Crashing the Hype Train

We’ve all fallen victim to hype at one time or another: that incredible excitement for a highly anticipated game (or movie or book) that at the time seems reasonable, but utterly ridiculous after the moment had passed. One thing we can all thank No Man’s Sky for is for giving the game community the slap it needed to break the spell of that terrible game-killer, hype.

But are we rid of it? Why, when we know its potential for disaster, do we believe and get wrapped up in the hype surrounding an upcoming game?

It wouldn’t be a Wednesday post without some definitions, so let’s take a look at what hype actually is.

Hype, Boredom, and the Subconscious

Hype is a word that refers to promotion or propaganda, meant to raise interest and excitement in a person or product. Often, this is a word used especially to refer to exaggerated claims used for this purpose.

psyched

The key word is exaggerated. Perhaps a better word would be sensational or novel. This is the part of hype that sucks us in if we’re not ready for it, and what built up all the hopefuls prior to the release of No Man’s Sky. It’s also what we must acclimate to in order to see through the haze of hype to make a calm – and hopefully more objective – judgment about something.

Our brains are wired to take note of and process everyday familiar stimuli without us becoming overwhelmed (that is, we process it subconsciously). These types of familiar stimuli are, in a way, boring to us. They are expected and normal. But our ability to consciously ignore – while subconsciously processing – mundane information is actually an important survival skill.

Imagine driving on a highway. In order to operate a car, you must monitor your speed, check whether you are staying in the lane, make minute adjustments of the steering wheel as needed, check your mirrors, note any cars around you, respond to their movements, merge lanes, and navigate to your destination. Chances are, you do all these things (and more) without a thought. If you’ve ever wondered why you can drive for an hour to a familiar destination and have no memory of your journey, it’s because everything you had to process was so familiar and “boring” that you were quite literally unaware of it – at least consciously.

driving

Although it seems counterintuitive, this phenomenon actually makes you better able to respond to new stimuli (assuming you’re not truly nodding off). For instance, say you are driving down the highway again, contentedly not consciously aware of the pressure of your foot on the accelerator. Suddenly, a tractor trailer careens over the median onto your side of the highway. Just as suddenly, your attention is grabbed by this new and unexpected event, and, to your brain, you have only one stimulus to respond to… even though you are still completing all necessary tasks to operate your car.

Novel stimuli naturally need more processing power, as our brains need to figure out what the stimulus is and what it means in relation to us/our survival/our needs and wants. And so, the new stimulus (the truck) is responded to/processed consciously  because your conscious brain isn’t burdened with sorting through the other familiar tasks that you are performing on “auto-pilot.”

So, these conscious tasks require more processing power, which require your attention. To a game developer, more attention can translate into greater profits.

Jumping on Board

With a basic understanding of how our brain prioritizes incoming stimuli, we can turn back to the phenomenon of hype. As defined above, hype is meant to be sensational information in order to promote a product. Hype is used to show how the product is exciting and novel. In other words, it’s the careening truck on our boring drive.

ranbow.gif

Now think of video game announcements. They are made to dazzle you with new and better graphics, or with the promise of a new story in a universe that already elicits positive feelings, or even with a teasing promise of a new, never-before-seen game or concept. And our brains pay a little more attention to these “new” concepts because, well, they’re new and our brains need extra time to process.

Little hints, small news articles, and new pictures are released like the steady drip of a faucet. With the extra attention these leaks get because they are providing new information, our brain then starts to try and make sense of all the disjointed pieces  its receiving, demanding more information – more drips – when it fails to create a cohesive picture.

And around and around it goes.

hamster.jpg

In bad cases, we draw the wrong conclusions either because we are purposefully led in a direction, or because no game or book or movie could ever live up to what each of us can conjure in our minds.  In the best cases, the game is great and we ride off into a digital sunset on a magical dragon (or other transportation of choice).

Just kidding. In the best cases, we are given a solid game that we enjoy playing, not because of the hype, but because it’s a good game and we would have liked it anyway.

…But we fall for it – a lot, and we fell for it until No Man’s Sky came along and showed us how badly sensationalism can hurt a game. We were given tantalizing information, which spurned fans to greater, dizzying heights, and the developers promised more and more, which all culminated in a decent game being released, but by no means the amazing life-changing event it was hyped to be.

But wait. What would prompt a developer to feel pressed to exaggerate (or outright lie) when they must certainly know they would eventually be caught?

Living in a Hype Culture World

We live in a world full of hype. Often, people comment on how the news sensationalizes stories. A few (real) examples (I swear these are real):

“High heel defense! Tonight, at 11.”
“The dramatic details leading up to this horrific breakup, later tonight!”
“The Digital Breakup!”
“It could be affecting you. Digital Amnesia!”
“Digital Drowning!”
“Dry Drowning! Coming up next on (insert news channel)”
“Water Overdose!”

y-u-no
Y U try to get my attention with meaningless headlines??

The media has learned that to grab attention and viewers, and therefore ratings, it needs to create hype around its stories. So it taps into our desire for new and exciting, and teases us with only a little bit of information. And we fall for it for a time, but then we learn. That level of hype becomes “normal,” and expected. It no longer grabs our attention.

