Stop Falling For Internet Countdowns, Or, “Hey Jackass, Thanks For The Free Money”

Gonna replace the usual intro with a quick reminder that all opinions expressed here are Heath's and not necessarily Game Revolution's as a whole.

Shut up and listen to some life lessons about internet countdowns.

Be it a big boost or a small one, an increase in exposure and hype are virtually guaranteed if a game publisher does something as simple as opening a website with a date and an image on it. How often does this work?

In 2005, Square Enix stood ready to shock the world.  The company announced that an announcement would be coming soon, at which time a new game would be announced. This was announced as the announcement of Grandia III, a game that can be found in nearly every conversation of the era's best RPGs. Truly, you'll be hard-pressed to find a PS2 best-of list or casual conversation about PS2 RPGs that doesn't involve Grandia III. It was really worth all the excitement and will be remembered by our children, and their children. Right? Or am I confusing that with a bunch of other games that people actually do remember?

In 2007, a little JRPG website run by some white guy posted some hot images and showed the internet a new RPG being made by Sega.  It had beautiful graphics and was said to really shake up the genre. That game would eventually be called Valkyria Chronicles, which, in the opinions of many RPG fans, is among the finest games of the generation. In 2008, the game's mid-level hype campaign resulted in modest sales. Somewhere in the Sega board room, marketing analysts traced a line backwards from release to the initial announcement and realized that it took too long for anyone to give a damn.

Later, Sega launched a website with a single image and made the Engrishy declaration, "We're making RPG now."  No details, no nothin'. This was the only picture the company posted:

How did gamers react?

"It's Skies of Arcadia!" they said.

"It's Shenmue!" they said.

"It's Shining Force!" they said.

Know what it ended up being? A first-person, anime-styled dungeon crawler for the DS called 7th Dragon. (It's like Etrian Odyssey and Class of Heroes, but with more Sega.) Charles Darwin would have been proud. The organism known as the Hypumis Marketus had realized that no one was caring about a game redefining a whole genre, but they would definitely care about something that pretty much copies another series. How? By letting the gamers' imaginations do the hyping. When there is no information, people fill in the gaps themselves. Hype evolved. 7th Dragon, by the way, never left Japan.

A few years later, Sega was at it again, creating a simple splash page with a countdown. How did gamers react?

"It's Skies of Arcadia!" they said.

"It's Shenmue!" they said.

"It's Shining Force!" they said.

Once again, Sega needed to do almost nothing in order to turn countless eyeballs towards its new project. It was a new entry in the 7th Dragon series, 7th Dragon 2020 for PSP. The third game in this series, 7th Dragon 2020-II, is big enough that it didn't need a splash page with a countdown in order to generate buzz (it will be released soonin Japan). Sega has a proven winner on its hands with this series, thanks to its ability to count backwards.

Just recently, Sega was at it again, creating a simple splash page with a countdown. How did gamers react?

"It's Skies of Arcadia!" they said.

"It's Shenmue!" they said.

"It's Shining Force, wait, no, Valkyria Chronicles!" they said.

I feel like I'm writing a children's book here. But it must be said because that's what happened. There was a lot more Valkyria and a lot less Shining this time around, but we went through the same cycle. It worked. Everybody bought it. No one has learned their lessons from these countdowns.

The big reveal was the newest title in Sega's long-running "Soccer Make" series, called "Sakatsuku" in Japan ("saka" means soccer and "tsuku" means make). This series finds its origins in 1996, and has appeared on Saturn, PC, Dreamcast, DS, PS2, and PSP. The new game will be on both PS3 and Vita.

Gaming Everything probably the worst website on the internet led the charge on this one. For those who don't know, Gaming Everything makes its money intentionally baiting and switching on people, writing stories like "Famitsu review scores" (which are super useful by the way) only to copy/paste two whole review scores with no context and then call it a day.

They do shit like this all the time. If that website were a game publisher, it would be Activision. Maybe EA on a good day. Here's what tips my canoe, even coming from a website from which I expect nothing but bullshit:

"Rather disappointing?" The fucking hell? All Sega did was post a website. The only people saying Valkyria and Shenmue were you. That was you. That wasn't Sega, that was you, gaming media jackasses.

Not only that, but is it disappointing to soccer fans? Combining both management and playing, with that many leagues? And crossplay? For soccer fans that sounds like a kickass game. Wouldn't an RPG come as a disappointment to someone who doesn't like RPGs? But since the author was apparently hyping up his fanbase for an RPG, he set himself up for disappointment. Homie's got no one to blame but his own dumb self. I love the concluding line of "we can probably say for sure is a soccer ball."  Probably… for sure. Nice. It's like he's so accustomed to reporting total BS or playing up baseless rumors that the "for sure" couldn't help but punch its way through the "probably" barrier and makes its way into the story. Gaem Jernalizm's rumors have taken on lives of their own!

But check out the lasting effects of this marketing move. Sakatsuku is no longer just a soccer game, it's earned the distinction of being "mysterious" as indicated here:

What's more, this series, which has been exclusive to Japan for its entire 17-year existence, now has international attention. Since foreign websites made a hot story out of a simple splash page, the upcoming Sakatsuku game garnered a following abroad, mostly by people who think that worldwide announcements come from Japan-only websites. It's not really their fault; it's not as if the media outlets they read were making any distinction, after all.

While it's not something that happens every time (nothing in psychology is 100 per cent, as people are different), there is a psychological trend with things like this. When made to wait for something, or when told how fun something is, the natural inclination of the human subconscious is to believe that it was worthwhile. I know, you'll all have personal exceptions to this, as I do too. It won't work with all people all the time, but science has taken note that there tends to be an impact. A countdown is a type of early hint that "Hey, you, gamer, psst… this is awesome and also rad." (But remember, this is evidence, not proof. Don't be a proof goof!)

I even started my own countdown for this column, and my reward was an extra article on Game Revolution with a good heat ranking. People were waiting to see what I had in store, as indicated by friend of the show Chunibrow, who said, "This had better be the greatest article of all time after a buildup like this."

Whether he likes this column or not, I can't control, but I did successfully turn more eyes towards my work, which is exactly what other countdowns are intended to do. The column was a success before it was even posted, just as Sega's marketing campaign was successful before the clock reached zero.

Lessons can be learned from this.

Gaming Media: Be more responsible. I know, I know, I know I'm asking a lot of you here. Hear me out. The people who come clicking your website are what keeps you going. Don't betray their trust by withholding facts or leaving things left unsaid such as "the website being .jp and in Japanese means this announcement will only be for Japan, at least for the time being," or, "all of this is just one splash page. Nothing indicates any particular title." Don't go dropping game titles right in your stories for cheap hits and comment prompts, and don't call things "disappointing" when the only one hyping up some sort of hotly anticipated sequel announcement was… you.

Click to enlarge

Gamers: Whenever you read news of a countdown, please, please don't go around setting each other up for broken hearts. Let the news happen when it happens. Don't get suckered in by this stuff. The big sequels that you really want are usually big enough that they don't need countdown pages.

Game publishers: What can I say? Can I tell you not to do what you're doing? You're masterful at whipping up hype for games that might otherwise have a hard time getting it, and moving more eyes to your product with minimal time or cost. You may as well keep at it, because we're all huge suckers. We fall for it every time, never get mad at you for it, and always give you exactly what you hoped for while you in turn are held to no such expectation. Good job.

3… Stay 2…Thoughtful 1… My friends

Very depressing closing image too big to fit in the middle of the column: