Video Games And Disappointment: Are Our Expectations Too High?

As a child, I experienced disappointment on a regular basis. Promises of ice cream were squandered in favour of fruit after my parents ridiculously decided to prioritise health over fun. Toys I had dreamed of getting for Christmas ended up not being as fun as I’d hoped. One would hope that as we get older, that level of disappointment would decrease exponentially. Self-awareness would tell us that it’s not important that our supermarket doesn’t stock the exact brand of coffee we want. And yet, there we stand, dejected and disappointed, not sure what to do. Unfortunately, it would appear that as I age, I actually become more disappointed. Case in point, it seems that whenever a video game releases, I can’t help but sigh and shrug. Am I just bored of video games? Or is there something more behind it?

Video Games & Disappointment

Let me just preface this conversation with an entirely unsurprising admission. Good games are coming out right now. In fact, the last three games I’ve reviewed (at time of writing) all scored 8 or above. I think it would be facetious to assert that all video games coming out in today’s climate are exhaustingly awful. Instead, I am just using a select few titles as case studies. This way I’ll discover whether or not as a whole, video games are becoming more disappointing. To answer that, we must first define disappointment and explain the theory behind why we become it.

According to Schimmack and Diener “disappointment is the third most frequently experienced negative emotion (after anxiety and anger)”. It’s unsurprising as life can often be relatively disappointing. Whether it’s failing an exam that you were confident you’d nail, or a shop being out of your favourite cereal, it’s not uncommon to experience some level of disappointment on a daily basis.

Image Credit – E3

It would seem that recently it has become increasingly common for people within the gaming community to suffer from it too. Take for example the past few months; all I’ve seen is people being disappointed by the latest Nintendo Direct, E3’s poor efforts in the wake of Covid-19, or about a particular game that despite lots of hype ended up singlehandedly ruining the gaming industry.

Defining Disappointment

But why is this? Well, firstly let’s define disappointment and its two variants. According to a study by Wilco W. van Dijk and Marcel Zeelenberg, there are two different types of disappointment called “Person-Related Disappointment” (PRD), and “Outcome-Related Disappointment” (ORD). The former is more commonly associated with being let down by a person. For example, when a friend makes a promise to drive you somewhere, and then doesn’t. Outcome-related disappointment is more akin to what I described earlier. It is the idea of being disappointed by a “thing” or event not turning out as you’d hoped. Or, as David E. Bell put it, it is “a psychological reaction to an outcome that does not match up against expectations”.

As the gaming world has continued to develop and technological advancements have allowed for more ambitious projects to exist, it’s fair to say that expectations have been raised. Being an indie developer is certainly no easy feat. But with the free tools available to the aspiring developer becoming more and more professional in scale and scope, the number of games releasing now is more than ever. More unique ideas are expanding from simple notes scribbled on a scrap of paper into fully-fledged games. It’s hard to argue that the realm of possibility hasn’t widened thanks to improvements in technology. Suffice to say, when something that would have appeared confoundingly unrealistic is proposed now, we wonder why it hasn’t been done already.

Appraisal Theory

Thanks to this boom in gaming culture and the expansion of games development, our interpretations of what is possible have been altered. Frijda, Kuipers, and Ter Schure discuss the idea of the “Appraisal Theory” in their study titled Relations among emotion, appraisal, and emotional action readiness. Essentially, the Appraisal Theory “states that each emotion can be related to specific patterns of evaluations and interpretations of events (appraisals)”. We’re only disappointed because of how we have set our interpretations and evaluations for specific events.

Image Credit – Getty Images

If we were to interpret that the progress made in video game development was in fact rather unimpressive, then our level of disappointment would be significantly decreased when a barebones attempt at an open-world game is released. The issue is that our evaluation of the current state of game development is that it is progressing exponentially. A good example of a time when our interpretation of what the gaming world is capable of affected our disappointment would be with the launch of Aliens: Colonial Marines.

Aliens: Colonial Marines

When Gearbox and SEGA released supposed “gameplay footage” of Aliens: Colonial Marines during the 2012 E3 conference, fans were ecstatic. The game looked great visually, featured smart AI that truly brought the Alien to life, and just appeared as if it were a blast to play. When the game launched in 2013 not only did it not look anything like the original trailer but, according to reviews, it also played horribly and was lacking entire levels. In an article discussing the lawsuit levied against SEGA and Gearbox that stated the consumer was deceived by the initial marketing, Polygon offered a side by side comparison of the 2012 imagery and the actual 2013 gameplay.

Disappointment - Aliens: Colonial Marines
Image Credit – SEGA

False Advertising

This started a discussion about the false advertising of video game footage prior to a games’ launch. Of course, this discussion would be reopened several years later with Watch Dogs and No Man’s Sky. The question on everyone’s mind was how we could have been duped so consistently by so many titles. The answer lies in the Appraisal Theory. We knew that video game technology was always improving, and therefore had little reason to assume that the footage we saw of Aliens: Colonial Marines was in any way fabricated. It also didn’t help that Randy Pitchford (according to the filings) said that it was “actual gameplay”.

Our interpretation of how advanced the technology available was, was solely based on what we were being shown. We could only base our assumptions on the footage presented to us. So, when the game launched and it looked nothing like what we’d seen, we couldn’t help but be disappointed. Frijda, Kuipers, and Ter Schure continue to argue that a lack of control plays a significant role in the Appraisal Theory. While we will get to that, I’d argue that a big reason our disappointment reaches such catastrophic levels is down to a lack of understanding.

Understanding

After the disastrous launch of Cyberpunk 2077, the game’s lead quest designer, Paweł Sasko, begun streaming the game over on Twitch. During a stream he had the following to say:

“I don’t really feel like the players and the journalists fully, completely understand how difficult it was to make this game […]it was a very difficult game to make, a very ambitious one, and we’ve tried to pull off as much as we could on all the fronts.””

