Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Expectations Trap: Halo 2 and PS3

I know that it's bad form among the gaming cognoscenti, but I really like that Halo 3 trailer. I know it's a trailer, I know it's video and not the real game, I know I know. But oh my what wonderful music, what swells of epicness and portentous quotes of "This is the way the world ends." I also know full well that the trailer is pretty standard stuff, what with the flickering Cortana intimating that there's elements of the Master Chief's past involved, every trilogy ends at its beginning and so on and so forth.

But the thing is.... Well, I have a confession to make.
I loved Halo 2. But it's a lesson in what happens when the expectation machine goes awry. As is the PS3.

I truly loved Halo 2. In some circles, that's enough to end a conversation right there, with a volley of "How could you not see its shortcomings, the failure to meet expectations, the cheese, the blah blah blah". I loved it. I loved the levels, I loved the visuals, I loved the two-weapon thing. I loved the Arbiter sections. I wasn't so sure on one or two of the mechanics of the game, and I thought the ending was a bit "Time Gentlemen Please!"

But overall, I loved it. It was my favourite game of 2004 by a considerable margin because, warts and all, the fact is that it was the game that I wanted to play when I got home from work, the pub, whatever. I simply loved it. I should add here that I'm mostly talking about the single-player game, not the multi-player which I only had marginal contact with as I don't have Xbox Live.

Reactions to Halo 2 really confused and angered me at first, because they varied so wildly. Some people seemed to dig it like I did, but there was a lot of negative reaction out there. Some people talked as though the game had been a complete horror of Driv3r proportions, that it was such a disappointment, a let-down, whatever. I felt bad for the guys over at Bungie. I mean here was a game that had been whooped and hollered at the year before at E3 with that gameplay video,
with all of that stuff included, and the reaction of the gamer community was totally overblown in the negative as though the game were a crime.

Driv3r WAS a crime, not least against journalist's review standards, but Halo 2's crime was simply this. It was an excellent game, but it did not meet up to some gamers' expectations. It must surely rank as one of the greatest cases of inflated hype meeting reality in modern gaming, and it shows how dangerous playing the expectation game really is.

And the reason for this is simple. Expectations are a fantasy. Sony are currently experiencing the brunt of gamer wrath in much the same way, now that it has become apparent that the PS3 may well be an empty shirt after all. Some of us knew (or strongly suspected) of course that the purported games of last year's E3, most especially Killzone 2, were likely to be nothing more than animation videos, but the bomb that they set off was enormous. And now the backlash is coming thick and fast.

My overall point in this ramble is that we gamers (and we game developers too) have a tendency to fantasise, and a common trajectory of that fantasy is that the final product never lives up anywhere close to our expectations. It's as I wrote a long while back in my essay 'The Gamer's Dream', we are very prone to an idealistic take on the world of video games, always reaching for the belief in the perfect game.

In the real world, nothing can ever hope to reach that. Try as a company, developer or artist might, playing the expectation game can never successful. Especially not when you put out the key features of your new product a long time before release. Microsoft's big mistake with Halo 2 was that they released their footage so far in advance of the release that it built up to messianic proportions. Sure, they sold 6 million or so copies in the process.

Now they'll find that they have a harder sell with Halo 3. Now we are "post-expectation" when the expectation has become one of failure in some peoples' minds. Unlike the idealistic expectation, the failure expectation is one that is always achieved. That is the expectation of looking for the bugs and the cracks. I loved it, I love that trailer with its wonderful music etc, but I already know that the cat-calls will start. Halo 3 is destined to be an argument.

As for PS3, the news seems worse if anything. Reactions to the Sony conference have ranged (from what I've read) from muted apathy to staggering disbelief at the price, the gimmicks, the two versions, the joypad, the marketplace, and the lack of decent gameplay footage a mere six months before launch. And no sign of Killzone 2. Sony have committed the grevious error, like Microsoft did before, of shooting their load way too soon and, unlike Microsoft, appearing to not have the goods to back their original hype up after all. In the course of one 48 hour period they've gone from hero to zero.

Now the expectation is that they'll be on the back foot from here on out, relying on their 'brand' according to some journalists. Well brands change and shift in the public consciousness all the time, and that comes chiefly from reputation. They've handed a massive fall in expectations to the magazines, the gamers, the podcasters, the bloggers, everyone. For the next six months the story about Sony is going to be how can they compete against either Microsoft or Nintendo where it counts, why would anyone want and PS3 now that GTA4 is multi-format with Live exclusive content, and the expectation becomes 'waiting for the inevitable'.

These are not mountains that are easily climbed.

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