Are We Allowed To Get Angry Over Visual Downgrades?
It’s been happening for years now. We all get geared up for the E3 press conferences, with energy drinks in hand and eyes glued to a PC monitor. We watch as the world’s top developers show us what they’ve been pouring their blood, sweat and tears into for the past few months. And money, let’s not forget about that just yet. The games they show off usually leave us drooling, with advances in visuals making us question again when it will ever plateau. Then come the months after, and the smiles slowly start to fade away.
It’s true; a lot of games experience some form of a visual downgrade from the first time we see them. This is more prevalent in a few notable examples, but more often than not the game that is burned onto a disc and wrapped in a neat little package for shelf life is not the same game we saw all those months back. And that’s a good thing rather than bad, when you look at it from a certain perspective.
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The first thing that you have to understand, which will immediately elevate you above the average internet user IQ, is that games shown off at conferences are not true representations of the final product. Why is that? Well, think about it for a brief second. Is the game that studio X, Y and Z showing off completed yet? Do they have plans to release said title in the next few weeks, or months? Most of the time, the answer here is no, which means three things.
First and foremost, the game you’re seeing is not yet completed. In other words, you’re seeing a small slice of a game that is utilising as much power and processing as it can to look as gosh darn pretty as it can for the millions of viewers worldwide. The actual game will probably have thousands and thousands of more assets stored and needing to be processed when you actually play it, meaning that small little slice of heaven you saw more than a year ago might not be possible on hardware that hasn’t had the chance to upgrade. A sad, but extremely understandable truth that is frequently forgotten by the internet, bandwagon riding masses. Not you, of course.
Secondly, and this ties in rather heavily with the above, E3 and similar conferences are a stage to show off a title to literally thousands of people. It would be insane to think that any studio given this opportunity would not try and make their “baby” look as pretty as all the other “babies” at the party. It’s like owning a sports car and then not polishing it before heading to a show where other people are showing off their shiny sports cars and drinking obscene amounts of Red Bull to stay sane. We can’t blame developers for wanting to show off the best they can do, even if this involves a little white lie here and there. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but let’s get to that a little later.
The third, and by far most rare, reason games change drastically is because the visuals negatively affect the gameplay in some manner. It’s insane to think that the quality of effects such as lighting and shadows could have an undesired effect on the game you play, but the subtlety is that you only notice it when it’s not there. Or when it is there, in a manner of speaking. Games that accurately represent light in a way that walking down a corridor with no torches ultimately means your screen is pitch dark. Or entering a room so bright that your eyeballs bleed from the raw nature of it. These are, again, rare occurrences, but factors that developers have to take in over time nonetheless.
A recent game that somewhat encompasses all of these attributes is Dark Souls II. The game was shown off extensively before its release, showcasing a dramatically improved lighting engine that made the world feel far more engrossing. Lighting and shadows were extremely realistic, and seeing a hollow knight fight in a corridor with only a flame torch to see was a spectacle. The game released last month, and immediately you could see things were different. Textures were far less detailed, shadows were harder and overall the game lacked the same ambiance. This is accredited mostly to the fact that the lighting that From Software had shown off in all previous videos simply wasn’t there, and oddly enough will not make it to the PC version either. So why did this happen?
Well, when you look at it from a technical standpoint, From Software literally couldn’t make it happen on current-gen consoles. They stated this shortly after release, saying that as the scope of the game grew so did the hardware requirements. Bigger world, more assets, more rendering power needed. It’s not rocket science to understand in its most basic form, and there really is no need to get all technical about it either. Before we had just seen snippets of the game running completely isolated from the rest of the project, with From Software wanting to get the very best response from fans and critics alike. Therefore they pushed for these previews to look their absolute best, so that you and I would race out on launch day to buy it. Marketing 101 folks.
