Transparency is Overrated

Seventeen years in the game industry could turn anyone into a jaded, bitter, cynical bastard.  Imagine how much worse things get if you started out that way.

I suppose I should preface this by noting that I haven’t spoken on Bungie’s behalf in an official capacity for almost ten years (gulp!) so all of this is my own opinion and you should feel free to write it off as the bloviating claptrap it probably is.

When I see articles in the video game press complaining that Bungie’s reveal of their upcoming title Destiny was frustratingly light on details, I wonder why they care. If I had a quarter for every time the game press mangled quotes, described nonexistent product features, and confused internet speculation with fact-checked confirmation, I could melt all those quarters down and put in a new driveway made of solid copper.  People who write about games (not all of them, but more than enough) are light on details quite regularly. And that’s for the games they care about, the ones they write about themselves instead of just cutting-and-pasting from a press release.  Now Bungie throws a party and the game press can’t fill in all the blanks in their Mad Libs Game Journalism booklet right away, and you’d think some of them had been slapped.

Maybe they were — but not in the way they think.

In 1999, Bungie did a little teaser for Halo called The Cortana Letters.  I don’t remember, but I’d be shocked to see even one example of the mainstream gaming press who took notice of it at the time.  It wasn’t meant for them anyway.  It was for people who had played Bungie’s Marathon trilogy and might be interested to know that, after a few years of working on the Myth games, Bungie would be returning to stories about massive ships in outer space with helpful AIs guiding you around.  Bungie thought people who enjoyed their previous work in that vein might be interested.

Much of the stuff in The Cortana Letters ended up being not especially germane to the story of Halo as people experienced it in the final game.  That didn’t matter because the ultimate job of The Cortana Letters was not to carve important story elements in stone, but to reach out to Bungie fans and get them excited.  These were people who’d demonstrated they could root out any obscure reference and conjure up pages of thoughtful discussion about the subtlest of nuances.  The Cortana Letters were a message from Bungie to their fans, saying: We know you guys are smart, and we hope you’ll dig this new thing we’re making.

It wasn’t a purely cynical marketing exercise, and it damn sure wasn’t an ARG.  It was, in a sense, a mischievous bit of slap-and-tickle with the fans who had the sensibility to savor that sort of thing.

You like that, don’t you?

Sure you do, if you can appreciate the invitation to let your own imagination and emotions become part of the experience.

For years now, even before Destiny was a rumor, people have been calling for more transparency and less hype from Bungie.  If a few pieces of concept art and a YouTube video are “hype,” it’s only because Bungie’s process has made less feel like more.  They do not deluge the press or their fans in an antiseptic wash of tedious data.  Anyone can do that.  Bungie wants your entry into this world to be an experience unto itself. 

It’s the difference between the restaurant where you relax in a well-appointed dining room, talking with friends, basking in the ambiance and the aromas drifting in from the kitchen before anyone even arrives to take your order… and the lingering stink of melting plastic in your kitchen after you spend three minutes microwaving a frozen TV dinner and eating it over the sink.

It’s the difference between the jiggle-and-tease burlesque show and the pixelated GIF of porn stars fucking.

It’s showbiz.  It’s part of the experience.  This is the entertainment software industry and we are, whether or not we look the part, entertainers.  The men and women of Bungie follow in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock, who had the unmitigated audacity to introduce Psycho with a trailer that featured nothing but empty environments and lots of him talking.  No clips from the actual film, no major plot revelations…and that lady in the shower wasn’t even Janet Leigh!  (It was Vera Miles, who plays Leigh’s sister in the film.)  What a rip-off!  What a waste of his fans’ time!

What a surprise that it’s remembered fondly, decades later, as one of the greatest movie trailers ever.  It’s as if Hitchcock knew what he was doing.

People demanding all the details right now for a game with a projected 10-year life cycle are like people showing up at a concert and shouting for “Freebird” while the opening act is still setting up their gear.

When Chris Butcher, a man not given to hyperbole or delusions of grandeur, talks about what games in the future will be like, I pay attention.  When Jason Jones crawls out of his techno-Gollum cave to address the press at all, I pay attention.  How much hard data I come away with is almost immaterial.  What I know is that they are handing out invitations to the dance.  This time, they’re even handing them out to the press.  Not just the hardcore fanatics who went nuts over the Cortana letters nearly 15 years ago.

So the official reveal left you wanting more?

You’re waiting for your dinner in that fancy restaurant and you’re still hungry?

The striptease at the burlesque theater is over and you’re still horny?

The press event is over and you’re still looking for information about Destiny, even though all you got for your initial efforts was a flirtatious slap?

Sounds like someone knows what they’re doing.

