'Shadow of Mordor' And The Benefits Of Being Underhyped

Today may mark the official kick-off of 'big fall games that aren't Destiny' season, with the release of Warner Bros.' Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.

The game has already surprised many critics, and in turn, surprised many fans who found the reviews that went up after a very early pre-launch embargo to be largely full of praise for the Lord of the Rings game. Mordor is currently basking in a very respectable 85 on Metacritic, only a point shy of the 3DS Super Smash Bros. release.

There seems to be an interesting divide forming between games that premiere with little to no fanfare, and those that are heralded as something approaching the Second Coming. I'd now group Mordor in with Wolfenstein: The New Order as a pair of 2014 games that ended up exceeding most people's expectations, as opposed to the year's trio of big-name releases to date, Titanfall, Watch Dogs and Destiny.

Like Wolfenstein before it, I've seen precious little marketing for Mordor, and I remember a time when the game was largely being dismissed as an Assassin's Creed clone simply adopting Lord of the Rings mythology to sell product. Now, it seems it actually does a few innovative things, and is being heralded as feeling very 'next-gen' in concept (if not visuals) because of ideas like its Nemesis system.

But all three of the big new IPs this year suffered largely because of an expectations game.

Titanfall was sold as a title to shake up the competitive multiplayer shooter scene, and its beta promised a much different gameplay experience than other titles in the genre. And while it may have delivered on that promise, players were amazed to find just how sparse the game was in terms of content. Now, Titanfall finds many of its ideas adopted by Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which makes the original game look even more paltry by comparison. It's lead to a situation where in terms of Twitch viewership (a new era interest metric) there are currently 19 people total watching Titanfall streams, while at least a dozen other shooters (including the ancient Halo 3 and Modern Warfare 3) have dramatically more viewers.

Then there's Watch Dogs, meant to reinvent the sandbox genre, but Ubisoft couldn't make the final game live up to their slickly-edited movie trailer vision of the game, and a lackluster story wasn't any more engaging than anything else in the 'steal cars and shoot things' genre. Despite a few innovative concepts, the game was once again oversold.

Destiny has been all anyone can talk about for the past month, and most of the disconnect between the game and those who bought it stems from the fact that fans just don't feel like they're getting what they were promised. They pictured something larger in scope, a universe richer with lore, combat that was more diverse, characters whose names you can remember, etc.

Perhaps most of all Destiny, demonstrates the expectations problem. The game is absolutely massive when compared to many others, and yet the marketing and pre-hype from the developers seemed to promise something even larger and deeper. It's a strange phenomenon to have a game that players are easily sinking a hundred hours into, and still have them say they're disappointed.

But with Mordor? No one was promising the moon. The bar is set so low for licensed games, that the fact that Mordor was in fact a high quality title was enough of a surprise. And yet, what haven't you heard in the run-up to the game? Months and months of hype about how Shadow of Mordor would 'reinvent' the stealth/assassinating/brawling genre, or be the best next-gen console experience to date. Rather, the subtlety of their marketing can really be summed up by the recent embargo. In the reviews scene, if you know you've made a bad game, you might not send out review copies at all. If you're unsure, you might not let reviews go live until the launch date. But by letting the review floodgates open a full weekend and a half before release, Mordor was simply saying 'our game is good, but don't take our word for it, listen to these critics' (hold your GamerGate jokes).

Perhaps a lot of this is a budget issue. It's clear that Mordor and Wolfenstein don't have the marketing heft of a Destiny or Watch Dogs, but it's also apparent that neither likely cost as much to make either. Sometimes you get a game caught in the middle like the Tomb Raider reboot which was one of those not very hyped surprises, but by spending loads on marketing, even millions in sales still didn't allow it to be considered a success.

I think expectations play into people's appreciation of a game more than most realize. Played in a vacuum, Titanfall, Watch Dogs and Destiny could be considered very good games. But the fact that they were bounced around this echo chamber for years and years ahead of launch meant by the time they were released, they had pre-made fanbases who were destined to be disappointed with some aspect of the final product.

Follow me on Twitter, like my page on Facebook, and pick up a copy of my sci-fi novel, The Last Exodus, and its sequel, The Exiled Earthborn, along with my new Forbes book, Fanboy Wars.How should Destiny spend its $500M budget? I explain below:


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