1/13/2016

Hunie Pop: so bad yet so brilliant

I've played my fair share of the dating sims when I was a teenager. They were all roughly the same, but hey - boobs! And to be fair, some of them had really decent writing or even more interesting settings than "you're a transfer student, now go and hump everything that moves". When I was browsing the most recent Steam sale list, I came across Hunie Pop. Was only around 3 Euro and to be honest, looked pretty lame. What caught my eye was the "Overwhelmingly Positive" in user reviews. Could it be that the genre that used to be a one-trick-pony has something new to offer? Could it be that jRPG and Iron Maiden are the only ones still stuck in the 80's and the visual dating novel has left them behind?

Yeah, I bought it and I was astonished how bad it was. I mean... The assumption that if I'm playing it I must be a loser that could never get a girl was both funny and embarrassing. The dialog choices were always between "my nose is bleeding" and "my tongue is stuck between my teeth". The occasional "Hey, I'm not a total moron" options were always greeted with a "yeah, right... get real" kind of reply. Of course, not 30 minutes later, I'm a regular playboy that can ask any girl out and aks every chick their cup size and - what's even weirder - age and get a reply. With no magic involved, but just because the game wanted it that way.


The writing is so terrible that it walks this fine line between so bad I want to quit and so bad it's funny. Luckily, the Voice Acting is even worse, which pushes the whole thing to the definitely funny zone. The uninspired one-liners of stereotypical teachers, schoolgirls and gym bunnies are met with performances so dull that Siri sounds like a sex line operator in comparison. 

Yet... the game is actually the best dating sim I've ever played. Before you ask the girls on dates, you get to ask the girls questions and buy them presents. At first it feels like mindless collectible unlocking. Soon enough though, between some relationship questions where you need to simply tell the girl what she wants to hear, she will check whether you've been paying attention and ask you what her weight or favourite color is. But that's just child's play. Where it gets really good is the dates themselves.

It's the first dating sim I've seen that actually uses its mechanics as a metaphor of dating instead of making me read through pages of dialogue and descriptions to chose an option every 15 minutes. Instead, it's a logical match 3 type of game. A surprisingly deep one with a decent amount of strategy in it. Additionally, every color you're matching corresponds with an emotion or a conversational topic. Every girl prefers certain topics, so you have to navigate through the board to focus on sexuality or flirtation, but it's not always possible, when all that's on the table is talent and romance. Every now and then you accidentally trigger a bad topic and the whole carefully built up mood goes to shit. And sometimes, when you are out of your game and the colors just don't seem to match, the date ends without really moving the relationship forward, leaving you both in that "meh" zone. 


That's a pretty damn accurate mechanic to mimic the intricacy of dating. But wait, it gets better! When you finally manage to get into a girl's pants, the rules of the match 3 change. The board is now filled with easy matches. You're both in the mood. All you need to do is not to fuck it up now. You need to fill the rapidly depleting mood bar. At first, used to thinking things through, you're searching for good, strategic matches. You get some points, then a combo comes crashing down. You're already doing great. The bra is gone, but you have to act quick before the mood drops. You start getting a bit nervous. You just match whatever you find first. You're getting sloppy. You know you could probably be doing so much better, yet you keep plowing through and even though sometimes you ruin the mood a bit with your tempo, you finally get there, feeling like you've actually accomplished something. However silly that sounds. 

I don't know about you guys, but I'd take this kind of experience over an overly long sexual act description. And while it might all sound really silly and while Hunie Pop might have an awfully candyish, dumb, primitive, sometimes straightforward racist and stereotypical skin, its gameplay is solid and an incredible example of using just the right mechanics to let the player experience the complexity of the dating game. In that regard, Hunie Pop is a game that beats all entries of The Witcher, Mass Effect and Persona series all together.


12/11/2015

Legacy of the Void - the worst Zelda game ever

Before we start, I'm a huge StarCraft fan. It was one of my first PC games. The franchise has been with me for over half of my life and what might be weird, I loved the game mostly for the story. Sure it wasn't the greatest thing ever written, but the execution was just so much better than all the mission briefings we were used to at that time in RTS. Jim was a cocky bastard, Mengsk was a major asshole and Fenix sacrificing himself was one of the most meaningful game deaths for me. And the soundtrack... Hell, I'm gonna listen to it while I'm writing this. Hey! You can listen to it while you read this, too! It'll be the soundtrack for this post, why not.

