The downgrade discourse


#1

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?


#2

You’re not wrong. What might be the target may not pan out if you show the game too early. Watch_Dogs is a pretty famous example. Ubisoft, by their own admission, overshot the 8th gen console specs and put out a really maxed out looking trailer that looked incredible. The lighting and screen effects were changed around to be less taxing for the full game and it became less systemic driven. It’s by no means a bad looking game. I was impressed the incredible weather system they showed off made it into the PC and 8th gen console versions. And while the gameplay was a pretty standard GTA clone with small spice to it with the “Hacking” the sequel massively iterated on the gameplay potential that made it a significantly better game (Also not playing as “Grim white dude in a trenchcoat has revenge fantasies” made it a better game by default). Spider-Man is a clear example of the art style changing and evolving over time. Screen Space reflections can be a taxing effect, game reduced down on it. But bloom lighting and global illumination seems to have increased. The game still looks decent. It’s not Arkham Knight in the graphics department, but it looks very good.

But then youtube outrage is very much the biggest contributor to this bullshit and we’re only starting to become aware of it now thanks to great vids like “DOOM: The Fake Outrage” showing how this all builds up. Bait in some fanboys pinning their hopes and dreams on this game and reap the rewards of youtube ad cash while contributing nothing. Same with proclaiming the game the best thing since sliced pants, the other fanboys are jealous (Even mention “Spider-Man” and “PC” on the Bird site and you will get a Sony fanboy jumping in your mentions to be an annoyance that “Its never coming to PC”. Guaranteed). It’s probably not even a side bar. Probably the main course. But the issue is. You can tell people over and over how games are made, there’s multiple passes at a scene, it looks incredibly different from conception to full product. And you will still get bullshit. Mainly because the hardcore community is irredemably toxic that lying and constructing their own reality comes second nature to them

As for a response. Todd Howard has the right idea. Announce your game 6 months before it ships when you are practically finished and in the polish stage. Then no one gets mad. It just works (Though I know its not like that for every game when you want to source feedback from it)

I should link to that Fake Outrage video while I think of it


#3

I’m sure this is directly responsible for the constant, repeated “This is subject to change” disclaimers in the recent Cyberpunk demo.

Not that it’ll help.

[quote=“GibdoInferno, post:1, topic:17293”]
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 [/quote]

I think you hit the nail on the head, here. Bait-and-switch tactics from game marketers are certainly less common than they used to be, but at the same time, Aliens: Colonial Marines isn’t that far in the past. Unfortunately, trying to cautiously differentiate between typical game development and intentionally misleading marketing isn’t going to keep the outrage machine running.

What I find most perplexing about the Spider-man keruiffle is that the two screenshots are exactly what you would expect from a dynamic world.


#4

It looks like a misunderstanding more than anything, its a different time of day, a different costume, and yes they removed the puddles. Im glad the developers were confident enough to say they did not reduce any performance or fidelity in the game.


#5

I’d take this a step further and say that a decent chunk of gamers don’t want to understand how games are made. They only want to hear about the positives, never the negatives of how issues during development affect the final product. As much I’d like more transparency and behind the scenes access at some point both developers and marketers need to understand that a portion of their audience won’t accept that an unfinished game will be in flux and nothing is final until it’s shipped. Most of the disingenuous outrages I can think of only exist because people would rather make up conspiracies than learn about something that they’re clearly passionate about:

  • To expand on what EdComment said about Watch Dogs, it didn’t matter that there was a solid six months of trailers using accurate in game footage, people still called it a scam based on a years old pre-rendered video.

  • There were smaller outcries about both Dark Souls 2 and The Witcher 3, again based on very early trailers which overshot the graphics a bit and were scaled back. One of the more popular theories in the Witcher’s case was that the PC version could’ve looked as good as the initial trailer but Sony and Microsoft bribed CDPR to downgrade it so their consoles didn’t look bad by comparison.