And if all this “hype” is too much for you, you can always tune it out and do something else.  The freezer aisle in the grocery store is full of TV dinners.  This, right now, is not for you.  There will be other things for you later.

This is for the people who like to dance.

25 comments

  1. Jim

    And this is part of why I love Bungie. They know what they’re doing with the entire immersion experience. I, for one, am more than happy to go along for the ride.

  2. Frankie

    The audience has changed. The good and thoughtful is often drowned out by the sheer, casual weight of easily-posted negativity. The phenomenon is worse in YouTube comments and Yelp ‘reviews’ and places that once sang with wonderful discourse and dialog and yes, criticism, are now complants boxes. Right now, the community is still an amazing and wondrous place, but eventually it will just be everybody and volume will win the day.

    • Matt

      I agree with you for the most part, but there’s still value in singing out to those who have ears to hear. They may be a tiny island in a vast sea of humanity, but it’s a beautiful island full of strange people and delicious fruit. All the cool stuff happens there.

  3. Nico

    Amazing read, thank you. 

    I’ll buy you dinner. It might be at Burger King/McDs though. (Seem to be getting the two confused lately.)

  4. Stephen Laughlin

    Fantastic insight, Matt. I for one am greatly looking forward to Bungie’s new fancy restaurant burlesque show video game. I hear the jiggling and teasing is all in-house motion-capture.

  5. Yoozel

    What an amazingly too the point article, too bad more companies do not understand this. I groan and easily loose interest when I have to pour over the details of a game reading complex release notes with eye sizzling brain killing data that really… I’d just find out for myself. I’m glad the reveal trailer was short because it makes me perk up all the more. 

    Fans need to be wrangled, just as restauranteurs in America need to be retaught. You don’t need to experience everything within the first 30 seconds!

    Thanks Matt!

  6. Brian

    Great article, really enjoyed reading your perspective on the Destiny reveal ‘backlash.’ I haven’t spoken on behalf of Bungie in a few years either but the nature of that prior relationship offers a little different perspective. I should say I’m personally really looking forward to Destiny and really happy for the team and the freedom the announce no doubt brings them (albeit with some trepidation I’m sure).

    From my perspective (based on personal assumptions, observations and a few off-the-record comments from journalists) I think the challenge with this announce was around setting proper expectations and juggling the difficult message of speaking to Bungie’s core fans with speaking to the millions of people Activision wants to rush out and pre-order the game. I don’t think most media are just bitching about a lack of substance, rather I think the issue is that they somehow developed unrealistic expectations about the content and outcome of the studio visit — either due to their own incorrect assumptions or through excessive hype coming from the publisher sending out the invites. My unfounded assumption is the latter. I’ve only ever known a Bungie that under-promises and over-delivers and directly avoids big hype and promises. A lot of the tone of that media visit felt very non-Bungie to me. (partly punctuated by the fact that an Activision executive was one of the primary spokespeople)

    The reality is that the games media can bitch and moan but really has no choice. If they turn down the invite, no matter how light or substantial the takeaway content is implied to be, they’re forevermore on the outside looking in as their competitors eventually land juicy exclusives because at the end of the day that’s obviously all that really matters to them. The overall announcement may have been positioned as a dialog with Bungie’s fans but once a cabal of top tier press was assembled and Activision took over retail with what would seem to be a premature (significant) pre-order campaign, it really became something different. 

    The Cortana letters are an awesome example of Bungie’s early intimate connections to its fan base. The main difference I see is that there wasn’t a press conference and a massive retail pre-order program rolled out when the very first letter was published. I wonder how a similar organic tactic to reveal a massive new property would land in todays landscape of short-attention span, over-inflated-sense-of-entitlement inherently cynical gamers. 

    Ultimately I think Bungie’s reveal and message definitely resonated with their core community and effectively got the ball rolling and the conversation started which is awesome. Going forward it’s going to be interesting to watch both Bungie and Activision walk the line between catering to their core in a “Bungie Way” and carpet bombing the world to drive mega sales, get the attention of the Call of Duty bros and appease shareholders. There are worse positions to be in. 🙂

    • Matt

      You bring up some excellent points, Brian. (Hello, by the way!) I haven’t commented on the Bungie-Activision relationship because I’m far outside that loop and would be talking out my ass even more than usual. But you’re right to point out there are two distinct entities involved, and a Venn diagram of their goals for the reveal would not show a perfect overlap. And the position of the press vis-à-vis big events is also thornier than I let on in the post, for the reasons you mention.

