Media Manipulation – Faking It

Media Manipulation – Faking It

It’s well known that the pictures in Cosmopolitan are airbrushed, just as it’s known that half of all car commercials use CGI models and trick photography. But how much has marketing manipulated the latest game trailer from E3?

In the past, trailers, screenshots, and gameplay videos were used by developers to showcase their game and present either gameplay elements or a general idea of how a game would look and play. After all, there was only so much that could be done to manipulate a simple (S)NES image. However, with the advent of polygon graphics and the competitive nature of the console market, visual technologies became a selling point of their own. Certainly this existed before the big push for polygons, lighting models and post-processing effects. After all, who could forget Blast Processing or Mode 7? But with the current generation, the technology became an end to itself. Big budget games today rarely try to distinguish themselves by way of gameplay or themes but rather by their use of technology or visual set-pieces.

In this highly competitive market, an IP has to justify its visual fidelity by reaching for the established standard, or surpassing it. Sometimes, however, this is not possible, especially with games on current generation consoles that encounter hard hardware limitations due to age.

One has to remember that all forms of showcase media for big budget games are primarily interested in selling the game and not necessarily just to show the audience the developers’ labor. This is where marketing comes in to touch up the material available and make it “presentable” to the consumers. This happens in every industry, and as a Design Generalist, I have often participated in this process myself. Nobody really wants to eat a McDonald’s burger. They want to eat the synthetic replica featured in the photograph.

Screenshots

A screenshot is the oldest and simplest showcasing-tool of the video games industry. Ideally, a screenshot should showcase an accurate representation of the game, being taken in-engine and presenting gameplay moments. However, screenshots are easily manipulated to make a game look more enticing than it actually is.

Developers have access to techniques that a player might not; console commands can free up the camera to allow for better angles of the action or place actors and objects into the scene to make it grander than it will appear in the final product.

By far the easiest method however is “downscaling” or “downsampling”.

Modern 3D games based on polygons have always had a problem of jagged edges, partly because of engine limits and partly because of the limits of our projection devices being based on rectangular pixels. Angled lines will always feature an amount of “staircasing” because our monitors cannot project a smooth angled line on a rectangular grid. To remove this imperfection, most video game engines use anti-aliasing techniques like FXAA or SMAA. The downside of these techniques is that they introduce a subtle blur to the edges in the image.

Anti-Aliasing

The simplest way of circumventing this problem and having crisp edges in your screenshots is simply to take them at a higher resolution than you will showcase the game in. If the game is supposed to run on hardware that displays full-HD, then taking the screenshot at a proportionally higher resolution and then downscaling it to HD will make the image appear to have far crisper edges.

We know about this practice because sometimes press- and media-kits contain images in absurd resolutions (4K, 4,096 × 2,304 pixels) by accident, a case where raw images were mixed with showcase images.

Even Nintendo is not immune to these practices. Every time you saw a screenshot that had crisp edges, you were probably looking at something that was most likely taken in an emulator or dev-kit at far higher resolution than normally possible with several tweaks not available in the final game.

comparison

(c)Neogaf

In recent years, a kind of “video game photography” has even sprung up, trying to capture the most stunning and beautiful images possible “free from the distractions of of gameplay”. Multiple communities currently exist that specialize in this kind of photography. Possibly the best known is Dead End Thrills getting recent media attention for their Skyrim screenshots, capturing absolutely fantastic shots of video games that are sometimes unrecognizable as the product we know. Similarly, the “Bullshot Thread” at NeoGaf is a meeting place for enthusiasts to post the very best a game has to offer, pushing the technology to its limit. (Playability or feasibility takes a backseat here.)

onwardandupward2

Skyrim – (c) Dead End Thrills

Of course, these are just the most benign ways of manipulating an image. The fun starts when screenshots are being obviously retouched in image-manipulation software like Photoshop. Texture detail can be added, post-processing effects applied, and in the end, the image might look nothing like the presented game. Sometimes a screenshot is assembled entirely from keyed elements or spruced up by adding additional elements that are not on screen at the time. This is done because a screenshot has to provide the viewer with a maximum amount of information that represents the game; the screenshot itself becomes a marketing tool.

