Like so many good things in the gaming industry, Valve did it first and best. “Meet The Heavy,” the first animated trailer for Team Fortress 2, was released in May 2007, featuring the Eastern-European colossus getting overly excited about his minigun, like somebody on a train trying to explain YuGiOh cards to a stranger.
It was a funny little video and since then there have been about a dozen separate TF2 shorts to promote the game. But recently I’ve started to see others like it, most with that detailed animation style and emphasis on character humour. The funny thing is, they all keep coming from a certain type of game.
The free-to-play market is one of those things that started out with so much potential. Good games could be released to the public for no cost, and if they provided a good experience then players would be motivated to donate money for additional gameplay benefits, or even just to show their appreciation. Loadout is a good example of this – a fun game that doesn’t require any money, but unlocks more options if you do feel like putting some cash into it. Everybody wins.
Then it became this horrible, bastardised version of what it was. You weren’t downloading a game any more, you were downloading a platform onto which you could basically rent gameplay for a short amount of time. Then a barrier would be thrown up again, and the game would demand more money like a baby demanding regular feeding, only a great deal less lovable.
The Simpsons: Tapped Out, Dungeon Keeper Mobile and Final Fantasy All The Bravest are probably the most offensive examples, particularly the last one. In FFATB, you essentially just pay a micropayment, at which point the game will briefly play itself for a little while, until it gets tired and needs more cash.
Nothing could have been more insulting, it showed what Square Enix really thought of its fans. This kind of mentality is what leads to publishers thinking of customers as “whales.” You know what I mean, and you who think like that know who you are. “They’re just profit on legs, and any way we can cut the money out of them is to our advantage.” You know, it is possible to make some green and still retain your mortal soul. It’s easy – look at what EA does, and then do the opposite.
But anyway, for some reason I’ve kept seeing animated or even live-action trailers for free-to-play games online, and it’s weird. Clash Of Clans, Boom Beach, that Game Of War trailer with the distractingly buxom goddess – it’s baffling to me how these things help, because they’re inevitably unrepresentative of the game itself. If they showed tiny little sprites blipping around a cut-rate management game, that would be fine, that would make sense. That would actually be the game they’re selling you, but they’re not showing you that. They’re doing character jokes, and physical comedy, or having that chick with the enormous rack ride in slow motion in front of the camera, just to give you no credit whatsoever.
And I’ll admit, some of the trailers can be cute or funny. I laughed at a couple of the Boom Beach ones, but I didn’t laugh when playing the game. It was just boring. But I think I now know why they do this, they’re trying to make that TF2 lightning strike twice.
See, one of the things that raised TF2 above the level of the average shooter was the characters. They all had distinct visual personality with exaggerated features and physiques, and would often make funny, conversational quips during matches. The online trailers served to reinforce those personalities and flesh them out, until we were playing with genuinely likeable characters whom we could understand and appreciate properly. Whenever somebody asks me my favourite class to play as in TF2, I’ll usually say the soldier. But when I’m asked my favourite class in total, I usually say either the Spy or the Medic, both of whom make me laugh and are truly amusing archetypes.
But these free-to-play games don’t have that. All they have is boring gameplay with financial barriers added in, so what do they do? They try to inspire personalities in their little sprites, and hope we get attached, hope we feel invested. Look at Clash Of Clans – the games don’t tell you jack about all these disposable minions and how they feel about things, but the trailers would have you think otherwise. The barbarians are nuts, the archers are sensible and the wizards are egotists.
It’s fairly empty, but it’s all they can do. It’s like giving names and character traits to all the furniture in the living room, in the hope that people will enjoy sitting on it more. They won’t – it’s still bland, basic furniture – but they don’t want to risk showing us actual footage. They want players to think that it’s all a wacky, sitcom-esque series of jokes and one-liners behind the cash wall and the dull gameplay.
Boy, are they in for a disappointment.