When Wings of Liberty came out, I played the crap out of it. Got all the achievements in the story mode. Even the Lost Viking ones, because I just wanted to show my respect to the guys at Blizzard that made it so beautiful. So what all characters had depth of a puddle, at least they were diverse and worked well together. The missions were diverse, the goal clear and Raynor relatable. It's been 5 years and I can still remember some of the maps.


Then Heart of the Swarm came, with its in-your-face romance and pink Kerrigan. Up until the end of Wings of Liberty, the word "love" has never appeared. The relationship between Jim and Sarah was hinted, but never explicitly shown or confirmed. The beginning of Heart of the Swarm could have easily featured them as good buddies, with Jim having hots for the HotS (sorry for the terrible pun, couldn't resist) and Kerrigan not really being that interested. Still it wasn't so bad after all. Seemingly faceless Zerg got amazing new representation in Zagara and Abathur. However, it's probably not the best thing that I don't know what the end goal was.

HEAVY SPOILERS FROM NOW ON - YOU'VE BEEN WARNED

Legacy of the Void has been so much worse though. The whole thing is a MacGuffin fest. Starting with the introduction of a "bad god" very originally named Amon. Although, if main characters have the most popular American names, Jim and Sarah, it's probably fitting that the bad god has the name out of top three popular god names. What's worse, is that the only purpose this Amon serves is for us to know what we want to hit in the face in the finale. The coolest Protoss alive, Zeratul, gets sacrificed to free the most boring of them, Artanis. "Screw Zeratul, I want to play as Artanis in the last part of StarCraft" said no one ever. It's as if the creative director played Metal Gear Solid 2 and thought "hey, this Raiden guy was so cool!" or something equally ridiculous.


What follows is resurrecting the one character that should have stayed heroically dead - Fenix. What's worse, he's resurrected, but not quite. He's now having existential problems and becomes a plot device in a story that keeps getting worse with every passing mission. Way to dig out a corpse of a beloved character and spit on it. Accompanying the bland Artanis are also a green-eyed female, a blue-eyed female that occasionally turns red, the only protoss with a beard and a red-eyed bad protoss that for a completely unexplainable reason manifests free will. Yes, I just finished the game yesterday and already cannot remember the names. The only good moments in the campaign cutscenes are when Kerrigan, Raynor and Swann appear. The rest is just one still face babbling to another still face.

Back to MacGuffins - almost every mission goes like this: "Hey, Artanis, I've discovered the xhtehyean... ah screw it, I discovered these magical thingies that you need to collect or destroy so you can advance." At some point you find yourself chasing 3 pieces of Triforce to be able to collect 5 gems to free 6 sages to find 7 crystals. Unfortunately, Artanis doesn't have a fun green hat and what's worst, he talks. Makes me wonder whether all the level designers were reassigned to Heroes of the Storm and Legacy of the Void was left with just a team of juniors.


The pinnacle of this is the final mission of the epilogue, where instead of an epic bossfight or commanding a massive final battle, you get to... You guessed it! Destroy 7 floating crystals! And as a reward, you get to see burning Kerrigan using a laser pointer attack on the forehead of Cthulu Amon. And don't even get me started on Kerrigan trying to rival Dragon Ball Z characters in the amount of transformations and how cliché her final form is.


When I finished the game yesterday I immediately googled whether they changed the person responsible for the story, but no. It's been Chris Metzen all this time, but apparently struck by some midlife dementia. You thought the ending of Mass Effect 3 was bad? Well, it must be some space opera curse, because Legacy of the Void manages to deliver an even worse ending to a much better franchise. After it's all over, you end up feeling like Blizzard has just taken a long, boring piss on your favourite characters.

10/02/2015

Sexism in games? Why not!

I was sitting in the office, minding my own business and then my wife sent me a link to this picture:


It got me thinking... The artist here is right. The nudity and sexism of games or any other medium is only a problem for those who can't see through it. Kinda obvious, right? Took me 30 years to realize that? Maybe. You can pause now and have some time to laugh at me. Yes, I will continue on the topic. Stop laughing, I'm dead serious.

