There are many things that inspired me to write this rather long piece about how we present game development. No Man’s Sky release and its aftermath is one. Another was you wanting to know why we expose everything and not just the shiny parts of Hotgates’ activities. Just to be clear, this is a personal opinion. Fellow developers and games referred here are mentioned solely as an example and not to pass judgement on them. Game development for us does not include just the developers. It includes publishers, journalists and most importantly the gamers.


Video games are really old


Willy Higinbotham in 1952 created the first video game. It was a game similar to table tennis and it was playable on an oscilloscope. Nineteen years later the first ever Arcade game was released called Computer Space. Developed by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney and if those names ring a bell, well they were the founders of Atari. One year later in 1972 Magnavox released the Odyssey, the first ever commercial home console. Fast forward eight years and in 1980 the first ever 3D game was released. Its name? Battlezone.

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Τhat previous paragraph wasn’t meant to give you a detailed history of video games, but merely to point out how old video games really are. They are with us for more than sixty years, and yet people still misinterpret them. The fault does not lie with them but purely with the developers and the way we present our work. Did I say purely with the developers? Well this is not exactly the truth. Actually the fault is spread between developers, publishers and modern day video game journalists. Intentionally or not we do mislead people. Our words and promises are very easily interpreted in a lot of different ways.


Video games through the decades


Until the late 90’s video games, for a lot of people, was the stuff of magic. Games offered a window into many wondrous places where you could live out all sorts of adventures. No one knew how they were made or what made them good. There wasn’t a blueprint, a guideline, for a good game. Game Designer was a career back then – albeit a niche one. Video game journalism was honest and to the point back in the day and what was written about a game was actually what you got. Retailers had two marketing tools, a console and a TV screen at the storefront playing a demo. Therefore, customers had a chance to experience first hand what they were going to buy. There was no room for false expectations. It was the famous WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get)!


In the early 00’s video games started, steadily but slowly, to attract the spotlight they deserved. Although more people read video game magazines, the process of creating video games remained in the dark. The games at offer were not as many as they are now. That was more of a blessing than a problem. Also games were released complete, without DLCs, without day one patches. This meant that the “value for money” of each game was high. A game was rarely overhyped and the reason was that most game developers weren’t exposed that much or treated as celebrities. Those that were treated as such, knew the inner workings of marketing, so they were very careful with what they said or promised. Most importantly, the sole source of information about video games and developers could be found in monthly magazines.


How the internet changed how we perceive video games


All that changed with the arrival of the online gaming magazines, portals and YouTube. The need for clicks drove the news reports about video games into overdrive (the infamous click-bait). From receiving information once a month, we got to the point where one could read three or four news per day about a game, watch gameplay and graphics comparisons. Since news alone weren’t enough, developers were brought into the mix too and for a time it was good. We got all the news we needed about the games we were eager to play or were already playing. Things changed again with the rise of the YouTubers, Bloggers and the various community driven forums. All these gave rise to even more self proclaimed “critics” and “experts”. Marketing also moved from the storefronts to the hands of the media. The developer’s message started to get lost in the enormous pile of… opinions. Misinterpretation, overhype and false expectations started to make their appearance.


Media coverage was not the only thing that evolved after the millennium. Battlezone back in 1980 showed the world that video games were complex and the only thing holding back that complexity was the technology available at the time. After the millennium the power of hardware became vastly more powerful than software demanded. Developers were left with a lot of space to fill. They filled it with realistic graphics, advanced physics, huge open worlds and very complex systems. Complexity birthed more expectations in the gamer’s mind and developers to this day try to satisfy these expectations.


Take media exposure and combine it with the growing expectations of gamers and we – the developers – have a bomb in our hands if we are not careful. Case in point, No Man’s Sky and Destiny, two big names that according to the majority of gamers, promised one thing and delivered something else when they were released. Whatever happened to those promises remains in the dark. Perhaps gamers would have been more lenient with those games if they knew what went on behind the scenes. I’m not talking about exposing trade secrets or agreements. I’m talking about developers just being open and honest about what is feasible, what needs more time or what doesn’t work at all. Star Wars Battlefront is another great example. EA openly admitted that in order to release the game simultaneously with the movie Star Wars Ep. VII, they decided to drop the campaign entirely, because it was half way done and there wasn’t enough time.

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The bigger the words the harder the fall


When No Man’s Sky first videos went live back in 2013 they caused quite a stir. Open world, endless universe, trading, pirating, planet landings, the stuff of dreams. Then we saw a genuinely excited developer expressing his expectations about his creation. But, when the game got released most people felt cheated. I personally loved the game so did many others. I remember coming out of discussions with people having a different opinion about the game. Both parties were equally excited about the game, yet some got what they expected and others didn’t. A part of gamers got the wrong impression of what to expect. A classic case of something getting lost in translation amongst publisher, developer, journalists and ultimately, gamers.


Clearly it’s a communications issue. On one hand we as developers haven’t trained the media and the gamers to a language that they can fully understand and use it to interpret correctly the concepts we have in mind. On the other hand, publishers should support their developers when they detect a miscommunication and not turn a blind eye or even encourage them to overhype their game. Lastly journalists should ask the right questions and not ride the hype train just to catch some clicks. Let me give you an example of misinterpretation.


