More than a decade ago video games had more features and complex game mechanics than one could now dream of but the technological limitation left a big mark on the production value. But with the technological evolution, the expanding of the market and rise of the internet, the production of video games has been taken to a whole new level and with this the industry transitioned from smaller projects to a plethora of AAA titles and from family-like studios to gigantic corporations. What once was mostly the labor of love of a small group of people has become a laborious work involving hundreds part of a complex mechanism that is constantly in motion.
While the evolution is normal and we should be extremely happy for this, not everything moved to the next step and some concepts were abandoned with time, as profit triumphs over everything else when it comes to a business.
With the growing of the industry, the investments in video games have become astronomically bigger and so did the expectations for profit. The explosion of video games conventions, the TV commercials, the social media and the journalists have become more important in making sure a game reaches as wider of audience as possible. Marketing has started to play a role just as important and just as paid as the development process itself and this weird balance and the forced idea of profit over anything else has brought us to a point where things start to get out of control.
It was expected that most video games would become mainstream and the bigger studios will start taking increasingly fewer chances with their newer titles and play it safe. The investments are huge and the profit has to be guaranteed or otherwise nobody will want to invest in AAA games. And while we like this or not we have to understand the risk factors when developing a AAA title, especially for a smaller studio. The real issues is when the developers try to sell something that isn’t there and this brings this article to the real issue of today, an issue that has spread rapidly in the last couple of years and to which there seems to be no solution: false advertisement.
According to the law, a physical product should look and work as advertised. If the product doesn’t respect these conditions it can be returned by the unsatisfied costumer and the company responsible has to reimburse the client. This law protects against fraudulent attempts and together with warranty has served the customers well for many years.
But what happens when an industry doesn’t have any laws?
Promises that can’t be kept are always made during the development process of a game and this comes mostly from the optimism of the developers thinking they can add more into a game than their technology, budget or deadline actually allows and while this is unpleasant and happens often it is excusable as long as the customer is aware of the changes. But there is a thin line between unrealistic promises and false advertisement and in the last years this line has been crossed multiple times.
First there was Alien Colonial Marines, a game set on capturing the atmosphere of the Alien movies by continuing their story. From the first videos released to the public the game looked amazing and the journalists’ preview demo confirmed the quality of the game. What nobody knew at that time was that the preview demo was vastly different and superior to the final product. At launch the players got to experience an unpolished game with washed up textures, horrible AI and so many issues that it was barely playable.
This was a huge warning that not everything the developers show and say can be trusted and a good lesson for those who pre-order games, but few learned from it
Dark Souls became popular quickly on PC, despite the questionable port with horrible graphics and fps locked at 30, so it was only natural for Dark Souls II to make its way to the PC platform. This time around, From Software promised a better port and overall improved graphics with lavish details and an atmospheric lighting system. The game looked great in videos, even if the technical part was a little farfetched for the old generation of consoles. The game was first released on consoles and it looked heavily downgraded (no shock there) compared to the presentation trailers and advertisement, but the hopes for the PC version were still up (why downgrade for PC when this platform can handle it?). With no new footage for PC close to the release date things became worrisome and people started to ask questions. From Software took immediate action by removing the better looking screenshots from Steam. The release came as a confirmation that the game didn’t look anywhere near like it was originally advertised and while the graphics on PC are slightly better the game was far from 2014 standards. The excuse for the old generation consoles was the balancing of the visuals and resource management during development, the PC downgrade could hardly be justified and there are no excuses for the lies.
Shortly after the Dark Souls II mess, the first truly next-gen title was expected after a long delay of seven months. Watch Dogs was said to be developed with PC as the primary platform (we heard this before, remember Battlefield 3?) and advertised by Ubisoft as a truly next-gen game in both graphics and game mechanics. The game looked amazing during the early demonstration videos. The seven months long delay was going to give the developers enough time to polish the game to deliver “a truly memorable and exceptional experience” (I’ll never forget what happened). The lack of information related to the PC version prior to release had a déjà vu feeling to it and a rumor about a downgrade started to circulate. The videos presented a few days before the release day came as a shock (for some) and the downgrade was not just a rumor anymore. Despite looking good the Watch Dogs we knew was not there anymore as it suffered from what some would call “optimization”. In less than three weeks after release a modder found some hidden files in the game which could enable the graphic assets originally shown at E3 2012. Ubisoft responded to this by saying the game wasn’t downgraded and those old settings have a negative impact on performance and gameplay. In reality the game run as poorly with those unlocked settings as it did without them and this raised the question if Watch Dogs was downgraded intentionally on PC. Despite the controversy and the laughable PR, Watch Dogs broke sale records for Ubisoft and in less than a year it had over ten million copies sold.
