Don’t look at the game behind the curtain

E3 is fast approaching, and that means writing previews. I’ve therefore been thinking about how best to accomplish the task while maintaining integrity and independence of voice, and not becoming an unofficial arm of publishers’ marketing departments.

When I was five years old I decided that the ideas of Santa Claus and God were equally stupid, and professed my disbelief in both. I thus began a life of not holding to illusions. The notion that game previews aren’t always tantamount to marketing copy, no matter how we attempt to write them, is too much to swallow. This is not a criticism of video game journalism, however. The editors who run these outlets have an obligation to provide the content their audiences clamor for, and gamers by and large want previews.

Unless a marketing department is so inept that it allows the distribution of preview videos and demos which are undeniably horrible, such that games journalists can trash the game in question without fear of being wrong when the game is released, we’re not given a whole lot to work with that doesn’t boil down to marketing games for the publishers. Good preview assets are carefully produced to prevent us from taking any other angle on them.

I’d read shot-by-shot descriptions of preview trailers in the video game press before attending E3 2010 and, like anyone very new to an industry, tried to follow some of the veterans’ examples. When I attended the Homefront presentation at E3 last year, I wrote up a play-by-play of the trailer I was shown for the indie site under whose auspices I attended the Expo. I look back on the piece with no small modicum of shame. And I quote:

“I’m convinced of the story’s quality at the conceptual level and have faith in the pedigree of its author…”

I actually said that about Homefront, a game that never got past its high concept pitch. The story was banal and insultingly stupid. Thinking about the preview video and presentation in hindsight, along with all the other stuff THQ did to market Homefront at last year’s E3, I could have boiled the preview piece down to three salient points:

– THQ is throwing a ton of marketing dollars behind this game

– This suggests that they really want a piece of the military-FPS market

– They’re taking cues from the outrageous plotlines of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series

That preview, were it written with maximum remove from the subject, would have been maybe a paragraph long, and then provided links to any assets THQ had provided the press. There was nothing else to say about Homefront because I’d been given no hands-on, only shown a promotional video.

I look back on this now as a learning experience, which is a nice way of saying “a mistake.” Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself. What did the professionals have to say about this E3 Homefront video?

I’ve met Harold Goldberg twice this year, once at GDC, and once at PAX East. He’s a softspoken guy, unassuming, and a pleasure to speak with. Goldberg’s book ,”All Your Base Are Belong To Us,”  which is part history of video games, and part behind the scenes look at their production, was released recently. The book reads like a “Video Games History 101” text, a comment which, coming from a former history major like myself, is intended as high praise. Goldberg is a veteran of games journalism, with a ton of experience.

What did Goldberg write for G4 when he saw the same E3 trailer I did, but at an event in Manhattan? This. Maybe it isn’t fair, but I want to pull one quote from this preview piece, written by an esteemed veteran of games journalism, whose pedigree is unquestionable:

“Right now, the result [of the game production] seems to be a human drama within a tightly-produced FPS that moves forward with the varied human emotion of Heavy Rain or Red Dead Redemption.”

I boggled when I read this. Homefront has all the human emotion of a trailer for a Michael Bay film. Goldberg committed no foul here, however. He was just reporting on what he saw. Preview material is carefully-coiffed and manicured to show the press precisely what the publisher wants them to see. THQ wanted us to receive Homefront as a powerfully-dramatic tale of human oppression and resistance, which was their marketing angle, and so if the press wanted to write anything of any length on the subject, this is what they had to work with.

I also saw and wrote about Brink at E3 2010. It was a more measured response, and something I’m happier with, looking back on it…but it’s still tantamount to marketing. And the marketing behind Brink was laid on extremely thick. At PAX East 2011, Bethesda put together a huge multiplayer station with a model of the Ark’s Founder’s Tower in the middle (shown above). I’m sure that the players there had smooth, polished, lag-free experiences which reflected all the developer diaries they’d been fed by the video game press.