So the next time they want our attention, the hype needs to be bigger, more exciting, and more promising of something even better and newer. Then we wind up with a situation like with No Man’s Sky. To outshine other games, I suspect the developers over-promised, wrapped up in the pageantry of promotion, vying for our attention as we were bombarded from every side with “new.” After all, a first-person flight simulator falls a little flat next to the sweeping landscapes and story of a game like The Witcher III.

spiderman2

Hyping and Hating

Of course, if we’re going to talk about hype, we’re also going to briefly mention hate. I’m sure you all were aware of the online storm after No Man’s Sky was released and failed to deliver on what fans were expecting, and have watched the recent anger toward the cancellation of Scalebound for Xbox. Like love and hate, hype and hate coexist with a fine, fine line separating them.

love-and-hate

Let’s sit on that one for a moment.

……

Now imagine that where she says, “I love you,” she’s talking about an upcoming video game she was incredibly, exceedingly excited for but had ultimately disappointed her.

Hype and hate: when we allow ourselves to feel so strongly about something that we, in a way, become unhinged. We become blinded to what’s really in front of us in favor of unrealistic expectations.

Final Thoughts

Maybe we all bear a little bit of the blame: the publishers, media, or other providers who want our attention, and us, for getting wrapped up in the showmanship and the emotion of it all. A backlash against this, of course, could result in apathy, but that is far beyond the scope of this article. The takeaway message, however, is that, when faced with hype (or its darker cousin, hate), be it for a release of a game or a console or a movie, or the election of a politician, or the cancellation of an anticipated game, we need to realize what’s happening in order to safely combat it and dig down to where the facts lie. Beneath the emotions. Because when the hype train crashes, you don’t want to be on it.

What do you think? Does hype serve a purpose? Does it have a place in the games industry? What about in the physical world? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~Athena

PS I can already hear keyboards clicking, but please note that being excited for a game and being wrapped up in hype are two different things (or at the very least are at different places on that spectrum of feelings). Excitement for a game is looking forward to it. Hype is holding a game to an unrealistic standard. Just to be clear!


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21 thoughts on “Crashing the Hype Train

  1. Good points, well made. I wrote a piece a while back about the “unbearable weight of expectation” that No Man’s Sky landed with, but in a way, I think the game’s a fairly unique example of hype snowballing. Without wanting to get into ‘fanboy defending the indefensible’ territory, there’s a fairly strong case for suggesting that hello games were unwitting victims of the hype train as opposed to, say, proactively generating it.

    I’m sure a whole book could be written on the No Man’s Sky shenanigans (if only I had the time and skill) but in essence, it was a small “Indie” game that after a few minutes of coverage during a Sony Presentation doodah, suddenly found itself the focus of almost unprecedented levels of interest, and then, because everyone was suddenly banging on about it, loads of other people started banging on about it, which caused yet more people to start banging on about it. Rinse, lather, repeat.

    Given Sean Murray frequently looked somewhere between uncomfortable and petrified (and sometimes, bless him, in distinct ‘ managing expectations’ mode), I suspect that the hype was probably more down to Sony (who, let’s face it, weren’t going to let an (unexpected) opportunity to go begging, so “strongly encouraged” Sean to do the interviews, talk shows etc) and the Gaming websites etc, who suddenly found that they were getting bajillions of hits on NMS pieces, and wanted more of that, thankyouverymuch.

    At the time I was writing for a small website, and I wrote a few pieces on NMS – thinking I’d maybe get a few hits from fellow space/Sci-Fi geeks – but it all went a bit daft, and suddenly this little niche game I was writing about for fun became genuine clickbait – thus increasing the incentive(/pressure) to write more about it. And then, obviously, the more people wrote about it, the more people read about it, the more people wrote about it. Rinse, lather, repeat. Again.

    Of course, everything you’ve written all still applies to that (I also wrote about people projecting their own desires onto/filling in the gaps themselves in No Man’s Sky), but I thought the whole episode was particularly interesting in that it was a (mostly) quite organic and spontaneous Hype Train – at least initially – and that, actually, there was a degree to which it demonstrated how the Secondary and Tertiary aspects of the Gaming Industry (websites, magazines, YouTubers etc) can actually play a huge part in that for no other reason than trying to get their own piece of the page-hit pie.

    Obviously in that respect, I found it a bit rich that they then jumped on the backlash bandwagon too (again, more pagehits, right!?) given they played a big part in creating the backlash in the first place, but then, that’s probably another discussion entirely…… 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply! Yes, I barely touched on some of the real nitty-gritty analysis of the No Man’s Sky issue, but I’ve thought for a while that it was a victim here, too. Just like the news, YouTubers, video game news sites, and others covering video games are all vying for audience attention, and extreme emotions get people’s attention, whether it be the initial hype or the backlash of hate.

      I suspect Sony had a hand in most of the push for No Man’s Sky to be promoted and talked about, as well. Like I said, I think the devs just got wrapped up into the whole mess and the game’s promotion spiraled out of control. I think the whole swirl around No Man’s Sky is/was absolutely fascinating… It would be an interesting book!

