and features, particularly with sequels, was once important for sales. Today though, with games like Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 guaranteed to move millions, there’s little danger in withholding new features from the public. People will consume these big games ad nasueum, and they’ll know exactly what to expect with each one.
The entire reason for the slow but steady trickle of information is so that Activision, Electronic Arts, and Square Enix games are constantly being talked about on news sites. It’s been awhile since Hitman: Absolution made headlines? Here’s 20 minutes of gameplay. And while that will tell you what Contracts mode is about, it does the final game – and the consumer – a disservice.
That’s likely one of the reasons why independent games are being so revered these days. Most indies don’t have Microsoft inviting groups of journalists to preview a ‘vertical slice’ of their game a month before launch. Instead, small shops have to let the game be their voice. The biggest hurdle – and it’s a huge one – is getting someone to try out their title. But when Terarria and Amnesia: The Dark Descent got people talking, sales increased instead of taking a sharp nose dive after the first month of release.
Before the Internet, you really only got gaming information from friends or print magazines and instead of the ‘sure things’ of today, there was a bit of a gamble applied to every purchase or rental. Sometimes that gamble would pay off huge or other times you’d get burned, but it was always exciting. You’d sometimes even base your decision on box art and the descriptions on the back. Think about how pointless the actual box is today towards a purchasing decision.
In essence, a lot of the process that many of us grew up with is present within the indie gaming scene. While reviews and opinions are much more available, there’s still quite a bit of mystery behind most titles. When you talk to others, if they really love something the suggestion is often “just play it,” with little expounding. When you can experience something like Journey without any preconceived ideas about what you’re going to play, it can turn into a magical experience. Where only the most dedicated franchise fans discuss Gears of War 3 a month after release, people are still writing about The Binding of Isaac.
Investors don’t want a mystery or gambles, though. They want that ‘sure thing’ and the day-one sales that come with it. They want a company to turn a profit almost immediately on a game that tens of millions of dollars were poured into. The long tail or late spike doesn’t really matter, so in reality, it’s the publicly traded nature of the large companies that could be blamed for safe, big-name releases that offer no surprise.
I do like the ‘triple-A’ releases, but rarely get blown away anymore by their polished, finely tuned shots of dopamine. Console makers should highlight independent game development, but that’s unlikely to happen. They’re driven by games that sell big and other content providing deals from even more publicly traded companies. The monetary return on indie games for console manufacturers is by comparison, tiny.
Services like Xbox Live Indie Games will stay buried in menus and I wouldn’t doubt that next generation, there will be no functional outlet for them at all. PC and mobile game development are, and will remain our only true bastion for the surprising indie.
Just imagine how incredible Assassin’s Creed 3’s “Naval Warfare” would be if we didn’t already know it was coming.