Floatingcar

(c) Lazygamer.net

Gameplay Videos

While screenshots can generally be manipulated relatively easily, video footage necessitates far greater involvement. However, seeing as marketing budgets easily reach millions of dollars, this doesn’t seem like a big hurdle to take for most large productions.

Videos can often be deceiving as they showcase a planned, edited section of gameplay and there are no guarantees that what the consumer sees is actually going to be the end result. By now, Aliens: Colonial Marines and the fake gameplay trailer showcasing what could be described as a completely different game is rather well known. However, many have forgotten that Bioshock: Infinite suffered the same fate. Curiously, its critical acclaim overshadowed this fact and drew far less media attention than Aliens: Colonial Marines.

There have been numerous changes to the game that should be apparent to anyone that played it, all of which are listed here. As an example, Booker and Elizabeth never combo their powers, Elizabeth never gets sick from forming tears, enemies cannot be intimidated by just aiming at them and there is no combat on the Skylines. I would have liked to play this 2011 version of Bioshock: Infinite far more than what was released. It is interesting to note that there was no updated gameplay trailer for Bioshock: Infinite since this showcase; the post-2011 trailers focus almost entirely on cinematic story elements or showcasing the environment. A cynic might accuse the developers of false advertisement and they might not be entirely incorrect, although the evidence is certainly circumstantial.

The fact remains that a large portion of gameplay trailers turn out to be fantasy representations of a game that never makes it to shelves. It presents a curious situation that has no precedent in other media.

Other subtle manipulations can feature recording the gameplay from other sources than the game will be run on, like different engines (Thief 4, Aliens: Colonial Marines) or more powerful PC hardware (Xbox One demos). This can give the illusion of higher fidelity or better performance, while the final product might look significantly worse or perform differently.

The subtitle “In-Engine”, as seen in multiple Crysis 1/2/3 trailers, is rarely applied and only if the developer is entirely certain that their technology is either revolutionary or visually impressive enough to boast about it. It is hard for a layman to distinguish between trickery and the genuine article; labels like these could go far in helping the consumer make informed decisions. After all, there is no guarantee that the recorded footage is running in real time rather than being artificially assembled.

Live Stage Demos

It’s easy to think that surely a live performance is tamper-proof. Of course, graphical fidelity and performance might not be subject to tampering, but the showcase can still be far from authentic.

Remembering the recent E3 live stage presentations of Battlefield 4, Watch_Dogs or Destiny, it becomes clear that these were expertly staged with every player (or rather “actor”) performing a role in a grand theatrical play for the benefit of the audience.

If the scripted “dialogue” between actors wasn’t clue enough, a close look at the gameplay will reveal the inauthentic nature of this presentation. The actors generally weren’t playing the game. They were acting in a motion picture with a script prepared beforehand; players were shooting at nothing at all, helicopters were missing their targets almost point-blank, wasting tactical resources and not following any kind of strategy. Creating a spectacle is far more important than actually showing sincere gameplay.

Not to mention the demo at the Microsoft Xbox One presentation ran from a PC as indicated by keyboard prompts in the top right corner.

Similarly, single-player games like Watch_Dogs or Thief 4 have expert players at the helm that know what to show and what to avoid. It all rests on the concept of presenting the best side of the product and the problem becomes apparent when severe flaws are being omitted that are then later discovered by players. A humorous comparison to TV shopping can be drawn in how the product is being presented; Billy Mays will not tell you what Oxi Clean can’t do.

Conundrum

The question here becomes what one can see as false advertisement and what the consumer can do to protect himself from these practices. Where is the line drawn between positive marketing and misleading information?

Clearly, the best way to protect consumer interests is to inform, for an informed consumer is the bane of exploitation. However, in our age of information, it is easy to become over-saturated without an indicator of what is true and false.

