If you watched E3 this year, there’s a good chance that you saw something that wasn’t real. Y’know, I thought that would be a lot more obvious before I wrote it down, but it’s now occurred to me that nothing in Devil May Cry, for example, is real. What I meant to say was that you saw a whole lot of fake stuff. Nope, lemme try this again: You saw a lot of things that don’t exist in ways that won’t be how they don’t exist later because how they didn’t exist isn’t how they won’t exist. Yeah, that’s way more clear.
There’s no denying that marketing is as core to the video games industry as the games themselves. We’re drip-fed snippets of the game up to release, like those little midget hobos from Oliver Twist who kept asking for more when they should have just gotten a bleedin’ job. Integral to the hype machine are cinematic trailers, screenshots and (the most important one) in-game footage. The problem is that a lot the gameplay footage we get to see isn’t real. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s not, but it seems to work well enough that companies keep marketing bullshot at us.
And if it’s coming from this woman, you best be buying!
Photoshop, Meet Ubisoft
Bullshot (a combination of ‘film shot’ and election promises) is the term used to describe trailers and screenshots that aren’t fully representative of the final product. It’s a bit like catfishing but with goods and services, particularly video games. Think screenshots that look a little too good, trailers with “gameplay footage” that’s too smooth and acting so blatant that it induces cringe in a six-kilometre radius. Bullshot isn’t new to the gaming scene, with an insidious persistence traceable to generations long past.
Fake gameplay trailers have existed since, oh, I don’t even know how far back. The easiest offender to point fingers at is Ubisoft. Almost every game they advertise at E3 releases with some kind of visual downgrade. You can go back to E3 reveals for The Divison, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, Rainbow Six: Siege, or Watchdogs and notice things lacking (here, Crowbcat saved us the effort). Moreover, their trailers don’t just show off obviously scripted gameplay sequences, they can also include obviously scripted human beings. We can look to EA, Bethesda and any other number of companies that show off bullshot, but why has the practice lasted this long?
You’d think that gameplay so blatantly polished up wouldn’t sell games, right? Ubisoft has a reputation for showing misleading trailers that probably hurt sales, but they keep on doing it. Sales for their games seem to justify the practice despite people knowing that what they’re seeing isn’t the real deal. The only explanation is that these trailers still produce enough hype that they work. Someone somewhere is falling into the bullshot trap, like a man who bought the “reduced to clear” milk that’s a day in the sun away from being cheese. Maybe you’re one of the poor fools who fell for the bad acting and over-saturated screenshots, but fear not! Today marks a grand day for you, because we’re going to dive into why these things work, and hopefully you’ll never be caught again.
Monkey See, Monkey Buy
The sneaky trick any good bullshot plays is tip-toeing around your assumption of what is and is not gameplay. No one is saying that it’s gameplay footage, but it clearly appears as something very close. There’s no disclaimer at the bottom saying “in-game footage”, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put in a bit of UI in the trailer. It’s that underlying heuristic and moment of intuitive judgement that catches people off guard and traps the unwary viewer. It’s dangerously easy to think that because it looks like gameplay, it is. Of course, bullshot wouldn’t work so well if it just showed off the dull stuff, which is where the other layers start coming into play.
See Snoop? He likes it. You do too.
It’s not enough to think what you’re seeing is gameplay, there needs to be a hook. The flashy particle effects in over-saturated screenshots and the lads talking about how killer their moves are in a trailer feed into a positive association of the game. It’s the same way that Coke advertises their drink because they can’t revolutionise the product. They need to make sure you associate the drink with positivity and enjoyment, so their ads rarely mention the taste of their beverage so much as the feeling it brings. Even if you know this isn’t real footage, the mere presence of positivity is enough to sway you into a more favourable opinion of the game. All of this works great if you’re a dog, but the genius of bullshot comes in what it leaves out.
