Are Game Companies Spoiling Their Own Games?

You may have noticed that over the past couple of years video games marketing has become increasingly pervasive, many publishers intent on telling us as much as they can about a game before we can get our hands on it.

But are they telling us too much?

There once was a day that all you knew about a game before it was out was what it was generally about. You'd see some screenshots, read a preview, maybe see a trailer in more recent years, then bam, it's out. At the time of deciding whether to purchase the game or not, you were thus armed with only the necessary basics: the game's genre, how it looked, what it was about.

It left you to experience the rest of the game for yourself.

Those days are no more. Now, with big games being announced two and sometimes three years ahead of their release, we are told about upcoming titles in excruciating detail, from the time we first hear about them to the time they hit the shelf. If you've been following a game in the lead-up to its release, you'll have sat through at least one developer diary. You'll know initial plot points. You'll know all the game's classes, you'll know its weapons, you'll have seen a breakdown on the enemies you'll be facing.

You'll know all about the good guys, you'll have seen an anime set 10 years before the game took place, you'll have read some comics bridging the gap between the anime and the game, bought a book trilogy spanning the period before the anime, you've seen 20 minutes of gameplay footage and you may even have seen the game's full cinematic intro.

All before you've actually played the thing.

We're simply being overrun with marketing. Take BioWare and EA's Mass Effect 2 as an example. If you saw how much press we received from EA for this game it would make your head spin. Lately there's been around 2-3 trailers a week, for weeks, and that's before we even touch on screenshots, developer diaries or interviews with BioWare personnel.

In that time, we've seen returning cast members from Mass Effect 1, learned that your ship from the first game, The Normandy, is destroyed. We've met almost every controllable character from the game, seen the game's new powers, read up on the intricacies of new classes and seen what the game's new weapons can do and just when to use them.

And all that's just from the stuff we've published (there is plenty more we did not, deciding around the new year's break that enough was enough). I haven't even seen the recent "launch" trailer, for example, because word on the street was that it contained at least one major "spoiler."

So when Mass Effect 2 is launched later this month, and you actually sit down to play it, if you've been following the game closely – as anyone looking forward to it probably has been - you'll find that its opening hours are of little surprise. Instead, you'll be playing the game with a big checklist hovering around the fringes of your subconscious, just waiting to tick off the moment you actually encounter all that stuff you already know about.

That's no way to experience a game for the first time.

Sure, publishers have a job to do. I only use Mass Effect 2 as an example because it's so current; there have been plenty of other games with similar problems of late, from Grand Theft Auto IV to Metal Gear Solid 4 to Spore. All those games, and the publishers behind them, have a job to do: Sell games. And the marketing teams attached to those publishers, which are sometimes internal and other times third-party companies contracted by the publisher, believe the best way to sell a game to you is to bombard you with promotional content.

I don't think it is – the game can be both "spoiled" and run the risk of having people "burn out" from too much coverage - but I can see why they'd believe that. After all, marketing companies don't have direct access to you, Joe Consumer. Sure, sometimes they'll keep a game's official website up-to-date with assets, but most just release a ton of information, screenshots and trailers directly to the press in the hope we'll find some of it interesting and run it.

And we, for the most part, do just that. Despite occasional, personal misgivings as to the level of exposure a game may or may not be receiving, if a trailer or collection of screens for a major title is sent our way, we generally run them, our reasoning being "well, there will be people out there who want to see this."

Which there are. Of course there will be people who want to see an individual trailer for a game they're looking forward to. There will be tens, if not hundreds of thousands. Sometimes even millions. And they'll see a trailer, and lap it up.

But in doing so, are we committing long-term damage? Consider the effects on the medium this kind of marketing may be having.

Are Game Companies Spoiling Their Own Games?

We used to joke about aspects of a title (and how it was being marketed) as being "bullet points" on the back of a game's box. Those days are long gone. In 2010, it's more like death by a million trivial facts, each week in a major product's lead-up promising you a reveal on a new weapon, a new character, a new level, a new secret.

This is reducing big games to a set of features. To the people basing their purchasing decisions on this kind of marketing, it's turning what should be a complete experience into a Frankenstein's monster, little more than the sum of its parts. A game that the developers probably hope is judged on things like pacing, mood and replayability is instead sold on things like the number of customisable weapons it features in comparison with its main competitors.

Can you imagine if this kind of marketing had existed decades ago? An ironic warning: for some, these may be spoilers.

Halo 2: Humanity's fight for survival continues! Play as the Master Chief or, for the first time in the series, experience life as a Covenant soldier by taking control of The Arbiter (available only in the Halo 2 Supreme Edition, exclusive to GameStop!)

Final Fantasy VII:
The world is in danger, and only you – and your motley crew of misfits – can save it. Watch this developer diary, where the game's art lead walks you through the challenges inherent in killing off one of the game's main characters.

Metroid:
"Well, at E3, we wanted to not only show you three of the game's levels, but also show that some of her…I mean, his [wry smile] combat moves are essential to completing the adventure."

Extreme examples, I know. Most games marketing shies away from revealing crucial plot elements, as it should; things are yet to reach Hollywood's level, where you can see an entire movie played out for you in a ninety-second trailer. Most of the "spoiled" content, at least story-wise, is restricted to a game's opening hours.

For me, though, that's still too much. Your first impressions, as the saying goes, are the most important, and they should be formed from a period of immersion and exploration, not comparing your experience to how you've already read this experience stacks up.

So what's to do about this mess? If you're totally cool with knowing so much about a game before it's out, then carry on as usual. No problem for you! If you're like me, however, and prefer to experience a game's delights in your own time, at your own pace, you've got some decisions to make.

"If the gaming press is over-covering certain games, who else is to blame than the press?" says Dan "Shoe" Hsu, former editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly and founder of gaming site Bitmob. "They don't have to cover whatever PR feeds them. At the same time, each outlet has a responsibility to its own readership."

And there's the rub. Where is that line drawn? When do you stop thinking "well, people will want to see this" and start making the decision for them? Personally – and I'm not speaking for the rest of the team here – I think it's when, like we've seen with Mass Effect 2, the updates become both unrelenting and eventually unimportant. Entire trailers dedicated to a single character, or a single weapon, for example.

One possible way around this is for marketing teams – and developers – to change the focus of their material. Stop telling us what's in the game, and start telling us things like how it's made instead, as Sony did recently with a short God of War III documentary. "For me personally", says 1UP's David Ellis, "I would much rather hear about the process of making a game before launch than see another set of screenshots detailing new characters or environments."

Other examples of alternatives to "feature set" marketing include the release of environmental concept art (which, to be fair, is how Mass Effect 2's campaign began) and previews of the game's soundtrack (like environment art, helps set the mood without giving anything away). I'm sure there are more, but I don't work in publishing; maybe marketing teams can put their heads together and come up with something fresh?

Beyond our tastes and decisions as a media outlet, though, it's all about you. At the end of the day, when you look past the carpet-bombing from marketing teams and the ceaseless pursuit of readership from gaming websites and magazines, the ultimate responsibility for how much you see, hear and most importantly learn about a game rests with you. Just like it does with "real" news. If you don't want to hear anything about a certain topic, don't click through to that story. If you do, drink it up.

And if you don't, but find yourself clicking "play" on the 117th developer diary for an upcoming game you're interested in anyway, well…maybe the problem is you. It's the problem I have…