It’s that time of year again–that time when the whole of my productivity grinds to a halt as I sit glued to my computer for days watching the livestreams of all of the major game companies’ E3 press conferences. Every year, my friends and I, as well as the internet as a whole, pick the winners and losers of the conference, get into a fangirl/fanboy froth over announcements about our favorite franchises, and stand either amazed or underwhelmed (or maybe a little of both) at announcements of new IP, new features, and resurrected titles.
But there’s one thing I wish all game development companies would stop doing: announcing games too early.
I get it, I really do. You’re excited about a new project and you can’t wait to talk about it. Or fans of one of your most popular franchises have been clamoring for more since the release of the last game, so you have to give them what they want, right?
Last year, several games were announced that still have not been released. Some still don’t even have release dates, and of those that had dates announced this year, some won’t come out until after E3 next year. For those of you keeping count, that’s at least three years from initial announcement to release. And while that’s a totally reasonable amount of time to take developing a game, for companies to devote large chunks of time in their presentations to games that only have concept art, maybe some engine-rendered footage, or some pre-pre-alpha gameplay, it does a disservice to the developers and the game itself to reveal too much too soon.
Let’s take a hypothetical game that’s still several years out from completion and provide details and make promises about what the gameplay will be like, what the story will be like, and what cool new features it will have. People get excited about the game, they start talking about it, they shout “shut up and take my money!” across the internet–pretty much everything you hope they’ll do. But then your creative team decides to take the game in a different direction. Then as development continues, maybe your company experiences some restructuring following an acquisition or a merger by or with another developer, and half of the team working on the game quits or is laid off. More delays, more changes, and very little progress to show for it. You keep promising fans that it’s still coming out, but by the time it does, the anticipation is so high and the behind-the-scenes work was so fragmented that the resulting game is nothing but a giant, anticlimactic letdown, and the game tanks.
This story may sound familiar. You may be trying to figure out exactly which game I’m “hypothetically” talking about. But the truth is, I borrowed these details from several games. And not all of them tanked, but none of them lived up to the long-building hype that comes from announcing a game too early in the development process.
Now, I’m not asking developers to hold off on announcing games until they’re practically ready to come out. That wouldn’t be practical, either. Announcing a game at E3 this year that’s at a point where it will be released by the Christmas following next year’s E3 is probably the longest span I’d give it. However, those announcements should be treated as minor “middle stuff” or be the short, mic-dropping end to a presser–it shouldn’t be the meat of it. We don’t need gameplay demos of a game that you don’t even have a release date for yet (I’m looking at you Ubisoft), and we don’t need time dedicated to concept art for games you don’t even have a title for yet (EA, Square Enix).
Not every studio takes the same approach to announcing games too early or putting too much emphasis on them long before they’re ready for release. Bioware has been understandably cagey and vague about details regarding Mass Effect: Andromeda, as it’s not scheduled for release until late 2016. It’ll be EA’s big showpiece next year, without a doubt, but this is the second year they’ve talked about it, and the first year they’ve had a title or anything more than concept art. And to their credit, the concept art announcement was low-key, and this year’s title announcement amounted to not much more than a teaser trailer. They’ve kept mum on a lot of the details, likely to ensure that they don’t over-promise and under-deliver and to give their creative team as much wiggle room as they can on how the game actually proceeds. What I’m saying here, is if you absolutely must announce so early, Bioware has provided a pretty good template of how to do it.
Examples of what not to do when announcing a game super-early abound, though. Everyone seems super-excited about The Last Guardian, and they have every right to be–the game had been in development for nearly two years when it was announced in 2009 and slated for a 2011 release. But, as in our hypothetical example earlier, development on the game fell apart, and fans’ hopes for the game were dashed. Even leading into the PlayStation presser, commentators everywhere morbidly joked about an announcement of its revival, and the gaming press lost its collective shit when, in a stunning plot twist, it was, in fact, re-announced. Though I get a feeling a lot of them aren’t exactly holding their breath on that slated 2016 release.
For the second year in a row, the conference showcased a new property, No Man’s Sky. Last year, I was 100 percent, “shut up and take my money” about this game. This year, I was decidedly less impressed by what I saw (though judging from most of the press for the game, I might be the only one), largely because what initially looked like a space game with a potentially compelling narrative turned out to be more of just an exploratory, open-world game with no obviously clear story driving your objective. And while that’s potentially great for replay value, it also illustrated to me how a first, early impression of a game can be all wrong, either because of poor messaging or because of a change in creative focus and scope. Either way, while I’m still impressed by the technical aspects of the game, I’m decidedly less excited about it now. Oh, and there’s still no firm release date (though they strongly hinted it’ll be out this year).
And lest that anyone thinks that I’m holding onto some Sony hate as some kind of Microsoft fangirl, the whole reason why I even started thinking about this phenomenon as a bad thing came out of the Xbox presser. When they showed, for the second year in a row, a fairly extensive and polished-looking gameplay demo of The Division (an Ubisoft game), I first remembered how excited about that game I’d been when I saw its demo last year, but then my exact words were, “Wait, that’s not out yet?” Basically, I was excited about the game when I saw it, but in the rush and din of my usual life, I’d largely forgotten about it. And it wasn’t until Ubisoft’s own press conference that we got a release date of March 2016, which was a major groan moment for me. As good as the game looks, I’m liable to forget about it again in a few months, completely space on the release date, and eventually remember it when a friend is talking about playing it next summer and probably pick it up used.
I could go on. Square Enix and its yet-untitled new IP. Big announcements about games that aren’t even funded (I mean that was kind of cool, but…). And a few more that are undoubtedly lost in my notes. The only company not really guilty of this was also the one I considered the clear “winner” this year for best event: Bethesda. This was the first year they’ve even done a major press event at E3, so in some sense, they had that working for them, as they didn’t have any early announcements from last year to update us on, but they also didn’t make any early announcements to update us about next year. Everything they talked about at any sort of length was coming out before next year’s conference. Bethesda’s presser was well-paced, well-organized, and had just the right mix of big showcase, surprise announcements, timing, and tone.
I wouldn’t say there was a clear “loser” this year like there has been in the past (some years, someone just bombs it), though the EA event was a bit of a long, corporate slog to watch, the Nintendo event had some really odd non-sequitur thing with puppets, and Square Enix seemed to have some problems with their translator audio (not to mention the sort of out-of-place-for-E3 use of a podium).
Truth be told, pretty much everyone other than Bethesda had about equal parts good and bad from a quality and content perspective, though some companies definitely have more titles and franchises I like than others, but I try not to let that color my overall opinion too much.
More than anything, though, I wish that this increasing trend of super-early announcements abates in future years, because it is starting to color my opinion about presentations, publishers, and the games themselves. And not in a good way.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that No Man’s Sky was presented during the Xbox press conference. It was presented during the Sony press conference.