Managing Expectations for Big Name Games
I was a big fan of the Sam Raimi Spider-man films. Spider-man is one of my all-time favorite comic-book superheroes and I'm a Marvel fanboy, and I thought Raimi did a great job bringing the character to the big screen, all three times. I identified with that version of Peter Parker, I enjoyed Bruce Campbell's cameos in every installment... hell, I even liked Eric Foreman as Venom and the hilarious symbiote-inspired funky-strutting. Some critics may have disagreed, but I thought they were all fun, well-crafted movies that really brought the comic-book superhero movie to life.
When the franchise was "rebooted" last year, I was looking forward to seeing the result. The three excellent Sam Raimi movies built that up for me, and my expectations were very high. Surely, a "reboot" would be even more awesome and action-packed and Spider-man-y, with fewer of Raimi's camera zoom tricks and cheap gags.
It was a crushing disappointment. Aside from a couple of casting choices, everything about it was terrible. I hated the characters, the story, the pacing, the dialogue, everything. Especially compared to the Sam Raimi films, which are outstanding.
It's that mental comparison, the set of expectations, that really ruined the movie for me. Had Amazing Spider-man come out first, and Sam Raimi's movies after, it might have been a different story. Part of me feels like I would have probably avoided seeing the Sam Raimi ones had they come out after on account of Amazing Spider-man being so brutally awful. But there's also the chance that I might have found his movies too campy and silly after the sort of dark tone of Amazing Spider-man.
The same thing happens all the time with video games. Especially games built on monster intellectual properties. Big IPs tend to have big cult followings, and when a game comes out using that IP as a setting, expectations are usually accordingly high. Fans want the game to be as good as whatever it was that inspired the game. We approach these titles with ultra-high hopes, and sometimes we get something like Spider-man 2 or X-men 2 - a game that delivers on the expectations and more besides. But other times - more often than not, really - we get an Amazing Spider-man. Or Daredevil. Or Hulk. Or Elektra. Or... you get the picture, a lot of the Marvel movies were crap.
Take a look at Star Trek Online. A lot of Trekkers had their hopes up astronomically high (that's right, I went there) when this game was announced. When it came out and they started playing it, it was another story. The Trek fans complained about the awful crafting, the terrible ground combat, the tepid space combat, the wretched this, the buggy that. From the die-hard Trekker perspective (or at least from the ones posting on the forums the loudest), it was the deepest kind of insult to the entire Star Trek franchise, a black spot in the history of online gaming and indeed humanity as a whole.
I started playing it strictly for research purposes - it's published by Cryptic Studios and has a Foundry for custom user-generated content, the same as Neverwinter, so I wanted to give it a try to see what the Foundry was like there. I'll be honest and admit that I'm not the biggest Trek fan in the world - I'll watch the original series and the Next Generation if nothing else is on, and I love Wrath of Khan, but the rest of that universe doesn't really do it for me. When I first fired up the game as a non-Trekker, I went in with the anger of a horde of disappointed forum-ragers echoing through my brain, expecting the very worst.
I ended up really enjoying the game. Don't see what all the hate is about. The space missions are fun, the ground missions are easy, you level really fast and the cosmetic outfits look fantastic. I spend hours tweaking my outfits and making hilarious alien bridge officers for my away team. I have spent real cash unlocking Federation-aligned Klingons and outfits from Wrath of Khan and the original series, because I want my Klingon Vice-Admiral to look like a badass. It's kind of grindy at times, but I enjoy grindy games. I could run exploration missions all day long. There were missions that involved crawling through Jeffries Tubes to accomplish goals, which appealed to me because that's one of the few "nerdy tech" things I know about - LaForge and O'Brien crawled through them all the time. I actually reached level cap, which I didn't think I would do when I set out playing the game for purely research purposes.
So in this case, the guys with the huge expectations were let down. As expansive and intricate as the Star Trek universe is, surely the game would be equally expansive, intricate, technical and astounding, in ways that no other games have ever been or would ever be again. Because it is Star Trek, it therefore must be god-like.
