The No Man’s Sky controversy has brought to light many of the problems with how the gaming industry and the community that surrounds it talks about games. Although they may have taken things a bit too far, No Man’s Sky developers Hello Games didn’t do anything new. A lethal combination of Peter Monlyneux-eqsue marketing, consumers gorging themselves on increasingly unreasonable expectations, and online publications feeding those consumers with updates on game development many years ahead of release created one of gaming’s worst pivots of public opinion. Publishers refusing to give away review copies of their games is only another bump in the road towards triple-A gaming marketing relying more on preorders and day 1 sales than on quality assurance. Is gaming doomed? No, but there are a few things that we can do collectively to insure that consumers are protected against aggressive marketing campaigns meant to guarantee a purchase before the quality of the product is even measurable.
Stop Preordering Games
As a former Gamestop employee, I can say there is a reason that brick and mortar stores encourage customers to preorder products: it guarantees that specific store gets the product, whether you pick it up on release day or not and ensures that you will return to that store instead of one of their competitors. As for publishers, it is a safety net to ensure that a game is profitable before consumers know what they’re purchasing. This has been a fairly innocuous business practice for years now, but a combination of exclusive preorder bonuses, DLC season pass sales, deceptive marketing, and an unwillingness to cooperate with critics has turned what would normally be a win-win for developers and consumers into a blatant strategy to get as much money from fans as possible before they realize that the product isn’t exactly what they made it out to be. The solution is simple: Stop preordering, or at the very least, realize that putting your money down before the game is released voids any rights you have to complain about the quality of the game in question.
Stop Feeding the Hype
New media and gaming seem to have become very good friends over the last few years: gaming magazines have all but disappeared, instead being replaced by online publications, Youtubers have been given incredible marketing power by their hordes of 9-year-old subscribers, and social media is now a huge part of how gamers learn about upcoming titles. Normally, this would be fantastic, but it’s becoming increasingly apparently that the 18-year-old millionaire behind the webcam doesn’t care about journalistic integrity, of which shady game publishers are blatantly appreciative. When a publisher like Bethesda refuses to provide review copies for their games, they are betting that their average consumer will go to the internet to find videos of their favorite Youtuber or streamer excitedly promoting the game rather than read a 2,000 word article that provides a holistic perspective on the finished product. The solution here is something we all need to be better on: stop feeding the hype machine. This includes Reddit threads, Twitter conversations, Youtube videos, live streams, blog posts, and most importantly, popular online publications.
The last thing I want is for gamers to stop being excited about games. Instead, what I suggest is that people take more consideration into what they know and what they say about upcoming titles. Keeping your hype levels in check can help maintain a layer of protection for consumers against publishers that would rather pump money into advertising than delay a game until it is finished. A healthy dose of skepticism could do the gaming community some good (as opposed to the rampant cynicism that pervades it currently).
Spread the Word
The subject of deceptive advertising and the issues between publishers and the media have been discussed thoroughly for years now, and yet not much has been done about it. The issue is that the average consumer is conflicted: Fans build up trust over years of patronage and get excited about their favorite developer’s new release. Journalists are proud of their latest feature for the summer’s hottest title. Mega-fans delight in theorizing about a game’s potential in online forums years before it’s finished. When you tell a friend not to preorder games or to vote with their wallet, they may agree in theory, but will often fall back on their habits when the next triple-A game is revealed. Our job is to keep this conversation going and to let the gaming industry know that we won’t let shady marketing and shitty reviewer policies go unnoticed.
This isn’t about rising up against a global conspiracy against gamers; it’s about the little things we do that promote this sort of sketchy behavior from publishers. Call out bullshot at trade shows, tweet at publishers that refuse to give critics review copies, and let them know that their sketchiness will affect your buying decision.
I’ve seen enough examples while working in retail of how the triple-A gaming industry and related corporations want the average gamer to behave; get excited about a new release, preorder it, a season pass, and a strategy guide, then return it a month later at Gamestop when you decide it wasn’t very good after all. Rinse and repeat. If gaming is going to grow as an entertainment medium, the gaming community needs to prove to developers and publishers that we won’t let them take advantage of an uninformed consumer base. Don’t just bitch about the latest triple-A flop or PC port fiasco on an online forum; show the industry that you’re smarter than they think when their next project comes around.