      Without knowing what was promised (and I don’t), it’s impossible for me to say the press was led down a garden path by publisher hype. That’s an easy story to believe, especially with a publisher that’s had as much bad press as Activision, but that’s part of the reason I’m wary of jumping to that conclusion. Everyone knew Bungie had been working on something secret for years; the stuff that leaked was certainly tantalizing; and as noted above, people had already been calling for Bungie to just spit it out already. It’s one thing to approach an event with a preconceived idea of what you’ll get, but another to react as if you’ve been robbed when those conjectures don’t pan out the way you expected. There’s plenty of good coverage out there which mentions the dearth of details in a matter-of-fact way. Big press events may be dog-and-pony-shows, but it’s possible to talk about them honestly without griping that there wasn’t an elephant too.

      The dichotomy between what Bungie wanted to accomplish (presumably. to offer a peek not only at what the game looks like but what they hope to achieve with it) and what Activision wanted (“Pre-order now!”) is distinct enough to be jarring, but not completely incompatible. Some die-hards would have gone to Gamestop and put in their pre-order even if there wasn’t a handy link on the web site. Some people are holding back until they know more. Both responses are totally fine. The important thing is that the community (lots of die-hards but perhaps some noobs too) are already picking apart screenshots, speculating about features, debating ideas, and generally being awesome. There’s no gun to their heads and they didn’t have to pre-order anything to do it. It’s not the Cortana Letters, but it is perhaps the first opportunity since then for the press to see the community doing their thing with a new Bungie IP from the ground up. Maybe that’s particularly relevant for a game like Destiny, where the social aspect is supposed to be a big part of the experience — and maybe some of press will take notice.

      I have no inside track on anything, I’m just spitballing. Thanks again for the insightful comment.

  7. Matt

    It’s reasonable to want more. The list of games from great developers with amazing concept art and a few interesting hand-wavy ideas that didn’t meet expectations is long.

    No matter what Bungie does fans will be interested, but until specifics surface, it’s only reasonable for fans to assume vague hype is hyperbole.

    The only fans that enjoy a tease are the ones that don’t understand that marketing promises, especially early in development, tend to get broken. 

    This isn’t high art, it’s game development. If you aren’t showing something that blows the audience away it’s because you probably don’t have something that will blow the audience away.

    • Matt

      I never said people can’t or shouldn’t want more. They’ll certainly get more at some point whether they want it or not. Griping like Veruca Salt because they don have it now probably won’t make it arrive any sooner, but that’s just common sense.

      It’s reasonable for fans to assume vagueness is vagueness. If you want to assign additional pejoratives like “hyperbole,” you can, but that’s an extra assumption. Some of the most interesting discussion to come out of the Bungie fan community is an attempt to explore, debate, and pin down specifics when hard facts are thin on the ground. People are already doing that in fan forums. Participation in that kind of discussion is (or can be) entertaining in and of itself. If you want to sit it out and wait for further info, you can. There’s no gun to your head.

      Likewise, no one is forced to pay attention to anything Bungie (or any developer) says about anything. If Bungie’s YouTube video bores people, they don’t have to watch it all the way through or spend hours dissecting it or even think about it again. Some people choose to do it anyway. I’ve met too many smart ones to think they’re all a bunch of suckers who don’t understand how marketing works. They do seem to understand how delayed gratification works.

      Most high art (whatever that is) probably wouldn’t blow anybody away a year before it was finished. Bungie are showing what they want to show. You are free to care or not care. In that respect, it is exactly like high art (whatever that is).

  8. Recon Number 54

    Sorry that I am late to this particular dance, but once again Matt, you have summed things up well.

    Me? I am a little more crude I guess and I have always seen Bungie’s “flirti-ness” with their pre-release game details like the efforts of a young woman who knows that her skirt is short, or a button is done and that someone “in the right spot, looking at the right moment” may get a flash of something that they otherwise might not see (but are dying to see all the same).

    Bungie has consistently (no matter who’s been writing the releases, and I see just about everyone is here) done a wonderful and artful job of flirting with those who are paying attention because they love the view. A glimpse of silk, some bare skin (with a tan line even) and we fans are going to stand there slack-jawed and praying for more.

    And there are some among us (out here in the crowd) who know that as soon as some jerk screams “show us MORE baby!” that Bungie is going to blush, cover up and the game/show is over. Which disappoints everyone, the audience AND the center of everyone’s attention.

    As you said, when someone like Jones comes out and says “I’ve got something that I’ve been working on for a long time and I think that it’s going to appeal to your inner 7 year old”? This is one 48 year old who stops, shuts the hell up, and listens. Because I know that the show is just getting started.

    So for ALL of you who carried the Torch (from Keepers of the Bungie Way, to PR dudes, to Community Managers and especially those of you like Claude, Hamish and Mig who helped keep the rest of us in the crowd acting like gentlemen)… I thank you ALL. It’s been nearly 20 years for me, and I can’t imagine how it could have possibly been more fun than it has been.

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