The hype-cycle history of gaming: From E.T. to Cyberpunk 2077
Listen to this article:
Oh, Cyberpunk 2077. Why’d you need to represent everything that’s wrong with the gaming industry?
Maybe we needed a reminder that creating a beloved game means prioritizing development over marketing. Maybe we needed a meaningful conversation about the disconnect between upper management and development teams at gaming companies. Maybe we needed to acknowledge that decisions made based on profit alone sometimes produce a bad product.
Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the most expensive games ever made, with a production cost of $174 million and a marketing budget of $142 million. While it may be normal for a game’s marketing budget to take up 45% of its total costs, Cyberpunk 2077 is at least a cautionary tale about what can go wrong when a game’s hype-cycle is more important than the product’s quality.
Announced in 2012 on the heels of CD Projekt Red’s success with The Witcher series, Cyberpunk 2077 remained a carrot on a stick for eight years before it was released. CD Projekt Red promised gamers a rich world powered by AI technology, which would unlock sophisticated interactions with NPCs, real consequences for quest decisions, and incredible character customization.
But promises are one thing. Execution is another.
As developers began to work on Cyberpunk 2077 in 2016, four full years after its announcement, CD Projekt Red’s upper management shackled the team to what would be considered old technology when the game was released in 2020: the Xbox One and the Sony PS4.
CD Projekt Red executives saw an opportunity to make more money by launching a game that would be compatible with old consoles, knowing they would make even more profit as gamers upgraded to next generations systems. Unfortunately that meant developers needed to scrap what they had and design for systems that didn’t support the original vision for the game.
That didn’t stop the marketing team from developing trailers that reinforced early promises. At E3 2018, CD Projekt Red held a closed-door demo for the press, which showcased features that weren’t in the real game. Gaming sites hyped up what they saw because it was so cool.
Then, a year later at E3 2019, this happened:
After Keanu Reeves announced his attachment to the game, the Cyberpunk 2077 hype-cycle went into overdrive. The game collaborated with Sprite on a joint campaign with the slogan, “In 2077 thirst doesn't exist.” Samsung promoted the game alongside its TV sets. Xbox released limited edition consoles with a Cyberpunk 2077 skin. CD Projekt Red spent $2.5 million on a top spot in Times Square to drive up awareness.
After building an unstoppable marketing machine on YouTube, Twitter, OOH ads, gaming sites, and more, it seemed CD Projekt Red had no choice but to finally release the game in December 2020 after several delays. Here’s a quick timeline of what the Cyberpunk 2077 launch looked like:
January 2020: Cyberpunk 2077’s release date is pushed from April 2020 to September 2020.
June 2020: Cyberpunk 2077’s release date is pushed to November 2020.
October 2020: The game is announced as finished on Cyberpunk 2077’s Twitter account.
November 2020: Cyberpunk 2077’s release date is delayed by another three weeks.
December 10, 2020: Cyberpunk 2077 is launched with so many bugs and missing features that gamers release hordes of bad reviews and bug compilations.
December 17, 2020: Sony delists Cyberpunk 2077 from its storefront.
December 20, 2020: CD Projekt Red announces they’ve sold 13 million units of Cyberpunk 2077, which made more than $700,000 in profit.
December 28, 2020: Investors sue CD Projekt Red over Cyberpunk 2077.
February 2021: CD Projekt Red announces delays to patches due to a cyberattack.
March 2021: CD Projekt Red releases Cyberpunk 2077’s first patch.
Now, with the recent release of Cyberpunk 2077’s 1.5 patch, the game is set for a comeback story that may or may not come true. History tells us it’s a real possibility that people will fall in love with the game if it finally delivers on its promises, similar to what happened with No Man’s Sky after its botched release in 2016.
It’s just as feasible, however, that gamers could move on from Cyberpunk 2077. To attempt to predict what might happen to the game, let’s rewind and deconstruct how we got here in the first place. Why do we have the gaming hype-machine we have today? And what will it look like 20 years from now if the metaverse matures past its clunky present form?
