As most of you are probably aware, we’ll be getting our hands on Codemasters’ upcoming rally simulator DiRT 4 by the end of the work week, but I can’t help but feel a lot of the excitement surrounding the title when it was initially revealed to the general public has now completely faded away. Sure, I’m looking forward to playing DiRT 4, as are many others who greatly appreciate the willingness of Codemasters to drop some of the dudebro elements in favor of a more traditional, hardcore rally sim experience, but the giddiness of having a new simulator to play – one which also gives you an entire campaign to explore and flashy graphics to complete the experience – isn’t really there.
And the problem I’m hinting at, is that we already know too much about DiRT 4. YouTube and Twitch are fantastic tools for gamers to share their experiences with others in a variety show-like format, but I feel as if they’re actively working against the mystery that comes with ripping the shrink wrap off a product and exploring what the developers have created; being genuinely surprised by features, cars, or tracks that were hinted at but not fully revealed until the disc was physically in your hard drive. In the summer of 2017, we’re at the point where multiple gaming websites and hardcore sim racing publications have played through the first few hours of the game several times over, to the point where one doesn’t even have to own DiRT 4 to easily recite what players can expect from their initial experience. We’ve seen almost every class of car in action, every new rally cross track, and experienced a large portion of the unique stage generation tool that has been promoted so heavily – to the point where most racing game communities aren’t taking part in a shared child-like excitement, they’re instead bickering about virtual reality support as if we’re two months into launch and the game has already blown past the initial new game hysteria.
That’s really lame.
It’s made me pose the question of whether too much preview footage can be a bad thing, and I feel that yes, it certainly can be. I’m excited for DiRT 4 because I think we can agree that everyone wanted a sequel to DiRT Rally, but I’m going into it knowing that there are just three landrush locations, there’s no WRC cars, I know exactly what my team livery design and colors will be, I know the preferred line through the Gymkhana challenges at the DirtFish driving school compound, and what sponsors I can expect to have on the side of my car. It’s the equivalent of buying movie tickets for a show later in the evening, and then on the car ride there reading the entire Wikipedia article while simultaneously listening to four different podcasts discussing sub-plots you might not pick up on.
DiRT 4 has been spoiled by the gaming community, but it’s not the first game to receive that treatment. Project CARS 2 has also been granted an abundance of pre-release coverage, and it’s kind of taking away from that new game hysteria. Instead of surprising people with an entire IndyCar field as an “oh by the way, we got this license” surprise, or a platter of Group C cars that traditionally don’t make it into other games, we’ve seen so much raw gameplay that people are meticulously analyzing cornering speeds because they literally have nothing else to do. I personally know of some stuff Slightly Mad Studios have planned for Project CARS 2 that’s both implemented and functional within the game, but after seeing what’s happened with DiRT 4, I’m kind of hoping they’ll continue to keep it under wraps. And that’s because we no longer have a hobby where just taking it all in – from the art style to the menus to the content not announced in promotional material – is part of the fun in purchasing a title on launch day or soon thereafter. A return to that style of marketing would be a lot of fun for customers; you have to selectively release information, not just fill people with videos upon videos that basically spoil the entire software.
By comparison, I’d like to take a look at another Codemasters title, Formula One 2017. We haven’t seen any moving footage of this game in action; just teaser shots of four historical Formula One cars, and talk of an improved handling model from those who have tried out the game behind closed doors. People are jacked for what this game might contain, because their imaginations are allowed to run wild and there’s this whole mysterious atmosphere surrounding the title. Hype for F1 2017 is also at an all-time high, because unless you’re a snob who hates fun and will avoid any title that doesn’t label itself as a hardcore simulator boasting a userbase of less than 300 people (200 of which run five laps in offline testing, then hit up the forums bragging that the cars are so hard to drive), Formula One 2016 was one of the best racing games of our time, and it’s only natural to expect Codemasters will improve upon it. This is marketing done right; people know the game will be good because the last one was phenomenal, and there’s just enough information out there to pique the curiosity of gamers into giving the new release a go. As a gamer, it’s fun to boot up a game and be genuinely surprised, rather than have the first two hours of the game memorized.
Grand Theft Auto was another franchise that got this balance absolutely perfect. Prior to the launch of both Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V, there was absolutely no raw gameplay footage available; just well-crafted trailers from Rockstar themselves that demonstrated a quality product, yet left a lot for the players to discover by purchasing the title and putting it through it’s paces themselves. Remembering back to the launch of Niko Belic’s time in Liberty City, part of the magic in playing through GTA IV for the first time was just physically seeing everything – from the HUD design to the driving physics to the narrative elements – and being able to take it all in with the controller in your hand, rather than some YouTube video where a kid flown out to some exotic location by Rockstar was allowed to screech at the camera for 45 minutes and limp around the game world.
I’m hoping that developers shy away from this kind of promotional campaign in the future. Yes, there are a lot of customers sitting around on Twitch and YouTube streams, so those will warrant the most return on your investment for paying somebody next to nothing to demonstrate the game well ahead of launch, but it’s ironic how these developers will then complain that gamers go and act so “entitled” on their official forums, aggressively demanding more and more. Look, you’ve shown them 95% to 100% of the game before they’ve even spent money on it, to the point where it’s killed all excitement and the pendulum has now swung in the totally opposite direction where they’re now nit-picking like crazy. That’s not fun for either side.
And the proof that “less is more” is a viable marketing tactic, lies in Codemasters’ 2015 title, DiRT Rally. There was absolutely zero indication that this game was in the pipeline aside from an ATI Catalyst Control Center update, so when it dropped, it sent sim racers into complete hysteria. It didn’t matter that there were only three locales and seventeen cars in version 1.0; part of the fun was in the “holy shit Codemasters you did WHAT??!?!” element that came with the old Colin McRae team dropping a hardcore rally simulator seemingly out of the sky, and they were able to ride that momentum so long it resulted in a proper, fleshed out sequel worthy of being inserted into the main DiRT series. It took a solid couple of months for any profound level of criticism to surface about the game because sim racers were too busy exploring it, rather than what we’re seeing with DiRT 4, where people are crying about a lack of VR support, the omission of WRC-spec rally cars, or a questionably small track roster for the support series. And maybe I shouldn’t use the term “crying”, because some of these are valid complaints, but the fact that they’re surfacing before your average person has spent money on the game is obviously not a direction you want to progress in.
So maybe it’s time to revisit this marketing tactic. Some people obviously don’t give a shit about spoilers and will invest long hours into a game regardless, but if developers want to re-capture some of that launch day magic, it’s time to keep a lot more of the game under wraps, and not hand out early access keys to everyone with a YouTube account or a vagina that agrees not to give the game a final score until June 6th.