For the last couple of weeks, I've seen growing fan anger around the hotly anticipated video game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Turns out, the finished game doesn't look as good as the early versions shown off in trailers. It's not the first game to leave gamers feeling misled, and it won't be the last.
The whole thing comes down to a matter of promises, preorders and the video game industry's unrelenting focus on the future at the expense of its present.
Witcher fans have been closely following Wild Hunt since it was announced in February of 2013. The first promotional screenshots of the game looked amazing. As with most games, the PC version of The Witcher 3 was expected to be the best-looking version — sharper, smoother, higher-fidelity than the PS4 and Xbox One versions. That's doubly true considering the PC-centric pedigree of the game's developer, CD Projekt Red.
Today, if you browse the forums at the developer's website you'll find threads dedicated to the game's visual downgrade on PC. Look at threads on Steam and NeoGAF and you'll see something similar. People aren't just casually talking about this stuff; they're angry.
Two things are inarguable. For one, the PC version isn't appreciably different from the PS4 version, other than running at a higher frame-rate. You can see a comparison between the two versions here:
Second, the game doesn't look like it did when it was announced. That's perhaps best broken down in this exhaustive imgur post from two weeks ago, or as seen in this video:
It's clear that, yes, The Witcher 3 looks different than it did when it was first shown a couple years ago. There's less detail, and the textures are muddier. The foliage isn't as sharp. The lighting effects and shadows aren't the same.
I've been asking CD Projekt Red for some sort of statement for the last couple of days, but they have not given me a substantive response. I don't really need them to confirm anything — the changes are obvious to anyone who's seen the final game. Nevertheless, I was curious about what they make of the controversy, particularly given that the studio is generally very open and communicative with their fans.
A developer from CD Projekt actually has talked about the game's apparent downgrade, though you could easily have missed it. In a recent interview with German YouTuber Docm77, CD Projekt Red visual effects artist José Teixeira discussed the controversy.
"We didn't downgrade it," Teixeira said. "It's impossible to downgrade a game that didn't exist before or wasn't playable before. There are two things people have to separate: downgrade and optimisation. Optimisation is necessary to make the game run. Downgrade is if you deliberately make the game worse for whatever reason, to make the game run… that's totally not what happened."
Whether Teixeira wants to call it a "downgrade" or an "optimization" — and as far as I can tell, his definitions for the two things are basically the same — the fact remains that The Witcher 3 looks different now than it did a couple years ago.
Trailers, Teixeira pointed out, aren't actually games, though he predictably downplayed the expectations that so many people still place on them. "It's very unfair to compare trailers and gameplay demos," he said. "A trailer is a beautiful shot, right. A trailer is prepared, you take one location, you put the perfect lights, and the perfect camera angle, and it looks absolutely beautiful, and it's captured at super high-definition, and then you post-process it and everything… it's a trailer. You pick beautiful shots. But gameplay demos, that's when you see the real game. That's when you see what the real game looks like." Teixeira was then sure to point out that even gameplay demos change over time.
So here we are. The story has a beginning, middle, and end:
- Games change over the course of development, and are often unveiled to the public with best-case-scenario graphics.
- The final version of The Witcher 3 doesn't look as sharp as what was shown two years ago.
- The Witcher 3 clearly changed over the course of its development. QED.
But still there's this anger over it. What's that anger about?
My initial playthrough of The Witcher 3 was on an early "debug" version of the game running on a special testkit PS4 loaned to me by Sony (those units don't boost the performance of games, in case you're wondering). That's what I used as the basis for my review. Despite some frame-rate issues, I thought the game looked marvellous. I've played ten or so hours of the retail PC version, and I'd say it looks like the PS4 version only running at a smoother frame-rate. Regardless of platform, it's easily one of the prettiest games I've ever played, and it's really fun, to boot.
Here we have a game that's very good, a game that lots of people are almost sure to love. If you showed it to someone who didn't follow games closely, they'd be blown away by how beautiful it looks. But people are still upset, because the fact remains that The Witcher 3 of 2015 looks different from The Witcher 3 of 2013. Let's break this down.
Point one: A game's visuals and graphics technology do matter. They may not matter to you, but they matter to a lot of people. Those of us who invest in powerful PC gaming rigs live for this kind of stuff; games like The Witcher 3 are why we boot up our PCs in the morning. If you invest hundreds or thousands of dollars in building a beautiful machine capable of cranking out unprecedented visual splendor, it's understandable that you'd hope for some software to really put it to the test.
Point one: A game's visuals and graphics technology do matter.
Point two: It's unreasonable for anyone to expect a game not to change while in development. A finished video game will not look the same in 2015 as it did back in 2013 when it was in the thick of development. That's doubly true for The Witcher 3, given that the consoles for which it was being developed hadn't even been revealed when it was first announced. Things change in production; it's the nature of the creative process.
The Witcher 3 situation ties into an ongoing narrative established in the past by games like Dark Souls 2 and Watch Dogs. Both of those games came under fire for releasing final versions that didn't look as good as pre-release demos. Dark Souls 2 had markedly flatter lighting technology, which killed some of the oppressive atmosphere present in pre-release footage. Watch Dogs looked noticeably less impressive than its original demonstration video, which felt like a bigger deal than Dark Souls 2, given how that initial graphical "wow" factor had so many people (us included) treating Watch Dogs as the harbinger of a new generation of gaming tech.
