Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Great Expectations

After seeing the trailer for Modern Warfare 2, the first thing I said was “I want that.”

And by “I want that,” I meant “I am willing to pay $60 to experience something explosive and gratifying and wonderful.” In exchange for a fair sum, I expected something impressive, something lasting.

There are myriad reasons behind my anticipation – does the game just look sweet, or has my brain been primed by relentless advertising and oversaturated media coverage?

Are games set up for failure before they even hit shelves?

Anyone who reads Charge Shot!!! knows in March, Andrew and I reconvened Team Suck (Deploy!) to tackle Resident Evil 5’s co-op mode. Since its announcement in 2005, media attention went from diligent to invested to totally balls-out fanatic. Before we even played the demo we were counting the pores on Chris Redfield’s face.

With the bathwater warmed to boiling, we were somewhat surprised to find our expectations cooled by a fairly by-the-numbers sequel, very pretty but exceedingly dumb. Read the posts – you can see our excitement peter out and sink into resentment. We weren’t given what we wanted. We felt misled, and most importantly, cheated out of our $60 (and that’s a collective ‘our’ – I borrowed the game. Sorry, Andrew).

Not that Resident Evil 5 was a bad game – it just wasn’t a great game, and by the time it hit shelves, anything less would be a failure.

Army of Two is a different story. Andrew’s valedictory post is pending, but I can tell you: we left the game surprised and happy. We bought it for a song one year after its release, and our expectations were uncommonly low – we would be happy with a few groans and a laugh. When we found a solid, genuinely exciting (if uninspired) shooter, our surprise was such that we forgave the game’s rough spots (well, mostly). We lost little financially – indeed, we spend more on bar tabs – and didn’t feel like the time spent was wasted. The expectations curve raises Army of Two in our esteem, just as it doomed Resident Evil 5.

The power of expectations manifests itself even before the game is pressed to disc. Two days ago, Take Two announced that Bioshock 2 would be delayed until fiscal year 2010. Even though FY 2010 starts in October, shareholders took the news hard; within hours, the company’s stock dropped a full dollar. In this case, a change in expectations signaled turbulence to investors, who dumped what they fear might be a liability.

And as 2K Marin enlists studio upon studio to finish Bioshock 2, I can tell you at least one gamer is lowering his expectations beneath the “must buy” mark.

This happens all the time – games get canned because they’re running behind an expected schedule, or an alpha build fails to meet the publisher’s expectations. In all cases, the want factor rears its ugly head – is this what gamers want? asks the publisher. Do I want to spend $60 on this game? asks the gamer.

You want a lot, you get little; you expect nothing and get something. I’m beginning to wonder if I possess any sort of objective faculty for judging games, or if I just grade them on bang-per-buck.