Face off: Is it reasonable to expect a game to live up to early footage?

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In Face Off, PC Gamer writers go head to head over an issue affecting PC gaming. Today, Wes and Chris argue whether we should expect games to live up to early trailers and screenshots.


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Wes Fenlon, hardware editor
Wes thinks early promotional materials often don't look like the finished game, and we should expect that.

Chris Livingston, staff writer
Chris thinks if developers make big changes, they should do more to let us know before we buy.

Chris Livingston: YES. Games change while they’re being made, but if they’ve changed appreciably from the early look we were given, the developer needs to let us know. Features, functions, and yes, even visuals, are bound to change during a game’s development, and I think we all know that. But if a developer has released early gameplay footage and images, and they’re not representative of the finished game, they need to do something to make us aware of that. When it comes to how a game looks—and I’m talking about The Witcher 3—it’s even reasonable to assume it will look better than it did early on. If it looks worse, devs have a responsibility to say “Hey, remember that pretty thing we showed you a while back? We tried real hard to make that, but it’s not what you’re getting.”

Wes Fenlon: NO.The freedom to iterate on and even drastically change a game is a key part of the creative process, and devs shouldn’t have to justify each and every change they make. I agree with you on one thing up front, though: misrepresenting games through early promotional materials, like trailers claiming that something is “in game footage,” really sucks. It’s not necessarily a lie—in the case of The Witcher 3, I believe there was a version of that game that looked like it did, but it wasn’t capable of rendering a full open world. But developers and publishers shouldn’t be showing a game off two years ahead of release and setting unrealistic expectations. Because they know the truth: the development of a game is always going to leave features, graphical effects, plot points, and more on the cutting room floor. Because sometimes things just don’t work, or they’re not achievable by a deadline, and cutting those things is a natural part of the process. It’s why great games can be lean and focused instead of bloated and directionless. Developers need the freedom to make those changes.

Chris: Look, I think it’s ridiculous to buy a game based on promotional footage from several years ago, and I even doubt many people do that. At the same time, the first images from an early gameplay trailer are going to stick with people for a long time. I loved that first gameplay trailer for The Division, and I’m going to be disappointed nine years from now if the game comes out and doesn’t give me that experience I first saw. Early Half-Life 2 footage showed a crazy water tentacle monster impaling a Combine soldier. The tentacle was cut from the game, but it’s still in my head. I remember the first gameplay trailer for Bioshock Infinite, and that wound up being very little like the final version of the game. It was an infinite bummer.

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Wes: Again, I agree it’s probably a bad idea to show off a game when there’s years of iteration left to be done. But at the same time, I also treasure the archeology of looking back at things that didn’t make it into a game. Sometimes it’s wondering how awesome that feature would’ve been, or trying to figure out why it was cut. But I think the way many gamers look at “cut” content is incorrect. They feel like something that was in the game or should have been in the game was removed, taken away, and that that’s a bad thing. But we’ve not privy to any of the internal discussions around those features or the way they were integrated into the game as a whole.

What if that tentacle monster in Half-Life 2 worked in that one scene, but its AI was a nightmare that just never worked right? What if devs designed a really cool level, but a great change to the plot of the game during development rendered it obsolete? What if the original lighting in Dark Souls 2, which many gamers are still angry about, was actually terrible for gameplay? It’s okay to say “Aw man, what if” about these features, but I think more often than not, they’re cut for the better.

Chris: From what I recall, Valve said the water tentacle just wasn’t any fun to fight, and I’m not saying they should have kept it simply because they showed it. Devs should make the best game possible and that will always entail throwing away stuff that initially seemed like a good idea but didn’t work out. I think “Aw, man” is a natural reaction, and I think a lot of people are having it about The Witcher 3, though perhaps with more expletives than strictly necessary. It boils down to: “You showed me a thing, I wanted that thing, but I didn’t get that thing.” I wouldn’t expect Valve to hold a press conference to announce the water tentacle had been deep-sixed, but maybe CDPR could have done something to point out the game didn’t look as good as originally advertised before they took pre-orders? It’s not a fun thing for a dev to admit, I’m sure, but PC gamers love sweet graphics. CDPR should have anticipated there would be a certain amount of disappointment.

Wes: Yeah, you’re right about that. I don’t think we should expect a game to live up to early footage for a lot of reasons we’ve already touched on: the creative freedom necessary to cut things that aren’t working, the ability to optimize and adapt to new technology and challenges...but we should expect, or demand, that promotional materials be up front about progress during development. Marketers are always going to do their best to put a positive spin on things, but trying to sweep an issue under the rug never works. Once something like a trailer has been put online, it’s there forever, and people will notice if you try to take it down or alter it. Of course CD Projekt wasn’t going to come out and say “Hey, our game’s uglier now.” But they could’ve written an in-depth technical explanation of how the game engine performed back in 2013 vs. now, what changed, and why. I’m sure a few people would still be mad, but I think a lot of people, myself included, would find it fascinating. We rarely get insight into the specifics of how a game is changed during development.

Chris: Yeah! I think even a little bit of information and explanation would go a long way. No one likes feeling hoodwinked, and while some are a little quick to fly off the handle I think most people are pretty understanding and just want to know what they’re paying for before they buy it. On the other hand, a lot of complaints came from people who had pre-ordered, and pre-ordering games is… well, we probably both have opinions on pre-orders, but that’s a Face Off for another time.

Wes: Seriously. The best justification for a pre-order is to save some bucks, but these days games go on sale so quickly (and so often), there's not much reason to buy until you know what you're getting. I hope the controversy around The Witcher 3's graphics convinces publishers to be more upfront in the future, but I also hope that it doesn't discourage them from being creative with their advertising. A good trailer can mislead you about a game's narrative, and the surprise when you play the real thing can be great. Savvy movie trailers do this all the time. Halo 2's first level ended with an awesome scene with a completely different context than was originally shown. If a game is going to have an exhaustive, two-year advertising campaign, I hope developers start to put out more creative trailers that allow us to still feel surprised when we pick up a game.

Christopher Livingston
Staff Writer

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.