Anticipation and Expectation in Game Marketing: The Art of ‘Anti-Hype’
Watch the trailer for No Man's Sky and then for Frostpunk. There is a clear difference in the kind of expectations each creates in its audience.
I received a press release this week, the subject line of which read: “This War of Mine Creators Unveil Their New Game – FrostPunk". What followed was the standard stuff that appears in game press releases, a link to a press kit to download, a link to the game's first trailer, and a few very brief paragraphs describing the game.
Now, it isn't my normal practice to do much with initial press releases for games, other than file them in my e-mail to really take a look at when the game is closer to release and I might need to contact someone about getting a review copy for one of our writers. However, this press release had me at “This War of Mine Creators". I played This War of Mine on its release in 2014, and, I mean, I played a lot of This War of Mine. It was one of my favorite games of that year.
So, yeah, of course, I was interested in finding out what Frostpunk was all about. I clicked on the link to the trailer, and I watched this:
Immediately afterwards, I booted up Steam and added Frostpunk to my wishlist. Which is actually a kind of curious thing.
I don't actually know what Frostpunk is “all about" having seen that trailer. Indeed, the trailer ends with the words, “To Be Continued". It is the very definition of a teaser.
However, what I do know is that Frostpunk is about something. My knowledge is based in part, of course, on the opening phrase of the trailer: “From the Creators of This War of Mine". Having played and enjoyed This War of Mine, I have a good idea of the likely quality level of the game that Frostpunk will be and that it is not only likely to be of a significant quality, but that it will be the kind of game that is not only good, but is also the kind of game that I myself like to play. These are assumptions, of course, but there is a reason that someone reads a novel by, say, Stephen King, finds themselves enjoying it, and then takes a chance on a second novel.
It should also be noted that part of what I am counting on too in watching this trailer is that it is a game about survival. There's a guy dying in the snow, after all. This War of Mine is a survival sim, so dollars to doughnuts, I'm reading that correctly. Once again, I already know that I like survival games of the type made by 11 bit studios.
In addition to my prior knowledge of the studio, though, the brief video of this guy dying with the weird and sinister sounding voiceover of a stanza from Thomas Campion's poem “Now Winter Nights Enlarge" is just very compelling to me. As I said, watching this video, I know that this game is about “something". I don't actually understand its gameplay, what I will be doing in the game, but I know the mood of the game, its tone, its interests. It wants to take survival seriously. It wants to be in part, it would seem, a meditation on death and human frailty. I can see that from its single stark image, and I can hear that in the words of Campion's poem.
Compare that video to something like this, however:
On the face of it, this trailer for No Man's Sky, a trailer released at E3 in 2014, seems like it tells me so much more about the game No Man's Sky than Frostpunk's trailer does about itself. Yet, I personally find this second trailer confusing and muddled, and it evoked absolutely zero interest in me at the time.
Of course, Hello Games lacked the ethos of 11 Bit Studios for me when it released the trailer, as an unknown developer (to me at least—they actually had made several Joe Danger games at this point, but the trailer doesn't allude to this in any way). According to Wikipedia, Hello Games does include a number of developers with past experience at Criterion Games, Electronic Arts, and Kuju Entertainment, but once again, marketing didn't include such details as a point of reference for viewers of the No Man's Sky trailer.
Instead, the video seems to consist of something that looks like in-game footage, actual gameplay of No Man's Sky. A first person view shows the player exploring a pretty looking alien planet, identifying species, maybe getting nervous about the fauna on the planet, getting in a ship to possibly escape, flying into space with some other ships that are maybe the player's allies (?), viewing a fleet of ships, firing at some other guys (?) for some reason before entering another planet's atmosphere (while also “discovering" it), shooting at some more guys for some unclear reason, and then leaving again.
What is this game about? Beats me. All that this trailer communicated to me is that in No Man's Sky, you will “do some stuff". You will “explore" by identifying things, you will shoot at guys, you will fly around in a space ship, you know, and stuff.
Expectation around No Man's Sky was high. People seemed to think it was a game in which you could do anything. Indeed, just watch any interview with No Man's Sky's main spokesman Sean Murray and you will often find him saying that the game has “endless" possibilities, and when asked what players will do in the game, saying things like the game would allow them to do “anything" that they want to do.
All of which creates expectations in players, but no sense of anticipation for what No Man's Sky would actually be. Ironically, a trailer full of seeming gameplay footage does the exact opposite (once again, for me at least) as what the Frostpunk trailer, which does not tell me what I am specifically going to do either, is able to accomplish.
Frostpunk's trailer is one of implication. It sets mood, tone, and a sense of the direction of the game without actually demonstrating the game outright. I am now anticipating its release with some excitement. I don't have any real specific expectations for it as a result, only a general expectation that it will probably be good. However, I don't need it to be anything beyond what it seems to suggest that it is right now, a game that will explore survival, fragility, and death. Ultimately, if I see later footage of the game that doesn't support that idea, then I will know that it isn't what this trailer suggests that it is. It created a baseline for reasonable expectation.
In the past few weeks, I have heard countless gaming critics discuss the problem of “hype" surrounding a game because of the seemingly almost universal disappointment with No Man's Sky, a game that created expectations in its audience, rather than anticipation about a particular direction that the studio had created for its game and had communicated through its marketing. Frostpunk's trailer is almost something like an example of “anti-hype" by merely alluding to its themes and avoiding making any real promise of anything besides an attitude towards its material. It is then up to the viewer to decide if those attitudes align with his or her own, and whether they actually should anticipate what is to come or not based on a stark, simple, and singular coherent image.