Our obsession with previews: their purpose and presence in games coverage and Kickstarters

Bungie Destiny

I read a great article today on Gamasutra about the larger nature and purpose of video game previews — an area of coverage that I rarely touch, partly because I don’t really travel for my freelance positions and partly because I’m ruthlessly suspicious of them.

Take just one preview of Bungie’s next game, Destiny. It’s already the center of enormous hype due to the developer’s reputation as the Halo creator — those sci-fi first-person shooters are some of the most popular games on the Xbox 360 console. Kotaku’s preview, as many previews like it do, mixes a little personal observation and reflection with a lot of hand-fed information. This is a company’s way of ensuring carefully tailored press coverage. Oftentimes previews don’t involve hands-on interaction — the developer shows reporters what it wants them to see and tells them everything they “need” to know, which isn’t necessarily the same as what they want to know.

For example, the Kotaku preview spends a lot of time juggling words like “MMO” (the genre otherwise called massively multiplayer online games) and a newly coined term, “shared world shooter,” which is at this point an empty phrase. It tosses around jargon like “sandbox,” meaning that players can explore the world freely, and includes lines like “if Arthur C. Clarke were to make a game,” which actually contains very little proof that what we’re getting is anything near what Clarke would envision. The developer is telling us so — that’s not a comparison made by a critic who is commenting on the game with an objective eye.

The article also generally details character classes, vehicles, and the fundamental “pillars” — consider them guidelines — that Bungie is using to make its game. We learn about the world and its technology. We get a chance to look at the concept art. We discover a little of Bungie’s plans for incorporating mobile devices, establishing player interaction, and so forth.

Bungie Destiny

No matter how much the writer previewing the game tries, any deviation from the developer’s canned information adds up to no more than speculation. It doesn’t hold evidence one way or another that the game will be good or bad. And although some might argue that previews at least provide an overall “look” at a game early in the press cycle, giving you an idea of whether or not this is a game you might like, the truth is that most of it is hype — if it sounds like a game you want to play, that’s only because the developer is selling it as such. It’s describing an ideal.

We might all love the notion of “a story with no constructed end in sight,” but delivering on that promise isn’t easy. What we get may be nowhere near what we imagine.

That’s the problem with previews. If you’re someone who feels betrayed that the final product didn’t live up to your expectations, I have to ask, “Did you read the previews?” Understandably, gamers want to latch on to any new details they can find. They’re passionate; that’s good. But a preview has the same effect of combining the impact of every trailer, announcement, and interview available on the web, only with less transparency — it’s all done to generate excitement.

If anything, people like to feel a part of a game’s release or development process as it happens — moment by moment. That’s why so many of us contribute to Kickstarters on faith alone, and video games in particular are leading the way. Last year, they amassed $83 million in pledges on the crowdfunding site. Seven of them raised a million dollars or more.

You could argue that a Kickstarter is basically a preview broken down into smaller doses and delivered across a longer period of time — a weird way to talk about these campaigns, which have to accomplish a huge amount in relatively insufficient period. But it’s not so different.

When I open an issue of Game Informer, it’s not uncommon to see the bulk of the magazine devoted to a cover story — basically, a comprehensive preview that spans 10-15 pages. And I have to wonder if, after writing a piece that large, if the author even cares anymore or if he’s hopelessly caught up in the whirlpool of hype like everyone else, having spent so much time at its center.

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