Paweł Sasko ~ CD Projekt Red
Disappointment - Cyberpunk 2077
Image Credit – CD Projekt Red

Hearing this made me realise that I don’t really have a fundamental understanding of the inner workings of game development. If everyone was educated on the process behind making a triple-A or even an indie game, then I feel our level of expectation may be decreased. But as it stands, unless we all undergo some serious education, we’ll only take the surface level information presented to us as fact and use that to base our expectations on. In the case of Cyberpunk 2077, all we knew was that it had been in development for an inordinate amount of time, that it was being developed by a well-respected developer, and that its marketing team was drumming up an impressive level of hype. As a result, our expectations were understandably high.

Bounty Battle

On the other end of the spectrum, there are games like Bounty Battle, an indie take on the Super Smash Bros titles. It had paid for the licences of several beloved indie game characters in order to fill up its roster. It even had an impressive animated opening featuring all of these characters. We can assume that, based on these factors, it had the blessing of those game’s developers. Especially as, on a surface level, it appeared to have a level of quality that exceeds the usual drivel found in Steam’s upcoming list.

Disappointment - Bounty Battle
Image Credit – Dark Screen Games

Except, Bounty Battle failed, horribly. It was heavily criticised, and in the words of the great Robert Ramsay, was “nothing short of a disaster”. And while Bounty Battle does remain a bad game, regardless of its development history, without that knowledge of how costly indie development can be, in particular licencing fees, you’ll lack the requisite knowledge needed to fully appreciate why it failed.

Control

But, as I mentioned before, control plays a big part in why we feel disappointed. According to Frijda, Kuipers, and Ter Schure, “disappointment situations are appraised as relatively uncontrollable and caused by an agent other than the self.” We feel disappointed because there is often little we can do to rectify it. Unless you’re a modder, who has a passion for fixing games, all you can do is wait for the development studio to return the game to its former glory. It’s why people have waited with bated breath for CD Projekt Red to rectify the mistakes of Cyberpunk, and why, after every update, they remain disappointed.

Disappointment - Biomutant
Image Credit – Experiement 101

I had a similar experience with Biomutant. I was extraordinarily hyped for it prior to its launch in May. When it did eventually release, and I realised that the game was fundamentally not what I had expected, all I could think about was potential future updates and patches. I couldn’t fix the game myself, all I could do was hope that Experiment 101 would do it for me. It left this sense of lingering disappointment in me as I awaited patches that could potentially never come to fruition. I lack what is referred to as Control Perception. It is “the perceived ability to control or do something about the event.” When something is released in a state that we don’t like, we often lack that Control Perception. It’s the same reason Cyberpunk 2077 remains, to this day, unopened on my shelf.

Accepting Reality

But I feel there is another element to why we feel disappointment towards video games. It is that we are faced with accepting reality. There’s a level of romanticism surrounding the act of being hyped. In an interesting article by Alec Banks, which goes in-depth on the psychology of hype, it broadly states that:

“The call and response of consumer satisfaction isn’t simply a symptom of consumerism. Instead, it’s something that’s hardwired into our brains.”

Alec Banks ~ HIGHSNOBIETY

When we get excited about something, we increase our expectations based on a preconceived notion that it will be “good”. But when the game releases, we’re faced with the reality that it is, unfortunately, not as expected. Beyond that, however, we’re faced with the reality that there is no certainty in anything. In theory, any established quality surrounding games is meaningless.

Lowering Expectations

I don’t completely subscribe to the idea that the video game industry is over-promising. Sure, certain games do, which ultimately leads to disappointment. But I don’t believe that it is indicative of the whole industry. What I do believe, however, is that video games have begun to feel disappointing for one simple reason: the consumer. Unfortunately, at least in my case, I’ve come to expect too much from video games, thanks to the insane advancements in technology and design. But, due to my complete lack of understanding of how games are made, I can’t comprehend the amount of effort and resources needed to go into a title to meet the current day standards.

Image Credit – CD Projekt Red

Everything from triple-A to indie has risen in standards over the past few years. So, I’ve come to expect that same level of quality every single time. But, it is simply not obtainable. When it takes a seasoned developer, such as CD Projekt Red, nine years to make Cyberpunk and it still turns out poorly, I need to reconsider my understanding of development. Sure, there is an element of overhyping a game or just flat out lying in marketing. I’ve discussed this before in an article surrounding the mess that was Cyberpunk 2077. But I don’t fully believe that this is the sole reason I feel so disappointed by video games these days.

Conclusion

I need to lower my expectations when it comes to video games. Not because they’re getting worse, although that may certainly be true in some cases. But because I am simply not educated enough to warrant my expectations being so high. It is a shame, as feeling hyped is a truly wonderful feeling. But at the end of the day, I need to remember that behind these games is a team tirelessly working. Most games are constrained by a minuscule budget and pressure from publishers to get it out on time. If developers were given an infinite amount of money, time and manpower to create something, then it would undoubtedly be amazing. But in today’s culture, video games are a business, and understanding that is key to lowering one’s expectations.

Someone once said, “expectation is the root of all heartache”. Unfortunately, they may be right. We form bonds with upcoming titles, believe they’ll save us from our ruts, inspire us to finally finish that backlog or even rejuvenate our love for a long-since unappreciated franchise, only to be let down when they release. Video games are only as disappointing as the level of expectation you put on them. So, let’s appreciate where expectation comes from. We should accept that there is no certainty in quality, that we’ll have no control should it fail, and understand the process behind which games are made. In doing so, perhaps video games may start to feel a little more exciting again.