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LONG BLOG

Counting Chickens Before They Hatch: Anticipating Games Before Release

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Recently I made some blogs about Fire Emblem Warriors, detailing my expectations for the game. As usual, my expectations mostly leaned towards optimism and hopefulness rather than skepticism and disappointment. Among my reasons for being excited for the game despite the as-of-then disappointing roster was I that I was certain we’d see more roster variety represented through future updates, and now that the game is released in Japan… I saw my enthusiasm betray me. Boy, did I put my foot in my mouth making the claims I did in that blog. At the time, I thought my expectations were logical and realistic, so reflecting on how hasty the conclusions I jumped to regarding the roster felt like I had punched myself in the gut. Not because I thought the game wouldn’t be good anymore--all of the other things I’m looking forward to in FEW still stand, though I might wait for a discount now--but because I was getting excited for a specific something that wasn’t going to be, and I told other people to get excited for it too. I have nobody to blame for it but myself.

The fraction of Fire Emblem Warriors' playable cast that excludes Awakening and Fates. The full roster is 25 characters.

So being the over-dweller that I am, I’ve spent some time thinking about why the heck I set myself up for such expectations. That’s when it occurred to me… we do this kind of stuff all the time, don’t we? Drawing conclusions about games before they even come out, judging their quality, assuming what content will be in them and how it will feel to play that content. Sometimes correctly, and sometimes erroneously. It’s very important for enthusiasts to know what they’re getting into before they buy and plan their budgets, hence the importance of pre-release press coverage. And then I started reflecting even more and the next thing I knew these words appeared in my Google Doc for blogs in progress oh no why do I have this many ideas.

To be honest, I mostly made the following list as advice to myself. But perhaps it’ll help someone else out too, so why not share it as a full post? Here’s a handful of tips I came up with to critiquing games before release, whether it’s for writing or personal decision making or anything, really!

 

Understand Your Biases

Official screenshot of Lyn, one of the FEWarriors characters Cedi is most interested in playing as.

This is more of a general critique tip, but it’s especially applicable here. We all have our preferences, both for and against things. Those biases exist whether we mention them or not, and people will probably notice them even if you never spell them out. Being transparent about them makes us work harder to back up arguments in favor of those biases with logic and reasoning, which I believe is a worthy trade off.

Our predispositions can skew our expectations. To give few more details about what drove me to write this; I strongly wanted to see more representation of obscure FE games in FEW. One of my favorite things in crossovers is meeting characters I know jack about and learning to appreciate them. However, the developers had said long before that FEW was going to feature only the series’ most popular games, with little room for ambiguity. It didn’t help my biases that I have a very low opinion of Fates’ characters (it’s a long story, I can share it in the comments if anyone really wants to know), so I didn’t want to anticipate they’d take the largest roster slice.

All that combined with my expectations of what a good FE crossover needed were so strong I mostly ignored the blatant fact to the contrary. Granted, I wasn’t the only person who thought the roster need more diversity; Lyn and Celica from Blazing Blade and Shadows of Valentia were added to the game as a response to negative feedback, and I’m glad they were. But our biases can and will cause us to draw false conclusions. Understanding them not only makes us more wary of them, but also helps us ask deeper questions such as “Why am I biased in favor of this?” or “What makes me fanboy over this series?”.

 

Consider Window Until Release

FFXIV screenshot showcasing the early Episode Duscae battle system.

AAA games take a long time to develop, so much so that we usually don’t see gameplay trailers or playable demos until years into their development. Even so, it’s usually not too late for things to change, for better or for worse. Let’s use Final Fantasy XV as an example. You know how that combat system plays out like a really simplified Devil May Cry, with weapon changing on the fly to suit your combo needs? What about the early battle system in the Episode Duscae demo, in which Noctis used MP to cast weapon skills and his weapons were fixed to different types of attacks? The negative feedback against that system spurred the developers to shift their direction drastically, resulting in a new system that feels less obtuse and more controllable.

Other such examples exist in many places. E3 developers listen for feedback from their demos to fine-tune their games. Super Mario Odyssey has seen visible graphical updates from its initial reveal to its release. Larger overhauls are unlikely, but when it comes to the little things, expect a game’s trailers to not be 100% representative of the finished project. Accurate and vocal criticism of a game’s current build remains important to make such changes happen, but you might find more peace bearing in mind the potential for things to change. Or, on the flip side of the coin, you might be less disappointed should a game wind up making additions for the worse. I hear that Valkyria Revolution is an example of a game stumbling between too many design shifts for its own good, and unfortunately proves how a game may be better off sticking to its older plans.

