[In this opinion column, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander argues that it's good business sense to ditch the marketing copy buzzwords and E3 preview rehearsals -- and just talk straight.]
"That was pretty good, but could you make sure and say 'high-intensity' a little more often?"
E3 is coming, and all of the developers and producers who will be giving press demos and showing games at the event have been rigorously press-trained by their marketing teams.
This makes good sense, of course; much of the enthusiast press that will be in attendance will be there effectively as representatives for their audience. They will see the things their audiences want to see and to ask the questions their audiences want answered. And that audience can be viciously demanding, even jaded, and nothing gets by them.
So in many cases, the press is planning to be tough on the audience's behalf, and developers and publishers attending E3 need to be ready. Of course, there's a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation occurring. The press and their audience might get extra-tough because they're sick of the fake marketing-copy conversations that go on at E3.
Those conversations have been thoroughly pre-planned and rehearsed; words like "action-packed"; "seamless", "ultimate open-world experience", are chosen in advance and drilled into their spokespeople. Many developers and producers are even given actual scripts and asked to keep as close to them as possible.
In this way, the press' first contact with a game is extremely artificial. Usually, the precise quotes cooked up in a prep session between the developers showing the game and the marketing team are exactly the ones that make it into the preview stories. "Successful" marketing campaigns will maintain this artifice all the way up until the game's launch.
At which point everyone's usually disappointed, of course.
Progress By Loosening Control?
There's a deceptively complex cocktail of skills successful games writers possess -- speed; the ability to retain high volumes of information; a library of knowledge on a broad range of games on which they're usually freakishly skillful, a deep understanding of what a community of gamers wants to read. But the sort of communication skills necessary to bust through "message" aren't often among them.
And marketing needs to do its job of maintaining control to the absolute maximum extent it can carry off. So perhaps you can't really blame it for leveraging this more complicit than effectively confrontational relationship between the game industry and the consumer press.
But why is everyone so afraid of genuine conversation about a project? Could loosening the fists of control and allowing for at least a little more transparency benefit everyone in the end?
It's got to be stressful for a developer to have to pretend they've made a sure-fire Game Of The Year, when they know inside that what they've got is a promising project with some flaws that they've worked hard on and they hope people will enjoy.
It's got to be hard to pretend there are no comparisons to be made whatsoever between their title and, say, Grand Theft Auto, when in fact several of their ideas, assets, maps, what have you, were junked mid-way through the development cycle because they were not GTA enough.
In what way would it be a bad thing in the end if consumers had slightly more reasonable expectations of a product based on the same fair understanding of the industry and its process as the developers behind it have?
The Advantages Of Transparency
For an argument in favor of this approach, one needs to look only to the positive impressions audiences have of the companies that are the most honest with them.
Valve, for example, can do no wrong. The consistent quality of its games and the strength of Steam in a crummy retail environment for PC games sure don't hurt. But the company's strikingly honest with its community -- without resorting to denigrating mea culpas when something goes wrong.
In fact, Valve tends to take PR gaffes and run with them, apparently aware that frantically scrambling to screw lids back on looks a lot worse than having a good laugh with the community and making it all work.
For an example, just take a look at how the company's been dealing with the challenges of serving its ruthlessly devoted audience as it updates the meticulously-balanced Team Fortress 2 with first the Sniper upgrade and later the Meet The Spy update.
That they addressed the complaints of the Spy class so creatively is one gold star, but the highlight's how Valve dealt with a leak. If someone at most other companies accidentally leaked a video of upcoming content to YouTube, heads would roll -- but Valve ran with it, and made it fun for everyone. If you didn't know better, you'd think they'd planned on screwing up.
For another example, look to publisher Stardock and the just-launched Demigod. The game's been plagued by big technical issues, but you can bet that a larger portion of the audience is pulling for both Stardock and developer Gas Powered Games, lending them patience, confidence and support rather than howling for their blood.
This is simply because at Stardock, CEO Brad Wardell is willing to cop to problems and explain what the team is doing about them and what they've learned.
There's no embarrassing self-flagellation, nor is there any attempt to delude the audience into thinking things are better than they are -- he simply shoots straight, and there's a nobility in that. Audiences find that attractive, and their favor transfers over into the games Stardock publishes.
The Dangers Of Overhyping
The peril of writing checks one's mouth can't cash is evident with the example of Mythic's Warhammer Online, previewed with a good deal of widely-reported tough talk from lead designer Mark Jacobs about changing the face of MMOs with realm-versus-realm gameplay taking on World of Warcraft.
But that was apparently the peak; WAR has leveled off, believed to be at only about 300,000 subscribers as of March 2009. As the company consolidates and closes servers and lays off staff, to outside observers, it looks like the game's big dreams have summarily tanked -- even if this kind of curve is often expected for subscription MMOs.
However, CCP's longstanding EVE Online MMO attained 300,000 subscribers in six years -- and the company just celebrated this slow, sustained growth as a victory. One MMO has 300,000 subscribers and is a failure; the other has 300,000 subscribers and is a beloved community scion. The difference is entirely in the goals they set and how they represented themselves to their players.
MMOs are especially challenging from a PR standpoint, and the most successful ones see themselves largely as customer service businesses, not pieces of software where the commitment ends as soon as it ships.
And most of the companies provided here as examples don't have investors who will punish the stock for poor preorder levels or weak early sales. But the same lessons should still apply to the major console titles that will be shown next week at E3.
Mega Giga AAA Blockbuster Words
The predetermined marketing copy-words like "transformative," "AAA" and "blockbuster" will be spoken the predetermined number of times, and maybe big promises will lead to big sales spikes at release week.
But if the game doesn't actually deliver, word will get out. The truth will constrain post-release sales, it will tarnish the publisher's reputation. It may even put a damper on the back catalog sales that investors so badly want to know that companies can deliver.
If consumers saw developers as creators in a challenging industry, they might take more of an interest in the nuances of a product -- rather than seeing games singularly as the high-powered efforts of some faceless megacorporation lining their wallets on false promises.
In fact, if consumers could be allowed further transparency on the means behind a game rather than simply the end, they might see a title's shortcomings as an interesting part of its story, and not a reason to whine on message boards later on.
Of course, this doesn't mean developers should easily confess about certain private difficulties that audiences might weigh unfairly as red flags against a game months before it's even out. After all, we are dealing with a highly enthusiastic, sharply critical core audience here, and it's fair to try and contain info that might lead to unnecessarily negative pre-judgments.
But in most cases, even when there've been difficulties, developers do feel good about the work that they do. Even those who've worked on games that came out far more tangled and mangled than intended seem almost personally wounded by negative reviews.
They bemoan all the things the reviewers overlooked, all the misunderstood complexities, and they mount strong arguments amongst themselves in favor of all the ways they did their best within the limits of their resources.
A Script Ditching Plea To The Majors
Developers are advocates for their own projects anyway. Why not let them ditch the script and advocate directly? Instead of leaving them to justify themselves frustratedly only to one another post-release, why not begin the process of honest dialog now, in the "high intensity" preview phase?
It's best to allow developers to simply speak with candid positivity to members of the press about the projects they're proud of and believe in.
The press is exhausted of bullshit, and will likely get behind a project simply by virtue of being able to tell someone's being genuine with them. And the varied industry observers would like to see something worth feeling good about at E3 -- just as much as developers want it to be their game that wins the positive impressions.
Most of all, the audience wants something to believe in, too. Why not let it be the reality?