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Cyberpunk 2077, expectation management & your game 2

For Cyberpunk 2077, obviously there was a major gulf between expectations and reality. But whose expectations? We look at how devs should manage pre-release hype for their game carefully.

[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & GameDiscoverCo founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

Welcome, fellow voyagers, to the sea journey of the great vessel GameDiscoverCo, currently embarking from Platform City to the outer regions.

Our mission? To traverse the inlets and islands of the uncharted area which is ‘how to notice my video game and tell your friends’. From there, we can report back with the latest data and news. Starting with this:

Cyberpunk’s ‘expectation vs. reality’ lessons

Obviously, it’s way too late for a hot take on Cyberpunk 2077. But the above new 90-minute long video from Noah Caldwell-Gervais (who has a Patreon if you dig it!) gets pretty deep into his ‘months after launch’ thoughts on CD Projekt’s successful slash controversial 2020 AAA blockbuster.

I wanted to quote Noah from early in the video, and use it as a jumping-off point to discuss a problem that quite a few games have. Specifically: squaring what you think a game MIGHT be with the actual product. He says:

"Obviously there was a major gulf between expectations and reality. But whose expectations? Cyberpunk 2077 seemed like it was going to be a lot of things to a lot of people. I met somebody in person who said to me - straightfaced - that it would be the greatest game of all time when it came out.

[He said] that it would do everything that an RPG was always supposed to do, but more and better. He expected something extremely simulation-al, like Star Citizen. I myself was expecting it to learn towards the role-playing parts of being an RPG, that character and dialog would be king.

Others expected it to have deep combat, a massive map, all sorts of things. And this is how the hype came to be so great, because various promotional materials flirted with all of these preconceptions - suggesting everything, clarifying nothing."

I often claim in my lectures that 90% of all video games have a discovery problem, and the 10% that don’t have an expectation management problem. (This is probably an overly binary way of looking at it. )

Nonetheless, Cyberpunk 2077 is just a more extreme version of what can happen with a game if you get the hype right, but the expectation wrong. With any size of indie or AAA title, you run the risk of negative reviews and buzz: ‘I was expecting X, but I got Y!’ So… how to combat this? Some ideas:

  • Don’t be afraid to say ‘no, the game doesn’t have X’ or ‘it’s more focused on Y genre or style of play’. I definitely feel like there’s marketing or hype pressure to imply that your game has everything that players want. Saying no is really scary. But if you never correct players, you may open up big gaps between their mental image of the game & how it really plays.

  • For smaller devs (and maybe even for larger ones!) - are prospective players are asking the same questions a lot, or having the same misconceptions? A pre-release FAQ - on Steam forums or your website - is a great way to augment your marketing by making it clear what your value proposition is. (The Riftbreaker has one, if you’d like to see an example!)

  • If you use non-realtime footage in earlier versions of your marketing, think about if people may be surprised later. Trailers like this teaser for Pharaoh: A New Era do it right - there’s animation & then separate (early) game footage. Whereas both No Man’s Sky and Cyberpunk 2077 initially fell into the ‘Jurassic Park harmonica’ trap of ‘target gameplay’ footage comparing badly to real footage.

  • Show gameplay footage early and often. This goes back to the ‘marketing authenticity’ angle, of course. But gone are the days where you can dazzle people with box art and CG screenshots alone. It’s fine to make non-realtime trailers and art assets if you want. But ultimately people considering buying it will see YouTube or store page footage of the real thing, and that’ll dictate a buying decision.

Of course, the flipside of this is obvious. If Cyberpunk had shown what they had, when they had it, people might have been far less excited about the game. And it was actually execution on launch around bugs and previous-gen console performance that unseated them. So did they ‘win’, or ‘lose’? It’s… complicated.

Expectation vs. reality: when it’s less of a big deal…

For all the games we work with, we try to puzzle out: ‘what will players say about this on launch that they’re surprised about, versus the pre-launch impression they had?’ Even then, sometimes your game visually communicates things that may confuse a minority, and you need to play this out carefully.

One excellent example of this is Brave At Night and No More Robots’ “kingdom management RPG” Yes, Your Grace - which launched a year ago. It’s truly a great game (4,300 Steam reviews at 84% Positive!), but it’s had some minor expectation management issues around player choice.

Specifically: because Yes, Your Grace has a map screen and lots of on-screen resource management stats, some prospective players ‘read’ it as an expansive Crusader Kings II-style kingdom sim. But the game itself is a fairly tightly plotted, story-led title - it has interesting choices, but perhaps not as many as some people’s pre-release mental impression of the game.

As an advisor to YYG publisher No More Robots, I actually chatted to the devs about this after release. Did we feel like we could have done anything to better clarify this? We’re not really sure we could have. It’s difficult to explain such a nuanced point, since there isn’t a feature the game has or doesn’t have. It’s just a ‘leaning’.

And the player excitement over the overall concept communicated in the visuals was - for 90%+ of players of Yes, Your Grace - well borne-out by the compelling plot and choice that do exist in the game. And it led to awesome results.

So perhaps that’s the key. Even if people’s mental image of a game isn’t 100% identical to the one you made, as long as it’s close, you can win them over with the game you DID create! But measuring and narrowing the expectation gulf is key.

The game discovery news round-up..

So that’s the lead story sorted out. What else do we have in our bag of tricks, game discovery news-wise, on this fine March day? Let’s peruse the choices:

Finally, we’ve been running a few ‘funding methology’ charts recently. And this one from French video game finance expert Stephane Rappeneau, as posted on Twitter, is a great master guide to how you fund your game:

[We’re GameDiscoverCo, a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? You can subscribe to GameDiscoverCo Plus to get access to exclusive newsletters, interactive daily rankings of every unreleased Steam game, and lots more besides.]

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