It’s now February which means there’s a new prompt from Band of Bloggers and this month’s theme is about subverted expectations in gaming. Shoggoth made the important point in his blog that it is generally a lot harder to surprise audiences these days than it used to be. Keen journalists, data miners, and leakers all contribute to the dissemination of private information, then news algorithms and social media channels redistribute it to audiences on a far greater scale. We now live in an age of personal information delivery, where even information that we are remotely interested in can make it into one of our data feeds. All of these systematic factors make it nearly impossible for developers and studios to keep things secret until the time of their choosing anymore. Once a piece of information gets out, it can be a matter of minutes or hours before it’s trending. Give it a few days or perhaps a week, and the majority of the relevant audience is more than likely familiar with it.
I had the fortune to grow up just before the age of smart devices. For teens these days, it’s impossible to imagine I’m sure, but I’m only talking about the late nineties and 2000’s. 2010 was when the smartphone craze really set in. This was not long ago! We still had Youtube, Reddit (and other online forums), and plenty of video game news sites (or magazines!) to get our info from. Information was out there for those who sought it, but it wasn’t personally delivered to our devices and data feeds like it is today.
(A screenshot from my personal feed)
There is no doubt that society has greatly benefited from the introduction of mobile “smart” devices and the accessibility to information which they provide, but the new technology has also introduced its own sociological problems. Social media and game addiction are the most obvious culprits to name, but there are also the prolific issues of “information vs disinformation” and “cognitive influence from media.” These terms are not exactly self-explanatory though, so let’s take a quick minute to understand their relevance.
Simply put, “information vs disinformation” is fact vs inaccuracy. One of the oldest sayings about the internet is this: “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.” Boomers love that one. It’s true though, because the internet gives a voice to anyone, which can make it difficult to differentiate between professional experts that do their own research and amateur content creators that use unvalidated sources like Wikipedia. It’s important to remember that subscriber counts are not measures of credibility, but popularity. They may have convinced a million people to listen to them, but it doesn’t mean they are qualified to be speaking as a subject matter expert.
(I couldn't resist making this)
“Cognitive influence from media” is a similar concept, but its implications are far more systemic, because it pertains to the inability of the human brain to think for itself and form independent opinions. This concept is similar to “groupthink” or the “follower” mentality which is when an individual shapes their opinion off of the opinion of someone they consider to be a leader. “Cognitive influence from media” can be dangerous, because overexposure can result in the loss of individual preferences and the satisfaction that comes along with forming one’s own personal opinions. Let’s look at an example. A major influencer plays a beta or a game in early access and says they love it. They say it is fun, balanced, and it will be Game of the Year. This opinion alone will sell copies of the game. Many followers will immediately be predisposed to agree with the influencer before and after they play the game. Likewise, the same influencer could say the game is terrible, and followers will be predisposed to align with that opinion. Cognitive influence from media affects younger generations more than ever before due to perpetual accessibility to information, so it’s important to recognize it for what it is. It’s not necessarily good or evil, but rather detrimental to our ability to form independent opinions.
“But Omega, you’re boring me to death! I thought you were going to talk about games!?!”
- I am, don’t worry. We are about to come full circle here with the discussion about subverted expectations in gaming.
Gaming culture has become particularly oversaturated with strong opinions about what makes a game good or bad. As was already talked about, there are plenty of sources for information, disinformation, social media discussions (really they are more like e-fights), “professional” reviews, and influencer opinions that are all available to help consumers gauge whether or not a new game is worth the cash.
Take Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst for example, which was received with mixed reviews and a degree of angry fan backlash. If you are unfamiliar with it, read the Destructoid review. My initial reaction was to dismiss it as being a bland sequel and I decided to buy the acclaimed original Mirror’s Edge instead of Catalyst. I loved the original game, though the design and gameplay felt a little dated. At that point, my opinion on playing Catalyst changed from a “no” to a “maybe.” I mean how bad could it be?
One day I stumbled across the EA Origin Vault list and I was shocked by how many classic games and recent releases were available to play for just $5/month. There was Battlefield One, Mass Effect Andromeda, and of course Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. Not long after, I decided “Eh why not subscribe and try all of these mixed review titles?” So I started off the subscription by playing Catalyst, expecting a mediocre experience. Let me tell you how wrong I was about that game.
Catalyst captured a lot of the same magic that the original game had, but it also felt more immersive. The movement was smoother, the cityscapes were more detailed, the art design was bold, the combat was more mechanical, the city felt more alive. The story was just as bad as the original. I never said it was perfect, did I? Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was much better than public opinion led me to believe though.
This leads me to the defining question of this article: Is an informed opinion always a good thing? My answer is no. No it is not.
It’s certainly good to stay informed and not get duped by disingenuous marketing into purchasing an unfinished game or a rushed production. Still, I think the overabundance of resources can work against consumers, because of the potentially unfounded predispositions that can form from reading other people’s opinions before forming their own. There is a unique satisfaction that comes out of trying something new with little context and undeveloped expectations.
The original Crackdown is another good example of a game that received a lot of negative attention before anyone knew what it was about or how it would measure up in terms of quality. The fiasco all started back in early 2007 with a rumor that Halo 3 beta keys would be packaged with a $60 game. This was at a time when Halo was arguably the king of all shooters, which made the Halo 3 beta a very big deal. Fans were infuriated to hear that Microsoft was trying to sell another game using Halo’s popularity, and Crackdown was subjugated to a lot of mockery. The common joke was that people were “getting a free game with the purchase of their beta key,” and I have to admit it was a good parody of the situation. Microsoft responded by releasing a demo for Crackdown and encouraged people to give it a try before rushing to judgement. To my pleasant surprise, I did actually enjoy it.
Crackdown is an odd combination of an arcade style third person shooter with augmented super-human abilities, racing, and platforming. The setting is a massive open-world city full of rival gangs vying for control. The player assumes the role of the powerful police “agent” that is tasked with cleaning up the city. It draws a lot of parallels to GTA, but the player’s role is essentially reversed. Crackdown isn’t a complicated game. It relies on it’s open world to create unique confrontations and accommodates different styles of gameplay very well. It’s one of those games that’s just fun to relax and play, because the sandbox allows for so many different scenarios. The game was polished too. I rarely encountered any game-breaking glitches or felt that the design was sloppy. Just like Microsoft claimed, the game stood on it’s own. In fact I continued to play Crackdown even after Halo 3 was released. One thing is certain though; I never would have touched Crackdown if it weren’t packaged with the Halo 3 beta.
Microsoft took a risk with their marketing strategy for Crackdown, but in the end it proved a lot of pessimistic people wrong and Microsoft Game Studios eventually released two more entries for the Crackdown franchise. Neither of the sequels performed as well as the original, but the fact of their existence speaks to the successes and popularity of the original. Crackdown 3 released in 2019 to mixed reviews, but I have every intention of picking it up one day and finding out for myself what kind of score it deserves.
When we are overexposed to rumors, leaks, speculation, and opinions, it can be problematic because it doesn’t allow us as individuals to form unbiased opinions and generally think for ourselves. News also gets a lot of spin these days, because it makes content edgy and controversial. It gets people engaged, but not for the right reasons. Game subscription programs like the Xbox Game Pass, EA Access, and Playstation Now, are all great ways to try popular games for yourself and avoid the pitfalls of accepting other people’s opinions without having formed your own. When considering whether or not to make a new purchase, remember that your own opinion is what’s most important at the end of the day.