With the recent controversy over Watch Dogs’ new reveal trailer, which showed less than ideal graphics quality compared to previous showcases of the game, it’s worth remembering the times this has happened before, and why it happens so often in our industry.
Many years ago, a similar controversy unfolded in regards to Killzone 2, a hugely anticipated title that was set to blow Microsoft out of the water by showing off the performance prowess of the PS3. Sony needed to show that it stood firm in the face of Microsoft’s sales gap at the time, proving that it could also produce 1st party games that rivalled Halo in their graphical and technical ability.
Killzone 2 was showed off at E3 2005 in a trailer that proved Sony’s dedication to the gaming industry in one fell swoop. Soon after, journalists and gamers alike cried foul of this trailer, stating that it couldn’t be in-game footage, and had to be pre-rendered. Eventually, Sony came out of the woodwork and explained that the footage they had shown was “done to PS3 spec” and that is was a target render of what they wished the final product to look like. When the game finally released 4 years later in 2009, critics praised the graphics, but many argued that it didn’t live up to the trailer shown all the way back at E3 2005.
Fast forward to 2012, where Ubisoft had an extremely strong E3, and where Watch Dogs took the gaming world by storm. Its demo gave us all a glimpse of what next-gen would mean for games, and blew us all away with its fantastic attention to detail, as well as polished graphical fidelity not seen anywhere before. With the recent release of a new Watch Dogs’ trailer, however, this goodwill and hype has turned into disappointment and doubt.
But why do developers and publishers do this? Surely they know that consumers pick apart every tiny nook and cranny of a game before its release, and so they would easily be caught out in doing so? The fact is, every company in the industry does it to some extent, whether it’s with Halo 4, where early published screenshots were done on development consoles with both AA and resolution set to max, or cross-gen titles like Call of Duty: Ghosts or Battlefield 4 only being shown running on the PC initially. The truth is, everyone's doing it.
Graphics sells games. Throughout the years many have cried foul of graphics being at the forefront of game development, stating that great games don’t necessarily have great graphics, which is true... to a point. A game isn’t sold on its gameplay alone; a whole bunch of other factors go into successfully marketing and selling a polished AAA game to its intended market. Graphics are one of the easiest ways to showcase and sell a game, even if you can’t show the true potential of said game within a 30 second ad-spot, or a few screenshots in a magazine.
Take for example Mike Bithell's fantastic Thomas Was Alone. If you’d have seen Thomas Was Alone in a magazine, or on the TV, you wouldn’t have given it a second look. The mechanics and story take time to love, time to learn, and time to immerse yourself in, something a screenshot can’t successfully conjure up, and certainly something an advert can’t convey. Graphics that look realistic or unique can by-pass these problems and be attractive to the consumer from the outset. A kind of “THIS GAME IS SO NEXT GEN AND REAL!” mentality, if you will. They’re system sellers and can be used to justify the purchase of a new platform. I’m sure many of us remember breaking out Gears of War just to show friends and family how realistic it looked, even if the game itself wasn’t that great and even if they themselves weren’t gamers.
Publishers show these games off at press events with slightly better graphics to get us hooked on the idea or premise of the game. Don’t get me wrong, consumers have become more intelligent over the years when it comes to taking everything with a pinch of salt, but there are times when the presentation of an upcoming game manages to bypass our logical senses and go straight to the hype train.
If the graphics in Watch Dogs have indeed been downgraded then we were tricked, plain and simple, into hyping about a game that wasn't as pretty as we were led to believe. Watch Dogs was announced at the apex of the last generation. It was a perfect time to set expectations for the graphically fidelity of the coming consoles. Watch Dogs capitalised on this, riding a fan-fair of delight at potential possibilities. Hopefully, the game still looks great, but if initial screenshots and trailers are to be believed, it certainly won't live up to what we were sold 2 years ago.
We need to try to be more vigilant in the future. Developers and Publishers will only continue to showcase graphics before gameplay whilst we continue to buy into the hype and, in turn, buy the games on a false premise. I’m not going to advocate everyone in the world needs to stop buying games on launch day, but I know many of us buy games on release day that we never touch. It’s worth reading reviews and watching more gameplay videos before making a purchasing decision, so publishers like Ubisoft aren’t as tempted to keep on doing this.