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E3 Pre-Warning: Beware Of False Trailers!

Hooray, my first click-bait opinion piece! Actually, I’m quite serious about what I’m stating in the title, and jokes aside, this is an ethical issue which has been as prominent and well-debated as the whole corruption in video game journalism issue. Behind review blacklistings and embargos, exclusive access review “donations” in return for good review scores, unskilled gamers reviewing genuinely good titles and rating them poorly due to their skill levels, and (most recently) comparing PS4 gameplay against PC versions set to low/lowest graphical settings to encourage views/exposure via controversial attention. These are all things that both game developers/publishers, as well as game journalist are capable of, when money and media attention is involved. There’s no such thing as bad publicity right?

The topic of this article is to pre-warn those attending or viewing live streams of E3 this year to keep a few things in mind when watching the latest trailers and gameplay footage. We’ve been burned a lot over the years as gamers. Remember things like the Network Pass? The serial key/code given with games to enable the multiplayer online features of the title, to prove you bought the game? Well, just like the rebellion and rejection of the Network Pass, people are starting to tune in to the questionable practices of the E3 trailer/gameplay stings. For many years (arguably since E3 began), developers and publishers show footage of their titles that are either heavily scripted/choreographed and don’t represent regular gameplay, or the graphics are beefed up to 11, and don’t represent the graphics that end up making itself into the final release.

That isn’t to say that companies shouldn’t put their best foot forward! Obviously, with various investors involved and with money on the line, they need to make sure that the product they show will generate excitement and receive critical praise from the press to keep their money invested or to invest more. However, there is a thin line between polishing a product and misrepresenting it. The main problem with video games is their real-time nature. In film, the story is set out in advance, and everything is filmed and edited, and will play out the same regardless of what DVD/BluRay player you own. They will play back at the same speed, with the same content. Games don’t have that luxury; everyone has different hardware running the game, and the player can choose what happens in the game via their interaction with the hardware’s input devices, which can fundamentally change how the game plays out. A director can also create a film in his/her vision, and everyone will receive the same experience. With video games, the player directs that action, so how can you represent an average play-session when that ideal example playthrough differs based on who is playing, and how they’re playing? How do you create gameplay footage that speaks to a variety of different player-styles, that excites as many of those demographics as possible in a 5-10 minute gameplay demonstration?

This is the crux of the problem, and what drives developers and publishers to do what they do. You have gamers who only want the best graphics, not caring that gameplay might be mediocre because the visuals are what matter. Then you have the gameplay purists, who don’t care what the visuals are like, as long as there’s a good game mechanic involved. Then of course there’s all kinds of shades in-between, including sandbox players who play around with the mechanics, the disciplined gamer that never strays from the objective, and completionists who want to get 100% in every game. It’s all very daunting for a developer who wants to show the best example of their game, but beyond a bit of in-house testing and demographic studies, they have no real idea how the gaming community will receive their project. You can have all the test data and studies in the world carried out on your game project, but no one can tell you for certain that “I took an arrow to the knee” will become a popular internet meme and drastically increase the amount of exposure towards a newly released title before it goes to market.

“You can have all the test data and studies in the world carried out on your game project, but no one can tell you for certain that ‘I took an arrow to the knee’ will become a popular internet meme and drastically increase the amount of exposure towards a newly released title before it goes to market”

There obviously needs to be a balance between showcasing your game in a positive light, in a sort of “best case scenario” circumstance where players are working together in multiplayer games, and gamers are stringing together tight combos with great set pieces in single player. This problem of showing a game in its best light only really exists with narrative-driven games based around characters and events. You don’t need to worry about how well-received a gameplay video of Pong or Tetris might be received, because there’s only one form of gameplay to show; there’s no need to fluff and polish the trailers when a game boils down to a simple single experience that will be identical for all players. With narrative-based games, you need to make sure that characters are shown to be appealing (or not if they’re supposed to be antagonists), that the action is exciting, that the mystery is enticing, that the danger is thrilling, and so it goes on. When you talk about a complex AAA story-driven action/adventure title, you have these multitudes of layers to consider and weigh up for such a short gameplay segment that entirely represents years of work in a matter of minutes or even seconds. It’s an overwhelming task when you sit down and realise the weight of it.

