If I were to pick a recurring, unifying theme for 2014, it would have to be anticipation (or hype, in common gamer-speak). Our pastime these days seems to be all about waiting for games; looking at trailers, obsessing over technical specifications, and talking about upcoming releases to no end. Not that this kind of behavior is anything new - hype has been around as long as video games themselves. It's just that, now, the hype seems to be all that we have left.
Let's take a look at the big releases of 2014 so far, and how they were made to look before they released. First up on the roster, there's Titanfall - a game spun up by the gaming media as the Second Coming of Shooter Christ. Gamespot's own Danny O'Dwyer gushed about how playing TF online felt like playing COD4 multiplayer for the very first time.This was the game, if journalists were to be believed, that was going to forever alter online shooters.
Next up, we have Dark Souls 2, a game that needs no introduction. Of all of 2014's releases, I think it is this game that dedicated gamers had the most hope for. The previous two Souls game shunned the mainstream AAA audience in favor of a more involved (hardcore, if you will,) experience, and for that they received the respect and adoration of everyone who was disillusioned with the state of mainstream gaming. If there was any hope of having a good niche game in 2014, it was going to be this. The devs promised to make a game that was Dark Souls and more - one particularly interesting promise was bosses that would continually pursue and harass you as you navigated its dungeons. It was somehow going to be more accessible AND more challenging. How? Don't worry about it, that's how.
Lastly, there's Watch Dogs, Ubisoft's supposedly revolutionary "next-gen" open-world game. It's been generating hype since 2012, it had an insane amount of pre-orders, and five different pre-order special editions. If Ubisoft were to be believed, this was going to do for GTA clones the same thing that Titanfall was going to do for FPS games. New modes of gameplay, new experiences in multiplayer, hacking (hacking everywhere!!!), eye-melting graphics - this game was going to have it all.
Now let's look at what actually happened. Titanfall ran a three-day beta shortly before release. Gamers' reaction to it - it was fun, but not "that fun". The realization came about that the basic gameplay was initially curious but got old fast, and that the full game would have to provide a lot of varied content to keep players invested. The game launched, and the content just wasn't there. Not only did the game lack a single-player campaign, but the multiplayer was the definition of a bare-bones experience. Despite this, the game ran out of the gate with glowing reviews, allowing the hype to carry through to launch day. A couple of months later, and no one is talking about the game, or even playing it that much. The fact that EA refuses to release total sales figures is enough of a statement to the real success of the game.
Fast-forward a couple of months, and Dark Souls 2 came out to rave reviews. A couple of weeks later, most of the dedicated had it beat, and the near-universal reaction was gentle disappointment. The game was still good, sure, but DS2 fell short to its predecessor in nearly every single way. The combat balance, the world-building, and the level design are worse in DS2, despite doing their best to ape their predecessor. From Software even managed to destroy the multiplayer portion of the game by introducing Soul Memory, a mechanic that made dedicated players impossible to summon, because they accumulated more total souls than everyone else. All this resulted in a game with less longevity, and a much smaller dedicated following. The discussions about the series have already moved on to the next highly-anticipated Souls game, "Project Beast".
Watch Dogs came out a few days ago, and this time even the mainstream reviewers couldn't manage to keep the hype going all that well. The game was GTA clone, pure and simple. Sure, it was a good GTA clone, with plenty of polish and AAA treatment, but nothing even remotely revolutionary. Just like the graphics, the game itself did not stand up to 2012 promises and expectations. Nothing more to say about it; people are playing and enjoying the game, but no one is gushing about it the way the previews did.
My long-winded point here is that we're starting to see the detrimental effects of "Pre-Order Culture" on a near-universal level. Publishers are more focused than ever to lock down the sale before the customer has a chance to look at the final product. They started with flashy trailers, then resorted to using pre-order exclusive DLC. Now, they're elevating every game to a near-mythical status before it even launches to get as many people to hand over their money pre-launch, in fear that they will miss the next great zeitgeist of gaming. And the real b!tch of it is, they're doing this precisely because they know that we won't be as impressed with their games as they want us to be. So they create anticipation, and we feed off of it. When the anticipated product releases, we experience mild disappointment, but that's almost never the focus. Instead we pack up and move on to the next highly anticipated "big deal".
In a way, they're hurting their own products as well. The three example games that I used are fine products; to their respective audiences, they're very enjoyable (although unremarkable) experiences. However, because the publishers are hyping up these games to be something they're not, trying to (pre)sell them to people that normally wouldn't buy them, we get unrealistic expectations and high bars that these games have no chance of hitting. By setting us up for disappointment, the publishers are breeding a culture of contempt and pessimism, and it's bound to start blowing back on them soon.
There's one more great big hype whale to be released this year - Destiny, Bungie/Activision's $500 Million moneyhole. Once again, we have a game that promises to reinvent the multiplayer FPS, all while delivering an enormous game world and class-leading gameplay. By flaunting the development cost of this game, Bobby Kotick is essentially telling gamers that everyone else and their mother is going to buy it, and the people that aren't on board will miss out and be left behind. The connected, MMO-ish nature of the game means you have to jump in as soon as it's out, because waiting for extended player impressions or sales means you'll miss the great moments in multiplayer. And yet, the more I see how much Activision is trying to pump up anticipation for this game, the less enthusiasm I can muster.
TL;DR - hype is bad, pre-orders are bad. Apologies if I bored you for too long.