Building the hype playbook: Historical milestones in gaming
Today’s gaming hype playbook didn’t materialize out of thin air. Whether they knew it at the time or not, influential people in gaming made a series of decisions that would create the beast that is today’s video game industry, worth $173.7 billion in 2020 and expected to reach $314 billion by 2027.
Here’s a timeline of the most pivotal milestones in gaming that contributed to the typical hype machine playbook of 2022:
1972: The first official video game competition takes place at Stanford University, as five students compete in an “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics” for a year's subscription to Rolling Stone.
1982: Raiders of the Lost Ark is released on the Atari 2600 as the first movie-licensed video game.
1984: Bruce Lee becomes the first celebrity of note attached to a video game by the same name, launched for the Atari 8-bit family.
1989: Fred Savage stars in The Wizard, which follows three children as they travel to California to compete in a video game tournament, where they play Super Mario Brothers 3.
1995: The first Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade event launches in Los Angeles.
1995: The first online video game review sites launch, with Game Zero magazine and Intelligent Gamer Online both being first to publish regularly.
1996: IGN, one of the most popular video game websites in the United States, is founded.
1999: Gaming-Age Forums launches as the first widely used forum for the discussion of video games.
2000: Sega’s Dreamcast is the first video game console to feature online support as a standard, paving the way for downloadable content.
2000: The Electronic Sports League is founded.
Early 2000s: GameStop and Amazon start encouraging gamers to pre-order games to make it easier to forecast the number of units needed for a video game.
2002: Xbox Live launches and popularizes online gaming and downloadable content as a standard.
2004: Kotaku launches and becomes one of the most popular gaming blogs of all time.
2005: Reddit launches and quickly becomes a primary destination for gamers to talk about video games online.
2007: Nearly half of all internet users have broadband internet, which unlocks online console gaming and the use of patches to update video games after their release.
2008: Mount & Blade is the first video game to use crowdfunding as a means to raise money for development costs, before the launch of Kickstarter.
2010: The “decade of cloud computing” begins, which is paving the way for companies like Google Stadia, Microsoft, and Nvidia to stream games online.
2010: PewDiePie launches his YouTube channel, which is credited as the first significant gaming channel on the platform.
2011: Twitch launches and becomes the most popular esports streaming service in the world.
2012: Double Fine Adventure launches a Kickstarter to raise funds for Broken Age, a point-and-click adventure game.
2012: A prototype for the Oculus Rift is demonstrated at E3.
2017: E3 opens to the public beyond limited access in previous years, and 15,000 non-game developers attended the event.
2019: Teenager Kyle Giersdorf wins $3 million at the Fortnite World Cup.
While all of these milestones contributed to the gaming hype playbook in their own unique ways, we’re going to focus on three that are especially important: online gaming, pre-ordering, and E3.
Hype trigger: Online console gaming
When the E.T. video game was released on the Atari 2600 in 1982, it couldn’t be patched. You bought the game cartridge, inserted it into the console, and what you got was what you got. (And in that particular case, what you got was literal trash.)
Buy a game now and you’ll often face two gigabytes of patches before you can even start playing. Games have become so expansive that bugs are almost inevitable, but online gaming has made it possible for developers to improve games after they’ve been released. Gaming is now more like the tech industry, which encourages “building in public” and releasing works-in-progress over polished finished products.
So what caused this shift? In the early aughts, PC gamers had been playing online games over phone lines for some time — but online gaming for consoles was still an untapped market. While the Sega Dreamcast was the first console to support online gaming, it ultimately couldn’t compete with the Sony PlayStation 2 and failed so miserably that it was the last console Sega ever made. Microsoft’s Xbox Live, however, took online console gaming to new heights when it launched in 2002.
Microsoft’s Xbox, the online console gaming unlock.
Upon release of Xbox Live, Microsoft took some heat for a decision it would benefit from later: restricting online access to broadband. In 2000, when Xbox Live was announced, only 4.4% of American households had access to broadband internet. Seven years later, nearly half of all households in the U.S. had access to broadband, which further expanded the market for online console gaming.
A few things happened when developers and gamers could launch and access a game online. First, developers created more revenue opportunities for games to make money after they were launched. Downloadable content (DLC), either monetized or not, added value to a game’s experience, whether through cosmetic upgrades to clothing or actual skill ability. Second, while DLC is far from universally loved, its existence has increased consumer expectations that games should be constantly evolving rather than ever really finished.
