Why are we still so insecure about the quality of our games?

CGI teasers might make marketing sense, but publishers' continued reliance on the form disguises a worrying lack of faith in the medium

"Footage not representative of actual gameplay". It's the little badge of shame required to be worn by all video games ads on TV that use CGI instead of genuine in-game material.

That publishers are forced to flash this text up on screen, as tinily and briefly as they dare, is a reminder to them and us that the primary purpose is to deceive. It's a minor humiliation and one for which they should feel ashamed: but not for the usual reasons of cynical, sleight-of-hand shenanigans.

"The history of video games is one defined by the limits of technology - and the astounding feats produced by game makers fighting against them"

Don't worry, I'm not going to waste my or your time wailing with naive piety about the dark arts of marketing. It'd be pretty stupid, for instance, to suggest that Dead Island teaser - which resembled the game rather like Prince Harry resembles his father - was anything other than a PR masterstroke, a standalone work of brilliance that helped turn a middle-of-the-road zombie game into a major success story.

Rather, I think the main charge against third-party CGI these days is much more serious: it's selling the medium short, and in doing so exposes the creative insecurity of a multi-billion dollar global entertainment industry.

The history of video games is one defined by the limits of technology - and the astounding feats produced by game makers fighting against them. As soon as games starting coming on CDs, game makers and marketeers quickly realised that if the hardware wasn't yet up to realising the 'vision', well, no matter: a bit of FMV would do the trick.

What was perfectly understandable then, is less easy to excuse now. It's weird and pretty sad to think that in an age that has produced spectacles such as Uncharted, Assassin's Creed, L.A. Noire, Journey, Call of Duty, and sports games to rival TV broadcasts, more time and money than ever is spent on manufacturing material via a third-party to sell games.

In the vast majority of cases the need for it appears inexplicable - until you consider that a deep-seated lack of self-confidence is the root cause. As the arts critic Ekow Eshun remarked at a recent GameCity debate in London: "One of the primary motors of culture right now is gaming; but at same time that goes unacknowledged".

And there's the rub. Gaming now enjoys phenomenal mainstream reach and cultural impact, and yet is still viewed by significant chunks of society as, to use Eshun's word, a "cult".

Like an adolescent desperate to be taken seriously by grown-ups, it hurts us when our passion and vocation is too readily dismissed; and we react with Pavlovian, thin-skinned outrage at the slightest needling.

But as Rob pointed out last week, we really ought to be beyond this now. Gaming, in all its forms, is a force that can't be stopped and its influence can no longer be ignored by rival entertainment industries.

Any gamer can see how action movies have progressively become more game-like - because that's what the audience expect. Even literature has changed. Speaking at the GameCity debate, Charlie Higson, the British comedian and children's author, revealed: "I'm aiming my books at kids who play games. I've had to take on board that games are incredibly alluring and entertain in an overpowering way: why read this book rather than play this game? You've got to give them the same thrills and kicks in the book - while also getting across what they're not getting out of a game."

Yet while others adapt, gaming appears paralysed by its sense of worth. So, while we readily acknowledge how negative attitudes towards games have held back their broader acceptance, we seem as a whole far less well aware of how we continue to allow outsiders' perceptions to hold us back creatively and intellectually.

You can see it in the starry-eyed, needy worship of Hollywood and the feeble view that simply aping a more-established medium is an end in itself, rather than stealing the useful bits while exploring the amazing stuff only possible in interactive entertainment.

You see it most nakedly (and expensively), though, in the CGI trailers for big budget games designed to be awe-inspiring cinematic experiences. Some of these teasers, as I've said, are superb works in their own right, and can unquestionably boost sales; but when you consider what's possible with today's tech, all represent a failure of imagination and a disturbing lack of faith in a game to speak for itself.