Warning labels like “Game Experience May Change During Online Play” are used to distance the developer from legal harm and not necessarily meant to inform. Perhaps consideration should be given to having a similar approach to screenshots and video content, except purely for the purposes of informing the public. I do not want to suggest regulation but rather an approach where the media would take the responsibility upon themselves to label, or at least source, marketing material received. If applied consistently, a small “in-engine gameplay” or “alpha build” label on the side of the video/screenshot would go a long way in making sure the consumer has all the information to make an informed purchase/decision.

The job of a journalist is to inform, not to promote, and a better job has to be done. If necessary, consumers should take it upon themselves to dismantle the marketing speak and up-sell rhetoric.

Perhaps in the future this could be extended to inform consumers about DRM and privacy concerns, but that is another topic altogether.



  1. LBS says:

    Then don’t buy AAA games. With the recent change in indie funding, those who don’t want to put up with such garbage don’t need to. Complaining about false advertizing in here is like going to McDonald’s and complaining that your sandwich contained fermented soy, various body parts of animals and was laced with chemicals that USA used to fight Vietcong with. While the advertisement said: “Made from 100% Beef”(meaningless statement). Modern AAA is McDonalds for today’s plebs.

  2. Aeiou says:

    You write some pretty fucking good articles.

  3. fapo says:

    Im surprised you didnt mention the infamous killzone 2 demo.

  4. tanaka says:

    “has marketing manipulated the latest game trailer”
    What do you mean? The “teaser trailer” that shows nothing at all, or the “reveal trailer” that shows some CGI cinematic cutscene that has nothing to do with the actual game, or maybe the “gameplay reveal” trailer that shows some pre-rendered, scripted bullshit that is in no way related to the actual gameplay?
    Because, lets face it, everything that comes from the officials is carefully tailored to sell their product, not to be fair, honest or anything. To sell the product.
    “to showcase their game and present either gameplay elements or a general idea of how a game would look and play”
    The only thing that could “showcase the game” would be a demo version. And this could be tailored (to an extent) as well. One can wonder why there are no more demos. Nad by “demo versions” I mean something any interested fellow, a potential customer, could acquire free of charge and play for himself and see if it’s really that good and if he likes it.
    “[no] distractions of gameplay”; “the very best a game has to offer”
    Absolutely disgusting.
    “Live Stage Demos”
    I doubt those are live at all. The “players/actors” might be, but what they play is not.
    “The job of a journalist is to inform, not to promote”
    It looks like there are next to no journalists covering the video games industry.

    Anyway, this is some very nice article and I’d like to see more like this coming. Maybe something about DRM or privacy concerns? Cheers.

  5. Niger says:

    And this is exactly why I don’t pay any attention to any game that isn’t released already in a playable state.

  6. Anonymous says:

    This happens so much.
    And Nintendo is not immunge?Nintendo loves doing it. They are not as bad as the guys that show a “game” running that never comes close to that, but all of their big trailers are filtered, always.
    And you never notice how 3DS games always look better on trailers than on your 3DS? Like way better. That’s becuse the 3DS screens are so bad they reduce the quality of the games a lot.
    We will be able to see the difference when the 3DS emulators come out and those games run on good screens for once.
    They also always release completely faked images of the characters and stages for all their promotional images of games, that promo Mario you see jumping on his car is not how he will look on MK8 WiiU, but that is an entirely different thing.
    But this industry is built like a magic show.
    It’s all about knowing wha to show and what not to show.
    You ever wonder why it is so god damn hard to find a good list of current PS Plus games but Sony has that big picture of all the games they have released in the past everywhere? Yeah, it makes the service looks better than it is, 90% of those are unavailable now, but someone buying the system now will have no way of knowing. This is from the “We promise Toy Story graphics on PS2!” guys so no surprise.
    Microsoft always minimized the red ring of death numbers, they run demos on PC’s, Kinnect presentations all faked. They lied to us about the Xbone’s need of constnat cloud to work.
    Just like EA with Sim City.

