The Hype Cycle: How Buyer's Remorse Denial is Killing Quality
I'm not a crotchety old man about a lot of things. I don't get enough opportunities to say "back in my day, things were different!" But I am a crotchety old man when it comes to video games, and back in my day, $60 spent on a video game went a long way.
There was a time in my life when dropping money on a video game was an investment, like saving up for a vacation into another world. Off and on over the next several weeks--even months--I could return to that world and uncover more and more of that experience, be it campaign or multiplayer, gameplay or story, online or off. There was a satisfaction that came with this--an overwhelming feeling that my $60 was money well spent. I didn't have to spend another cent to achieve the experience that I'd paid for.
Things are different now. Your average $60 triple-A title is, at best, a $40 experience, with pieces of it chopped out before release to be sold separately. Those stunning, photorealistic graphics from the "gameplay footage" (that sold you on the game in the first place) are suddenly nowhere to be found in the final product. Once-great game franchises churn out yearly releases buggy and half-finished, surviving on former glory and blind fan loyalty rather than the actual quality of their content. Video games aren't dying, but they are cheapening.
Now, none of this should be new to you. If you haven't noticed it for yourself, you've at least heard others complaining about it. As I see it, the real problem is that many gamers have resigned to thinking that this issue is out of their control, not realizing that we--the consumers--are the ones perpetuating this change for the worse.
The cheapening of gaming is a vicious cycle, one in which we all have played an unwitting role. In order to break that cycle, it's important to be conscious of the missteps we've already made up to this point, taking precautions to avoid making them again.
All Aboard The Hype Train
What's this? Could it be? It is! A new video game has been announced! Maybe it's the next installment in your favorite game franchise. Maybe it's a reboot of a beloved series. It might even be an exciting new IP! Regardless, the moment that announcement has been made, the hype train is already leaving the station, and it's only going to build momentum from there.
And here we are, easily excitable gamers clambering aboard that speeding train without any concern for what lies at the end of the tracks. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with getting excited, but we could stand to exercise a measure of healthy skepticism, especially after all we've been through.
Watch_Dogs is just one embarrassing example of why I can't even trust "gameplay footage" anymore. "Rendered in-engine" used to mean "rendered in the engine the game's actually going to use," not one specifically crafted to generate animated E3 bullshots. Game developers like Marcin Momot aren't lying when they say they don't downgrade graphics before release, because those graphics never actually existed. But that won't stop the game from winning dozens of awards before it has even released--empty commendations, sure, but that won't stop the developers from using them as box quotes and flashing them on screen at the beginning, middle, or end of every trailer released from now till the game's launch. It fuels the hype train's engines, and before you know it, you're moving too fast to get off.
"Don't forget to pre-order!"
There's nothing wrong with wanting to reserve a product you're interested in, especially if you're concerned about that product being in limited supply on release. This is a valid concern for consoles or amiibos, but not games. I can't remember the last time a game I was searching for wasn't in abundant supply upon release, and if I couldn't find it at GameStop, I could walk into the nearest Wal-Mart and find dozens sitting inside the case.
Now, this isn't so bad when you're just dropping a few bucks to reserve a copy. You always have the option to cancel your pre-order if you get news that the game isn't going to meet your expectations. Pre-ordering digitally, however, is just plain stupid. Paying full price for an unreleased game with no guarantee of the game's quality isn't an investment, it's a foolish gamble.
But hey, it's your money. Do with it as you please. Just remember that you're not the only one impacted by your bad purchases. We've talked about pre-order culture on this site before (an article I encourage you to read in greater detail), but in short: the more pre-orders a game receives, the more that indicates to the game's publisher that the product is a financial success, regardless of the quality of the actual product. Before you've even played the game, you've told the publishers, "We want more garbage like this."
"Sorry, no refunds!"