Rather than trying to convince a stubborn asshole that your game is fun, it’s more effective to let them convince themselves. The next time you watch a trailer, try and figure out what you didn’t see, and you may find that it’s quite a lot. Sure, there’s plenty of appropriate music and sound effects, but you rarely see the nitty gritty of a system. Bullshot tends to work on showing you an idyllic high-level vision of a game but leaves everything else for the viewer to concoct and rationalise in their own head. In doing so, you fill the gaps with what you’d expect to see, and until something debunks your vision, it’s sticking. We do the same thing with people by tending to assume they hold our beliefs until proven otherwise. We are, after all, the basis of all rationality that we can understand, and thus, we’re the basis of being correct. We also tend to assume things don’t change over time, but that’s far from the case in gaming.
Case in point
In my first year of engineering at uni, our tutor sat us down and pulled up a photo of some starving children in Africa frolicking over a working water source. The tutor pointed out that while that picture was real, it was only accurate at that time. It wasn’t trying to mislead you intentionally, but because of changes over time and a lack of maintenance, the photo we saw probably wasn’t accurate anymore. Accurate imagery advertising sponsoring children in Africa is one thing, but selling you a game often has this exact issue.
Online stores have screenshots and trailers on a game’s page for you to appraise before buying a game. Once one is put up, though, it rarely gets changed as the game updates. For your average singleplayer experience, it’s not too big of a deal, but for an Early Access or F2P game, that could be a big issue. TF2 has changed drastically over time, adding in more content and features to the point where it’s almost a wholly different experience from when it first came out. The screenshots, though? The originals are still up on the Steam store. There are cinematic trailers detailing updates, sure, but the old stuff is still there to peruse as well, and that’s the issue.
Screenshot taken on 3/7/2018, but who knows, could be bullshot soon enough, right?
Bullshot’s only going to get worse over time, not just because it’ll be harder to discern what’s genuine and what’s not, but also because of the changing nature of gaming. Patches and updates mean that someone can watch a trailer from a while ago and get something quite different when they buy the game. Stellaris recently overhauled a number of its mechanics, such as changing how borders worked and removing the choice of your empire’s FTL tech, two years after the game released. Anyone going onto the Steam Store will see the same original screenshots, though, and it speaks to a more significant problem in getting what you pay for.
Games don’t tend to get patched into literal messes, but that doesn’t change the possibility that they can be. Unlike music or movies (forget Star Wars exists for a second), games tend to get regularly patched and updated – sometimes daily – to remove bugs and other flaws. What this means is that someone can buy a game and watch as it gets patched into something not worth playing with no way of accessing previous versions. Lawbreakers fell into this very trap, alienating its core audience by adding health regeneration and other noob-friendly features. We’re moving away from static products into services that continually develop, and that’s fine… Most of the time.
Pro tip: Don’t alienate the fans of your game by pandering to the ones who aren’t
The core issue is that games aren’t free from change after-purchase. In the case of No Man’s Sky or Battlefront 2, that’s probably a good thing, but it does raise alarm bells for what you’re buying into. You could be buying a game that won’t be what you bought a week ago, making any screenshots or trailers redundant and misleading. It’s not intentional deception, but the consequences of this accidental bullshot are the same as before, and it’s not like there’s an easy solution here. Would you rather games never got patched? How far is deviating from an initial vision before the game is no longer the same game? Are trailers vague enough to avoid such misinterpretations anyway? On the upside, you don’t have to think about those kinds of questions because Steam offers refunds, but it’s certainly food for thought.
There’s no end in sight to this deceptive tactic, but knowing it exists is the first step to never being caught out by it. Whether it’s those cheesy voice actors trying to make you feel like the game is fun or footage that looks too sleek for its own good, bullshot is as sly as it is misleading. Of course, it’s almost unavoidable as time goes on, since games will update while trailers remain the same, but that’s not as big of an issue. No, watching fake stuff be faker than they should be is the main problem. My fake stuff should not exist in ways that are consistent, damn it.