      And please feel free to discuss and defend! I’m solidly in the camp of “Mass Effect 3 endings didn’t suck,” so I’m always open to hearing other sides of the issue 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hype carries a negative connotation to it, but I think it does have a place in gaming. There’s nothing wrong in my opinion with generating enthusiasm for a game coming out, but the burden of proof that the game is worth the excitement is on the developer at that point.

    Publishers (and let’s be honest, publishers are the ones that capitalize on hype) need to learn to limit their expectations of a game so it doesn’t get out from under them. Sony got carried away with No Man’s Sky, just like Ubisoft got carried away with the first Watch_Dogs, and Activision needs to curb their hype culture with Destiny.

    As long as the game lives up to the expectations, hype is fine. It’s just that the final product very rarely lives up to the hype.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When it gets to the point that the fans become little more than a rabid free marketing team for the game then it’s gone too far. Hype is fine so long as it isn’t damaging to people. Those who hurl abuse at those who don’t think that Captain SteelPunch 11 will be amazing are an issue. Those who can discuss it and raise good points about its potential virtues are not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. You need a little hype to get people excited for a product/game, but like anything else, moderation is key.

      And the hate needs to stop. A little healthy critique is good for any medium, video games included. Those types of discussions keep the medium developing and maturing, which is something that most video game enthusiasts seem okay with having happen (at least in theory).

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Sometimes I think it’s less, and then I see YouTube and Facebook comments (which is really my only insight into the pulse of game enthusiasts beside my IRL circle of friends and the bloggers here), and I see how far we still need to go. But yes, there’s no mistaking that we are making strides forward!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Great read! I’ve been run over by that hype train on many occasions. I blame Nintendo and it’s not my bored brain’s fault at all! 🙂

    I think hype is utilized extensively as a Marketing tactic in general. Getting consumers pumped for any product means they are much more likely to buy it. When the product fails to live up to that hype, boycotts from hate filled consumers is usually the result.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I really doubt No Man’s Sky is going to change anything. We’ve seem this before so many times. The Hype Train has not only crashed into a bad game with Aliens: Colonial Marines, as Judge mentioned, we’ve also seen it derail with Daikatana, Watch Dogs, Sonic ’06, Dragon Age 2, the Wii, Mighty Number 9, Fable, etc. Not all of these are even bad experiences, necessarily, but even mislead expectations is a pretty nasty thing. Everytime, it draws more and more attention to the fact that previews can’t be entirely trusted, but that’s all forgotten by the time the marketing machine starts up again.

    There’s a lot of blame you can put at the foot of the developers themselves. Some of the things they do to promote a game, such as running doctored or CGI footage in a preview as if it were in-game material, can be inexcusable. For the most part, though, as long as they’re not actively misleading the consumer, I have a hard time getting too angry with them. Their job is to make what they consider to be a good product, and to do their best to get consumers to buy them; they’re really not in a good position to be revealing flaws in their experiences beforehand. For the most part, I blame the games media. Because it’s fun.

    But really, I can’t remember the last time I’ve read a major gaming publication that wasn’t PC Gamer have a negative tone on a preview for a game’s release. They always optimistic and part of the overgrown hype machine all through the previews, no matter how obvious the flaws in the game may be, up until it’s actually release, at which time the poor reviews may roll out, but that comes too late for a lot of people’s honest impressions about the game. There’s some logic to that, because, you know, the game may well improve from its pre-release versions, but I think way too much of that comes from the basic nature of the media. Video games journalism is essentially hobbyist news grown way too big and with way too much marketing sway. They can’t go out and research things they way traditional news would, rather, everything they get either comes directly from the companies themselves, who, again, aren’t in a good position to be looking negatively on their own work, or at least necessitates a good relationship with those companies. Negative previews would harm those good relationships, and because of just how many gaming publications are out there, the journals need to maintain them or they’ll be losing out to their competition. So, they willingly climb into bed with these publishers, and happily become just another car on the hype train.

    I’ve been getting most of my games knowledge from Let’s Players and my fellow bloggers, lately. I’m not on the cutting edge of gaming anymore, and there’s a lot that comes out without me being largely aware of it and I don’t have much of an impression on most of the rest, but I’ve been finding that I’m making smarter purchasing decisions, and overall, I’m happier for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My hope that No Man’s Sky would be the end is definitely wishful thinking…

      I blame the media, as well. I tend to blame the media often, and for many things… Anyway… We have so many “news outlets” and “reviewers” but hardly anyone who truly critiques games and gaming hardware that there is hardly any set of checks and balances available. I like your phrase “hobbyist news”… it sums it up well. I’m sure I can fall into the category sometimes, but hardly anyone listens to what I say so it’s alright 😉

      I’m the same way. Most of my to-play games are recommendations from bloggers and a few of my like-minded friends IRL, and I find myself usually checking out gameplay on YouTube before deciding to buy. Like with mainstream media, a lot of responsibility is on the viewer/consumer now, so it might be harder, but with money, time, and effort on the line, it’s the only way.

      Thank you *so* much for your thorough and thoughtful comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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