Most veteran gamers are wise to it now, but in the not-too-distant past few years we have been seeing some games get noticeable downgrades in their graphical presentation after they’re revealed. If you’ve been paying attention to big game reveals in recent years, you’ve probably noticed this pattern. The game gets revealed, it looks great, gamers applaud the apparent advancements in graphical fidelity, and some months later actual gameplay emerges that looks noticeably different and by different I mean worse. Games that initially come to mind for most might include Watch Dogs, The Division, and Far Cry, but it certainly isn’t just an Ubisoft issue, although they have received the bulk of the criticism about it.
I vividly remember the Killzone 2 fiasco where it seemed Guerilla was trying to pass off a scripted Cinematic as genuine gameplay for a time. Fortunately, most of these games do turn out to look fine if not above average, though, which really just seems to add even more mystery to the issue. Why would a developer, that already has a good looking game in the oven, put out an unrealistic representation of their product for an initial reveal and set themselves up for an inevitable moment where thy would ultimately have to disappoint their fans and consumers? It makes no sense. It seems to that it would make more sense to under-promise on graphics than to over-promise, right? Well, this might seem like the rug is purposefully being pulled out from under us as gamers, and maybe in some cases it is, but I think the causes for most games getting downgrades to their graphics by their launch date is a little diverse and complicated than that.
"I vividly remember the Killzone 2 fiasco where it seemed Guerilla was trying to pass off a scripted Cinematic as genuine gameplay for a time."
Firstly, its probably important to note the role that “vertical slices” play in all of this. Often the idea of a vertical slice is conflated with an inaccurate representation of a game. A vertical slice is an extremely rehearsed, carefully scripted, section that has been cherry-picked to represent the totality of a video game. Not always exactly accurately, though. In fact, some vertical slices aren’t even lifted from the game itself, but are completely new chunks that were crafted specifically for the purposes of showing off what a game can do. They’ll have things that are in the game, but perhaps in a different order or with enemies and locations brought in from other areas of the actual game.
They can feature actual gameplay too, but usually its just as carefully planned and rehearsed as the asset arrangements were, right down to the camera movement. The important distinguishing factor here though is that a good vertical slice is still made up of things that are, in fact, in the game. Not things that might be in the game, but its not certain because of how far out the completion date is. A recent example of a good vertical slice is the gameplay reveal footage of the upcoming God of War game for the Playstation 4. I personally don’t mind these vertical slices and it seems like most gamers don’t mind them either, and its important for us to note the difference between an honest to god vertical slice and a completely unrealistic representation of what the game is going to look like and play like.
"Firstly, its probably important to note the role that “vertical slices” play in all of this. Often the idea of a vertical slice is conflated with an inaccurate representation of a game. A vertical slice is an extremely rehearsed, carefully scripted, section that has been cherry-picked to represent the totality of a video game. "
One of the most notorious examples of the latter is the original Watch Dogs. After the game finally launched once the long marketing campaign was exhausted, gamers had a field day picking apart the various aspects of the reveal trailer that didn’t end up making it into the final build of the game. From particle effects of explosions to lighting in certain spots in the open world and cloth physics of coats, changes and downgrades were indeed everywhere in the final version of Watch Dogs. Some theories did emerge pertaining to this particular example that included that Ubisoft was just entirely too eager to show footage of what they had before they knew whether or not they could sustain that level of detail throughout the entire world they were building.
This seems like it could makes some sense, as Watch Dogs was one of the last games to go through this several-year-long-hype-train marketing style that is seemingly on its way out now. Honestly it seems like common sense to not show what you have of a game before you’re sure if you can maintain it, so it makes sense that developers are holding footage back a little longer now. The fact that development for Watch Dogs began before the Playstation 4 and Xbox one console limitations were totally set in stone certainly didn’t help things either.
It can’t be easy to estimate what a game will look like on a system that isn’t even finalized yet, meanwhile, they’ve got the marketing team asking for compelling footage. On top of that, games like Watch Dogs and The Division being multi-platform, it is even harder to gauge what the limitations will be later on down the road for multiple systems, and perhaps, considering all of this, its easier to make miscalculations than we’re giving them credit for. That still doesn’t explain the Killzone 2 issue however, as that was a Playstaiton 3 exclusive, but I digress.
"Thankfully it does look like developers are reacting to gamers’ well-deserved criticisms of the inaccurate representations of games, albeit slowly, but better late than never."
Some game trailers that come out early in the development cycle will let you know in their own way that this is an early build and is subject to change. Even though some might think that this is implying that it will get better over time as the developers figure out more ways to be efficient with their coding and asset management as they get closer to completion, but in reality it seems to be an implication of the opposite; as more stuff is added into the game, we may not be able to push out the same amount of detail as we can now. Perhaps this is why you rarely see this particular notice at the beginning of trailers now.
We are seeing more and more of game trailers letting us know that the footage is “in game” or “in engine” so we can trust that the footage is accurate, which is appreciated, but what does it say about the state of affairs with early footage that this even needs to be said? It says that publishers are aware that gamers are weary of early footage. Developers must know that is not good for any marketing strategy, also. Publishers and developers don’t want people to be examining their footage looking for things that they think will be cut. They want people to get excited and generate hype for the project, so the “in-game” label makes more sense than the previous “subject to change” that seems to be mostly phased out by now.
Thankfully it does look like developers are reacting to gamers’ well-deserved criticisms of the inaccurate representations of games, albeit slowly, but better late than never. Hopefully the discussions about game graphics getting downgraded can be a relic of the past instead of one of the many concessions gamers get used to and will always have to deal with going forward. Time will tell, but for now, things are looking like they’re going int he right direction.
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