"Think about the message it sends out about your confidence in a development team when, to announce a triple-A project you farm out the trailer to a separate CGI studio that has nothing to do with it"

Publishers, think about the message it sends out about your confidence in the talent of a development team when, to announce a triple-A project you farm out the trailer to a separate CGI studio that has nothing to do with it and no interest in using any of it.

Look what happened last week with the nuns-and-guns Hitman: Absolution fiasco. Whatever one thinks of its content, the implication that an eye-catching, exciting trailer could not have been produced using in-game material is absurd and painfully revealing.

And then consider a company like Rockstar. Its trailers are always an event in themselves and always, of course, in-game. How did the publisher reveal Grand Theft Auto V? With what was in effect an in-engine environment demo with a voiceover. Okay, so they hardly need to whip-up interest, but even so: that's confidence in your work.

So whilst I fully sympathise with the frustration of those gamers who feel they're being taken for fools by companies that peddle pre-rendered cinematics they know won't feature in the final product; and with those who actually rather enjoy a well-made CGI teaser for what it is; and, yes, with those whose job it is simply to shift more copies, what troubles me above all is the incapacitating belief - in 2012 - that games still aren't good enough to sell themselves.

If we aren't prepared to trust in the medium, why should anyone else be?

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Latest comments (24)

Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 10 years ago
Awesome piece. I've been saying this for years to anyone who will listen. After all this time we're still seeing well-produced CG replace actual gameplay, which I think is a bit dishonest in some cases when the game they represent isn't up to par. Now, I don't hate CG at all - I just think that some of that money spent would be better aimed at improving some of those games that get those lovely trailers that don't do a damn thing but look good and not accurately represent the final product.

For me, those great-looking trailers never make me want to play a game at all. In some cases, they make me wonder why the game was being marketed like a film when the gameplay experience would be the furthest thing from one.
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Felix Leyendecker10 years ago
Not sure why you would use a crysis 3 screenshot in this article... Which of our teasers do you suspect to be CGI?
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Harrison Smith Studying Games and Graphics Programming, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology10 years ago
@Felix, I would take it as a complement if your game looks so good its being passed off as CGI.
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Roydon Wagner10 years ago
I was in Melbourne awhile ago and saw Videogames Unplugged by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. It was a massive event with thousands of people rocking up and a testament to how far videogames have come. However one thing that stood out to me is the video footage they showed along side the performances. If a game had CGI footage they tended to show that over in-game footage. Furthermore for games that were old or not up to today's standard of triple A graphics (Secret of Mana for example) they instead just showed live footage of the orchestra playing. They seemed to be wanting to acknowledge the legitimacy of videogames for cultural expression but were also at the same time ashamed of anything that wasn't high end graphics. Baby steps I guess.
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Maarten Brands Director, Cook & Becker10 years ago
Who even watches CGI trailers? It feels like something from another era now that in-engine footage has become so good. Worst offenders being the "Reveal Trailers" which do the exact opposite: reveal nothing about the actual game whatsoever but only show some (often poor) CGI.

But spot on about Rockstar's output in this regard. Their in-engine trailers have always been outstanding and unique ever since Vice City's "Flock of Seagulls" trailer.
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Tameem Antoniades Creative Director & Co-founder, Ninja Theory Ltd10 years ago
I remember sitting in the audience when killzone and morostorm CG trailers set the world alight at the first Sony PS3 conference. They then picked up a large array of awards and nominations for the trailers by the gaming press and went on to sell millions to players who were seduced by these. That's why it happens. I hate it but can see that it's about selling an idea, not about portraying gameplay
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If one can capture a moment, it can go on to launch a thousand ships. Look at Dead island...
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Tom Kleinenberg 3D Artists 10 years ago
I had always put it down to games being far from completion when they're announced. I'm more in the CG industry than games, but right up until a game goes gold it is being refined. Often a trade show 2 years before release would do a game disservice. A CG trailer is a package you have exact control over.
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Brian Smith Artist 10 years ago
I've always been in the camp of appreciating good cgi trailers and knowing they don't represent the gameplay. I do agree that they are deceptive though, even with their little disclaimers. One thing I think we have to take on board though is that many selling methods on our TV's are deceptive, not just CG trailers for games. From beauty products with made up scientific terms to toy adverts that show animated version of fairly limited simplistic items. All are deceptive. I think it's a little unfair to make out that it's a confidence issue in the world of video game development. It's just how we sell things. We over-inflate everything else, so why not games.
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Kenneth Young Freelance Composer & Sound Designer, AudBod10 years ago
On the one hand you argue that CGI trailers sell the medium short, but on the other hand you acknowledge that they're useful when they are a PR masterstroke. Clearly, this is a complex issue :)