I am an indie developer with a publisher but without a PR team. Imagine that during an interview I reply to the following question “Will project 42 have a single ending?” with the following answer “Project 42 will have ten endings.” The interview ends without discussing the endings again. Without further explanation or inquiry from a journalist, what will a gamer think?


The highest expectation will come first. That this game can be played over and over with different paths and different endings and every play-through will be different.


Another, a more experienced gamer might suspect, that you can play through the game multiple times but half of it will be the same, with slight variations.


Another one might think that this can’t be done and that the game will only branch out to different endings during the end game.


All valid expectations, right?


So, I release Project 42 and the game is the same all the way to the end where I present you with a dialogue and a choice, that will lead to a different ending, depending of said choice and that’s it. Because that is what I had in mind all along. Technically my original statement that “Project 42 will have ten endings” was true and is fulfilled, but some people will feel misled and others will get what they expected. The problem is that you, as the misled gamer, will not know if I misled you intentionally or not. Since people tend to assume the worst, I will look like a fraud who took your money and ran. Had the journalist pushed for a clearer explanation of what ten endings meant, that wouldn’t have been the case. A familiar picture over the years. Words and questions are left unspoken and the gamer at the end of the day draws the wrong conclusion.


Most gamers are familiar with terms that developers use, but we haven’t trained them to recognize how they are realized. “Open world”, “sand box”, trading, replayable, multiple endings, player choices, procedural, each playthrough is unique and many more. These words, terms and phrases are familiar, but very easily interpreted in a lot of different ways. An open world can be one huge map game like Skyrim/GTA or smaller maps, representing regions like in Dragon Age Inquisition. No Man’s Sky is an “open” universe where actually each solar system is a single “room”. The traveling faster than light scene between systems is hiding the loading process. All three games are open world, yet each realization differs.


Gamers rarely analyze these words, terms and phrases and most importantly if and how they will work in a certain game. For them, “open world” means a huge place to explore and discover places, enjoy the view and maybe do quests, fight a dragon or alien and get some loot. All that usually doesn’t involve a loading screen. We as developers are responsible to make gamers understand if we will not match these expectation. We are responsible to let gamers know what “open world” means for our game and how we plan to realize it. For better or worse, gamers have played games that have shaped their own mental models about how some things should be. When they read an article or watch developers talk about their game, they automatically interpret the words spoken as concrete facts for the final game.


Transparency is vital


Is there a way out of this? I believe that there is and it is something that we at Hotgates have been doing from the very beginning. Transparency. Games do not appear out of thin air and they don’t come into existence in that polished state that most games first introduce themselves. Games are made through hard work, sacrifices and overcoming obstacles. They start out as a prototype map with white blocks or some sketches on paper or a demo code. If we take the gamers with us along for the whole ride, maybe they will understand the reasons why. Why some things get delayed, get cut, don’t work or how something cool gets added to the game. Ambiguity leaves a lot of space for misinterpretation which doesn’t help anyone. There is a saying “I don’t want to know how it’s cooked, I just want to eat it”. Well, in that case all you have to do is: not read developer’s diaries, neither read the so called “journalist’s” articles/reviews nor watch YouTubers’ opinions. Just buy the game, without knowing anything about it, enjoy it and form an opinion by yourself. But in real life that rarely happens.


What I’m suggesting here is not for every developer. Developers can say and promise whatever they like and deal with the fallout themselves. But, doing so hurts us all. The way we talk about our games informs and educates not only the gamers, but also the critics that review them. For better or worse talking about our games falls also in the hands of journalists. Journalists who (not all of them) follow the agendas of their respective media conglomerates. Gamers on the other hand have only one agenda. To play what was communicated/promised.


In conclusion. Continuing the “myth” that games are these products that only a few people know the inner workings of. Keep overhyping our games with flashy concepts (e.g. procedural) and fail to communicate what they mean. If we don’t own up to our mistakes. By baptising betas as demos and early access as complete games. If we keep doing all these, then we force people to be suspicious of us game developers as a whole.

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Gamers are not the only ones who can benefit from transparency in game development. Developers in the beginning of their career or already in the industry, can learn from mistakes and successes. Post mortems by developers describing what went wrong/right, are fine and all, but usually are of a different era and can only provide that much insight. Transparency in game development can also affect user feedback which is absolutely essential for us. But in order for that to work some things must change. Publishers must allow developers to inform gamers, their clients.  Journalists must be able to speak their mind accurately and more important honestly. YouTubers should aquire some knowledge about game development before becoming game critics.


Where have all the demos gone?


Another thing that will help user feedback, is demos. Why did we replace demos with betas? Betas are not demos. We are basically outsourcing the paid job of a Beta Tester to the free pool of gamers. Gamers are neither certified nor experienced Beta Testers. Sure we get to spare a lot of money, but what do the gamers get? Surely not the games they want. A demo is not full of bugs and/or half-developed content. It’s a small representation of the final game just a step before release. With a demo the gamers get the correct impression about a title which leaves no room to neither the journalists nor the publisher to overhype it.


The best way to market something is to give your target audience the easiest thing to comprehend. Game development is no different. Game development is a complex process so we have to give gamers something to understand, something they can relate to. As developers we neither have to spoil the magic of a game in development nor show every nook and cranny. All we have to do is share stories about our games so that gamers can feel part of the process. Gamers are not some disconnected entity that comes into play only when we want their money. Especially when we live in an age where crowdfunding, pre-orders (with immediate payment) and early access are common practice.