Media Manipulation – Faking It
July 9, 2013 Leave a comment
It’s well known that the pictures in Cosmopolitan are airbrushed, just as it’s known that half of all car commercials use CGI models and trick photography. But how much has marketing manipulated the latest game trailer from E3?
In the past, trailers, screenshots, and gameplay videos were used by developers to showcase their game and present either gameplay elements or a general idea of how a game would look and play. After all, there was only so much that could be done to manipulate a simple (S)NES image. However, with the advent of polygon graphics and the competitive nature of the console market, visual technologies became a selling point of their own. Certainly this existed before the big push for polygons, lighting models and post-processing effects. After all, who could forget Blast Processing or Mode 7? But with the current generation, the technology became an end to itself. Big budget games today rarely try to distinguish themselves by way of gameplay or themes but rather by their use of technology or visual set-pieces.
In this highly competitive market, an IP has to justify its visual fidelity by reaching for the established standard, or surpassing it. Sometimes, however, this is not possible, especially with games on current generation consoles that encounter hard hardware limitations due to age.
One has to remember that all forms of showcase media for big budget games are primarily interested in selling the game and not necessarily just to show the audience the developers’ labor. This is where marketing comes in to touch up the material available and make it “presentable” to the consumers. This happens in every industry, and as a Design Generalist, I have often participated in this process myself. Nobody really wants to eat a McDonald’s burger. They want to eat the synthetic replica featured in the photograph.
A screenshot is the oldest and simplest showcasing-tool of the video games industry. Ideally, a screenshot should showcase an accurate representation of the game, being taken in-engine and presenting gameplay moments. However, screenshots are easily manipulated to make a game look more enticing than it actually is.
Developers have access to techniques that a player might not; console commands can free up the camera to allow for better angles of the action or place actors and objects into the scene to make it grander than it will appear in the final product.
By far the easiest method however is “downscaling” or “downsampling”.
Modern 3D games based on polygons have always had a problem of jagged edges, partly because of engine limits and partly because of the limits of our projection devices being based on rectangular pixels. Angled lines will always feature an amount of “staircasing” because our monitors cannot project a smooth angled line on a rectangular grid. To remove this imperfection, most video game engines use anti-aliasing techniques like FXAA or SMAA. The downside of these techniques is that they introduce a subtle blur to the edges in the image.
The simplest way of circumventing this problem and having crisp edges in your screenshots is simply to take them at a higher resolution than you will showcase the game in. If the game is supposed to run on hardware that displays full-HD, then taking the screenshot at a proportionally higher resolution and then downscaling it to HD will make the image appear to have far crisper edges.
We know about this practice because sometimes press- and media-kits contain images in absurd resolutions (4K, 4,096 × 2,304 pixels) by accident, a case where raw images were mixed with showcase images.
Even Nintendo is not immune to these practices. Every time you saw a screenshot that had crisp edges, you were probably looking at something that was most likely taken in an emulator or dev-kit at far higher resolution than normally possible with several tweaks not available in the final game.
In recent years, a kind of “video game photography” has even sprung up, trying to capture the most stunning and beautiful images possible “free from the distractions of of gameplay”. Multiple communities currently exist that specialize in this kind of photography. Possibly the best known is Dead End Thrills getting recent media attention for their Skyrim screenshots, capturing absolutely fantastic shots of video games that are sometimes unrecognizable as the product we know. Similarly, the “Bullshot Thread” at NeoGaf is a meeting place for enthusiasts to post the very best a game has to offer, pushing the technology to its limit. (Playability or feasibility takes a backseat here.)
Of course, these are just the most benign ways of manipulating an image. The fun starts when screenshots are being obviously retouched in image-manipulation software like Photoshop. Texture detail can be added, post-processing effects applied, and in the end, the image might look nothing like the presented game. Sometimes a screenshot is assembled entirely from keyed elements or spruced up by adding additional elements that are not on screen at the time. This is done because a screenshot has to provide the viewer with a maximum amount of information that represents the game; the screenshot itself becomes a marketing tool.
While screenshots can generally be manipulated relatively easily, video footage necessitates far greater involvement. However, seeing as marketing budgets easily reach millions of dollars, this doesn’t seem like a big hurdle to take for most large productions.