At long last, the day has arrived. It's Launchmas Eve, and all down the street is a row of hyped gamers, clutching receipts. They've all pre-ordered the game; there's no reason for them to have to be here at midnight, and yet here they are, pushed to the front of the line to guarantee them a copy of the game they should already be guaranteed a copy of.
Perhaps they've heard rumors that the game doesn't meet the hype, but they're here anyway, plugging their ears with all the free swag the store is tossing out like it's the electronic Mardi Gras. Besides, what do those people on the internet know anyway.
Quite a lot, as it turns out. You race home with the game only to learn that it is a bitter disappointment. Maybe the graphics aren't nearly as impressive as you expected. Maybe it was sorely lacking content. Maybe it was just buggier than Joe's Apartment. For whatever reason, you are not satisfied with your purchase--as is your right--but that's too bad. In most cases, as a video games consumer in 2015, you are not entitled to a refund for any reason.
That's right. Don't like a game you bought at Wal-Mart? No refund. Unsatisfied with a game you bought from GameStop? No refund. An exchange for another copy of the same game, at best. Disappointed with a purchase you made on Steam? No refund unless it managed to hurt your precious little feelings. The only digital marketplace I can think of that refunds unsatisfactory purchases is Origin. You know, Origin from EA, the guys who eat babies.
Now, to me, this is wholly unacceptable. The right to demand a refund is the most basic and most vital tool any consumer should have in combatting bad business practices. Without it, publishers are free to interpret sales however they want, and consumers are forced to try and make the best of a bad product, which results in something I like to call...
Buyer's Remorse Denial
Because the game isn't what you expected, you might suffer buyer's remorse. Because you are not entitled to a refund, you might suffer buyer's remorse denial. It's real, it's terrible, and I have seen it happen way too many times lately.
If you or any of your loved ones are experiencing BRD, you may observe one or more of the following symptoms:
- Becoming irritable and unjustifiably defensive of the purchase
- Attacking those who would offer criticism against the game
- Backpedaling on statements made before launch
- Spending even more money on DLC in order to justify the purchase
- And finally, dramatically lowered standards of quality
By making excuses for the game and its developer, the BRD sufferer is essentially enabling the publisher to see this partial failure as an overwhelming success. If you've ever been guilty of this, congratulations! You've helped drown out any rational criticism that might reach the game's developer, and promoted a lowered community standard of quality for future releases. As far as the developers and publishers are concerned, it ain't broke. Why should they fix it?
The Hype Cycle hinges on buyer's remorse denial. Without it, we're just spinning in circles. This is the step that spirals quality downward, in such a way that we as consumers are forgiving, and sometimes even encouraging a total lack of integrity, initiative, and innovation.
Break The Cycle
"Ok, crotchety old man, what are we supposed to do to fix it?" Well, nameless hypothetical reader, I'm glad you asked.
- Stop pre-ordering video games. There is absolutely no reason to put your money down on a product that is practically guaranteed to be in stock on release day.
- Wait and do your research. Don't buy the game until you've read or watched the reviews (I'd say from at least two different sources). If the reviews are mediocre or worse, at least borrow or rent it before gambling your hard earned cash.
- If you bought it, sell it. But for the love of god, don't trade it in. Make as much of your money back as possible. It's true that secondhand sales hurt the industry. It's not true that we're not entitled to that right, and in cases like these, it's one of the only ways to get the message across.
- Demand more from your video games. Have high expectations. Hold developers to their promises. Don't be afraid to be unimpressed. Don't buy in to excuses.
I've heard a lot of back and forth between reviewers in the past about whether or not video games should be assessed as products or as art. But a video game is both, and to judge it only by the qualifications of one is to dismiss the failings of the other. Video gaming is an industry, but it's also a growing art form--one that I believe has the potential to outshine all the others. But we, as the consumers of a product, are the ones driving that growth, and if we continue to lower our standards each time we are let down, then we will be the ones responsible for the stagnation of an art form. So please, if you want video games to be great, then don't settle when they are not.
Now... get off my lawn.