With the release of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt this week, we're revisiting a topic that has come up frequently in the past few generations of gaming: Pre-release marketing and the inevitable disappointment that comes when what's release isn't as good as what's promised. In the case of the Witcher III, CD Projekt Red has released a game that looks amazing, but not as awe-inspiring as the screenshots and trailers from 2013. Even bumping up the PC version to Ultra setting does little to reach the high goal of the 2013 trailers. CD Projekt Red has promised fixes with a patch that's currently in certification, but PC fans are noticeably angry.
CD Projekt Red told our sister site Eurogamer that the change between announcement and launch was due to a few issues. The first is multi-platform development, with the weaker specifications of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One bringing down the PC version. The second is something that's been seen before in titles like Watch Dogs: there's a representative build for early marketing purposes, but when the developer sits down to really make the game work, things change drastically.
"If you're looking at the development process," CDPR co-founder Marcin Iwinski tells Eurogamer, "we do a certain build for a tradeshow and you pack it, it works, it looks amazing. And you are extremely far away from completing the game. Then you put it in the open-world, regardless of the platform, and it's like 'oh shit, it doesn't really work'. We've already showed it, now we have to make it work. And then we try to make it work on a huge scale. This is the nature of games development."
"Maybe we shouldn't have shown that [trailer], I don't know, but we didn't know that it wasn't going to work, so it's not a lie or a bad will - that's why we didn't comment actively," he added. "We don't agree there is a downgrade but it's our opinion, and gamers' feeling can be different. If they made their purchasing decision based on the 2013 materials, I'm deeply sorry for that, and we are discussing how we can make it up to them because that's not fair."
Iwinski admitted that CD Projekt Red "didn't see it as a problem."
This is not new. It's something that's stretched back to some of the earliest promotional materials for 3D games development. If developers and publishers wait until later in the process, we'll see gameplay that's more representative of the final product, but these days, that's frequently not the case. And it's not just graphics. Game companies promise many things to get players onboard, but they can't always deliver on those promises. In the end, it tends to work out for them, as fans buy related games regardless.
The questions posed to our team at USgamer are: Is heading to conventions with trumped up promises a bad thing, if the final product will inevitably not deliver? Do consumers have a right to be angry or is this just a vocal minority talking? Are developers in the clear if they didn't knowingly mislead consumers?
As with everything, it all depends on the particulars. Do I like it when developers don't quite serve up everything they've promised? No, but depending on the circumstances, I'm sometimes more willing to forgive than others.
I kind of take it as a given that especially ambitious games — those that try to cram lots of open space, lots of player choice, or lots of ideas that have never been seen before in the medium — will never quite be all they were meant to be. Small studios, new studios… they get a little slack. When it's a battle-tested developer with a big publisher making a new entry in a well-worn franchise, on the other hand… they should know what they're up against and plan accordingly. But there's also the question of how, exactly, the developer failed to deliver.
In the case of the Witcher III, I'm inclined to be a bit forgiving in part because of the sheer scale and ambition of the game, but also because its rage-inducing problems are something I just don't care about. Good visuals are nice to have, but they're much less important for me than an interesting, fun, engrossing experience. Maybe it's because I cut my 3D teeth playing action games on PlayStation, where 20fps was considered a pretty good accomplishment, but unless visual hiccups affect gameplay (e.g. aiming in an FPS) they're not that big a deal to me. I'd be more offended if they decided to drop the sandbox world design or the hunt mechanic or the narrative branching — those are the things that truly define The Witcher. As long as those are intact, I'm OK.
I admittedly used to be a lot angrier about video games, but as I get older I find it easier to simply tune out the things that bother me — either ignore them and play on, or avoid the affected game altogether and save myself some stress. Life's too short to be upset about having fun. I suppose it's true as well that the void has been gazing back into me as I've gazed into it. Having worked in a critic role for so long, I've come to appreciate the challenges inherent in creating games and would rather focus on the real boogeymen (inflated budgets, cynical and dehumanizing corporations) than on issues that result from too few people working too-long hours on a too-short deadline to hit a too-near launch day set by the marketing department…
A lot of this is a result of hype, a cycle we're all complicit of. We're all very passionate about games, from the developers, to the media, to you the consumer. That means we get excited. We buy into these grand visions of what games can be and what certain games can do, even when we realize we've all been here before. The bullshot isn't new. We've been promised amazing plus things before, only to receive a final product that's only amazing.
