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. 

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  1. Well, I totally understand Your point, but I also think that You miss the real reason of this "butthurt". You mentioned that at some point the studio has to show the "virtual slice" to the media and they show something that they aim for, not the actual gameplay from finished game. And that's perfectly fine, as long as they DESCRIBE the material properly.

    If You show something that is only Your vision of a final game, You should mark the material as a "visual concept" or "target visual look" or whatever. And if You do so, noone has the right to blame You, even if You finally publish the shitties graphically looking game ever made.

    BUT. If You claim that the video comes from the "actual gameplay footage" or "in-game footage", and then deliver something that doesn't look even close to this - yes, then people have a right to call You a liar. And that's the case with Witcher 3 and CDPR.

    Second think people are angry of, is the way CDPR was talking about the downgrade. At first, when initial gameplays from console verions start to appear on YouTube and gamers were worried why it doesn't look as good as on E3 2013 gameplay, CDPR told that it's only something betwean medium and high on PC's and the Ultra setting will be as a "slap in the face" for PC gamers. Then, when first Ultra PC gameplays appear, with no great visual differences, CDPR told that well, actually PC Ultra settings are just a bit better than console versions, BUT there was no downgrade. Then the comparisons came out and they finally admitted they downgraded the game so it matches the console power. Significant think - they waited with this statement a couple of days after launch (yes, to the day when pre-orders were paid and delivered...)

    As a summary - they were constantly missleading gamers, telling things that are absolutely lies, to the point when the truth was so evident they can't lie anymore, so they were changing their "version of facts" over an over.

    And that's the actual problem - building their PR and vision of a game basing on lies, from start to the last days before, or even after the launch.

    1. Tomek, I've never worked in PR departments, so I will skip that part of the comment.

      Secondly, as mentioned on facebook, this post isn't specifically about W3 and the whole downgrade situation around it, but about downgrades in general and where they might be coming from.

      A vertical slice is an actual in-game gameplay footage, from a version of the game that is at some point most recent. Not from a finished game and I think nobody ever tries to communicate it as a finished thing. There's absolutely no lie there.

    2. Błażej, fine, but then please look at it from the gamer's perspective. He doesn't necessarily know what exactly the vertical slice is and how the development proces goes. When he see the description: "In-game footage", he normally thinks it's how the game will look when released.

      At this point the developer/publisher has two options:

      1. He can be fair with their clients and point out that it's only a TARGET visual quality. Of course in this case he lowers the "wow" effect of a trailer, but he is on a safe side at game's launch.

      2. He can use the lack of knowledge of the gamers and call it a "in-game footage". He will technically tell the truth, but he will be perfectly aware how the gamers will understand this statement. It's a technique of lying without lying - to tell the truth in the way the receiver would understand it wrong. But there is a huge BUT: when clients realize they were misled by the company, they won't care about the semantics and just call the publisher a liar, who he actually is.

      In the case of Witcher 3, CDPR took the second way, risking of being accused of cheating the players. And now they have to "pay the bill" in terms of company's PR look.

    3. That's exactly why I've written this article. So that it's not a carefully guarded knowledge of the chosen. Now everyone knows what "In-game footage" on E3 2 years before release means!

      The rest is, again, PR, so not my field :)


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