Consider that the GTA V trailer shows no gameplay footage whatsoever – it's all in-engine cinematics or camera angles chosen, very carefully and brilliantly, just for the trailer. I think it's fairly safe to assume that, at that point in development, the game itself wasn't looking quite so polished or consistently running at that framerate. It's still very much a construct.

So, clearly, trailers aren't about blatant honesty. They're more about promise.

Whilst the romanticisation at play here of “real vs fake” is undeniably strong, the reality is that when you capture footage from a game you are not representing “the medium” you are representing “the game's graphics” (and sound, if the editor remembered to turn off the music and ambience to assist post-production) - everything else comes from the construction of the trailer itself, and this is where the promise becomes open to abuse.

The real heart of it is that translating an interactive experience into a non-interactive medium can't be done without some smoke and mirrors – it's a massive compromise.

Even the live demos at E3 are a construct – they've been rehearsing those for days. What is the “correct” ratio of honesty to reality here?

Again, it all comes back to the promises we make. It's not about trusting the medium – the medium isn't present – it's about constructing an honest sales pitch that translates as best it can.

So, I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with linear CGI compared to any of the other linear representations of games – nothing is truly representative other than the act of playing.
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Martyn Brown Managing Director, Insight For Hire10 years ago
Funnily enough, so many of these are produced to set the visualisation goals for projects during development. Its far easier to render it than actually create it. They are also useful for the entire team (especially on huge projects) to know where the bar is they're shooting for. Of course I've got no excuse for anyone passing CGI off as actual footage, but am hugely behind its use in development practices.
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Kevin Patterson musician 10 years ago
I agree with the article completely. CGI is great, but when announcing and showing a game for the first time, I would much rather have an in engine cut scene or actual gameplay. I thought Halo 4 did great with it's FMV CGI blend into the gameplay.
I would imagine that the next gen will have much less of this as the new games will have that CGI look, at least if Star Wars 1313 is anything to go by.

As Felix noted, I'm confused by the Crysis 3 pic in the article, they are known for their graphic engines, wouldn't think this would apply to them.
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I assume that this article and the comments have been fueled by the growing concern over the over-clocked PC or pre-rendered game play footage used in the recent Ubisoft press conferences and trailers.

We will see a lot more than this before E3 is over!
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 10 years ago
I'm with Kenneth Young on this one: a trailer is a different medium. Given all the limitations it puts on expressing your vision of a game, it seems perfectly fair to compensate for that with whatever advantages you also have, such as full and exact control over the content (including camera angles and sound) and editing.

Even tweaking the graphics to be better than what you get in-game doesn't seem entirely unfair to me. When you're looking at a trailer, you're focused a lot more on the graphics than you are when immersed in a game, and if that gets in the way of communicating what's really cool about the game, you're not being fair to the game itself. I'm sure if I saw a trailer for Half Life (which I've been replaying recently) I'd be quite turned off by how bad looking it is, whereas once I get into the game itself, the graphics hardly bother me at all.
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Does this apply to Luminous Studios in game tech?
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Rob Jessop R&D Programmer, Crytek10 years ago
To echo Felix's question; can we please have an explanation as to why there's a Crysis 3 picture at the top of this article (and on the email) when the article doesn't mention the game?
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@ Rob. +1 heheh. Obviosuly Crytek is the posterboy (for bashing?) - j/k
I'm not sure either why Crysis 3 features prominently. (they say there is no such thing as bad press)

I think the article tries to stimulate controversial discussion but actually, this can be summarised as marketing.