 

Be Skeptical of Trailers and Screens

This is related to the above point, but there’s more to be aware of than just the time frame for change. Trailer footage is often edited to convey the game at its most appealing. It might not even be accurate to the game as it currently is in development or what it’s planned to become.

Yes, my example this time is Aliens: Colonial Marines. It’s the most blatant example of an inaccurate, false advertisement I’ve ever seen in game marketing. I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said thousands of times about it, because everyone already knows how bad it is.

But this isn’t just a “false advertising” bullet point. I also suggest to look for signs of editing. Perhaps a fight may be sped up to emphasize visceral action. Perhaps camera angles are more dramatic than practical. Perhaps the player character is decked out with stronger equipment than most players would at that point. Perhaps frequent jump cuts suggest that the action is faster than it actually is. Perhaps the gameplay footage is more cinematic than actually gameplay. Just be mindful of little things like that, they can do a lot to skew how a game’s mechanics are portrayed even when honestly depicting the game's content.

 

Account for Developer/Publisher History

Official screenshot of Breath of the Wild's open world.

 

For all the reasons we have to doubt the quality of some works in progress, we also have reasons to trust in others. A long-standing developer who consistently delivers engaging games that accurately fit their early trailers is a much more reliable source of information than 2K Games. Nintendo is known for playing it safe with their established franchises, but whenever they say they’re going to innovate with them, they usually don’t take their own statements lightly. We have every right to be skeptical if Nintendo claims that the next Zelda game is going to be a sprawling open world adventure… however, that’s exactly what Breath of the Wild became. Of course, the vice versa also applies with less scrupulous developers. But if we’re talking about someone else, look at their history. They might already have a lot of reason to look forward to their work.

 

Differentiate Speculation From Fact

FEWarriors' official DLC listings, Google Translated.

By nature, drawing conclusions from a game without knowing everything about it requires making some guesses. That’s not a problem by itself! But at times, it can be all too easy to treat our own speculations as if they are gospel. I was certain for a while that FE Warriors would give us DLC from Blazing Blade and Shadows of Valentia. It seemed like a logical suggestion at the time, given the announcements of Lyn and Celica. But once again, there was no real evidence pointing towards anything other than more of the three main games. I’m okay with myself having the idea, but treating that speculation as a fact was where I went way too far and accomplished nothing but setting myself up for disappointment.

With that said, speculation can be an excellent tool to look forward to the future and to brainstorm interesting ideas to share! But it must be wielded carefully; even prophecy is not necessarily set in stone. If your study of a game’s pre-release explores the possibility of its unseen future, treat it exactly like that. A possibility. Your future self will thank you. I know my present self sure would have liked past me to do that.

 

I’ve gained a lot of confidence in my ability to talk about and inform readers of games since I’ve joined Destructoid to write blogs, but I still have a lot to improve upon. Everyone does in whatever they do, but whenever we make blatant errors like this, it’s important for us to own up to them. That’s a big part of why I wanted to make a blog about this; to be transparent about the fact that, yup, I screwed up, and this is how I’m going to avoid it in the future.

I’m not sharing these tips expecting people to see me as some sage of this subject. After all, I wrote this because I didn’t follow some of these tips closely enough in the first place. Rather, I’m sharing them because I’m hopeful they’ll help at least one other person to avoid at least one mistake similar to the one I made.

I’ll always enjoy speculating about games and their announcements from news articles, presentations, and press conferences. ‘Tis yet another reason I’ve chosen to pursue blogging. I hope these tips will help some of you enjoy it more, too.

- Don't implode!


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About Cedione of us since 8:03 PM on 07.31.2017

Yo! My real name is Christopher, but you can call me Cedi here. Obligatory disclaimer; my avatar and banner is art I commissioned Twitter user @kaizer33226 to make. Check him out if you have the time, he’s awesome.

I’m a longtime gamer who loves to write about games, write about my own creative worlds, write about why what other people do is awesome, and sometimes writing my attempts to be a kaiju-like moth person with shonen anime ideologies on the Internet. Here, though, I’m focusing on writing about games, since I’m developing an interest in a future of journalism in that area. And yes, I totally fought Ravana mano-a-mano. It was pretty cool yo.

Here's some of those things I wrote about games here!
--Ever Oasis: How Raising a Community Feels Awesome
--Why the Skylanders are Awesome Characters
--My Most Wanted Dynasty Warriors Crossovers
--Sonic Runners: How Unpopular Monetizing Kills a Fun F2P Game