Remember the midnight launch? I remember walking to my local Walmart in order to pick up my gold version of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on Nintendo 64. The excitement when I rushed out to Target an hour before midnight to pick up Blizzard's World of Warcraft. Two years ago, I was out in front of my local Sam's Club in the freezing cold on my birthday to pick up Nintendo's Wii U. Last year, I stood in line to purchase both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. For a few years I even worked at GameStop, putting me on the other side of the midnight launch event.
There's a thrill associated with launch day. The sense of camaraderie of sitting in line with other folks who share your love of a game. Suffering through the early morning or intense temperatures to pick up the latest title in your favorite series. The shared tribulations and the willingness to even be at a launch event brought you closer together.
That's been muted in recent times, as digital distribution becomes more commonplace. Last night, I went out to pick up Dragon Age: Inquisition at my local Walmart and there was nothing. No lines, no others alongside me, despite the fact that Dragon Age: Inquisition and Grand Theft Auto V were coming out. I went by local GameStop and it was mostly the same.
That's not to say that the launch hype is gone. Far from it; you can go on NeoGAF, Penny Arcade, Reddit, 4Chan, or Something Awful and find gamers excited for the latest releases. Sharing screenshots, previews, interviews and other scraps of information. Pouring over YouTube videos and Twitch streams for any new bits on their favorite game. The excitement is still there, it's just online now.
This online launch excitement is a different flavor from the old physical wait. There's the concept of pre-loading, where players jump to let the community know when a game's pre-load is live on Steam, Xbox Live, or PlayStation Network. Alongside this are others relating their launch day set-ups: Are they taking off work or school? Have they set aside time so no one will bother them? What food will they eat, what drinks will they consume? What's the first thing they're going to do in the game?
There's gamers participating is sprawling hashtags, or sharing GIFs on Tumblr. There's the fanart, from talent artists who can't wait to boot up games from other talented artists. There's YouTube video reactions to launch trailers. There's tweets and Facebook posts. Countdowns to servers going live. Review threads populate the biggest online gaming destinations almost immediately after an embargo breaks. Every facet of a game gets twisted, dissected, expanded, and shared.
It's worth noting that hype is largely something that stems marketing. It's technically a tool of publishers with huge marketing budgets at their command. Those hashtags are frequently their hashtags. Gamers sharing game-related content over and over helps a game's promotional aspect. That's why marketing teams and community managers exist, to get the word out, to keep excitement high, to keep your eyeballs and clicks focused on their game. Taken that way, it's easy to be cynical about everything surrounding these game launches.
Despite the more corporate starting point of some of the hype, we should realize that the excitement is real. These are real players looking forward to exploring new worlds or being brand-new people. They aren't hyped by the millions of dollars spent in development, they're just looking forward to meeting new friends, real or digital. Even single-player games are shared spaces of experience where we can discuss our choices and moments of surprise. Did we kill Ashley or Kaidan? How did you feel about "No Russian"? Holy crap, did you see what happened to Aerith?
Younger gamers grew up with digital distribution, so this isn't much of a shift for them. Sitting in online forums waiting for digital pre-orders to unlock is their normal. Even those of us who are a bit older have slowed down a bit. Yes, I went to buy Dragon Age: Inquisition at midnight, but then I came home and went to sleep. Except in certain situations, gone are the days where I need to tear into a game until sunrise, fueled by Red Bull and Sour Patch Kids. I can wait a few hours.
I admit, I do miss those more physical, immediate moments. One launch event where a group of friends brought a grill and hot dogs to share with the rest of the line. The online tournaments where I got schooled before getting anywhere near the winner's bracket. Standing in the cold, talking about Blizzard's nerfs to Ret Paladins or Shadow Priests. Rushing home to unbox a game or begin installing it. I miss the elaborate costumes of those who are bigger fans than I am. That still exists in some form online, but it's different. It's less immediate and more sustained over a longer period of time.
It's not something we've lost, it just evolved into something different.