  • While not about graphics things like this remind me of the the Skullgirls dlc mess. Long story short they ran a $150,000 kickstarter for a new character. Some people thought that was asking for way too much and made all sorts of accusations. In response the devs gave a complete breakdown on where all the money was going. They were 100% transparent down to the cent in a way I’ve never seen any company be. It didn’t matter, all that did was change the conspiracy from “This is a scam!” to “You’re paying these artists too much!”

Maybe I’m being too much of a pessimist but I don’t know if there’s a solution to this. Furious Youtubers only exist because there’s an audience for it and if that audience’s rage is built around mistrust and a lack of empathy then I can’t think of a way to reach out to them that isn’t dismissed out of hand.


#6

The Skullgirls example is an interesting one to bring up because the FGC did take that knowledge on board and a lot of “conspiracy” was met with challenges to it. Seth Killian even pointed out that the costs for doing a character in Street Fighter IV or MvC3 were even higher than that at the time (Though not getting specifics for obvious reasons). So when Jim Sterling recently did a video on it how “Fighting games are carved up to extract money from players”. The FGC just repeatedly dunked on him for because they had the knowledge of how it works from the developers and told him to pound sand (Also, this was a model the FGC wanted for years as a lot of people were sick of buying new versions constantly). So arming a community with knowledge of game development can work. It won’t work on everyone. Especially those picking fights for the sake of drama or “The Skullgirl devs are SJW’s because they censored some panty shot frames” but it can work

The idea of a “Downgrade” feeds the news cycle though. Forgive me for being a bit indulgent but there’s an excellent book called “No Time To Think”, about how CNN changed reporting by creating a constant churn of news and mixing it with more entertaining editorial shows when ratings weren’t that great. It creates a constant pressure to “Make” news. When it comes to gaming. The community has no problem making News when gaming companies don’t have any or IGN is having a slow day. Especially when it’s easy to make money from the news hungry. Heck youtube wont let you have ad revenue? Open a patreon and say whatever garbage you like. Work the keywords and then put it on youtube. Then reap the rewards of people paying to confirm their biases.

So we have a problem of people wanting to devour editorial opinion and treating it as news. With even more extreme and reactionary opinions becoming lucrative if framed right. So something as petty as a decrease in puddles to save performance suddenly blows up. Half the reason “Puddlegate” blew up was because of one fanbase being toxic and annoying to even casual players. So there’s a schadenfrude aspect to it that this lauded game, (that will get your mentions invaded by hostile brand evangelists if you even think it would be nice to have it on PC/Switch/Xbox screaming at you to buy a PS4), gets knocked down a peg. So just make a video mocking the downgrade or calling the downgrade “Fake News” and you make money either side.

It’s one of the biggest issues in reporting in general. There’s no room for truth when money is at stake. And even when legit outlets are saying its a bunch of nothing, they will be accused of being shills and protecting the industry because of that lucrative advertisement money (Even though people who work at the top of the industry at IGN say they struggle to buy games with their own salaries because of the insane cost of living in San Francisco). It’s essentially a no-win situation and that’s unfortunate because there’s no punishment for lying and making things up.


#7

Publishers have (as said, since the very beginning when the ports to the lowest end platforms contained screenshots from the best on the back of the box in the 1980s) lied and boosted the reasonableness of conspiracy theories on “downgrades” and so on.

Journalist and independent writers have chased the traffic statistics and so boosted the reasonableness of conspiracy theories that claim content discussing technical changes (something that would be expected to be of interest to someone who maybe only saw the initial trailers and isn’t checking every single morsel of PR linked to a AAA release up to launch day) are “clickbait” or “chasing the algorithm”.

I look forward to the outrage about the outrage finding a new tail. Maybe it’s a spiral and there are two different conspiracy theorist pockets, one pointing to “downgrades” and one pointing to people who post about “downgrades”, who constantly see the other as the conspiracy theorists who make their pocket theories look reasonable in comparison. It’s strange to see the discourse splinter around this. Is Digital Foundry offering validation for conspiracy theories by doing technical analysis?

