Graphical Downgrades; We Should Care.

Objection!

It’s time to level at a pernicious little trend in the gaming industry that shouldn’t be as big a problem as it currently is; but it is symptomatic of what has gone so wrong in our games…

CDProjeckt Red admitted recently that The Witcher 3 did indeed receive a graphical downgrade in order to run on games consoles.

Let’s address the elephant in the room first in that admission. CDProjekt Red have admitted that PC Gaming has already pulled so far ahead of our current crop of games consoles that a noticeable graphical downgrade is necessary to ensure their game goes truly mass-market. With AMD’s recent revelations which could spark a new arms race in the graphical sphere (as well as the possibility of sparking a sizeable – or not, as the case may be – jump in PC hardware), it’s become abundantly clear that the rise of PC Gaming continues unabated, and consoles may be genuinely causing some games to take actually a pretty retrograde attitude to games development.

It’s here that we should actually care.

There was once a time we didn’t notice the graphical downgrade quite so much, and when we did, there were clear reasons for it. Off the top of my head, Resident Evil 2; a game which was almost completed but canned a year or so before release, forcing the developers at Capcom to rush ahead with a new version of the game which wasn’t quite as aesthetically pleasing as the cancelled material, which has since become dubbed ‘Resident Evil 1.5’. And of course, Resident Evil 4 received a substantial graphical downgrade for the PS2, because Sony’s little black box wasn’t as powerful as the Nintendo Gamecube (No, really!). This infamous decision is allegedly what caused the series creator, Shinji Mikami, to leave Capcom.

To this, we also often got demo material a month or so before release. Games magazines were still a thing in this brave era, and in terms of marketing the onus was on keeping the first reveals as close to the actual release of a project as was realistically possible. You’d get a preview maybe three months prior to a games actual release, with a demo on a magazine cover the month of release. The time-frame was very small, condensed, and this meant that there were fewer cases of games which were so obviously downgraded through development – because by the time we got to see them, the development cycle was pretty much over and the games were gearing up for a marketing push.

Today, games are announced months and in some cases years before their actual release. The Witcher 3 a good case in point; the first demonstrations of this game came as far back as 2012, and in the intervening three years we’ve been through a lot with our ‘New Generation’ of hardware, if not sometimes bitterly disappointed by it. The first tantalising glimpses were of a much higher visual fidelity as it was very likely running on at the time bleeding edge hardware. Whether Sony or Microsoft were perhaps dishonest about what the next gen would bring a year or so later is neither here nor there; their consoles were not up to scratch, and CDProjekt Red would have to accommodate them somehow.

Fortunately, The Witcher 3 will get more options for PC users to crank up the graphics. Yet CDProjekt Red are not alone.

Who can forget the revealing glimpses of Dark Souls 2, versus the actual reality of release? Dark Souls 2 is still a good game, but it’s visual downgrade was substantial enough to cause an outcry; FROM Software did not learn much though as Bloodborne was similarly inept technically (I have one functional eye and even I can tell the games framerate blows). How about Watch_Dogs, from announcement as a promising new IP to a painfully average punchline in the market? Even Grand Theft Auto V has been at the mercy of a graphical downgrade for new hardware, in stark contrast to its original intention.

And if we simply MUST go there again, there’s the hideousness that was Aliens: Colonial Marines. Although calling what happened there a ‘Graphical Downgrade’ does it a service that it simply does not deserve.

If you’re the kind of optimistic glass-half-full kind of person, you’ll probably explain this away as an inevitable consequence of how the video game industry has evolved in the last ten years or so. Reveals can be rushed out, hype built up over a number of years but in the intervening time things can and do happen, of course. Perhaps people pitched their tents too high up, perhaps they just weren’t as aware of what the hardware was capable of. Mistakes happen, but as long as the game is good, right? Do graphics really matter?

However, if you’re the kind of pessimistic half-empty sort, you’ll consider this typical of the cynicism of the modern gaming industry. Selling products on higher-resolution footage to get people excited whilst not being entirely honest with what your end result will actually accommodate; hooking people in with bullshots and, well, bull in general in order to maximise sales before people actually end up realising what a horrible job has actually been done, when there’s no actual recourse except to trade it in.

Personally, I’m a bit of both. But I do care about this, and we all should. At least a little.

