One recent subject of mass outrage on gaming forums and YouTube is as follows: current demo footage of Spider-Man shows that one room has fewer puddles than it did in footage from a year ago. “This is a downgrade,” cry the gamers, “and we refuse to accept these deceptive marketing practices any longer.”
Puddle-gate is an especially ridiculous case, but the ideas behind it only seem to be gaining ground. Here’s the concept: pre-release footage of video games is marketing. (Yes.) Marketing should accurately represent the product being sold. (OK, sure.) So if some detail looks worse in the final version than it did in a development version or show demo, a “downgrade,” that means that the earlier footage was a deliberate act of deception. (Oy.)
Game marketing has a long history of selling games on impossible footage, from concept renders or pre-rendered cutscenes presented as in-game, to 80s home ports of arcade games with arcade screenshots on the box. That history gives modern “downgrade” controversies credibility, but the practices themselves seem to have died. Concept renders are clearly labeled, and most footage comes from “vertical slice” demos or other unfinished but functional builds of the game.
The core of the problem seems to be, as usual, that gamers don’t understand how games are made. People expect that if something isn’t finished yet, the final version will look even better than it already does. A huge part of the final stretch of development on a cutting-edge game is fitting that game onto the hardware people have with performance they can accept, and that might involve compromises. Cuts to shadow resolution, or NPC density in an open world, or yes, maybe even removing some reflective surfaces. A game’s developers have no way of knowing ahead of time if some visual feature will need to be changed for performance’s sake, and gamers accusing them of lying because of that is silly.
(Sidebar: I suspect that this sort of controversy is driven by the rise of YouTube in game coverage. A channel that lacks the industry connections of traditional video game media has little to lose and a lot to gain from bad-faith criticism of hyped games. Cherry-picking visual details is a natural form of bad-faith criticism in a video format.)
So what do y’all think? Am I wrong, and there’s an actual ethical concern here? How do you think developers, publishers, and journalists should respond? This is just one more thing we’ll need to deal with forever, isn’t it?