I grew up int he 90's, with the games from the 90's and all the surrounding popculture. And with the 90's being the age of Lara Croft, Baywatch and Duke Nukem. I am a perfect example of a priviledged white male brainwashed by our lovely medium. I confess to all the sins of a teenage gamer. I did always have Tifa in my party in Final Fantasy VII (one of the reasons was because her limit break was the only skill-based one, but let's be honest, boobs were important too). I did play only female characters in Dead or Alive (because frankly, who plays with the guys? I've seen girls play this game, and they choose girls too). I did play Wet: The Sexy Empire as an underaged kid, along with several Japanese erotic game novels (and I did enjoy the good writing, not just sex scenes).


You now have every right to discard my opinion as biased, manipulated and sick to the bone, but... All this allowed me to grow into the man I am today. It allowed me to play BioShock: Infinite without staring at Elizabeth's boobs and instead focusing on her story. It allows me to look at Akiba's Trip not only as a fan service, but also a really fun game with decent story and really, really cleverly abstract mechanic. It allowed me to critically look at Catherine and what choice I would make if I were in Vincent's shoes. And I did not base it at all on which pair of tits I liked better (in case you wondered, I liked Katherine's better, while I'd still choose Catherine). I am able to look at Quiet as a tragic character, completely ignoring her appearance and not getting a boner during the water scenes. 

But I still want to be strong and fast like Solid Snake. Be able to pull up myself and a busty gal with one hand like Cloud. And I wouldn't mind having muscles like Duke, because hell, who would? Apart from gymnasts, volleyball players, anyone who wants to fit in any door... But you get my point :) Does the fact that I'm physically inferior to the idea of these characters make me rage? No. They are representations of physical traits that many of us find attractive. I can either bitch about it or go to the gym.


Sex and sexualization is a part of life and part of every medium and every art. It makes perfect sense that in a fantasy world we want to see visually pleasing characters. The fact that I like Quiet as a character won't make me dress her in the baggy outfit just to prove some moot point, because I don't want her to feel uncomfortable. Even if mechanically she won't suffocate or anything. And yes, sometimes the pervy stuff gets pretty ridiculous, but I love how games like Lollipop Chainsaw or Bayonetta grew so self aware that they are practically parodying themselves while still having lots of fun, innovative, amazing gameplay. 

People are saying that sexualized characters in games promote imbossible standards among the audience and that is partially true. Partially, because these standards aren't impossible and some fantastic proportions can be successfully translated (not transfered to real life. Just look at the professional cosplayers. Both male and female. Also, there is nothing wrong with the second part. Is it bad that a medium makes people want to be more fit? Can anyone honestly tell me that by liking big boobs I'm doing something wrong? I wanted a girl who isn't  just smart, but busty as well. I married a girl who isn't just smart, but busty, sweet and caring too. It can be done, so what's the problem?

The problem occurs only when we can't look past the sometimes oversexualized coating. When we automatically call the character a bimbo just because she shows some cleavage. When we deny the character any personality it might have just because it has muscles bigger than us. Ass rounder than ours. I can only hope that the ones that feel offended or endangered by more sexualized content will someday be able to clear their vision of their unfulfilled, perverted, juvenile thoughts and see the busty and muscular characters as virtual persons, not just pieces of meat.

And seriously, go hit the gym, you lazy asses. Those juicy chicks and hunky dudes won't just settle for any fat nerd ;)


8/30/2015

Games and morals

Very recently, Steam held a quick sale on Darkest Dungeon. I have a huge line of games I own and still need to finish (or at least play), so even though I've been meaning to give DD a try for a while now, I was putting it off, because of this huge queque. Well, the sale won. I'm somewhere around 7 hours in the game at this point and getting a hang of it much more than I expected.


The game has a number of really simple, but interesting mechanics that nicely show, how you can reforge the limitations you face in development into beneficial design choices. However, there was one mechanic that really got me thinking. One I consider an excellent excuse to talk about moral choices in games. To simplify, I will break down how games approach the moral choices into 3 "levels". Level 1 being - in my highly subjective opinion - the lousiest and level 3 being the crowning achievement of how games approach morality. Let's get this over with.