Is there a problem with people who have a small following (or just chatting on forums) talking about technical changes or should that focus on the huge websites which cover games, who find those comments and direct their huge traffic at it (which also stokes the value of being more outlandish or attaching a “-gate” to the end of discussion threads)? I had no idea about the discourse about Spider-Man until I read several larger sites who have covered that discourse (be that making fun of it or giving it a cautious “but is this true”/“why not discuss it in our user forums”) and now it’s here. Outrage at outrage. Theories that this stuff only exists because it drives traffic while advertising the existence of said conspiracy theories so that more people find out that they can Google it and see a video or read some forum chatter themselves. It all feels extremely weird and almost surreal.

I will enjoy some deep dives as much as the next coder. We’ve been reading the overlap of speculation and research/analysis for decades (how old are places like HardOCP, Voodoo Extreme, or Hexus? - I know at least some are over 20 years old now) so it’s not new to really dig into this stuff, even if less common for pre-release stuff. The WP crew have chatted about enjoying videos poking at pre-release trailer content cut from the final release as an interesting thing to check out.

To go to the other end of the scale, some of the stuff written about rendering is fascinating, often peer-analysis from other engineers (almost up there with a SIGGRAPH presentation from the architects themselves). From time to time I even spot something small in a game and feel like it’s worth writing a note or two about it. Often they’ve been the things I’ve written that have gotten to most messages from (enthusiast press) writers saying they’ve enjoyed reading it.

All this stuff seems to exist on a continuum. Some videos or articles are going to be made just to attract clicks. Some forum chatter is just stoking outrage because the author wants to stir things up. And sometimes publishers put out bullshots or trailers that don’t actually represent a realistic expectation of the final product (or even lie about if it’s an in-progress slice). But really, if we don’t like something people are chatting about (when they’re not actually going out and harassing devs etc that should be condemned), we should probably just focus on the stuff we do like. Rather than adding a new layer of outrage to the onion and boosting the overall outrage economy even further.


#8

Can I also lay part of blame at the feet of Digital Foundry for legitimising this degree of forensic examination? This kind of frame-by-frame, pixel-counting perfectionism existed before they made it an semi-institution, but I can’t help but imagine a present where a major vertical in a well-regarded publication hadn’t uncritically employed phrases like “1080p60” from forum chatter and generally gave credence to consumer outrage by making a science out of it.


#9

I had typed up an entire fucking article about this and how it correlates to the music industry but I ctrl+a backspaced that fucker. Here’s my ‘short’ take…

I do believe that ‘puddle-gate’ is fucking stupid but also fucking great. Can’t wait to see satire on this BUT I do think its premise, although extreme, has some merit.
The very idea of being sold off initial perspective is a big deal to me as a music producer where a note change in a fucking chord progression can take away everything that I found appealing to a song before its final release. I do think the person buying the fucking thing has a research responsibility before they pay their $60 but also, try not to show your game so early man… be a better creator. If something IS subject to change that drastically such as a Watch Dogs or a Witcher, then just don’t show it. It’s why im so glad that the people at Gearbox(don’t get me started on these guys…) haven’t showed anything on what Borderlands 3 is yet and honestly I fucking HOPE that they don’t show anything until the game is at least 6 months to release.
I do understand that video games are a composition of a literal thousand hands so maybe my argument for don’t show before you know works against it but as a creator, if your game, song, art piece, or whatever is good, then wait. Discipline is important in creative work and I hope more creators realize this as times grow more immediate and social.

Sidenote: A Thousand Hands is a god damn good name for a Video Game Documentary or something…


#10

Ding ding ding! Sadly, the core of that community is kinda too far gone. They’re going to find grievances and turn non-issues into major ones whenever it suits them, and education about how games are made is probably futile.

That said, I agree that Bethesda generally approaches this in the best way. Rockstar as well. Don’t show a damn thing (other than vague teasers) until you’re basically ready to ship, then announce with an aggressive marketing blitz.

This is unfortunate for those of us who like seeing the many steps in the creative process, because it’s in the best interest of these companies to withhold information until they can be sure the toxic fans have nothing to complain about.

Edit: I’m a marketer myself, and I do think it’s very important to represent your product as truthfully as possible. If you ever show gameplay/visuals/features/etc that has a chance of changing (so, any time), then you should plaster a “WORK IN PROGRESS - DOES NOT REPRESENT FINAL GAME” text overlay onto it (like what Cyberpunk 2077 did).