That’s the development/marketing side of things; we’ve considered why it’s important to make sure that the “average” game session footage shown at E3 needs to be at its best, and be a perfect example that represents multiple aspects of the project quickly and with as much impact as possible. But what about the consumer side? What examples represent where we get cheated of an experience, or misled until the last possible moment before release, making the false assumption on our part that we are purchasing a game that was showcased to us months ago at E3? The pressure from investors/publishers to get a visual reel of gameplay footage up often means that development team isn’t quite sure whether it will work, or whether it will be effective considering holistically how it fits in with the rest of the project’s tone/atmosphere. Basically, they’re pushed into showing something before it’s ready, or potentially before even the development team knows what it is they have yet. Put all these things together, and you have a cocktail for disaster if you receive a strong reaction from fans, who latch onto a certain mechanic or graphical style, and are disappointed when they purchase the game to find out it’s removed.

Well, for consumers, it’s mainly about communication beforehand. Borderlands had a realistic graphical art style to it initially, but it was changed to a cel-shaded, cartoonish style later on in development. Borderlands was received well because a) the graphical style was a universally-agreed improvement to shy it away from the saturated market of AAA realistic shooters at the time, and b) it was communicated early enough that players were aware of what they were receiving as a finished product. Bad examples are most Ubisoft games, Dark Souls 2, Halo 2, Metal Gear Solid 2,  Bioshock Infinite, and Oblivion.

Let’s discuss the earliest of the aforementioned; Metal Gear Solid 2. This doesn’t require much explanation, as it’s well renowned for Kojima’s creative antics. In the E3 trailer, a lot of features are shown such as shooting a curtain’s rope constraints (seen at 5:28 in the video above), and destructible objects such as wine bottles and fruit, all of which are interesting and unique, and made it into the final game. The bait-and-switch Kojima gave us however, was replacing the main character. Up until that point in the game’s released footage, it had been assumed to be the returning main character (Solid Snake) that the player would take direct control over for the entire game. Of course, as we all know now, we got Raiden. This is probably the ultimate misrepresentation of an E3 showcased game, which no-one really knew about until the game was released. After finishing the tanker mission with Snake for the game’s intro, most people were shocked to find out they had purchased a game where they would not be taking control of Snake, but Raiden. This was received well in Japan, as Raiden resembled an archetype hero appealing to Japanese culture. In the West however, there was definitely some outcry, despite the game still doing well in reviews, and eventually having fans coming around to the fact themselves and enjoying the game as it was made. This wasn’t a common occurrence at this point however, so whilst it was an avant-garde way of developing a plot-twist within a well known video game franchise, it wasn’t so criticised, especially as the quality of the game was so high regardless of who starred in it.

The next culprit is Halo 2. The documentary content that came in a Limited Edition of Halo 2 shows Bungie’s development process and how late it was until the game would actually start to take shape. The game remained unfinished, and largely un-designed, well into the life of the project, and the team was starting to panic once E3 began looming. Without any real footage to show of anything concrete, the team quickly put together everything they had, and created an entirely scripted action sequence from start to finish, which never made it into the final game. Things such as advanced lighting effects and improved particles would never make it into the final release of Halo 2. Other small features were dynamic moments such as a Brute jumping on top of a Warthog, and batting away the occupants of the vehicle, and the more exciting and dexterous triple melee combo with the Battle Rifle. These “wow” moments were only ever scripted for E3, and would never be seen again. The trailer where Master Chief drops out of the airlock of a ship, is also shown to be graphically superior to the final game. Real time shadows, improved lighting, and various post-processing effects showcased Halo 2 to be much better looking than it actually turned out to be. The video below showcases the graphical disparity that the initial announcement trailer had in comparison to the final game.

Next we look at Oblivion. Again, the high quality set by The Elder Scrolls IV meant that the changes made went by largely forgiven, but they were noticed a little more this time, as the true next-gen experience was settling in, and realistic graphics were becoming all the more noticeable. Most games had looked the same graphically up until this point, with only art styles separating their visuals from one another. Similar poly counts, and the same basic resolution of textures meant that most PS1/90s PC games all looked similar overall, as they all shared the same restrictions such as draw distance and lighting algorithms. Oblivion would showcase greatly improved lighting, real-time shadows which are completely absent from the final game, and what seems to be an improved physics model. This comparison video shows how much the dungeon intro area changed, even to the point where Todd Howard mentions that how you escape the dungeon will holistically determine your playstyle and who you are, whereas the final game simply scripted the entire escape.