Whilst mistakes clearly happen, there is a worrying trend where this kind of behaviour is becoming quite commonplace. CDProject Red are hardly blameless; in October of 2014, they made it quite clear there would be no visual downgrade. Except, there was, and they had to admit it. This is definitely a problem, as this can be seen as lying; a cynical marketing ploy which, by the time you’re caught out, means they’ll already likely have your cash (and with many PC games sold on digital download today, getting a huge slice of the proceeds to boot). Trust is a commodity that is hard won and easily lost. CDProjekt Red have a damn fine reputation, and it’s worrying even they have been seen to be caught out in this manner.

Of course, the real thing about these games is that, with notable exceptions, none of them look that bad. Okay, they’re not what was promised. But that’s the thing – you sell someone a unicorn and end up giving them a donkey with an ice-cream cornet attached to its head with a rubber band. I love donkeys. Donkeys are adorable. Even with funny hats. But I wasn’t being sold an adorable donkey – I was being sold a damned unicorn.

Which is (purely by accident, I assure you) a very good summation of the issue at hand. It feels like we’re being sold mythical creatures. These high-resolution teasers and trailers are fantastical beings, glorious legends and fantastic fables that we want to believe in so vehemently that we’ll often look really stupid clinging onto that belief, until the moment that for whatever reason the truth is revealed and we look and feel like right mugs.

With E3 around the corner, tell me this; how many unicorns do you think will be on show? New reveals, teasers and concepts for games due at the tail-end of 2016 or 2017 that will obviously not look or play anything like what we’re being shown? It’s terrible to think we’re at the point where we, as consumers, may be growing increasingly apathetic about what is being shown largely because we’re failing to believe we’re going to get anything like what is being promised. That we are supposed to be excited for reveals of games based primarily on footage which is very likely to be unrepresentative of the finished product.

This can only be bad news for games developers, and publishers. We’re already seeing the slowing down of the industry, the falling pre-order figures. People are waiting. People are happy to wait. Because they’re suspicious. They’ve been lied to, they’ve been hurt, and their trust has yet to be won back.

It’s also bad news for games websites; when so much suspicion is levied at what promotional footage is available, their role in the marketing loop becomes increasingly difficult. And of course, it isn’t their job to bridge that gap – they should be holding these games to account, which far too many cannot do because of their symbiotic relationship with the industry they once critiqued. Some are starting to pull away, but it will be a painful separation. Meanwhile, consumers are turning to… well… other consumers. People on YouTube and Twitch like them who can drop some truth bombs here and there.

When so much of this industry is connected, some are apt to abuse their position in the machine, sabotaging it for the rest of us. We should want trustworthy promotional footage; and publishers and developers and the gaming press need to start accepting that actually, if they want to survive long-term, they are going to have to start being a little more honest.

The growing trend of big-name developers going solo and getting the funds they need in mere hours, the new wave of gaming websites and the growing trend of YouTube and Twitch personalities getting the reality of these titles to more and more people is a threat to their very survival. There is a growing cry of, “We Have Options!”, of an alternative path being sought by others, of that branch gathering some pace. People care enough to seek alternatives; and there will be problems along their road, but it’s a declaration of independence from the increasingly lumbering meatsack that the industry at large has become. Indie gaming is no longer all that indie – some of what is being made and offered is what was once the bread and butter of the Triple-A games industry.

People care about these projects and people. And the realities are abundantly obvious – fans are throwing money at them. KickStarter and Patreon have given people an opportunity to build a whole new industry alongside the burning ruins of the old one.

However, Bloodborne has one thing spot on – be careful rebuilding on top of the ruins of an old, decaying civilisation. Unless steps are taken now to properly address the issues we currently have, the chances are that in twenty years or so from now, a new generation will seek to build a new civilisation on the burning ruins of what is now a shining new utopia. We have to punish those who are dishonest in their promotional footage, because more than ever before this new branch is relying heavily on our money in order to build this new alternative metropolis.

And for me, this means we need companies to be way more honest about the footage they show us. And be honest when things aren’t going so well, or when the end product needs a visual downgrade. Building on a foundation of lies is a great way to seed corruption at the very heart of your new world, after all. And when that happens, we all lose. We don’t get the game we were promised. We don’t trust the industry. We lose faith in our media. We grow restless.

So when someone says, “Why should we care about graphical downgrades?” – tell them it’s about honesty. Actually, it’s about ethics in video games. It’s about making us believe that we’re seen as valuable customers, not walking credit cards. After all, if the customers walk away, there isn’t exactly a market left to sell to.

And heck, if you don’t care about defending your consumer rights to not be sold on unrepresentative footage, why would you expect anyone else to when you are finally burned?

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