The video game hype machine is less fun than it used to be

For the last few years, I’ve found myself getting less excited about new video game releases. I assumed that was just because I was getting older. I was no longer a kid who had all the energy in the world to be excited for the next game in a beloved series. I saw many others online share similar sentiments. But, after some reflection and research, I don’t think that’s the case anymore. If you’re like me and just don’t feel that same level of hype and build-up to a game’s release, even if it’s part of a series you’ve loved for years, I’m here to say it’s not you — it’s them.

Times change, but the drop in excitement surrounding big game releases goes back further than that. In the case of the video game hype cycle, the industry is experiencing death by a thousand cuts. Before you claim I’m just an old man yelling about how things used to be better back in my day, hear me out: I’m not saying the industry is necessarily worse now, just that the way games are marketed and sold now is just … less exciting these days.

The old hype machine

A man dressed as master chief walking.

When I think of game releases that nailed hype, my mind goes to one game: Halo 3. This game coming out felt like a global event. It was nearly impossible to go more than a day or two leading up to this game’s release without seeing something related to it. There were commercials on every channel, billboards, branded foods, toys — heck I wouldn’t be surprised if they hired skywriters to hype this thing up in some places. The marketing budget for this game alone was upwards of $40 million, which was basically unheard of at the time for a video game. I had only gotten Halo 2 with my Xbox 360, so the fact that I was just as excited as everyone else who had been fans for years longer than me really says something about how Microsoft pushed this game.

Trailers were rolled out at a steady cadence and were extremely well produced. There was the iconic “Believe” campaign that featured a battlefield created with toy soldiers backed by a somber piano, documentary-style interviews with “veterans” speaking about the events of the game in the past tense, and high-budget CG footage. These ads were everywhere — sports games, news stations, magazines, candy bars, it didn’t matter. If they could slap Halo 3 on it, they did.

Then there was the actual midnight launch. This was something that, as far as I’m concerned, has never been topped by another game. Sure, plenty of games have sold way more than Halo 3, but the level of pageantry given to this silly game about a big green spaceman shooting aliens was unprecedented. Times Square was basically shut down as fans lined up for hours, members of Bungie came to play the game early with fans, and a man in full Spartan armor drove a replica warthog down the street. There were giveaways, competitions, celebrity appearances, and all counting down to the game’s final launch.

While Halo 3 might have been the biggest example, most other games also pushed to hype their game up however they could in creative ways. Remember “bloodvertising”? Acclaim, trying to build hype for Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance, actually outfitted bus stops in the U.K. with ads that would drip fake blood down the glass and onto the street. Or what about EA hiring fake religious protestors for Dante’s Inferno? Bethesda even offered its entire catalog of games, past and future, to any parent who named their child Dovahkiin if they were born on the day of Skyrim’s release. And don’t even get me started on Hideo Kojima’s infamous marketing tactics.

I’m not saying all games needed to do crazy stunts like this to feel exciting. In fact, most of these examples were terrible ideas. But the point was they were trying to make the games feel special. ARGs, demos, and betas were the more tame ways games generated hype. Those still exist now, but don’t quite work in the same way.

What’s different?

The playstation store page.

Compare where we were with Halo 3 being the biggest game launch maybe ever, to Infinite being a “cautiously optimistic” release at best? The game’s one-year delay was a major factor, but Microsoft didn’t capitalize on that time to build much excitement beyond the game’s test flights. The game is also coming to Xbox Game Pass, which is yet another level beyond buying a game digitally that removes the excitement of actually getting a game. Now, with your subscription, you kind of already have it.

Beyond Halo, how did we go from games being the biggest media launches of the year, with news coverage, celebrities, and hundreds of people lining up in Times Square to now? Well, it didn’t happen overnight. One of the most obvious changes has been the death of cable TV. The number of people with cable keeps dropping as more and more people switch to streaming and on-demand type services. Online ads fill the gaps, though they won’t reach people who use adblockers. For all the commercials and ads I used to see for video games, now I never see them and need to seek them out intentionally. That puts the onus on me to keep myself excited.

A new tactic is for publishers to work with influencers, like YouTube creators and Twitch streamers, to create content with their games. That’s a smart concept, but one that’s effectiveness varies from creator to creator. While some do an exemplary job at showing off why a game is cool, these largely aren’t professional marketers. In the best scenario, publishers only reach a targeted audience that follows those specific people, and only for that one instance. It’s also way more feasible than dumping $40 million into a multidimensional media campaign.

It isn’t all about reduced marketing budgets. Part of the change comes from a shift to digital distribution, too. Being able to buy games digitally is a plus, but it can really mess with one’s sense of anticipation and appreciation. That’s especially apparent in the death of the midnight launch.

Midnight launches were already dying before 2020, but that year put the nail in the coffin. Physical sales were going down and even the biggest game retailer of them all, GameStop, was struggling to keep stores open. They’re not completely gone, but the experiences of yesteryear are largely dead. Unless you’re getting some special edition with physical goods, many companies prefer you to pre-order the game digitally by default now.

How the game has changed

Mike Ybarra interview — Gamers test 'Crackdown' on the XBox One X during the Electronic Entertainment Expo E3 at the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 13, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One thing we can’t ignore is how games are released now, or rather can be released. It’s becoming more and more common for games to be released when the developers know full well that it isn’t done yet, with plans to add and support it after it comes out. This mostly applies to big games, but when betas for Battlefield 2024 and Call of Duty: Vanguard leave people more concerned than excited, that’s not a good thing. When all people experience, see, or hear about an upcoming game is that it’s not ready, there’s more than enough other games coming out to shift their focus to.

That leads to games announcing roadmaps, DLC plans, and all that extra stuff before the game comes out. That may get some people excited, but it does some harm too. You want people to be excited for the game, not what the game will be eventually. Tell players there’s more content coming, but don’t leave us thinking that it won’t be worth playing for a few years.

Believe the hype?

A major question left unanswered is whether or not this kind of hype building was actually ever good. Doesn’t it just lead to disappointment by setting expectations up so impossibly high? Doesn’t the cycle prey on people by trying to make them spend their money on something by making it appear better than it might be? That can certainly happen.

But excitement for games helps balance a culture that so often feels bogged down by cynicism and negative discourse. We focus on tearing apart every minute technical problem in a game that sometimes it feels like there’s no room to just be excited to play them. I believe that your mindset really can influence how much you like something. If you’re really excited about a game, you may end up enjoying it more than if you just play it one day with no anticipation. Call me naïve for saying that, but at the end of the day, I just want to have fun playing a game.

Video game marketing was always going to change. That’s reasonable considering how much of an unsustainable spectacle it had become; it just leaves us with fewer reasons to get excited. The only real remaining method of building hype comes from big game conferences, and even then we’re starting to get flooded with so many digital events that they’re losing their luster. A surprise announcement at one of these is the most excitement we get these days. Beyond that, it’s up to you to keep yourself interested.

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