Not So Great Expectations

posted by on 2nd April 2022, at 12:57am

I don’t know about you, but I typically enjoy a movie more if I go in without having any expectations. Years ago, I watched Ender’s Game for the first time. Sure, I knew it was a science fiction movie, but that was about it. I wasn’t prepared for what the movie actually was. If I had known about the plot, or – even worse – the ending, I don’t think this movie would have been one of my favourite first viewings of all time.

This isn’t unique to movies: it extends to all forms of media. TV series, books, musicals, and yes… games also. The less I expect from a game, the more I can immerse myself and let myself be surprised by it. Just like with movies, many of my best gaming experiences come from going into a game without really knowing what to expect: Bioshock Infinite, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and Divinity: Original Sin to name a few. Conversely, some of the games I had a lot of expectations from just didn’t do it for me: Skyrim, Guild Wars 2, and Breath of the Wild. Yes, these are all good games, and some of these I actually still enjoy playing, but I can’t help but feel a bit of a sour taste of unfulfilled expectations whenever I’m playing them.

We live in a time where the world of video games can be seen as the Las Vegas strip: left and right flashing neon lights are yelling for a moment of your attention. Once a casino has you in their grasp, they will do everything to get you committed to spend some money, and then spend some more. In for a dime, in for a dollar. How does that look for games these days? Before even a single part of the game is finalized, stunningly rendered 3D cinematic trailers are already working hard at winning over the hearts of unsuspecting gamers to convince them to drop sixty or seventy bucks on a game that isn’t even finished. Why wouldn’t they? It’s working. Promise after promise of interesting new game mechanics is drip-fed to the fanatical followers who thirst for the smallest droplet of information. Slowly, an idealized image of the game starts to form in the minds of all those following the development. A game, for which there is often not more than a few seconds of actual gameplay footage, if any. Biases and preferences create different expectations for everyone. A single game couldn’t even hope to make all of those true; the game will disappoint at least some players on launch.

This pattern can be seen repeating itself over and over again in the industry, and people keep falling for it as well, despite numerous warnings that there is a very real risk of this happening: Cyberpunk 2077 and No Man’s Sky are textbook examples of games that suffered from the inevitable fate of high expectations: utter disappointment. What does it matter to the publishers though? The money has already been earned. Hype isn’t just part of the business mode, hype IS the business model.

What might all of this have to do with RuneScape? This hype industry does not just limit itself to new games, but existing games as well. No matter the explanations you believe, I think it is uncontroversial to say that the number of content updates in RuneScape since the start of this year has been lower than average. Yet, to keep their business healthy, Jagex relies not just on players continuing to pay their membership fees, but also to keep actually playing, creating opportunities to convert playing hours into micro-transactions. So if there are no actual content to release, they have to grab to the next best thing: hype.

The recent addition of three new slayer monsters came paired with a promotion campaign that was on par with the Elder God Wars fronts. Likewise, the upcoming (by time of writing) quest is getting hyped sky high. For the latter, I have seen endless discussions about what will happen in the quest, with expectations for the quest being sky high. The last time we were promised a three hour quest, we were dropped into a set of mazes that have earned a place on the same list as the Elemental Workshop puzzles and One Small Favour for many people.

It is not up to me to decide how people should (mentally) prepare themselves for new content, but I believe it is universal that setting sky high expectations means that there is only one way reality is going to compare to it: worse. By priming all players to expect the best thing since sliced bread, the developers are now essentially in a 1-vs-1 battle with those expectations. I believe the best way to enjoy any media is by letting the content speak for itself, yet Jagex is actively encouraging us to make up our mind before even seeing what we are dealing with.

In many ways, the trend within RuneScape is not unexpected, but it is disappointing to me nevertheless. The abyssal creatures seemed like a solid update, but probably were too simple to justify the amount of attention they got ahead of launch. Likewise, I fear for the expectations for the Extinction quest. Personally, I have avoided much of the promotional material, and will let the content speak for itself.

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