A Ubisoft employee who provided an interview for this article on the condition of anonymity said, “Fans now expect constant updates to titles. They want more downloadable content, they want season passes up to five years while a game is being made. The sheer size of these games is now so huge that it takes thousands of people to make some games.”
The Sims by EA, for example, is one of the most expansive games in existence — and it’s credited with creating the worst of today’s DLC trends. As Andrew Galbreath wrote for The Gamer, “...with The Sims 4 [EA] actually stripped away the base game so they could sell content as DLCs, until finally The Sims resembled a DLC catalogue more than a functioning game series.”
And it’s true. The Sims’ infamous “stuff packs” transform the most banal parts of life into monetized upgrades. Could you really not work out without their fitness stuff pack?
Hype money: Pre-ordering games
When the E.T. video game launched, it was an initial commercial success. The game sold more than 1.5 million units upon launch and is considered one of Atari’s best selling games.
Then the reviews came out. New York magazine's Nicholas Pileggi called it “a loser”. GameSpy's Kevin Bowen said it was “convoluted and inane”. But it was the 80s, and a game’s critical reception was slow to affect sales. While the game’s attachment to the beloved movie drove initial sales, those sales dropped by 97% within two years — and suddenly Atari had to dispose of 728,000 cartridges of the failed game.
In 2013, documentary filmmakers uncovered what had until then been an urban legend: a landfill site in New Mexico that contained the long lost failures of E.T.’s maker, Atari. The site is a reminder of the video game crash of 1983 in the United States, which paved the way for Japan’s Nintendo to swoop in and take over as a toy marketed to children instead of a console for adults.
One of many E.T. game cartridges excavated in 2013 from a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Photo credit: New York Post
Over the long term, however, the video game crash of 1983–1985 was a precursor to what’s now a staple of the gaming hype playbook: pre-ordering.
When the American gaming industry started to pick up again in the 1990s, developers remembered the Atari disaster and were hesitant to produce too many physical copies of a game. At the same time, they didn’t want to produce too few and risk missing out on sales when gamers couldn’t buy the game.
Pre-ordering solved this problem by allowing developers to refine their sales projections and improve their supply chains for accuracy. Large game retailers like GameStop and Amazon started encouraging gamers to pre-order games, and developers started offering bonus incentives to gamers who pre-ordered.
Pre-order bonuses come in many forms, including cheats, discounts, downloadable content, characters, weapons, items, etc. But some of the worst pre-order bonuses come in the form of cheap trinkets that would make someone reconsider their loyalty to a game.
Of course, game developers no longer need pre-ordering the same way they once did. Physical copies of games are becoming a thing of the past, and most developers have enough sales data to somewhat accurately predict the number of units that will sell. But the pre-order machine has since proven too lucrative to stop, and sometimes consumers are faced with pre-order lists so confusing that they don’t know where to spend their money.
Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham City, for example, necessitated a user manual for pre-order bonuses, broken down by country and retailer. You’d get Robin if you pre-order from Amazon in Germany, but if you ordered from the same place in France all you’d get was a Batman 1970s skin. Complex pre-ordering schemes like this may not affect the quality of the game, but they can certainly risk leaving a bad taste in a gamer’s Dorito-munching mouth.
Hype destination: E3
If you’ve ever experienced the hype of CES, you’ve had a taste of E3.
The Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3, branched off from the Consumer Electronics Show in 1995 when video game developers felt they weren’t properly represented at CES. As Tom Kalinske, CEO of Sega America, put it, “The CES organizers used to put the video game industry way, way in the back. In 1991, they put us in a tent, and you had to walk past all the porn vendors to find us.”
You can track the gaming industry’s hype engine through the evolution of E3’s attendee list. When E3 started, exhibitors purchased expensive booths to attract the attention of video game retailers and journalists. To attend the trade show, you had to be considered an industry professional so that vendors felt their million-dollar booths were worthwhile.