    Is there even single honest video games company out there?
    The bar is set so low that anyone that lie less is the most honest guy of the bunch.

  7. Gig says:

    “The job of a journalist is to inform, not to promote, and a better job has to be done. ”
    And this is why I come to GYP instead. Great article.
    To someone experienced (and technically oriented) enough this seems obvious, but there are plenty of people who falls for these, not because they’re stupid but because they’re simply uninformed. This happens in every industry where big money is involved, but unlike in other industries video games are unregulated and don’t really have anyone to answer to and be cautious of when they try to trick their customers.

    For instance, if you buy a 2$ package with a picture of chocolate covered biscuits but inside you find salty crackers, the manufacturer can be sued for false advertisement and have his product taken off the shelves, and if he then comes to your house, spills some cocoa powder on them and says he “patched the product” he will be ridiculed; if a car manufacturer described his car as “really really fast” and “has low fuel-to-mileage ratio” in the official technical specifications he’ll be considered unprofessional, and then if you bought it and realized it only goes 40mph and drinks more gasoline than you can possibly afford, you’d be in your right to start a class action lawsuit and some official stamp of approval will be revoked. This isn’t the case with the video game industry, as most consumers today will shrug and say “well there go my 60 bucks”. Change should NOT come from formal regulation alone – instead it should start with the consumer, who should realize promises are cheap, pirating to try is cheaper, not buying something bad never cost you anything, and asking for your god damn money back because you didn’t get what you were promised is your right as the consumer.

  8. Thanks to Eric videos have now been fixed, thanks Eric.

  9. Anothereposter says:

    So games have matured (in the commercial seance) where company’s/publishers have begun altering game footage to get positive hype; hey its called advertising. Even I’ll admit that I fell prey to the hype machine (Dragon Age 2, cough, cough). Advertisement is doing what it needs to do, showcasing it’s product to the people. If no one, knows about a game then it won’t sell. But whats important on our part is to take advertisement with a grain of salt and try not to build unrealistic expectations. In the words of one of my favorite games, Soul Reaver: “tread carefully”

    • Anonymous says:

      If the advertising involves fake stuff then it’s not “showcasing its product”.
      It’s showcasing what people wish the product was, but not what it is, or what they will get.

  10. Fenrir says:

    I don’t post much around here, but I’d like you to know I always read and love your articles, Alek – this one is no exception.

  11. Zolwiol says:

    I’d also like to point out that “in-engine” is also often used deceptively. “In-engine” can be prerendered or rendered on a much more powerful PC than the target platform.

    • Robert Mangione says:

      Very true. Pretty sure at least one person is going over the differences between The Last of Us’ demo and final product. To be fair there were some gameplay changes but I’m not going to say that makes up for the missing struggle over the shotgun that punctuated The Last of Us’ trailer.

  12. ThatDragon says:

    Great article indeed.

  13. Polite Timesplitter says:

    Thanks for going into such depth on this article. I’ve been wondering about this sort of thing a lot lately due to the ‘footage’ from MGS5: Phantom Pain. The way the camera moves makes it certainly look like it’s gameplay, but I remain skeptical about the actual game’s graphics looking that decent – it’s -feasible-, I suppose, but a far-reaching claim, and to the best of our knowledge the Ground Zeroes footage, which was on par, was running on a PC ‘equivalent’ to current gen tech. Not falling for it.

    • anon says:

      Do you know anything about graphic engines for games? Did you see konami’s keynote? If you did you would realise that what you’re seeing in those gameplay videos is perfectly feasible to be run in realtime. Also, if you have any doubts in the consoles handling the game, MGSV is coming to PC with probably the same graphics shown in there since it’s running on a PC build.

  14. Inferring says:

    Wonderful article.

    GYP is one of the last bastions of sanity in a sea of industry hostages, and I enjoy reading every single one of these articles.

    Keep up the good work.

You can use basic HTML in your post. Gather Your Party will never share your email address with anyone, ever.