#11

Gaming culture is notoriously hard to have a nuanced take in.

I think of jimquisition when I feel for position of outright antipathy towards capitalistic means to sell games at the expense of the games quality. Micro transactions, lootboxes, etc

BUT. at the same time, if I’m struggling and make a game with lootboxes in it on the android store I might just unabashedly do it because making a living is important to me, too.

I can’t fault those youtubers that make money off of those don’t call XX at 3am videos because I want everyone to find a way to make money in this system, while also not wanting corporations to try and maximize it. It’s the poison of capitalism.

To put this in the context of this puddle gate debacle. It’s hard to both support developers and hate publishers in the marketing bait and switch culture we live in. We can’t always immediately know if the game is gusied up for a cool preview or to actively sell the game and often you can’t seperate the two. Is this a passionate attempt to show off someone’s work? Is this a marketing play? Who’s to know?

I personally don’t mind it because I know what to expect and know it’s just a trailer. But I can’t deny that someone who just loves spiderman might be decieved in some minute way. Is it worth the uproar? Hell no, but gaming culture is not nuanced at all and it hurts itself.

Idk. I don’t like to “both sides” this but trailers like this plays both into both sides in a way that I think is hard to parse. I’d rather be without them for the sake of accuracy but also enjoy the fantasy it sells because I’m mature enough to know the difference.


#12

I really bristled at the coverage over this “outrage” after seeing a Twitter post about the response to the joke in the DOOM trailer and was left thinking even more about how this has all been handled after watching the “DOOM: The Fake Outrage” video linked in the first post.

I won’t belabor the points EdComment and Shivoa made above about the reasoning and the harm behind the coverage of this and similar issues, but my takeaway was that games press should spend their time tackling the underlying issues behind this kind of response to game material rather than clutching their pearls and smacking their foreheads about how dumb it is to be mad about the size of puddles.

Obviously the hordes of people who make arguments in bad faith won’t be swayed by a thoughtful interview or editorial with a dev explaining how and why these visual discrepancies occur, but I had a friend in my group chat ask if Cyberpunk 2077 will likely look the same at launch as it did in their gameplay reveal and it would be nice to have a resource/resources to link to that could accurately explain the process beyond my general tolerance for the assumed difficulties of the game dev cycle.


#13

Games culture has beaten around the bush of mental illness in games fandom for so long that the deeply-trodden earth surrounding said bush could be filled with gamer tears and function as a fucking moat.


#14

I think Insomniac picking fights on Twitter and ERA claiming there was “no downgrade” didn’t help either. It just feeds the trolls and gives them ammo. The reddit for the game has been showing footage and there are areas of the game where there are puddles. But they are missing the screen space reflections from E3. Now I don’t blame them, SSR is incredibly taxing and there’s very few games that can pull it off well (Usually racing games). So whenever anyone brings back the puddle argument, you’re still gonna see “But they weren’t as good as E3”. Same with the shadows and Ambient Occlusion which were re-done to fit the art.

But then this mess isn’t going to go away. Review embargo is up soon. Whoever gives it a good review is “Paid by Sony to ignore the downgrade”. Whoever gives it an average review will be “Paid by Microsoft/Nintendo/Valve to sabotage Sony’s metacritic”. There is always some way to continue the ludicrousness and lucrative nature of what is essentially nothing. Its just a slowly unfolding train crash at this point.


#15

Yeah, I’m not generally a “don’t feed the trolls” person, but in this case like really don’t feed the fucking trolls.

All of those things you mention are just boilerplate shitty gamer behavior and the way I look at it is if you’re going to shout into the void in vain you might as well do it in a way that enlightens the reasonable observer rather than legitimizing the nonsense.

Obviously it’s not on devs to do this work, but for example the Skull Girls thing informs the community and allows voices outside of the dev side to squash these faux controversies.

But then again as you alluded to we live in a hell scape and people are always going to find ways to keep being terrible.


#16

I don’t understand how this is supposed to be a “dumb angry gamers just don’t get it” kinda situation here.

