Why publishers are killing their own games with pre-release hype

Now, I understand why publishers take this approach to pre-release promotion. Publishers are increasingly new-media-savvy, and in AAA gaming they know that they’re fighting a turf-war for attention. There are only so many preview events a company can run in the lead up to a release, and there’s no guarantee that the editorial response to those events will be positive. So, many publishers are taking control of the information agenda themselves; taking the reveals out of our often critical hands (hands which at any given time are juggling editorial treatments for a whole bunch of other games at the same time) and releasing exactly what they want, when they want, in easily digestible chunks, optimised for inclusion within a quick news story.

From a business perspective, it makes a Hell of a lot of sense for them to do that. And given the instantaneous, web-wide release of this stuff, it’s hard for any games site to not run it, even if we do think it’s going overboard with the spoilers. In these SEO-driven times, sites are fighting for attention on the big games too, and to not pick up a new bit of content based around a big game is to effectively hand hits to a rival outlet. Everyone’s hands are relatively tied.

All we can do is hope that publishers become more responsible about the kind of material they’re releasing, and hope that readers exercise a bit of personal judgement when it comes to viewing things that may devalue the ultimate playing experience for themselves. But at the moment it seems to be getting worse.

Square-Enix ran a similar campaign for Tomb Raider over the month before the game’s release. It had all the same problems as Bioshock Infinite’s video spree, compounded by the fact that Tomb Raider is a game built around a philosophy of discovery, progression and gameplay development. Given that combat, exploration and even action set-pieces in Tomb Raider are all built around a Metroidvania model, to blow much of that discovery before the game was even released seemed at odds with everything the developers were trying to achieve.

But worse than that, Square-Enix followed up with a raft of post-release content (covering the two months after the game’s launch), comprising a set of dev diaries covering the developers’ favourite ‘hidden’ tomb, action set-piece and combat encounter. The latter two are the game’s climactic climbing section and penultimate fire-fight, respectively. The videos do very little to flag this up. And then, just this month, Square-Enix dropped a "Top 10 moments" video (a concept no doubt deliberately similar to games press post-release coverage), blowing another huge chunk of the game wide open.

Yes, players can choose to not watch this stuff, but there’s a ludicrous irony at the core of the publisher’s thinking here. All of this material was created with the sole purpose of promoting the game. Anyone it is aimed at has therefore not bought Tomb Raider yet. Anyone in its target audience is therefore inherently going to have the game spoiled. Yes, there’s an off-chance someone may watch the video, remember their favourite bit, and then ‘sell’ the game to a friend via word-of-mouth enthusiasm, but it’s a very small off-chance. The whole thing just screams to me of a publisher losing the run of itself in a frenzy to secure post-release coverage whether the press wants to do it or not.

There’s a lot of that going round at the moment. It needs to stop. Otherwise the games these guys are trying to sell are only going to be a fraction as good as they really are by the time anyone actually plays them.

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