I admit, I'm a bit wary of developers and publishers who at this point aren't completely open to saying that their final product isn't as awe-inspiring. I get that when a vertical slice of your game is no longer running on a dedicated system with two GeForce Titans, things aren't going to go well. I understand development changes things. I understand that optimization and multi-platform development can see assets being scaled back. That's the business and I've been covering the industry long enough to know there's no malice behind these actions.
What I don't like is that fans and media have to draw these comments out of devs. It's not hard to say, "After further development, it was hard to keep up that graphical level or keep that feature within the game." I think all but the most spiteful of person gets that, if you're upfront about it. The problem that many developers get into is completely denying the changes ever happened. Pretending everything is all sunshine and rainbows when it's just sunshine isn't respectful to anyone. Devs would save themselves a lot of heartache by simply being transparent.
Does the Witcher III look as good as those 2013 assets? No, but it still looks damn good. I can tell you right now that The Division probably won't look as good as its debut trailer from 2013 did. If it does, I'll be surprised and Ubisoft will warm my cold, cynical heart. This is a problem we all can fix. Devs and pubs, either wait until later in the process to show off your title, or be more transparent about the cuts needed to launch a game. We as media shouldn't be afraid of calling out bullshots, or issues in preview or alpha builds, even if fans may chastise us. And fans, maybe stop pre-ordering games and wait for reviews before jumping on that hype train. It's hard, but it helps.
With apologies to CD Projekt Red, I understand that it's tough to make a video game these days, and that making an open-world game is even harder, but it seems like a good project manager should have been able to control expectations from the start. Things come up, issues arise with trying to port a game from one console to another, and all the sudden you have angry nerds kicking down your door because it doesn't look as good on Ultra as you said it would. It feels like this issue could have been avoided.
Obviously, developers promising one thing and delivering another is nothing new. Madden NFL fans will recall the Madden 06 debacle, which gave rise to the term "bullshot." Even the PlayStation 4/Xbox One release of Madden 25 didn't quite live up to the hype of the sizzle reels. It took Madden 15 to push it to that level, and there's still plenty of room for improvement.
I think where developers really land themselves in hot water is when core features go missing. It brings to mind the bad old days of the mid-90s, when a box on a retail shelf would promise a multiplayer mode, only for the mode to have been cut sometime in development, or held over for a patch. When actual gameplay is affected, players start to feel cheated.
Regardless, it's a tricky line to walk between hype and realistic expectations. Marketing will always want to push for bigger and better in an effort to match the outsized expecctations of gamers who want the next big thing. It's up to developers to know what they're capable of so that they don't wind up disappointing fans when their game finally hits shelves.
A situation very similar to The Witcher III's current dust-up also happened with last year's Dark Souls II. Pre-release trailers showed off an advanced lighting engine that promised to force a tough decision on the player (within certain environments): Keep your shield and proceed in near-darkness, or wield a torch and exchange defense for visibility. Unfortunately, since From Software was working with circa-2005 hardware, they couldn't quite deliver on their intentions, and the areas intended to be shrouded in darkness ended up looking like they were shot day-for-night.
I considered this change unfortunate, but since it only affected a handful of levels in the game, the new lighting system's absence was a minor disappointment at best. Of course, this being the Internet and everything, "Dark Souls II-gate" generated its share of unbridled outrage--all over something that was a minor feature to begin with. To be fair, From Software corrected this issue with their next-gen Scholar of the First Sin edition, but many fans still feel betrayed and hate Dark Souls II to this day.
If we can learn anything from situations like these, it's that responsibility ultimately falls on the consumer. This might not be the most just reality, but it's the one we're in, and we have to make the most of it. Above all, and for the love of god, never, ever trust a trailer. Heck, even be skeptical of screenshots if you must. And maybe consider curbing your pre-order enthusiasm until you actually know how a game looks and plays. Hopefully, we can help you out on that end.