Frontier’s ‘Mexican Wave’ Is Adding Fuel to a Mexican Standoff

Tuesday morning I woke to an email from Frontier Developments, developers of Elite: Dangerous and Planet Coaster.  The email related to Planet Coaster, which I had purchased an early access (called ‘Thrillseeker’) copy of.  The full email can be seen in the image above, but in case you can’t read it, the relevant portions are below.

To celebrate, the Planet Coaster community is performing a giant mexican wave across social media on launch day, November 17…  We’ll be using an app called Thunderclap to synchronise one big wave of posts on launch.

Let’s start with the first sentence.  Pointing out that this is totally not a Mexican wave may seem like a pedantic, ‘Captain Obvious’ moment at first.  But it isn’t, and here’s why.  A Mexican wave, for those who don’t know, is when a crowd at a sporting event or other show all stand up and sit back down to make it look like there’s a ripple passing through the audience.  It is typically supposed to be either a spontaneous response to an exciting event, or a coordinated effort by fans to inspire a flagging team after a good recovery.

Instead this is just a nice euphemism for a ‘targeted marketing blitz’.  It’s not spontaneous, it’s not led by fans, and despite what the email tries to imply, it’s not a temporary push.  These posts will be on the internet forever, in the thousands.   It’s a way to manipulate SEO, to push a message, and to make fans complicit in marketing.  It also seems like a gross misappropriation of the Thunderclap service, which appears to be primarily intended for building awareness for charities and other social causes (such as World Humanitarian Day and The Global Fund’s ‘Stop Aids, Malaria, and TB’ drive).  You know, important stuff.

And the sad part is, the game doesn’t really need this.  It does a good job of making its own case.  I bought the game after watching a streamer I occasionally follow spend hours constructing a goofy ride.  And while it hasn’t quite had the same level of pull on me, I have definitely had a good time with it.  I think that if left to its own devices people would naturally and organically want to tell other people about it – and probably show off their crazy rides.

It’s not spontaneous, it’s not led by fans, and despite what the email tries to imply, it’s not a temporary push.

Which feels right, because it’s how I first learned about the original Roller Coaster Tycoon, which this very much feels like the modern version of.  I still remember coming in after a day of playing at a friend’s house, sitting on the floor of his den next to his guitar, and watching him start to build a rollercoaster – only to realize 3 hours later that my parents were there to pick me up.

Planet Coaster, in both its gameplay and presentation, recaptures the magic that made Roller Coaster Tycoon such fun to watch, and manages to build on those.  It’s cute, it’s cheerful and colorful, it inspires collaboration between one person ‘driving’ and others volunteering ideas, and then it allows the people watching to go off and try to make their own better version.  And with the vast increase in people doing streams and Let’s Plays of games, this feels like the kind of game that could (and should) have had a long slow build – the equivalent of a cult classic movie.

The World Is Watching

Considering the fallout that already developed this year from how No Man’s Sky marketed itself, and the backlash against Bethesda over their choice to only send copies of Skyrim Special Edition to streamers instead of reviewers (despite the fact that Skyrim, as a rerelease, would probably be better compared through watching gameplay than a static review) it seems like developers should be very careful about trying to build themselves up too much.

The internet as a whole is inherently cynical, and hype backlash should be a serious concern.  And Frontier, take it from someone whose hype aversion is so strong that he’s practically allergic – were I not already sold on Planet Coaster, this marketing strategy would make me assume the game is terrible.  I totally understand that it’s a tough line to walk.  You have to make your game look good, while also trying to stand out.  And, of course, you decided to release in November, so you have even more competition.  But this weird blitzkreig makes you look desperate – which makes people fear that you know you don’t have a game that’s actually worth paying attention to.

But my bigger concern is if it doesn’t backfire.  Because I fear that this will actually work, and that it will work quite well.  After all, as the saying goes “there’s a sucker born every minute”.  Currently, 1,517 people have agreed to let Frontier send messages to their nearly 900,000 followers.  (Meanwhile, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has only 346 people agreeing to let them send a message to their 300,000 followers.  Great job, everyone.)  And while I think that Planet Coaster is a good game, and one worth promoting, this is a dangerous precedent to set.

Hype backlash should be a serious concern.  But my bigger concern is if it doesn’t backfire.

There is already an ongoing battle between game developers, reviewers, and people buying games.  In the last 2 or 3 years, the rise of streaming and Twitter have truly allowed for a democratization of game demonstrations.  Anybody could be the next big Twitch or Youtube sensation, people can always watch a game being played, thousands of people are giving their moment-to-moment impressions.  We’re practically drowning in an ocean of gaming info.  That’s great!

…Except that it also allows developers to control their message as never before.  Especially as things get more democratized, and the lines get blurred.  Corporations are large and have lots of smart people working for them as a unified front.  When they deal with a loose amalgamation of random people on the internet, they’re the side who have the power in negotiating.   Some people already have concerns about various streamers getting compensation for coverage.  But if even random people on Twitter can cede control over their accounts to willingly serve as a shill for a game developer, how do I know whose opinion is worthwhile?

Not that this makes any of them untrustworthy, or biased, or any of the other accusations I sometimes see bandied about with regards to game reviews.  I’m assuming these people are agreeing to do this because they like the game.  It’s that this is adding a bunch of noise to an already chaotic thing, making it even harder to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to making a good purchasing decision.

Which, to be fair, isn’t in Frontier’s best interests.  Or any corporation’s interest. As long as you know a game exists, they don’t want you to know whether it’s good or not.  That just means you might not buy it.  So I don’t expect this to be the last time this is attempted.  But I think we can, and should, expect more from developers than to treat us like idiots.

After all, as the saying goes “let the buyer beware.”

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