You’ve probably heard about the disastrous release of CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077. Fans of the beloved studio have been waiting through a decade of constant hype—peppered with grandiose trailers and appearances by Keanu Reeves—only to be handed something that, in some cases, was so broken and glitch-ridden as to be unplayable. Even in the best of cases, many felt it failed to deliver the world-changing experience players thought they’d been promised. Some have even compared it to the disappointing 2016 release of another highly anticipated game we’ll be discussing here: No Man’s Sky.
The Legacies of Cyberpunk 2077, No Man’s Sky and Borderlands
The seriousness of the divide between expectation and reality came when Sony removed the title from the PlayStation Store and issued full refunds; a rare, if not unprecedented, action. Predictably, many articles have been written on why Cyberpunk wasn’t what we wanted it to be and the numerous controversies surrounding the game.
That’s not what this article is about.
Instead of focusing on Cyberpunk or No Man’s Sky as games, I’d like to use these respective disasters—as well as a contrary example in the game Borderlands—to look at hype in game development and release, including its uncontrollable nature and the perverse incentive of game publishers to increase hype at the cost of quality and reputation. Stories from the marketing and release of these three games have powerful lessons to teach us about managing our player base and the results of mixing business and creativity.
The Bad, The Ugly and the Unexpected
As surprising as it may seem, reviews and player experience indicate that, on a design and entertainment level, Cyberpunk 2077 is not a bad game. It’s just not revolutionary, and that’s what people wanted. That is seemingly what people were promised. No Man’s Sky hit the same snag. People wanted it to be life changing. While many enjoyed it, and it has improved over the last few years, it still wasn’t what was promised. This divide was sharp enough that the developer, Hello Games, found themselves [under investigation for false advertising in the UK.
Both of these titles stand out in sharp contrast to the original Borderlands, released in October 2009. Borderlands is their antithesis. While it was certainly promoted, its promotion and marketing campaign was nothing special, which is why everyone was surprised when the game smashed sales numbers in a highly competitive year and spawned a beloved franchise that includes card games, a delightful story-focused spin-off, and a movie that’s bound to be awful.
So, how did the minimally-hyped Borderlands accomplish this?
Borderlands, A Slow Burn
Borderlands’ marketing was a confusing, minimal affair. For starters, the earliest hype surrounding the game was for a different art style. The most notable piece was a 2007 cover story from Game Informer back when the game was going to be more Mad Max in space than the charmingly unique universe we all love today. After that, marketing was slight until the months leading up to its release. In those last few months, there was an E3 presentation showing off its new art style as well as a handful of articles about the number of guns in the game and the usual reviews any AAA title gets.
Consider, too, a handful of other titles released that year: Assassin’s Creed II, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Resident Evil 5, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Halo 3: ODST, Infamous, and Left 4 Dead 2. Others were as big or bigger. Between the mediocre marketing and the competition, Borderlands seemed set up to fail. Industry analyst Michael Pachter said as much.
Instead, Borderlands sold 4.5 million copies, got 4 DLC packs as big as any indie game, and became a genre unto itself. Its growth was slow but certain and lasting, resulting in player goodwill that withstood a rash of controversies surrounding the studio in the wake of Borderlands 3.
You could attribute part of the game’s success to sheer quality: it combined the best elements of loot-based RPGs and first-person shooters in a world just familiar enough to be comfortable and different enough to be unique. Plus, it was hilarious. But there’s more to it than that.
When you Hype Yourself in the Face
Cyberpunk 2077 and No Man’s Sky’s marketing campaigns couldn’t have been more different from Borderlands. They invested years and unbelievable amounts of money into promoting themselves, effectively building up hollow towers that collapsed when people started to climb them. Borderlands watched those towers fall from its own ivory tower, built solidly over many long years.
But there are bigger lessons to be learned here than “make a good game” and “undersell, overdeliver.” There are more specific lessons. And, surprise, surprise, many of them have to do with the unfortunate mixing of business and creativity.
The first lesson concerns something that seems anathema to the business world: be honest, and don’t fear delays.
As mentioned, Borderlands completely overhauled its art style at the eleventh hour, shocking the handful of people following the game’s development. This wasn’t something they hid or rushed. Instead, they pushed the game’s release back, then made this new art style the centerpiece of their eventual E3 presentation.