Videos can often be deceiving as they showcase a planned, edited section of gameplay and there are no guarantees that what the consumer sees is actually going to be the end result. By now, Aliens: Colonial Marines and the fake gameplay trailer showcasing what could be described as a completely different game is rather well known. However, many have forgotten that Bioshock: Infinite suffered the same fate. Curiously, its critical acclaim overshadowed this fact and drew far less media attention than Aliens: Colonial Marines.
There have been numerous changes to the game that should be apparent to anyone that played it, all of which are listed here. As an example, Booker and Elizabeth never combo their powers, Elizabeth never gets sick from forming tears, enemies cannot be intimidated by just aiming at them and there is no combat on the Skylines. I would have liked to play this 2011 version of Bioshock: Infinite far more than what was released. It is interesting to note that there was no updated gameplay trailer for Bioshock: Infinite since this showcase; the post-2011 trailers focus almost entirely on cinematic story elements or showcasing the environment. A cynic might accuse the developers of false advertisement and they might not be entirely incorrect, although the evidence is certainly circumstantial.
The fact remains that a large portion of gameplay trailers turn out to be fantasy representations of a game that never makes it to shelves. It presents a curious situation that has no precedent in other media.
Other subtle manipulations can feature recording the gameplay from other sources than the game will be run on, like different engines (Thief 4, Aliens: Colonial Marines) or more powerful PC hardware (Xbox One demos). This can give the illusion of higher fidelity or better performance, while the final product might look significantly worse or perform differently.
The subtitle “In-Engine”, as seen in multiple Crysis 1/2/3 trailers, is rarely applied and only if the developer is entirely certain that their technology is either revolutionary or visually impressive enough to boast about it. It is hard for a layman to distinguish between trickery and the genuine article; labels like these could go far in helping the consumer make informed decisions. After all, there is no guarantee that the recorded footage is running in real time rather than being artificially assembled.
Live Stage Demos
It’s easy to think that surely a live performance is tamper-proof. Of course, graphical fidelity and performance might not be subject to tampering, but the showcase can still be far from authentic.
Remembering the recent E3 live stage presentations of Battlefield 4, Watch_Dogs or Destiny, it becomes clear that these were expertly staged with every player (or rather “actor”) performing a role in a grand theatrical play for the benefit of the audience.
If the scripted “dialogue” between actors wasn’t clue enough, a close look at the gameplay will reveal the inauthentic nature of this presentation. The actors generally weren’t playing the game. They were acting in a motion picture with a script prepared beforehand; players were shooting at nothing at all, helicopters were missing their targets almost point-blank, wasting tactical resources and not following any kind of strategy. Creating a spectacle is far more important than actually showing sincere gameplay.
Not to mention the demo at the Microsoft Xbox One presentation ran from a PC as indicated by keyboard prompts in the top right corner.
Similarly, single-player games like Watch_Dogs or Thief 4 have expert players at the helm that know what to show and what to avoid. It all rests on the concept of presenting the best side of the product and the problem becomes apparent when severe flaws are being omitted that are then later discovered by players. A humorous comparison to TV shopping can be drawn in how the product is being presented; Billy Mays will not tell you what Oxi Clean can’t do.
The question here becomes what one can see as false advertisement and what the consumer can do to protect himself from these practices. Where is the line drawn between positive marketing and misleading information?
Clearly, the best way to protect consumer interests is to inform, for an informed consumer is the bane of exploitation. However, in our age of information, it is easy to become over-saturated without an indicator of what is true and false.
Warning labels like “Game Experience May Change During Online Play” are used to distance the developer from legal harm and not necessarily meant to inform. Perhaps consideration should be given to having a similar approach to screenshots and video content, except purely for the purposes of informing the public. I do not want to suggest regulation but rather an approach where the media would take the responsibility upon themselves to label, or at least source, marketing material received. If applied consistently, a small “in-engine gameplay” or “alpha build” label on the side of the video/screenshot would go a long way in making sure the consumer has all the information to make an informed purchase/decision.
The job of a journalist is to inform, not to promote, and a better job has to be done. If necessary, consumers should take it upon themselves to dismantle the marketing speak and up-sell rhetoric.
Perhaps in the future this could be extended to inform consumers about DRM and privacy concerns, but that is another topic altogether.