But in 2006, bloggers — not considered media at the time — were finding ways to gain access to the event, on top of regular folks who just loved video games. Fearing that E3 would be “diluted” by the presence of regular schmos, organizers turned the event into an invite-only media summit, capping attendance at 10,000 in 2007 and 5,000 in 2008.
Exhibitors hated the smaller events, probably because it still cost $5–$10 million for their booths. In 2009, E3 went back to their roots and expanded the event to 45,000 people. Over the next few years, as bloggers and influencers gained more respect, E3 organizers began to warm to the idea that they should attend the show. In 2017, E3 reserved 15,000 tickets for members of the public — and that’s when the hype machine went into overdrive.
At E3 in 2018, Bethesda announced Fallout 76. During his presentation, director and executive producer Tom Howard promised “all new rendering, lighting and landscape technology … sixteen times the detail” compared to previous installments of the game. People in the audience lost their minds. GamesIndustry reported that Fallout 76 was the most viewed game on YouTube during E3, beating out Battlefield V by 7.8M views.
Except when the game launched in November that same year, it was so plagued with bugs it was barely playable. Sometimes the world looked like someone had taken a windshield wiper to it, with smeared backgrounds, stretched necks, and black voids. Error messages and server crashes happened when players tried to take the smallest of actions.
To say the game didn’t live up to the hype was an understatement — Bethesda’s broken promises disappointed some Fallout fans so badly that some swore off the series completely.
The thing is, Bethesda’s overblown presentation at E3 isn’t unusual. It’s an accepted norm that developers promise the world at E3 to get as many people talking about the game as possible.
A Ubisoft employee who provided an interview for this article on the condition of anonymity said, “Marketing teams are formed just for E3. It’s common to develop trailers that contain features that don’t make it into the game. I was shocked by it at first, and you’ll hear people saying there’s no way they can make the features work with the tech we have. But it’s a common part of the culture.”
Video game hype vs. fail: A rabbit hole timeline
Now that you know some of the gaming industry’s main hype components, we’re here to give you the goods — this is a list of video games that were especially hyped up, only to fail miserably upon launch.
Note: This isn’t a list of all video games that failed to make sales. This is a highlight reel of games that were hyped because of their graphics, franchise attachment, or a marketing campaign that ran away with itself. Click on any game title here if you want to go down a YouTube- or Reddit-fueled rabbit hole on any one game.
1982: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
1994: Hotel Mario
1997: Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero
1999: Superman 64
2000: Mortal Kombat: Special Forces
2003: Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness
2003: Dino Crisis 3
2005: The Matrix Online
2006: Sonic the Hedgehog
2010: Final Fantasy XIV
2010: APB: All Points Bulletin
2011: Duke Nukem Forever
2012: 007 Legends
2013: Aliens: Colonial Marines
2014: Assassin’s Creed: Unity
2014: Watch Dogs
2016: Mighty No. 9
2016: No Man’s Sky
2017: Mass Effect: Andromeda
2018: Fallout 76
2018: Overkill's The Walking Dead
2020: Cyberpunk 2077
2021: Battlefield 2042
What’s next for the gaming hype machine: The metaverse
Video games will likely be the first industry to take advantage of the metaverse, whatever that ends up being. But that’s probably because gaming already delivers on what current metaverse “experts” are describing: social and economic systems happening in virtual worlds.
The gaming industry risks amplifying its worst qualities in a metaverse that’s set up to encourage capitalism on steroids. As Mark Zuckerberg goes all in on developing expensive hardware that would preclude access to the metaverse, one has to wonder what you’ll need to play a game built within that kind of ecosystem. NFTs, DAOs, DLC … will they all bleed together to promise gamers the best experience of their lives if only they have enough cash to buy it?
Gamers are already frustrated with cash grab DLCs and pre-order bonus letdowns, and it remains to be seen whether or not a younger generation of gamers will accept these as a norm. And as games become more immersive and closer to real life than ever, those letdowns may cut closer to the bone than they do now.
Maybe game developers need a few metaverse fails to learn what they can get away with promising gamers. Maybe the backlash of a launch letdown will be more deeply felt in the metaverse, and marketers will learn how to position games more honestly while customer support staff are given more tools to make fans happy. Because one thing is probably certain: gamers’ voices are going to be loud in the metaverse.