Any game wants to sell the idea of its game and gameplay. Clever marketing can work, and sometimes a well done trailer sells the key moment. Be it pre rendered cinematics, pre scripted events or a amazing tech demo.
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John Bye Lead Designer, Freejam10 years ago
I think there's a difference between a CG trailer that's roughly representative of gameplay (sometimes a necessary evil, particularly when you're advertising well ahead of the game's release), and one that bears no relation whatsoever to the game and is downright misleading, even with the disclaimer.

I recently saw a TV ad for a game which was all big flashy CG shots, close-up character scenes, and building-sized bosses, suggesting a story-driven, maybe Japanese, role-playing game. I thought "ooh, that looks interesting, I wonder what it is". Then at the end the Diablo III logo came up. I'm not even joking.

Blizzard have been doing this for over a decade now, they must spend almost as much on CGI movies as they do on developing the actual games. Remember all the pre-release movies from World of Warcraft? How representative of the final game were they?

Star Wars: The Old Republic was just as bad, releasing a whole series of short CGI movies building up to the game's release. Sure, it got people talking, but you can't help feeling that in the long run the game would have been a lot more successful if they'd spent all that money making more in-game content.

Let's face it though, nobody's entirely innocent. For all Crytek's protestations here, whether or not the Crysis 3 trailer is entirely rendered in-engine with no post-production touch-ups, at least some of it was obviously hand animated like a cutscene specially for the trailer, and it's probably had an extra shader and lighting pass and bespoke assets built for it, much like the Crysis 2 trailer, so even that's not entirely representative of gameplay, even though it's a lot closer to the real thing than Dead Island.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by John Bye on 6th June 2012 1:54pm

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David Radd Senior Editor, IndustryGamers10 years ago
I can understand the sentiment against CG trailers, though as some have alluded too, sometimes it's expedient from a marketing angle to use them. However, I think this E3 has actually avoided the issue for the most part - there were far more reveals via gameplay than CG trailers and some games did not even release proper trailers. I think the industry is shifting toward showing stuff of in engine, even if it's not necessarily pure gameplay.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 10 years ago
Mmm... The Sleeping Dogs trailer was pieced together using in-engine cinematics, and has me eagerly awaiting its release.
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Gregory Keenan10 years ago
One of the biggest draws of BF3 was the simple text "Actual in game footage" at the bottom of nearly all their videos. You knew what you could expect.
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Rob Jessop R&D Programmer, Crytek10 years ago
For all Crytek's protestations here
Whoa there. Felix and I work for Crytek, we are not Crytek itself. If you want an official statement please contact the PR department. still haven't answered my question by the way.
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Brian Smith Artist 10 years ago
Maybe the article is showing a Crytek image as part of the headline question. As in, why are we so insecure when we have titles like this doing it realtime.
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Chris Oates Graphics Programmer, Giant Sparrow9 years ago
Anyone else remember box art and magazine ads for games in the 8-bit era that bore no relation to the game at all? THis is hardly a new phenomenon.

Trailers are made months before a game's release, and unlike movies, which have months of post-production time to make trailers, games are often fixing bugs & improving things up to the last minute. It may not be possible to make a compelling trailer for a game until it is too late for the trailer to do any good.

For small teams, making a trailer with in-game footage often means taking time away form making the game itself. Passing off assets to a production house specializing in trailers is often cheaper and better for the game.

And in response to a comment above: would an "all-game-footage" trailer for Diablo 3 have been effective as a way to build excitement for the game? probably not.

Trailers, as non-interactive movies designed to build excitement for a game, are different from games, and to think that using pre-rendered scenes to build excitement for a game is somehow a "lack of faith in the medium" of games is absurd.
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