Level 1: Morality scales
We all know those. Mass Effect's Renegade vs. Paragon. Catherine's Loyal vs. Cheating bastard. Fallout's karma. Elder Scrolls' popularity (or whatever it's called). Baldur's Gate's reputation. There's a lot of games that try to quantify the morality. To put everything on a single axis between good and evil and then make the game's world react to us accordingly, or in most cases, just giving us a few more dialogue options. Yes, I consider this the worst thing a game can do with morality. Because no matter how robust the system seems to be, it always boils down to where we are on a scale from 1 (bad) to 100 (good). It does pave the way for some interesting scenes sometimes, but it rarely teaches the players anything about themselves. How would they react in a certain situation? Who knows - the game only gives them a few predefined options, none of which usually gives the players the reaction they're after. Stack up enough of this communication bondage and the end result of the game will vary greatly from what the player was expecting. Not to mention how in your face most of these games are about these choices. Come on, BioWare - color coding?


Level 2: Moral choices
This is kinda the Telltale category. The game puts you in front of obvious choices. Be it dialogue choices or gameplay choices like in BioShock. There is always some build up for these moments. Whenever they arrive, you know the consequences of your action will affect the game, or at least you're to believe they will, because in most games they really don't (that's probably a topic for a whole other article, but to keep it short: even games that are "not linear" are often on rails anyway and the moments where you make a decision that splits the gameplay timeline are often kept as short as possible and the game gets back on track very shortly after while giving the player an illusion of actually changing the story). This kind of approach is in my opinion much better than morality scales. You make your decision and no statistic tells you what percentage of you is a good person. In many cases, these choices don't give us an obvious right or wrong answer, so you can feel like your decision is meaningful. Mass Effect did that on few occasions when they didn't scream red or blue to us. The Witcher series is doing pretty well in that department as well.

There's just one problem I have with those. In most cases, you can be at least 90% certain what the consequences of your choices will be. Gameplay consequences. Remember the choice in StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty campaign, when you had to choose whether you believe Nova or Tosh? What was the decission really about? Who you believed or whether you wanted Ghosts or Spectres in your campaign? Way too often these choices end up not being about our morality or what we'd do in a certain situation. It's about what loot we get or what mission we unlock. And even when the choice isn't tied to a gameplay reward, knowing the results of your decission is a complete game changer for making up your mind. With no risk factor involved, the moral choice turns into calculation and can quite easily remind you that you are only playing a game. That you can take a step back and just disconnect from this decision.


Level 3: Gameplay
Yes, this is the moment when I get back to Darkest Dungeon. It's a roguelike in which you explore a dungeon - nothing special so far. Unlike many roguelikes however, you don't have to play till you cannot reach further and die, but you can withdraw your party, failing the quest but keeping the little loot you collected. Like in roguelikes, dungeons are procedurally generated and you have no idea what you will find a step ahead of you.

The game tells you from the very beginning that the adventurers you hire will die. A lot. Still, I refused to treat them like cannon fodder, even though I was getting a handful of new ones after every quest - failed or not. You rarely know what lurks behind the next door when you're exploring the dungeon. Merely telling your party to move forward can make the difference between life and death. Every loot crate or book you encounter can give any of your party members a lasting disease or personality quirk. And if you want to progress in the game, eventually one of your party members will die. And when that first one died on me, I just replaced him with a new one. A bit less familiar face and skillset, but still quite useful. While some of the adventurers in my roster died, some eventually got stronger. When I mix them with noobs I get, I now focus on not getting the experienced ones killed, but sometimes the temptation to open just one more door is just too strong and one of these veterans of mine dies of heart attack anyway.


Darkest Dungeon never gave me any morality scale and never really told me that there's a choice ahead of me. A choice with consequences. Still, I was making such choices all the time. StarCraft II confirmed that I prefer blondes to dudes with dreadlocks and Mass Effect confirmed that a racist with boobs is still worth more to me than some random guy. That wasn't news to me. Darkest Dungeon however showed me how much my curiosity could make me devaluate human lives. How in just a few hours I could shift my focus from saving everyone to pushing forward, just to make these sacrifices worth it. I don't know where it puts me on the scale between an angel and an asshole, but I couldn't care less.

