If you need a more blatant example of how the gaming press functions as the marketing wing of the gaming industry, look no further than the awards these publications and web sites dole out to games which have not even been released.
Sure, other forms of media have events at which the press judge them before the public sees the finished product. Take the Cannes Film Festival, for example, where mostly film critics and junkies see the latest movies before their full release. The major difference, of course, is that at Cannes, the critic gets to see the finished product in its entirety before passing judgment. If Cannes were like E3, critics would be forced to watch five minutes of footage which might be in the final film, and then asked to pass judgment. It’s like saying, “Here’s some B-roll I shot at or near the location of the actual film… now please hand me the Palm d’Or?”
Based solely on very limited gameplay (often a single level), or sometimes just footage which may or may not be pre-rendered, these awards do nothing except clutter the back of your video game case with baseless praise. Oh, and they also serve to deceive the public as to what they may be actually getting.
Nothing is certain where video game trade shows and actual game performance are concerned.
Case in point: Watch_Dogs
The Watch_Dogs footage from E3 2012 was gorgeous, and sent the hype train into full effect, with the media casually throwing around terms like “Game of the Year,” and “Next-Gen Open World.” Having seen the footage myself, I can hardly blame them. The game shown at E3 2012 displayed a photo-realistic Chicago with dynamic lighting and weather effects. Aiden Pierce’s signature brown trench coat rippled in the breeze like real and weighted fabric. It was everything the next generation promised to be—this is why we bought new consoles in the first place, right?!?
Then the game launched.
The game looked completely bland in comparison. Dynamic lights and shadows were gone. Graphics took a severe turn for the bland, and everyone who saw the footage wondered, “What happened?”
In a nutshell, the brand new consoles we put our hard-earned cash for couldn’t handle what Ubisoft was throwing at it. As a result, the game was toned down hard for its release on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
Wait, PC? Why would they have had to do that? Well, it turns out that some enterprising modders didn’t take very long to find all the graphics settings that were turned on at E3 hidden in the code of the game, and went through the methodical process of turning those beautiful graphics back on. Pretty much egg on Ubisoft’s face, right?
The dev team is completely dedicated to getting the most out of each platform, so the notion that we would actively downgrade quality is contrary to everything we’ve set out to achieve. We test and optimize our games for each platform on which they’re released, striving for the best possible quality. The PC version does indeed contain some old, unused render settings that were deactivated for a variety of reasons, including possible impacts on visual fidelity, stability, performance and overall gameplay quality. Modders are usually creative and passionate players, and while we appreciate their enthusiasm, the mod in question (which uses those old settings) subjectively enhances the game’s visual fidelity in certain situations but also can have various negative impacts. Those could range from performance issues, to difficulty in reading the environment in order to appreciate the gameplay, to potentially making the game less enjoyable or even unstable.
TL;DR—Apparently the possibility that better graphics could affect performance was unacceptable.
Of course, we all know that the real reason was parity. If the PC version looked like the E3 2012 version, people who just bought a new console would complain. We have gotten to the point where PC versions are being actively downgraded so console versions don’t look so bad. All this to say, while they had no problem advertising their 80+ awards won pre-release, the version of the game that won all those awards is not the version we got (the game was also universally panned for being boring, FYI).
Case in point: Aliens: Colonial Marines
In E3 2011, an exuberant Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox Software, declared enthusiastically to the media and anyone within hearing range that he was making a licensed Aliens game. Despite only having been shown a trailer which was later proven to be pre-rendered, Pitchford was the beneficiary of the gaming industry marketing wing—ahem, press. However, the results of Gearbox’s efforts were not near the quality of the pre-rendered trailer, to the surprise of the 1.3 million poor saps who bought the game.
Later, sources in the lawsuits between Sega, the publisher, and Gearbox revealed that Pitchford lied to Sega to keep the checks rolling while he diverted personnel and funds to the Borderlands titles and may have even used Sega’s money to buy the rights to Duke Nukem Forever, another hole which money rapidly disappeared into.
Apparently, back in 2008, Sega found out that Gearbox hadn’t been using their money to make Aliens and cancelled the title, but Pitchford managed to woo them back by promising to get serious about making the game. Then he went back to spending Sega’s money on other games, while making a small developer called TimeGate finish up the mess that Gearbox finally stopped tinkering with on their lunch break. Eventually he had to push out an Aliens title, though, or Sega might have gotten really suspicious. And so Gearbox released Aliens: Colonial Marines, which would actually win a number of awards after release—but not the kind you write home to Mum about: Worst Game of the Year.
No Reason To Exist
Video game trade shows exist to drive hype and create desire for their upcoming titles. That is their sole purpose. And there is no reason to believe that trade show awards from publications and websites exist for any other purpose either. Our gaming media should not be acting like rabid fan boys, gobbling every scrap that developers and publishers toss their way. They should be the balance between the fan boys who read their pages and temperance, given how many titles get announced and teased and then vanish into the ether—the vanguard, if you will, giving sage advice to the young and inexperienced.
Instead, they exist to fuel the hype and drive your money toward undeserving product. Be wise with the power of your wallet, and be wary of any awards a game recieves before it is even released.