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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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Johnny Minkley avatar
Johnny Minkley: Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.
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