This is the type of moral choices I want to face in games. Ones that make me think, not calculate. Ones that make me invested in finishing the game for the sake of sacrifices I made. Ones that leave enough impression to write an article about them.

7/09/2015

Fallout Shelter vs. SJW

Let me tell you the story of my Vault 666. Room and resources were scarce. Everyone had to contribute. The expansion went fairly quick until we've hit the population of 14 or so. At this point, new dwellers did not appear and the growing production rooms needed manpower. In one of the lunchboxes my dwellers found a Medieval Ruler Outfit, adding to charisma among other stats. Quick check what charisma is for later, I've selected a man with the most charisma, added the Ruler outfit and that's how King Woland was born. His role - staying in the living quarters and impregnating all the women in my vault. This was the fastest and most efficient way, as everyone else needed to help with the respource production. Once all the ladies showed significant signs of pregnancy, King Woland, having the highest stats, went out to the wasteland, to find more weapons and outfits. In the meantime, it turned out that in case of any disaster, like fire or a raid, my pregnant dwellers run for their lives, leaving men to deal with the problem. This quickly taught me to give all the weapons I found to men, tasking them with defence. We are facing extinction - there's no point in arguing. Men get to defend the next generation with guns. Women with not endangering the fetus. Hard to imagine it the other way round.


A week later my Vault already has 120+ dwellers. Population is not an issue, I have more people than I need anyway. I keep training the dwellers to maximize production and caps income. Breeding is not necessary, since I have a fully upgraded radio station with six gorgeous girls in lingerie with their charisma maxed out. There's no reason not to give women weapons or education now. Some of them are as highly trained as men, some even explore the wasteland. Life is good. 

Now let's imagine Bethesda wanting to suck up to Social Justice Warriors while designing the game. After reaching the 14 dwellers point I would probably find out that half of the population is homosexual. Keeping track of everyone's sexual preferences would be extremely annoying gameplaywise, but I would probably finally manage to get one or two women pregnant, after hour-long minigames that show how respectful the men are towards these women. In a few days, I'd crawl my way up to the 20 dwellers treshold to unlock the radio and right after that a Wasteland Adoption Agency to let all the gay couples in my vault have a baby. In the meantime, the only women that were willing to get pregnant a couple times with different partners would be slut-shamed into leaving the vault and pretty quickly the Wasteland League for Equality would enforce parity that would make me unable to accept any straight white males into the vault. Within a week my shelter would be abandoned by its Overseer, who got tired of micromanaging and women screaming "rape" each time the poor raiders just want to steal some water. All those poor dwellers would die, equally irradiated, starved or slain.


What a terrible game that would be! Not because there would be homosexuals in it. Because gameplaywise it would be tedious and most of all, it would be unfitting for the world of Fallout. I am extremely glad that Bethesda did not give in to the pressures of seasonal feminists and other groups that aggressively refuse to think outside their narrow agenda. Fallout Shelter's gameplay quite realistically shows how a vault dwelling society in nuked 50's USA would get organized. I'm actually quite surprised that there was no shitstorm here like with Kingdom Come: Deliverance for example. Maybe the internet finally got tired of trolls? Maybe we're finally growing up and people are starting to use their heads for something else than angrybanging their keyboards? Here's hoping we are finally starting to let people make games about fun again, not enforcing social concepts.

6/17/2015

A few words on recycling in games

Me and my girl recently finished Child of Light (maxed it out actually, which is super easy when someone is sitting next to you and bugs you every time you go past a wall that you haven't licked yet). It got me thinking about recycling in games and how it works. It's been done for years now and the whole idea is pretty obvious, but I'll describe it a bit anyway.

Now the whole principle is... Making games is expensive. It's a lot of work too. And there's so many games that did things right. So many elements that would fit your game so well that you would just want to take these parts and put them in your game without really changing anything. Now imagine the situation where you actually own these elements, because the studio you work for owns them.


