Video Game Hype and Oversaturation

Making money in the gaming industry is a grimy business. Like the music industry, gaming has become a hit based business, and a company will live or die on its latest release. A flop can be devastating, and to circumvent this, many developers have created a catalog of content to push pre-sales. We call this content hype. In a continuous battle for readership and ad-revenue, games media become complicit in joining these hype campaigns. But what does a never-ending stream of hype do to the consumer?

In order to know where we’re going, it’s important to understand where we’ve been. When I was a kid, games media arrived in my mailbox in the form of a magazine. It was, at the time, the only way for me to know what games to look forward to and which ones to avoid. In those days, the editorial teams were the purveyors of hype. Console makers and developers did not have direct access to consumers. The only way they could talk to us was an ad in a magazine. A game could live or die by a review score, and a bad score didn’t spell doom for the developer.

Magazines were the product of the pre-digital era. Back then, content sat behind a paywall. If you wanted to listen to music, you had to buy a physical disc. And if you wanted to read about games, you either had to buy the magazine at a store or purchase a yearly subscription. This idea of paying content allowed magazine companies to curate and package content. Hype in those days consisted of screenshots, hands-on reviews, and opinions. It was a full-course meal. Compare that with today’s offering, which feels more like fast food.

In the digital era, content is free, and consumers expect it 24/7. Developers have direct access to us, and because of this, they now create their own content. This direct access built a weird relationship between developers and games media, and hype suffers for it. Let’s use Fable as an example.

Recently, Microsoft showcased a teaser for a new Fable game during their games showcase for the Xbox Series X. The teaser, which has become commonplace, is nothing more than a visual press release. An announcement that a company is working on a game. The problem with the teaser is that it doesn’t tell us anything. It creates more questions than answers, and for many people does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do – build hype.

Let’s say you have a game coming out. In this case, we’ll continue using Fable as our example. It’s a franchise that many gamers love, and it’s been years since it hit the market. You don’t have much to show, but you want to build hype for no reason other than you want to be in the public conscious. And it benefits the console maker because they can say your game will be available on their platform. So you drop the teaser. Now folks are talking, and gaming outlets, who must feed a insatiable readership, throw your fifteen-second announcement on the site. Mission accomplished. But now you have to keep the hype going, so what do you do? You make a teaser trailer announcing that the actual trailer will be released in the coming days. The conversation picks up again, and gaming outlets have once again posted your content. Now it’s time for the actual trailer. And once you release the trailer, you can also announce your pre-order website for you to push sales. The hype cycle completed.

The problem with these hype tactics is their oversaturation. During Sony’s game showcase, they showed more teasers than actual gameplay footage. Microsoft followed suit months later. And in both shows, it felt like sitting in front of YouTube to watch movie trailers. It was content for the sake of having content. So many companies have become so focused on producing hype that they have forgotten that what moves the needle is the actual game. Trailers mean nothing if the game never lives up to the hype you created.