But the guy who came in with very low expectations - not a huge fan of the series, head full of noise from disgruntled forum ranters - had a very positive experience with it. And I would recommend it to friends.
I had a similar experience with Star Wars: the Old Republic. It is perhaps unwise to mention both Star Trek and Star Wars in the same article, but damn the proton/photon torpedos! The arguments are valid, and this is not a debate about franchise superiority.
I'm a giant Star Wars geek. I have Darth Vader tattooed on my body - I got it way before the prequel movies came out, and even the ending of Revenge of the Sith has not caused me to regret it. I own Lego sets and action figures as an adult. Desktop wallpaper, ringtones, Yoda poster above the computer, Tantive IV Action Fleet model perched near the lamp. I haven't had a lot of luck with Star Wars video games, but when SWTOR was announced, there was never a question of whether or not I was going to give it a try.
Did it meet all of my expectations? No, of course not. No game ever could. I'm a child of the 70s and Star Wars was one of the defining motifs of my childhood. No studio on earth could design a game that would meet the ineffable criteria of a lifelong fanboy with that strong a connection to the franchise. Not even BioWare with a quarter-billion-dollar budget.
All the same, I had a mostly positive experience with SWTOR, and continue to enjoy it. Some of my writing has been rather critical of the game, admittedly, but it is currently the only game to which I pay a monthly subscription. And I buy Cartel Coins from time to time, too, because I'm a sucker. SWTOR may not have lived up to all my expectations, but it met enough of them to keep taking my money even after it went F2P.
Currently, I am battling mountainous expectations with Neverwinter, but I figure I have that scene under control. I saw Amazing Spider-man before I started playing it, after all, and that wretched film taught me a few things - namely, how to approach something built on a foundation of high hopes with a zen-like objectivity. It allowed me to forget about my very positive experiences with the Atari games of yore, to set aside the libraries of literature written about its setting, to ignore the egregious 4th Edition rules (except when editorializing), to appreciate the game for itself and see the interesting details and differences that set it apart from everything else. Zen, baby. I try to appreciate the game for its own sake, to rake all the mental sand flat and smooth and set a neutral mental tone upon which to build new impressions.
This is what we need to do with games based on giant IPs and long histories. The more we have emotionally invested in a franchise or IP, the more crushing the disappointment when the shiny new game inevitably fails to meet every single criteria of our unrealistic expectations. We have to pretend it is our first encounter with the beast, especially when it super-isn't. Pretend we never saw the Sam Raimi version, and that the "reboot" is our maiden voyage.
This is how we are going to have to approach, for example, the Elder Scrolls Online when it becomes available to the public. That one is going to be extraordinarily difficult to approach with any kind of objectivity, because it is a direct successor of a series of incredible games that have set the bar very high for fan expectations. None of these predecessors, however, really work as a MMO, so ESO is going to be this new thing separate from all of the history upon which it is built.
When ESO goes live, we must expect neither the Second Coming of Digital Raptor Jebus nor the Downfall of Western Online Gaming As We Know It. If we go in with either of these ideas in our heads, we're going to be disappointed when it doesn't live up. Because it cannot. No game can.
This is in no way saying that Elder Scrolls Online is going to suck. On the contrary, based on all the available data, it looks like it's going to be a damned fine game. But when I start playing it, I will start by forgetting the many, many hours I spent in Skyrim and Cyrodiil and Vaardenfell and elsewhere. I will forget about all the crazy mods I installed in those previous games - literally hundreds of them, spread across three titles. I will not look at the three full-color maps hanging on my walls (and, in fact, I will likely take them down). I will avoid playing my other non-Elder Scrolls main games for at least a few weeks while I build my impressions of this new thing.
Have you ever been surprised, in a good or bad way, by a game descended from a massive IP? Let us know in our comments!