Watch Dogs And E3: A Potentially Unsolvable Problem
There have been a lot of opinions surrounding this issue to date, some of them on this very website. Today I’d like to talk about something I feel hasn’t been covered enough, but before I do that let’s first establish a few things. I discussed the Watch Dogs graphical downgrade and its implications in a previous opinion piece, concluding that while it was understandable, it wasn’t justified given the nature of our expectations for the new consoles at the time and the magnitude of the visual differences. Keep in mind that this was well before footage of the stunning PC version was revealed. More recently my colleague Alessandro rightfully pointed out that Ubisoft deserves credit for showcasing the game on multiple platforms well before release, giving you all that you need to see before you actually make a purchasing decision, and being relatively open about the graphical quality of the game when they could have easily hidden details about the visuals until it was too late.
Of course it is rather disheartening that we have to appreciate what you’d expect to be common courtesy, but that is the nature of our beloved gaming industry at times. Now I’ve been wracking my brains about this whole E3 ‘false advertising’ problem and the debates surrounding Watch Dogs and fan disappointment, and I wanted to focus on a possible solution today. However, before I bring it to your attention I would very much like to put forward the disclaimer that my solution may not be plausible given the lack of incentive or necessity on behalf of the higher powers that are publishers, and thus we may be facing an unsolvable problem. Let’s discuss why that is, as calm and rationally as we can be.
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Many of us savvy gamers, myself included, have argued that gamers should expect E3 to not represent the final quality, and that there will obviously be downgrades as the game gets bigger and requires further optimisation and cutbacks over its development. E3 is only a small portion of the game, a tech demo, and not close to what the final product will be in scale. This represents a unique property of games. Movies may have a similar process, but not nearly as significant as gaming. To use a recent example The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s early trailers had weaker CGI, scenes with different colour tones or times of day compared to later trailers, and one or two scenes that were changed entirely. If you watch an old trailer you might see Spidey trying to smack Rhino with a round storm drain in his hand, yet in the latest trailer it’s attached to a web in a rather awesome action scene. But generally films are a lot more consistent and what you see is usually what you get. The same can’t be said for gaming, due to the radical nature in which games can evolve and change over their development and the need to optimise a project for various platforms that have limitations a PC does not.
However a recent thought made me realise that perhaps it’s not fair to say gamers should expect it. The reality is that consumers have required transparency for things in the past that today you’d consider ludicrous. Two such examples would be smoking and, well, McDonalds. Years ago people didn’t actually know that either of these were harmful in the long run. Actual lawsuits went against McDonalds from people who drastically picked up weight from regular consumption due to not being informed of the fast food’s unhealthiness. Today we’d call this absolutely ridiculous due to how obvious it all is, but in those days it wasn’t so clear cut due to the lack of information through research and studies and the lack of information divulged to consumers. Perhaps this messy and grey problem regarding E3 and visual downgrades is a similar situation, especially since the gaming industry is still so fresh and effectively in its infancy compared to other mediums of entertainment.
If you think about it, even us us savvy gamers saw Watch Dogs at E3 2012 and believed that it would look like that on PS4 and Xbox One, due to the lack of information we had about both consoles and the nature of E3 as a showcase for games. To the average gamer what they’re seeing at E3 is a real representation and they can’t possibly be expected, at this stage, to draw all the conclusions a more advanced or experienced gamer would be expected to draw, in that E3 isn’t indicative of the final product or that the game could change over development or that it may look different on each platform. Many of us would call these truths obvious, but if I bring up the issue of cigarettes and McDonalds again, perhaps you’ll agree that maybe some transparency is what is needed.
That is why my proposed solution would be that E3 has more strict warnings. Game footage shown should inform consumers, clearly and plainly, that what they’re seeing isn’t indicative of the final product, the actual game may look different, and it might not look the same across all platforms. Watch Dogs of 2012 was running on a PC, and the recent PC footage holds up to that, so technically no lie was told. But the sad thing is that everything was left up to assumption, due to the fact that no regulations are in place and the majority of gamers aren’t savvy, and as a result Ubisoft don’t get to be held liable. I’m not saying if they warn appropriately that all blame or anger will disappear, but it would certainly protect developers more and give less grounds to stand on if visual downgrades occur, unless of course consumers are deceived like Aliens: Colonial Marines or not shown any further footage of the game as development goes on so that the current quality of the game can’t be assessed.
And assumptions about Watch Dogs weren’t even unprecedented, given that it was our first taste of next-gen along games like Star Wars 1313, and we had no evidence to prove PS4 and Xbox One could not match the PC demos. Every ounce of our initial hype came from believing Watch Dogs would be like that on our new consoles. We can defend developers on this, sure, due to a variety of reasons mentioned earlier, but consumers have a right to have a label staring them in the face that warns them about the product. I largely agree with my colleague that Ubisoft have in fact upheld their end of the bargain by constantly showing this game to us on a variety of platforms and letting us assess quality well before we’d committed to any purchase. But people won’t have grounds to overreact if E3 appropriately warned and informed people. You can’t blame the developers if you are warned about something which can happen. As is, Watch Dogs basically sold itself and next-gen to the less informed.
Now, my colleague Caveshen rightfully highlighted that the problem with my solution is that unlike cigarettes or McDonalds, there is no legal obligation for publishers to show appropriate warnings or stickers at E3. I further agree with him and Alessandro when they explained that realistically E3 is not really for consumers, as it’s a trade and marketing event essentially. My view is that despite the truth behind this it doesn’t change what appropriate warnings could do for us if they became a standard. I just feel like, there’s enough cynicism and mistrust in the gaming industry that some things should be done to make the situation better. In this case, it’s evident that it will remain a grey area of mistrust and skeptism, as the lack of legal obligation does render my solution implausible.
I feel there are a few angles to this. Stickers or warnings would be great, but at the same time sadly people must also wise up and become more cynical. We are being forced into this, and there’s little option but to take E3 with a pinch of salt. Conversely, I believe developers and publishers have a responsibility to not falsely advertise or beef up their projects to the point of fantasy. If you think about it, Ubisoft are well equipped in the open world genre with games like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 3 and The Division, to know what to expect from development. But technically, Watch Dogs did not falsely advertise that since the PC version looks largely similar to what we saw at E3 2012 and Ubisoft have been open about the state of the game on all its platforms. The problem would certainly come in when something like Aliens: Colonial Marines happens, where actual promised game features don’t make it or showcased segments aren’t included or blatant lies are told or the visual downgrade is ridiculous to the point that the game is unrecognisable. It really is about levels and severity.
In conclusion the reality is that we may be faced with an unsolvable problem, and the only way to fight back may just be to wise up and become more cynical. Ideally we’d get appropriate warnings and some more transparency from our industry, but maybe that’s just a pipe dream. Technically, the Watch Dogs situation isn’t so villainous, but the E3 problem is one of general concern, and may not have a solution.