Another reason From Software threw it out, after being accused of taking out the lighting system for no apparent reason, was gameplay. Apparently, running around in the pitch dark and then having to fight already brutally challenging enemies while holding up a light source was just a tad overboard. So instead, players featured a light glow around them so that darker areas were easier to navigate. Did it make the overall experience a little less engrossing? Of course, but it potentially fixed something that From Software saw wrong with the most important aspect of the game. It also explains why the PC version of the title fails to feature this lighting as well, when we all know it could easily have been handled on the hardware.
The issue here is whether all of this is acceptable, and whether we, as consumers, have any right to actually get angry about any of it. We don’t understand the intricacies of game development, as much as we wish we did. There are facets of development and production that we will never grasp without actually being involved in the industry. Sure, we have an idea of how something is supposed to be made, but that doesn’t mean that’s how it’s done. It’s baffling to see the concept of “this is a small slice of something potentially much larger” elude the masses. Games grow, and ultimately require more as they do. Sometimes that five minute trailer you saw can’t really translate realistically to a 10 hour experience.
Right now I’m sure you’re asking yourself why studios shouldn’t be held accountable though. And you’re right, they should. Marketing or not, showing off a product that you know won’t be featured in the same way at launch is downright shoddy. It disappoints fans and often misleads them. The thing is, we’re engaging with an industry where this has become so common that it should be expected by now. Often we, as journalists, watch E3 and literally say out aloud, “Hell, that game is never going to look like that at launch”. Often, we get it right, along with a lot of other more savvy gamers out there. Sometimes, we get it horribly wrong, which doesn’t really hurt anyone either. Again, it comes down to a bit of sense. Not allowing yourself to get completely engulfed by the very first look of a game and then protecting yourself from falling prey to development staples is a good start.
However, there are some cases where this is simply not possible, and here is probably the only time we can really get angry. Most of the time, we’re shown multiple videos during the course of a game’s development. These allow us to see the changes as they are made, and although it doesn’t stop the masses from complaining, it at least gives us a window into what the game actually looks like. Watch Dogs is the perfect example of this. The very first time we saw the game, all the way back at E3 2012, it looked absolutely stunning. That hasn’t changed for the PC version of the title, but since then Ubisoft has released several videos of the title running on the PS4. A major visual discrepancy exists, and a lot of people are pissed. But aren’t you glad you know that it’s happened? Rather than getting a nasty surprise on launch day when the game you just splashed nearly a grand on doesn’t look anything like the internet has led you to believe. Shouldn’t we be thanking Ubisoft essentially then, for at least showing us what they’re offering before we pay?
Well, now there’s a perspective you’re probably going to hate me for showing you, right?
That doesn’t mean we can’t ever complain though. On a few occasions developers and publishers alike have outright abused their marketing power, showing off one version of the game and then waiting until the release for footage to surface again. That, or any footage released is so heavily edited and mixed that it doesn’t appear, in any capacity, on any platform the game is released on? Is it then fair to say that you’ve been outright lied to and scammed. Definitely, because that’s what it is. A developer selling you lies in order to force a knee jerk buying reaction before you know what’s up. Aliens: Colonial Marines is easily the most notorious example of this, with the only footage of the game not even appearing in the final PC version of the game. Of course, reviews were embargoed and no one could honestly tell you beforehand what was coming. A really crappy legal power that publishers have, but one that there is no way around either.
The point here is that there are two distinct differences between Watch Dogs and Colonial Marines, and there is only one case where we can legitimately get angry. Colonial Marines outright lied to consumers, and only revealed its true colours when people had actually paid for it. Watch Dogs on the other hand is showing its hand way before you have the chance to actually spend money on it. People are angry about the fact that the game doesn’t look as good as, say, the PC version, on consoles. But hey, have you actually lost out on the experience because of this downgrade yet? Have you been forced to splash down your hard earned money for something that doesn’t look as good as you initially thought it would?
No, you’re complaining because you’re disappointed, not because you’ve been cheated. And the beauty in that is the fact that you still have a choice about whether or not you let it affect you. If you’re not happy about what a game is looking like, then guess what?
You can choose not to buy it. It’s literally that simple.