"Downgrade!" "Downgrade!" "Downgrade!" The cycle of accusations and allegations begins afresh with a new witch hunt as the Witcher 3 comes under fire for not looking as good as an early unoptimised build, and we're getting pretty sick of the whole thing.
There's a case to be made that 'downgrade' accusations are a product of unreasonable entitled gamers who don't understand how games development and marketing works, and I was good and ready to argue that case. In fact, I ploughed 507 words into a first draft... before deleting the entire article and realising that there's another way of looking at the situation from a very different perspective.
Isn't this suspicion and cynicism a perfectly natural reaction to an industry that has systematically exaggerated or downright lied to its customers for years? Aren't gamers actually "entitled" to point it out, not "entitled" because they pointed it out?
Whoa. Hey. Let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet. It's crucial to remember that the games industry is generally no worse than any other industry that wants to sell you a product. See, there's this new thing called marketing. I hate to break this to you, but Lynx/Axe doesn't magically make you irresistible to women. Herbal Essences won't immediately teleport you into a rainforest glen. Mountain Dew is disgusting slime, the Big Mac is a greasy little turd and I promise that yoghurt, rice-based snacks, toothbrushes or good bacteria won't solve all your problems.
Games are no different. Trailers will be based on the most polished code available to the developers at the time and cut to make the product look as good as possible. Screenshots won't show glitches. Store listings will use persuasive language and promise the world, because that's how it works. They're trying to sell you something in a free market, and you've got to exercise what is technically known as common sense. When you go into a cafe, do you really expect that the food will look exactly like the pictures in the window? Do you think that using a five-bladed razor will inexplicably transport beautiful women into your bathroom?
Also, remember that optimisation is usually the last part of the development cycle, with good reason. Studios tend to throw everything they have at a project, from features and systems to graphical bells and whistles, before sitting down to work out if anything needs to be sacrificed to make the game run on their target platforms. Any developer work their salt will start with the visuals rather than compromising other aspects of the project. This leads to games that push boundaries, whereas the alternative is unambitious shelf-filler like The Order: 1886, which prioritised graphics over gameplay throughout the development process and even threw its own aspect ratio under the bus.
With this in mind, I'd go as far as to say that the games industry is by and large much better and more open than the majority of hawkers out there seeing as most developers let you into the dev cycle with the latest builds, share their wares with you and us press as it takes shape, using interviews, early access, streams and betas to keep you in the know. And, bear in mind, usually with no intention of purposefully misleading you as it's largely based on what they have on hand at the time. Chances are the game will look and play much like the gameplay footage, even if it's based on a vertical slice or as-yet unoptimised.
However, there are always exceptions and that's what we have to talk about. In this case, the exceptions are shameless, downright dishonest and damaging to the reputation of the industry as a whole.
As far as I can tell, "downgrade" accusations can be traced directly back to one of the most shocking scandals in gaming history: Aliens: Colonial Marines. Its entire marketing campaign was based on lies. The "pre-alpha build" Gearbox showed us was in fact a purpose-built fabrication that bore no resemblance to the in-development product, let alone the finished article, beyond a couple of the environments. The screenshots did not exist. The trailers were figments of the marketeers' imaginations. Disappointment and anger was inevitable, but worse, SEGA and Gearbox hyped up the game to insane levels, promising the earth despite knowing that the product could and would not deliver.
It put us on guard, sowing distrust in many gamers that would gradually -- and justifiably, perhaps -- build into full-blown suspicion over the next few years.
Then came Watch Dogs. I don't think that Ubisoft purposefully intended to mislead anyone, but the fact is that they did. Ubisoft and Sony proceeded to hype Watch Dogs up as the first 'truly next-gen' game and a PS4 must-have title, and Ubisoft peaked far too early. They released in-development builds to us and the gaming public -- including the infamous E3 demo and the production build shown to us press types that contained superior AI behaviour and simulations -- without taking the time to explain that they hadn't attempted to scale it down for last-gen systems. Not to mention optimise it for any platform. The result? "Downgrade!!!" Again, by raising gamers' hopes, hyping to high heaven and then under-delivering despite Watch Dogs actually being decent, isn't the "downgrade" backlash entirely understandable?
Other examples abound, and it doesn't just include over-promising and under-delivering on visuals. From The War Z to SpaceBase DF-9 and Peter Molyneux, games, developers and publishers have accidentally (Peter... probably) or purposefully (Hammerpoint... definitely) lied and exaggerated about the content and features of their games, whether on small projects, big sequels, early access or Kickstarter. AAA hype campaigns have spun out of control, capable of funding entire gaming projects with their budgets alone. Massively hyped games released broken, whether Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Unity or DriveClub, all while they successfully convinced gamers to part with their money ahead of time. The vast majority of games don't stoop to such measures, but the minority has done major damage and cannot be ignored.
So it's small wonder that many of us have entered a state of heightened cynicism, and no wonder at all that many gamers hit back hard when they perceive foul play seeing as they finally have the means to do so. YouTube and video editing tools make it easy. Even if the game in question might not deserve the backlash.
Like The Witcher 3, which seems to be guilty of not living up to an early vertical slice playthrough despite subsequently releasing plenty of verifiably accurate videos. Does it deserve the "downgrade!" backlash? No, in our estimation. But by the same token, years of hype and exaggeration make it easy to understand why gamers are quick to cry foul, because they're so often right and have been burned before.
So what can be done? Publishers and PR departments, please make sure to label your stuff properly. If a build isn't optimised, say so and explicitly state that it might not reflect the finished product (even if the game ends up being better!). If it's running on a beefy PC or debug environment, just say so. Developers, remember to temper your enthusiasm with a little realism before you get too many hopes up -- we'll understand. Hold betas if you can, be honest if you can't. And when it comes to hype, just ask if you might be setting yourself up for a fall, or whether less money could be spent on more effective grassroots campaigns. You can still show us the best bits of your games using the prettiest and most polished resources at your disposal. Just mention that you're doing exactly that.
And fellow gamers, next time you think about crying "downgrade," just ask yourself whether you might be blowing a misunderstanding or even just perfectly acceptable marketing materials out of all proportion. Or worse, dragging a great game over the coals due to the actions of a tiny minority of bad apples. I'm not telling you to stop, just suggesting that you pause and think it through on a game-by-game basis.
Where do you stand on "downgrades"? Have your say in the comments!