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At E3 2019, video game makers held back the hype

The gaming industry is learning to manage expectations.

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The new version of Ubisoft's dystopian hacking game takes place in a future London.

Ubisoft

When Ubisoft started playing a video for its upcoming dystopian hacking game, Watch Dogs: Legion at the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo this week, the company focused on the game's story, set in a broken, post-Brexit London. It also showed off someone playing the game, as an elderly character infiltrated New Scotland Yard on a mission to recruit a drone expert.

"Sleep tight," she said, as she used a stun gun to knock out a guard. The E3 crowd cheered.

The display wasn't just a reveal for Ubisoft's next hotly anticipated title, due on store shelves in March, 2020. It was also an attempt to make right for past mistakes.

Back in 2012, the company showed off a trailer for its original Watch Dogs game, set in Chicago. That trailer's visuals were stunning. Light from car headlights refracted in the rain, wind pushed around items like umbrellas, and explosions were colorful and realistic. 

When the game came out two years later though, people quickly noticed that much of that visual flair had disappeared. 

"We learned a lot from the Watch Dogs experience," said Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft. He said teams had made assumptions about what the next-generation Xbox and PlayStation consoles from Microsoft and Sony could do.

"You want to create the images of what you dream," he said. "At the end of the day, we didn't get exactly what we wanted."

The world of game marketing is a tricky balance of getting people excited about a title while keeping expectations in check. Oftentimes, the scale tips toward excitement -- even if it's unwarranted. It's something game companies struggle with, often as they rush to prepare a segment of a game to show off for E3, which takes place in June.

Games typically require years to develop, and often they don't come together until the final weeks before they're scheduled to be sent out to players. But gamers are rarely shown the wireframe models, jagged visuals, and sometimes empty levels that're still being worked on when a game trailer is revealed. Instead, companies say they create a slice of what they think represents what the game will be.

"You have to do a lot of squinting and guessing," said Pete Hines, head of marketing at Bethesda Softworks. "Every step in the process, we're looking at something that's not done."

Fallout

Last year, Bethesda celebrated plans for Fallout 76 with faux parties at E3 tied to the game's story.

Josh Miller/CNET

Hines ought to know. He's overseen the release of games including the hit postapocalyptic shooting series Fallout, its upcoming demon-slaying game Doom Eternal and its fantasy game series The Elder Scrolls. He's also served as a face of the company as it's held big press conferences at E3 over the past four years.

When time came last year to show off Fallout 76, that job became tougher. The company's next installment in the franchise, which acts as a prequel, is unlike any of its predecessors. It's what's known as a "live service game," meaning the game is constantly changing, and players connect over the internet to play. And it pushes aside the many characters whose stories, banter, companionship and rivalries that made the series so popular. In Fallout 76, players interact with each other, creating stories as they explore a nuclear wasteland while fighting monsters and warring with other gamers.

The game launched to mixed reviews last November, with the gaming community widely criticizing Fallout 76 for its bugs and its lack of a compelling story and things to do. Bethesda has since tried to resolve many people's complaints, including announcing plans to bring back later this year the characters and stories the franchise is known for.

"Overpromising and underdelivering is an awful place to be," Hines said.

Bethesda and Ubisoft aren't the only companies who've struggled with this. Electronic Arts similarly disappointed the gaming community with its newest big online adventure game, Anthem, which came out in February. Like Ubisoft with Watch Dogs, EA showed an early trailer of Anthem two years before its release. And when Anthem finally came out it received mixed reviews, and players criticized the company for failing to deliver the game they'd expected. 

"It comes down to changing how we launch games and how we roll out," EA CEO Andrew Wilson said on a conference call in May. "It also comes down to changing how we communicate with players."

"It's not just an EA challenge," Wilson said, "it's an industrywide challenge."

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Rockstar promoted Red Dead Redemption 2 by showing off what the game's world would look like as you play.

Rockstar Games

Showing the goods

The answer some companies have to this problem is to wait until as late as possible to show off a game. That's what's Take-Two Interactive Software did with Borderlands 3, the latest in its space-adventure shooting series. That game was first announced in March and is set for a September release.

"Generally speaking, we only show gameplay," said Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick. (He's also the interim chairman of CBS, which owns CNET). He noted that's the approach his company has relied on for years.

Even when Take-Two announced games years ahead of their launch, as its Rockstar Games division did with Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2, the company focused its marketing on showing bits you could find in the game. "Our in-game stuff looks so beautiful, you ought to be showing it off," Zelnick said.

Nintendo as well said it's focused on making sure whatever it shows fits with what gamers ultimately will experience. "We look at every game and where it is in its development and say, 'When's the right time to begin sharing that with the community?'" said Doug Bowser, president of Nintendo of America. And, he added, the company often gives "updates that are meaningful" as development progresses, such as when the company announced that a sequel to its critically acclaimed adventure game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was in development

As time goes on, Nintendo tends to focus on making sure gamers know what to expect from the game when it launches. "That's very important to us," Bowser said. "It's part of our DNA."

Sony's PlayStation division has also largely avoided this issue by marking big set-piece moments from its games, such as the Indiana Jones-inspired Uncharted 4.

But that didn't insulate Sony from being criticized by internet sleuths who were convinced its Spider-Man game that came out last year had changed to remove some visuals, like water puddles around the city. (Sony said the game hadn't fundamentally changed, and some game reviewers said visuals had actually improved between announcement and release.)

"It's real gameplay that has already been developed and we have a very high degree of confidence will appear in the final game," PlayStation head Jim Ryan told CNET in an interview published in early June. 

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Gaming is a $135 billion industry, larger than music and movies. Keeping fans excited, while keeping expectations in check, is tough.

James Martin/CNET

Guaranteed

Sometimes, people are just unhappy with a game. Which is why GameStop began a program called "Guaranteed to Love It" in April, allowing people to return a game within 48 hours of purchase for a store-credit refund, excluding tax.

"What we learned from it is that it's a wonderful insurance policy for the customer," said Frank Hamlin, GameStop's chief customer officer. "Publishers up front were hesitant -- 'Does that mean you think the game's not good?' -- and it's actually no, to the contrary, the reason we want to do this is because we think the game is wonderful."

As for Ubisoft, Guillemot said there's an edict at Ubisoft that stems from what he learned from the experience with Watch Dogs: "It's better to deliver a playable demo," he said. "We want to show exactly what we will be able to deliver."