We then reach Dark Souls 2 and Bioshock Infinite. Dark Souls 2 shows what becomes an eventual pattern with these E3 gameplay demonstrations: vastly improved lighting and shadow models alongside environment design complexity and object population. It had more stuff, it looked better, and the textures alongside lighting were much higher quality than final release. Bioshock Infinite suffered the narrative problems I mentioned earlier; showcasing the game too early meant that many gameplay moments were lost and to never return (the dead horse comes to mind).

Finally, we have Ubisoft. Precisely the reason I’m here writing this article, I haven’t seen a company misrepresent its products more and upset its fans and followers more than a few Ubisoft games have over the years. Before I’m criticised, I love Ubisoft games. Despite the opinions the community has on Ubisoft, if anyone asked me the question “What publisher game catalogue would you take with you on a desert island, and you couldn’t play anything else for the rest of your life?”, it would be Ubisoft’s games every time. They develop/publish my favourite action/adventure games, shooters, platformers, and generally everything considered, they have the highest quality of games considering the amount they’ve made/published. Having said of all this however, it’s hard to ignore that the’re the most guilty of misrepresenting games over the past few years at E3. Before I go on, here’s one more video explaining what I mean:

As you can see, there are major gameplay changes, graphics change drastically from what is shown as the real-time gameplay. It’s understood that developers need to optimise graphics and make sure the final release is stable for everyone, but if the final result is anything short of what they tout around as “real-time demonstrations”, then it leaves a bitter/sour taste in our mouths as gamers, when we finally head to retail to purchase the game. Funnily enough, I think Far Cry 3 and 4 look better at release than they did at E3, if you ignore the missing particle effects such as dust clouds and waterfall mist. These are missing aspects of games however, which are starting to take their toll and create lasting impressions on gamers, and with the recent trend of poorly developed games that release broken, game developers and publishers will need to be extra careful this year.

To make myself clear, I’m not advocating either side of the argument here, as its a complex issue that can’t be as simple as “Release the game you showed”. We as gamers don’t understand the challenges and stability of the ideas, features, and visuals a game project has. We also can’t tell developers to hold off showing their game until they have something near-final, because investors/publishers will always want to get early feedback on a project to warrant whether they should continue investing more money, or if the reception is poor and to cancel it altogether. Ideas change, some challenges in making something work can’t be overcome, and graphical features might pose problems for readability or stability down the road. Decisions are weighed up, and it’s probably a good thing that developers opt for a safe approach that ensures we receive stable games, that run well, and give us the best all-round experience without falling short because of trying to push boundaries or limitations too much. We’ve all played games that have unstable framerates or suffer terrible online lag, and its because of trying to push these limitations and boundaries that these problems develop in the first place.

“Whilst it’s easy to write off an opinion here stating that we should all be careful of liars at E3, we need to remember the complexity of the E3-hype web that developers and publishers rely on to make projects fundable and to gauge our reactions early to make sure the best possible game comes out on the other end”

Whilst it’s easy to write off an opinion here stating that we should all be careful of liars at E3, we need to remember the complexity of the E3-hype web that developers and publishers rely on to make projects fundable and to gauge our reactions early to make sure the best possible game comes out on the other end. I do present the opinion however, that there is a line between polish/optimisation, and big fat lies. The line is only hair-thin, but it’s crossed far too often in recent years to be an avoidable issue anymore. So when you start hyping over E3 this year, keep yourself in check, and remind yourselves that this is not going to be the final product. There will be concessions of some kind, developers will use buzzwords and too-good-to-be-true graphics to wow you and make you pay attention, but ultimately, there are limitations to any project. What might seem like “this time we’ll have a truly open, dynamic world with sophisticated A.I that makes its own decisions” will usually not find itself in the final game. It never does. The games mentioned in this article are the clearly obvious ones that definitely bring cause for concern. What category of the debate they fall into however, I will leave to your discretion.

Share your experiences of E3 disappointments/letdowns below, or maybe there were games you saw at E3 that turned out looking and playing better at release!? As always, let us know your thoughts!