The "recycling" can be done in a number of ways, as you can recycle pretty much everything from music through art assets to the technology. Recycling is basically the whole idea behind dedicated engines. The engine From Software uses is one of the best examples - they are repeatedly making new souls games using huge chunks of code from the previous installments. Of course they have to adjust quite a lot here and there, but they do have a solid base. Another good example is the id tech engine, that keeps us entertained since the first Doom and now, guess what - the newest Doom will be using its sixth version. I'm sure they had to rewrite the whole engine at least once on the way, but they reused it more than once too. The first one alone was a base for somewhere around a dozen of games. Look at me, basically expaining what an engine is... Moving on!

There's this general bias towards games that recycle assets, especially the graphical ones. A lot of people complained about Dragon Age 2 and BioShock 2. However, games recycling assets can be great. They just need special care. Portal is probably the best example. The core mechanic itself wouldn't be enough to make it a cult classic. They also had to execute it well, with decent puzzle design and brilliant tutorial and narrative.

Now this has little to do with the article,
but damn, what a cool idea!

Smart management of assets lets the company give us more games more easily. Look at WB Games. They released Injustice: Gods Among Us almost simultaneously on both mobile and "big consoles". The models were super easy to transition, as both games used Unreal Engine 3 and it only required remembering to prepare lower LOD's (from "level of details", versions of the model with less polygons used for optimization, like viewing from afar). They obviously used a lot of tech from Mortal Kombat 9 for the console version, but had to redesign and redevelop the combat mechanics for the touch screen. When releasing MKX however, I'm sure they didn't even have that problem - they already had all the components. That's what smart asset management gives you.



Child of Light is another example of great asset management. A quite heavily "recycled" title that got nice reception. Let's face it, Ubisoft does have a whole stable of titles, bits, assets and features. They not only used the UbiArt Framework engine, but the whole game plays pretty much like the mosquito levels of Rayman Legends. The light dots fly around with a copy-pasted code of Rayman's lums and the bossfight camera zoom-ins probably didn't get a second look at either. The combat mechanics look way too close to those from South Park: The Stick of Truth that Ubisoft was helping Obsidian to close around the time of Child of Light's development. The circular menu and the two switchable characters system might not have been copy-pasted from one game engine to the other, but I'm willing to bet these fighting systems share their origin. And now, the new South Park game's been announced. With it being developed without Obsidian, there's a decent chance the new Cartman and friends game will be done using UbiArt Framework, that, thanks to Child of Light, now has turn-based battle mechanics!

If you look at it like that, Child of Light becomes a milestone in the development of the UbiArt Framework engine between Rayman and South Park. And how cool is it that this milestone also gives us a game! One with straightforward awful rhyming, but still a really decent game. That's what good planning gives you. And without it, I'm pretty sure a game like Child of Light would never see the... erm... light. Its costs would probably be way too high for Ubisoft to risk it.

5/25/2015

About the #downgrade thingy...

Last week there were two major gaming events in Poland. First was the launch of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on Tuesday. Second was Digital Dragons (a conference that's closest to a Polish GDC) on Thursday and Friday. Lots of developers and media people attended and there's been many topics on everyone's tongues, but this one I've actually debated during the afterparty and thought some of the facts are worth sharing.

Alright, so a lot of people, especially in the media, have been complaining about the graphic downgrade in The Witcher 3 and comparison compilations have been thrown back and forth to prove... something. Doesn't really matter. The downgrade quite obviously happened. But so what? It happens in most games.

What are these images trying to prove, with completely different lighting and scenes?
What many people don't understand is that for a developer, every project brings new challenges and new experiences. Nobody ever makes the same game twice and really very few sequels are made with the "let's do a copy with just a few tweaks here and there" mindset. When an AAA team is working on a game, they want it to be the best game they can make. And almost always it turns out to be very hard to achieve, because no matter how experienced they are, they're doing something that's never been done before. I'm sure that if you asked the developers of even the highest-praised titles (like Ocarina of Time with its 99 metascore), they would tell you how the game could have been so much better if they hadn't cut some features or optimized some graphics.