Some of the more “outrageous” examples of downgrades were very clearly situations where they could never hope to achieve that level of graphical fidelity in any version of the final product. Like, on what version of Playstation were the hoping to ever get that Witcher 3 trailer running?

And I also think that your example of how games are made actually works against your argument here because if it’s actually the case that you pretty much always cut stuff to make it work on real life hardware at the end of development then why exactly do you need to show the unrealistically good looking current version that contains every single piece of eye candy and only runs on a NASA computer setup in trailers a year before release?

Hate to be the cynic here but isn’t “well marketing came in so we had to make a trailer that looked as good as humanly possible, because preorders” the more obvious explanation at hand here? Love to be proven wrong tho obviously.


#17

I agree that it’s not dumb, angry gamers that don’t get it, but really? Blaming marketing material isn’t it either. This 100% a way for a mob to gain leverage and enough justification to harass developers. There are SO many ways we could be having useful, thoughtful conversations about how games are marketed and sold to people, and how/when to believe something. Consistently, we aren’t.

But this is what gamers do, right? If a company wrongs you, you get mad. You send your righteous indignation at the Evils of the World, until you Get What You’re Deserved.

Like, that’s sold to people constantly. It IS gamer culture. Whether it’s dozens of youtube personalities, like Yahtzee or Jim Sterling, or websites breathlessly covering these events of a ton of people being mad on social media, there is an expectation that the way you get what you want from your games is that you get mad.

In my opinion, it absolutely does not matter if this was reasonable marketing, or a bad way to sell games, or out right bad faith companies trying to pull a fast one. We have SUCH a bigger problem in gaming that makes it dangerous for the people who make it, while the companies involved just have to weather the storm and reap the rewards of their slavishly devoted fans when they give them what they want. This culture is toxic, and it’s toxic because people are so mad when they can’t buy the exact thing they think they are owed.


#18

I think that’s true to an extent. Marketing departments absolutely are pushing for the most extravagant, unrealistically high-fidelity footage of the game to be released to the public, management like putting that footage out because their teams get a morale boost from seeing people excited about their game, and then when it comes to the actual release the devs and PR team have to deal with the consequences. It’s a calculated risk that, when it doesn’t pay off, disproportionately impacts the people at the bottom.

However, it wouldn’t be nearly as much of a risk if the culture of game criticism both inside and outside of traditional media spaces hadn’t spent the last 10 years indulging the pixel-counting, frame-by-frame comparisons that used to only exist in the darkest recesses of PC gaming forums. The bar has been artificially raised for what could be considered misleading by the coverage of and audience for this stuff and I think it distorts our perception of much more exploitative practices.


#19

I realize this is going to be a tangent at best, but this brings up the obvious point of “what does downgrade mean?” For me, personally, the newer screenshot looks better. In fact, after watching the latest videos, I realized that the glare from the earliest gameplay vids had been turning me off. I don’t want my games to have the lighting intensity of an early morning sun after a rainstorm.

So, what’s a downgrade? If it’s simple as “the shinier, the better,” I think we all owe JJ Abrams about a decade’s worth of apologies. So is it the number of systems running concurrently? The number of pixels rendered on screen? Cutting the native resolution to get a better framerate seems like one people often point to. Is cutting the framerate to get a better native resolution a downgrade?

Does downgrade just mean “different?” I could see an argument for that being the case, and I honestly would be more sympathetic to the “outrage” if the approach was “this isn’t what I preordered” instead of “they’re purposely trying to screw me over.”


#20

Hey, as someone with very real addiction issues, let me ask you that you don’t.

Lootboxes are a special type of evil that purposefully exist to prey on people like me and induce addictive habits. It’s literally gambling except the gambler will never get anything of actual monetary worth. There is no ethical way to use lootboxes in a game unless there are no systems in place that allow people to use real world currency in the game in some form.

I get there’s a lot of complicated feelings when it comes to living in a capitalist society and trying to find a middle ground between profit and threatening an audience ethically, but lootboxes and gacha systems are two things I absolutely draw a line in the sand on because they are legitimately, actually textbook evil and do real harm.