Somehow things like these are expected from big corporation, but you know things are bad when even Kickstarter projects financed by the fans have the same problems. Divinity: Original Sin, a highly successful crowdfunded RPG was released lacking some of the important content that was promised as tier rewards during its Kickstarter campaign and nobody knew about this until they couldn’t find those features in the game. While this shouldn’t bother those who didn’t help finance the game, the backers were let down. The much awaited high end hardcore dungeon that was presented in a video one year before release was gone and many players were searching for it in-game. A stretch goal advertised as something that should be in game that brought Larian Studios more money was removed without notice.
And the players found out like this:
The Witcher 3 is one of the most ambitious RPG in years and the initial footage shown in 2013 was mind blowing featuring some of the best graphics ever seen and taking advantage of many of Nvidia’s graphic assets. The thirty-five minutes demo from 2014 reinforced the technological advancements present in the game and everyone was optimistic as CDPR are considered by many the saviors of PC gaming. The first misstep was taken in November 2014 when CDPR announced sixteen free DLCs for the game making people happily preorder a game that was set for release in February 2015 just so they could postpone it to May one month later. We know for a fact that the mouse and keyboard controls were still not implemented less than a month before the game’s release, hinting that CDPR knew the game had no chance to release on February so one might wonder if those free DLCs were just for preorder show. But this was water under the bridge, for a game of this caliber the developers should take their time and time costs money, so the true next-gen experience could wait a few more months while feeding of a few extra preorders.
The Elder Blood trailer had the first signs of a visual downgrade and was followed by a train wreck of complaints and bizarre PR affirmations that in the mind of skeptics (like me) only confirmed the suspicions related to this matter. Yet Marcin Momot, the community manager of CDPR, reassured the fans that the graphic fidelity seen in previous trailers can be achieved on PC. But things only got worse, the more videos released the more graphic assets were removed and despite being asked to release a PC video using the Ultra settings, CDPR ignored this request and kept saying that Ultra settings look better than anything we’ve seen recently (apparently we should take their word and see at release).
The last nail in the coffin for the PC version was the fact that all the preview copies sent to the journalists for reviews were for the PS4 and we had to wait for release to find out how good the PC version really is.
Some major gaming websites uploaded videos showing the Ultra settings and the graphics quality was laughable compared to what we were expecting. The forums became flooded with angry fans that felt deceived and the martial law was installed by the moderators for damage control. Threads were closed and people banned for stating their complaints and I started to wonder how much more are CDPR planning to sacrifice their fans to keep on the charade?
In the end according to the official sources the differences between the consoles and PC versions of the game will be: draw distance, resolution, framerate and Nvidia’s hairworks. Basically from all the fancy graphic assets, the PC gamers will only have access to some common sense settings and an Nvidia asset for which they are even mentioned in the game’s manual (…).
In The Witcher 3 release story the marketing and certain interests trumped over the screaming fans that not a long time ago helped this company exist, but apparently that doesn’t matter anymore (remember Crytek?!). With the game being released on three different platforms and having over one million pre-orders despite the controversy, it feels like the PC users are not so important anymore (add to this the fact that console users can already play the game prior to release, while the PC users have to wait until May 19).
On the brighter side of things, this entire masquerade might be a wakeup call for many, a bucket of ice cold water in the face of those who believed that there are saviors out there who separate themselves from the corporatist interests of AAA video games development. The reality is cruel and blunt, video gaming is an expensive business and like any other business it all comes down to money and in this perspective CDPR nailed it with The Witcher 3.
I don’t want to go as far as to say what determined CDPR to do this, though it is pretty obvious for me, but I can say I can’t remember to have seen such a chaotic and weird (avoiding the word disgusting) marketing campaign in the past. I still don’t know what to expect from this game in the release day, but my hopes are very low.
One would say that the benefit of the doubt should be given to CDPR in this situation, but I’ve been burned before and considering the secretive attitude and the almost (such a kind word) insulting marketing and PR campaign I don’t think it is the case for such thing anymore.
The clock is ticking and the moment of truth is closing in. The release of The Witcher 3 will mark a turning point for the consumers of video games. At first I thought it would be the first open world game that does it right since Gothic and Morrowind’s time, but now it is something much more serious than that. On May 19 we will have the definitive proof in this matter and we will know if and how much CDPR has lied to us, from that moment forward, things will never be the same. If the so called “good guys” did this, we can only expect the worse from this point forward. One thing I would like to point out, even if it turns out that this entire controversy was just for the console sales and the game looks as amazing as it should have, this should NEVER be forgotten.
Most of the things I’ve said are related to graphics and while this might sound as me being a graphics whore, that is the worst possible interpretation of this article. The problems mentioned above stand as the most eloquent examples of false advertisement and intentional deceiving by video games producers and most of the cases are strictly related to the PC version of the games in question.
Saddened by the situation, I can only hope that at some point in the future we will receive the protection required by the law, even though it sounds extreme. To put laws in practice to protect the customers of this market could be a complicated matter but it seems to be the only option we have because the trust is long gone… In the mean time, the only thing we can do to defend ourselves is to stop preordering video games!