We've actually been highlighting this kind of pre/post-release discrepancy more often at Kotaku, just as we've shifted our coverage away from pre-release demos and trailers and more to games that actually exist in the real world. Take the weird UI in the E3 demo of The Last of Us, or the many ways the PAX demo of Dragon Age: Inquisition didn't line up with the final game. Look at how the award-winning E3 demo of BioShock Infinite showed incredible action sequences and levels that weren't in the final game. See how last year's Assassin's Creed Unity demo showed a mission that wasn't in the final game, with several features that also didn't make the cut.
Or, hell, check out the menus from the 2014 E3 demo of The Witcher 3, shown during Microsoft's Xbox press conference (via GameSpot):
Compare that with what the final menus look like:
I dislike the menus in the finished game, but I can't say whether the interface in that E3 video would have been better. It looks interesting, anyway! Point is: Games change. If they're showing you a game that's still in development, they're probably showing something that won't look quite the same once it's finished and you can actually play it.
At this point, I hope that all savvy gamers — members of the press included — have learned to take every moment of pre-release footage they watch with a tablespoon of salt. Let yourself get excited — it's ok! Video games are exciting! — but remember that whatever you're seeing will almost certainly be changed in the final version. It can be hard to ignore the crass clarion call of the pre-order incentive, but if you want to buy the game and not the dream version of the game that its publishers are more than happy to sell to you in advance, wait until the actual game exists.
As far as I can tell, anger over The Witcher 3 (and Dark Souls 2, and Watch Dogs, and the others) centres mainly on two notions. First, that anyone who bought the game in advance was promised one thing, but got something different. Second, that people who play games on PC believe that the ideal version of the game — as evidenced in that good-looking early footage — was hobbled by the need to get the game running on less-powerful consoles. Both of those reactions share something in common: The gaming public was sold something — an idea — that didn't actually exist, and some people (somewhat understandably) feel let down by reality.
Point two: It's unreasonable for anyone to expect a game not to change while in development.
The moral isn't really "They are lying to you." Rather, it's "This whole system of promises, primped previews and preorders is broken and stupid; it benefits the people who sell games, not the people who make and play them." It's stupid to make game developers crunch ridiculous hours to crank out a promotional demo that couldn't hope to be reflective of the final game. It's stupid to push gamers to buy games in advance, fuelling their bile and anger when the thing they bought is different from the thing they were promised. It's stupid to set up a situation that derails the discussion of a worthy work of artistry with such predictability that you'd think everyone involved would have figured out by now how to keep it from happening.
There's this feeling among gamers that we're constantly being screwed over, lied to, taken advantage of, ripped off. I'm increasingly convinced that this mentality is largely a byproduct of what my colleagues and I have come to call Preorder Culture. Preorder Culture isn't just defined by preorders — it's defined by hype, by the way that AAA video game publishers promote their games months or even years in advance.
This hype-centric, pre-release culture encapsulates so much of what is wrong with the mainstream video game industry, so much of what is aggravating and toxic and dull about how we talk about and consume video games. It's why so many of the most charged conversations in gaming center around controversial trailers, or just-announced collector's edition tchotchkes, or box art. (Box art! For fuck's sake.) I don't mean to say that those conversations aren't worth having, but the fact that they so often revolve around games that don't actually exist yet says a lot.
The cause for this future-obsessed mindset is larger than the video game industry and includes most aspects of consumer culture as a whole. But the games industry is surely displaying some of the most visible symptoms.
This is only compounded by publishers' fixation on preorders, on selling games before they're out or even finished. It's the same thing every time: Check this game out, here's what it looks like, here's the date it's coming out, now buy it buy it buy it buy oh my god please buy it now!
I'm not the first person to say it, but I'll be the latest: Preorders suck. If you think that preorders serve anyone but the people selling you the game, you're kidding yourself. Exclusive tie-ins, convenient pre-loads, even discounted preorder prices, all are in the service of giving a critical mass of gamers just enough incentive to buy a game as early as possible.
When you preorder a game, you don't actually buy a thing; you buy a promise. But it is a promise. It's a promise that the game will come out. It's a promise that it will work. It's a promise that it will live up to whatever excitement or expectation it was that encouraged you to commit to buying it, a promise that the tiny but potent rush of anticipation you felt when you clicked the "pre-order" button on Steam was only the beginning. You committed to something, and it's understandable to expect the thing to which you committed to live up to its end of the bargain.
Many of the people who are upset about The Witcher 3 probably didn't preorder the game. But those people bought a promise, too. I saw those same trailers and pored over those same screenshots. I, too, pondered whether my existing graphics card would be able to handle the game. In our own ways and to varying extents, we each bought the same promise. This game is going to be the most amazing-looking PC game you've ever played. This game is going to change everything. We promise.
As we've seen time and again, those promises are faulty from the moment they're made. The game will always change, and the promise will always be broken. Maybe it will be just a little broken. Maybe it's snapped in two. Maybe you didn't care about the thing that changed, or maybe that one thing was the primary reason you were excited about the game to begin with.
Video game publishers are so determined to make a profit that they start selling before their developers are done creating. The video game press, Kotaku included, still doesn't do a good enough job of reminding the public that most of what they're seeing isn't finished, and will likely change. This industry manufactures and inspires so much genuine wonder, but it can't stop selling promises it could never hope to fully keep.
The problem of video games' hype-addled preorder culture is systemic; it's so widespread and complex that it will likely never go away. The promises will keep being broken, and the anger over those broken promises will linger. Therefore, the only real solution must be personal: Stop buying promises. Buy video games, instead.