I have experienced a downgrade of the game I was working on myself. To quote Tomek Gop from the speech we gave on Digital Dragons: media demo from February 2014 was the best Lords of the Fallen has ever looked (more or less, don't hold me to the exact wording). And that's true. I remember exactly all the work that we've put into achieving this visual benchmark. I also remember all the reasons for the rest of the game not living up to this benchmark. 

Many people accused this screenshot of being overpainted,
but at that point Lords of the Fallen really looked like this.
Does that mean that we lied in February 2014? That we deliberately misinformed the public? No. We worked hard towards achieving that level of graphics. We really believed the whole game will look this good (and it ended up looking not too shabby either, but that's not the point). Most probably, so did guys from Red when they were pitching W3 over the past years. So did From Software, when they were first showing Bloodborne. 

So... Why can the downgrade happen? The most common reason is hardware's power. I know, yeah, consoles have fixed specs. Sounds like it's not rocket science. Well, it kinda is. There's dozens of parameters that can affect what you can show to the player at the same time. It's a function of particles, triangles, pixels, streaming, POV, horizon and a whole bunch of memory management elements I can't even list. With often hundreds of people creating assets, it's virtually impossible to accurately predict how advanced the graphics should be. And in AAA everyone prefers to produce assets of higher quality, because it's easier and more efficient to cut down than to scale up. 

You end up producing a virtual slice with these highest quality assets. A small piece of game that often has problems working properly on a console, so you take a PC with the best graphic card in the studio. Yes, the one worth your monthly salary. The one that nobody can yet afford. And it manages to run these 30-40 FPS, but you keep telling yourself it's allright, because it's not optimized yet. Because some of the LOD's are not loading properly yet. Because streaming isn't yet fully implemented. But you still believe it can be all crammed into the game, because you really want your game to look awesome.

And this is a build that you're showing to the media, explaining that it's a vertical slice or a work in progress or alpha or beta or whatever stage you're in and you hope they will understand. What you mean to say is: this is how it looks now and we want it to look this good, because you wouldn't show something that looks like shit to the public, would you? But what media people seem to undestand is this is still an early version, so there's a lot of room for improvement and everything will look so much better on the release! You can see some communication noise here, right? :)

Not without its impact is the fact that most of the recent games accused of graphic downgrade are being released on the newest generation of consoles. For the players, the consoles aren't new anymore. For developers, with three years of development cycle, the consoles are very new. Many of these games released today were started before the specs of the new consoles were final and way before the teams got their devkits.

It would be awesome if game development was as predictable as math.
And what about PC? Sure PC can be more powerful, but can your company spend resources to make a completely different build for a PC? Does it have a fanbase strong enough to wait for the PC version for up to a year and a half, like with GTA V? And lastly... How many PC players will actually own hardware strong enough to support your ultra-ultra settings? Optimizing for one setting and fixed specs of consoles is a bitch. Optimizing for 3 or 5 or more setting levels for every variant of a PC is a burning whorehouse. Most of the time the dev team doesn't have enough manpower to really handle that and with the PC market being considerably smaller than console markets, even in biggest companies nobody will invest enough manpower to do the PC version "right", unless it's a PC-centric game.

That brings us to another point - manpower and release dates. Sometimes the dev team just can't deliver. Again, there's lots of constraints here: availability of resources, deadlines, changing directions and a shitload of events or problems you couldn't possibly anticipate. Key person on your team might leave and the rest is struggling to cover for the loss. Or (sometimes even worse) someone else comes in his/her place, with a completely different vision. Two-three years is a lot of time and a lot can happen. That's why the best game producers aren't the ones that can plan the whole 3 years development from the beginning to the end, but those who can adjust the development to the current situation.

Reading all these accusations of ill will, where people compare two completely different screenshots to prove that they've been "lied to" makes me smile. And the most of this butthurt comes from people who have never been in development, but feel that they are extremely close to it - the gaming journalists. And yes, of course this scenario is possible: a company deliberately showing everyone pretty candies and then shoving shit into the Blu-ray boxes. But is it likely? From what I've seen, I doubt it. 

Gamedev is pretty unique. People want to make great games. Designers want systems that are fun for them. Writers want characters they like. Programmers want code that just flows flawlessly. Artists want visuals they can be proud of. And if for some reason this can't be delivered, they are always aiming for the second best thing.