The third developer diary is the most egregious, in the sense of being complete and utter nonsense when compared to the reality of the delivered title. Brink doesn’t blur any lines between online and offline gaming. There’s not actually a campaign. What little narrative exists is delivered via voice overs on loading screens, extremely brief cutscenes before levels begin (which often cut out early before delivering me into a match), and audio logs that one has to go out of their way to listen to, and which are only connected to the gameplay in the sense of being unlockables.

My recent Gamasutra feature on Brink was inspired by the aforementioned third developer diary, and looking back I wish I’d pressed Richard Ham harder on the promises of that dev diary, because the Gama piece was almost a preview. I tried to couch the feature in terms of the development challenge of truly combining single- and multiplayer FPS gaming because that’s what I found interesting about Brink. I didn’t believe it could actually be done.

Being a multiplayer FPS fan, and desperate for some true innovation in the genre, perhaps it was easy to suspend disbelief that Brink could pull off this “gold level challenge,” but without anything solid to go on, is it ethical to call “bullshit” on a design promise with no evidence to back up calling it bullshit?

Trying to provide criticism on preview demos is also an ethical quagmire. If there are legitimate issues with a preview build, and the developers or publishers confirm that the issues we’re noting are permanent design choices, then it’s safe to go to town. I’ve seen far more previews that make great pains to note that the demos do not represent the final product, however. It’s irresponsible, if we talk about journalistic integrity, to criticize a preview build if that’s the case.

All of the Brink multiplayer demos at E3 2010, PAX Prime 2010, and PAX East 2011, were clearly being run off optimized setups that were scrubbed of their issues, to present the title in the best, possible light. How could any games journalist have guessed what a laggy, unplayable mess Brink would have been on release day? Who would have thought that a studio like Splash Damage, whose professional experience is entirely built around multiplayer FPS gaming, would not think to include proper matchmaking systems and player lobbies? Or that their netcode would be so completely mucked-up that their temporary solution would be to cut down on the number of human players added into each match, and replace the humans with AI bots to cut down on the lag?

It’s staggeringly incompetent design, and I mean that in the strictest sense of what “competent multiplayer FPS design” is, and not as a personal insult to the studio. Maybe Splash Damage promised too much and aimed too high? Maybe they could have made the game work with just a little more time, but once Bethesda had pulled the trigger on the huge marketing campaign and blown their advertising wad leading up to the planned release day, they realized that if they delayed Brink again, they would lose too much potential income to warrant making what was arguably the “right” decision on behalf of the players?

The new Brink update on the Xbox 360 seems to have addressed the lag issues, and I’m finally playing 8 versus 8 matches that feel smooth…but it’s three weeks too late. Brink will be remembered as a buggy title released before it was finished, and whose early adopters paid for the privilege of Beta-testing. That’s certainly not what the marketing campaign and previews advertised.

Let’s engage in a thought exercise: What would happen if video game journalism strove to strip hype from video game previews?

Publishers might face audiences that waited for critical reception instead of pre-ordering games, no matter what shiny things were waved before them as pre-order rewards. Publishers might face audiences that, instead of risking day one purchases and disappointment, exercised a little discretion and turned their collective noses up at games like Homefront and Brink.

When the audience stopped buying these disappointing games masquerading as AAA titles, perhaps publishers would be more cautious in the projects they green-lit, more generous in the amount of development time they afforded their studios, and more hesitant to hype games up if the final product wasn’t up to par.

A lot of gamers spent a lot of money on Homefront and Brink based on marketing campaign promises which turned out to be entirely false. Chances are no one will be held accountable for how poor both of these games were, because I’m sure the marketing hype led to enough copies of both titles being sold to generate profits for THQ and Bethesda.

Hell, we’ll probably see sequels of both titles after their “success,” and maybe those sequels will actually be good, based on lessons learned from the first, poor offerings…but there I go drinking the kool-aid before the next batch has even been mixed up.

1 Comment

  1. […] Dennis Scimeca has been in that position, and writes about it over on his blog in a post titled Don’t Look at the Game Behind the Curtain. It’s actually a really interesting look at the trial-and-error process of a games journalist […]

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