By contrast, Cyberpunk 2077 and No Man’s Sky were both riddled with promises of things that simply weren’t there. Promised life-changing, hyper-real worlds and a universe full of things to do, what players got was far from what they had been led to expect. In fact, looking at the old marketing materials, it feels like they obscured the true experience of playing the game. Likewise, while both games experienced delays, they also kept trying to balance pushing forward with the need to take things slowly and figure out their problems, resulting in crunch.
So, where Borderlands was open and honest about changes and unafraid of delays, Cyberpunk hid problems and rushed the job.
The second lesson to be learned here concerns hype itself: once released, once generated, you can’t control it. And, if it’s got a strong enough spark, it’ll grow over time.
When you throw flashy trailers at your player base and promise them the moon, they run toward it, and they won’t keep that excitement to themselves. They’ll talk to their friends, and everyone’ll crowd toward your “moon” in what, eventually, becomes an avalanche. You start telling them about how revolutionary this experience is going to be, and that avalanche builds speed and strength. People make fan art and subreddits, building communities around a game they have yet to play. They come up with their own ideas about what this game is going to be. Their excitement feeds itself as they wake up thinking about this game, which, more and more, appears to be a distant, glimmering goal on the horizon rather than just a game.
Then, as they approach, and when that moon you promised turns out to be a cardboard cutout, you promptly regret not having something more substantial to hide behind.
It isn’t just a matter of not delivering on your promises. The fact is, if you feed enough hype into this machine and give it enough time, the expectations your future player base has for your game will grow beyond the realm of the realistic. Even though the future player base was part of building the hype, it’s still your fault for feeding them ad talk about how life-changing this game was going to be. Whatever you promised will serve as the baseline for player expectations, not the ceiling.
Contrast Cyberpunk’s “promise the moon” approach with Borderlands. Marketing for Borderlands was minimal and didn’t promise anything extravagant. More importantly, they didn’t start really promoting the game until the months leading up to its release. While this could have hurt profits, it also guaranteed that potential fans didn’t have time to hype the game beyond reasonable expectations.
So, if this increasing tendency to overhype a game is so dangerous, why do developers still do it?
The Rotting Green Root Cause
Like so many other problems in this world, the answer is money.
Investors, administrators, and business folk don’t care about whether a game is good. They don’t care about a studio’s reputation or long-term investments. They care about short-term gains, which means they care about whether people buy the game. Think of it like a used car salesman. He doesn’t care if the car breaks down on the highway or in the middle of a blizzard. That’s not his problem because you can’t come back and get your money from him.
In fact, his incentives are warped. He makes his money not on selling quality products but on selling… period. So, if he has a choice between putting money into advertising or putting money into getting and maintaining quality vehicles, what’s a short-sighted salesman going to do?
He’s gonna shovel money into advertising, because it nets him the best short-term returns.
The business side of the game development world is in the same position. And, seeing as they control the money, they have tons of control over what a studio does and how a game is advertised. Combine this with the fact that they are incentivized to oversell and underdeliver, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The Final Victim: Reputation
As mentioned, neither No Man’s Sky nor Cyberpunk 2077 are bad games. Yet, they’ve shattered both studios’ reputations. Hello Games is just beginning to rebuild, and I don’t think it’s a surprise that their most recent title, [The Last Campfire][link to my review of the game] is unrecognizably different from their earlier failure. I’m not sure how CD Projekt Red plans on recovering.
You cannot underestimate the importance of reputation to a business.
I’m reminded of the rise of Japanese automakers after the 1970s. Around that time, Japanese manufacturers overtook the American car market and turned it into a joke. They didn’t do this by spending a lot of money on advertising or fancy flourishes. Instead, they focused on delivering a consistently high-quality product. While the build was slow, it was certain, and manufacturers like Toyota, Honda and Subaru now have die-hard fans who would never consider buying an American model when looking for a new vehicle.
This doesn’t matter to a short-term investor who uses the dumpster fire he lit behind him to propel him toward another dubious investment. But for fans of the art form and people working in the industry, it does matter. Especially when money spent on advertising could have been spent on more equitable wages and benefits for the developers, less crunch time and, I dunno, a game that isn’t broken. And beyond misused funds and a playerbase dumpster fire, the real damage the investors leave behind is a studio’s shattered reputation and their damaged chances of seeing future interest in their titles.
Generating tons of hype—even though it correlates to sales—is a misuse of funds. Worse, it’s opening Pandora’s box, and no one can shove all that hype back in once it’s been released. They can only hope it doesn’t grow out of control.