Making video games is a gamble. Billions of dollars and hours are plunged into the video game industry every year, and that’s just the development. So after you’ve spent these precious resources crafting the perfect game you’re going to want to tell people about it so they actually buy it. Unfortunately though, too often this is where studios fall down. It’s bad when a game is under marketed and gains a very small, incidental following if any. It’s a disaster when the marketing hype drowns the game out and leaves developers penniless and players angry.
No Man’s Sky is perhaps the most recent example of video game marketing gone wrong. I, for one, love the game and saw little disparity between my marketing fuelled preconceptions and the actual product I received. The same cannot be said for a strong percentage of other players who argued that in the three years since Hello Games’ announcement in 2013, a number of big promises were made that just weren’t fulfilled. These scrapped promises alongside ambiguous gameplay trailers resulted in the perfect storm of shattered expectations of the game that will forever blight the name. While marketing didn’t necessarily kill No Man’s Sky – it still has a large dedicated following – it was injured beyond repair for others. This isn’t a new phenomenon, and back before the indie scene was so profitable, marketing hype falling flat was a much bigger threat to much bigger companies, and has caused much more woe in the past.
Rise of the Robots
In the early 90s, Rise of the Robots was hyped as the next great leap in the fighting game genre. As developers swarmed the industry, the best way to get noticed was through the ever-profitable promise of representational graphics. In a world that only previously knew 8-bit abstraction, if your game could promise lifelike representation, you were on to a winner. So when Rise of the Robots ploughed through a massive marketing campaign centered around ‘mind-blowing’ graphics that would put Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat in the grave, players felt hopeful.
As it turned out, the now largely forgotten title didn’t deliver quite the punch it assured, and the giants in the fighting genre didn’t receive quite the KO they were threatened with. While people were fairly impressed by the graphics on the game’s release in Christmas 1994, the gameplay was disturbingly dull. Repetitive and frustrating, there was no way Rise of the Robots could compete with Street Fighter in controls or with Mortal Kombat in variety. It was downright boring and a chore to play.
Developers had made a classic, yet disgustingly money grabbing mistake – overhyping the one aspect of the game that sold well and ignoring that actual gameplay as a result. People felt duped by the deceptive advertising and scorned the developers for their lack of complexity over other contemporary titles.
With big names like John Romero behind the project, who wouldn’t trust that Diakatana would live up to its studio predecessors Doom and Quake. The futuristic martial arts title appealed to its 90s audience in its story, the rise of an instructor in Japan fighting off the dystopian corporate world around him fit nicely into the countercultural rejection of such an establishment. Throw in some badass combat shots, stir a steady cash flow in, and let it all ride on John Romero’s name with the promising tagline “John Romero’s about to make you his bitch” and you’ve got a marketing hype brewed nicely. In reality the game was more retro than futuristic.
Horrifically outdated gameplay and visuals showed Romero to be a man stuck in the past, trying to ‘make you his bitch’ with the video game equivalent of a rusty bayonet while you have a shiny M16. Released in 2000 for PC and N64, Daikatana brought convoluted storylines, repetitive battles, and cut scenes all the damn time to a world coloured with blocky graphics reminiscent of PS1’s later days. The moral of the story is, hype the game, not the creator.
Back in 1987, SEGA decided it wanted to take on the open world genre. A few years later, they wanted to take on PC gaming in terms of graphics. The resulting 10 years of development did little in the way of either feat for Shenmue. At that time developer competition was pushing the industry forward, so it makes sense that the industry giant would pursue some healthy graphical competition. However when this healthy industry competition nearly bankrupts a major company you know things have gone wrong. For ten years SEGA was promising Shenmue and spending more and more of its staggering $70 million budget.
Intense gameplay, an innovative environment size and design, and an emotional musical masterpiece were promised. What Dreamcast players received was a buggy pixel of a game. Ten years of development had weathered and dated the title, and mounting pressure on marketing had created impossible expectations in its users. The title was supposed to be the first in a series for the Dreamcast, however once the whole charade had fallen through and SEGA tiptoed the line of bankruptcy, they decided to back away slowly from the project.
Duke Nukem Forever
It seems that longer-than-expected development times are largely the cause of overhyped games. The same case stands for Duke Nukem Forever, the sequel to the massively popular PC original. Trailers existed throughout development all the way up to the title’s original release date in 1998. These trailers then continued through to its actual release date in 2006. That’s a lot of hype.
Developers were so keen to keep players’ interest in the long overdue title they simply kept churning out trailers promising bigger and better things – each one justifying the last through a new revolutionary feature. In reality the game looked incredibly dated on release, and had no identifiable features to separate it from the original. The result was estimated losses in the tens of millions range.
One of the most notorious PC releases, BC3K is the only independent title in our list. Its creator, Derek Smart had some ambitious aims in the first place – to give the player total control and command over a large fleet of starships even down to resource and crew management duties. It was a highly personal project, which can sometimes lead to innovative, deeply moving creations. Or it can lead to bitter perfectionism and a defensive online presence. No prizes for guessing which outcome befell BC3K.
The game was hyped for almost a decade before its final release which ultimately proved disastrous. Smart’s unrelenting desire to keep the game in development was ultimately overruled by publisher Take-Two Interactive who sent the title to stores in November 1996. Before this, Smart’s biggest marketing platform was Usenet, and it was fully behind him… until the delays started coming in. These players had been promised that the game would be “the last thing you’ll ever desire”, and were growing impatient. It didn’t help that Smart was ever present on the site, fighting his side of the developer / player release date war bitterly and igniting some of the biggest arguments the server had ever seen.
When Take-Two said enough however, the buggy unfinished experience was painful. Outdated graphics and a ludicrous interface begged the question of just what Smart was doing all those hours he was at his computer (probably just trolling Usenet). Patches and a later finished version of the game were released in the following years, but the shot Smart had at breaking into the PC market was in pieces and the title as a franchise would never recover.