Watch_Dogs and Game_Mods – The Arrogance of a Lie

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Were we too hard on Ubisoft last week? I know I was pretty harsh on the company, based on a single comment made by one developer during a live interview. Maybe that’s unfair. If you stuck me in front of a group of people asking rapid-fire questions for an hour I’d probably say my first Very Dumb Thing somewhere around the minute and a half mark.

Then again, Ubisoft did have time to give a prepared answer to the recent Watch_Dogs graphics controversy, and its response was even more infuriating and unreasonable than what they had to say about playable female characters.

The short version is that they originally showed off the game at E3 last year using glorious graphics that got everyone excited for the next-gen games. Then later the game showed up looking very much like a contemporary of Grand Theft Auto IV, with all of the magical graphical effects removed. Maybe you care about graphics, maybe you don’t, but it’s pretty easy to understand why the public wasn’t happy about this. I’m sure Microsoft and Sony weren’t happy either. We’re in this awkward situation where everyone wants the next-gen to happen, but nobody can really make the case for why we need to spend hundreds of dollars to buy new hardware to play games that don’t seem to look or play any different than what we’ve already got in front of us. To look at it the other way: If Watch_Dogs had maintained that same visual quality, then Ubisoft would have been shoving their screenshots in our face and Microsoft and Sony would have been using the game to show off their hardware. We haven’t had our “So THIS is next-gen!” moment yet, and we all know the big players would really like to make that happen as soon as possible.

None of this was a big deal until a couple of weeks ago when PC gamers found a bunch of settings that let them re-enable all those amazing visuals. Suddenly it felt like the consoles weren’t just failing to deliver the next-gen graphics, they were actually holding it back simply by existing. That’s not completely fair, but it’s an understandable reaction from a public that’s a little frustrated by how much the future looks like the past. And of course platform snobs of all stripes were happy to jump in and say ugly things to each other, because this is the internet and I guess we just have to do that.

(And before we go any further: Do not argue with me over whether this is a “mod” or a “hack” or whatever. I do not care what terminology you use and I find hair-splitting discussions over what makes something a mod to be a poor way to spend everyone’s time. Ubisoft called it a mod, so we’ll go with that.)

But none of this is what pissed me off. What pissed me off was the prepared statement from Ubisoft. I’m going to quote the whole thing so I can argue with it.

The dev team is completely dedicated to getting the most out of each platform, […]

Everything about your statement is very obviously the opposite of the truth. The modded / hacked / upgraded game is running fine on some PCs, so you’re not dedicated to getting the most out of each platform. You’re dedicated to getting the most out of the PS4 and Xbox One. And I’m fine with that. It’s a simple business decision. The PC is the smallest part of the market and you’re not obligated to go out of your way to make the PC version look any better than the other versions.

I’m not mad you didn’t make a special PC version, I’m mad you claimed you’re willing to do so when you obviously aren’t.

Moving on to the second half of the first sentence:

[…]so the notion that we would actively downgrade quality is contrary to everything we’ve set out to achieve. We test and optimize our games for each platform on which they’re released, striving for the best possible quality.

Except, that’s what you did. You clearly and obviously did that. You showed off a version at E3, then you put a version up for sale that looked a lot worse. This is the price you pay for showing off unfinished products based on unfinished technologies. Live by the hype, die by the hype.

But I completely understand how this happens. It’s hard developing for a new platform. The tools are new and your coders don’t yet have a good feel for where the bottlenecks are. In a couple of years we’ll have a game that looks like the Watch_Dogs E3 demo. In terms of graphics, Skyrim is way ahead of Oblivion, even though both games were built by the same company for the same console generation.

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But you can’t make a claim that you didn’t downgrade the quality of the game with a straight face. That’s not just lying. That’s stupid, obvious, flagrant, insulting lying. That’s “I don’t respect you enough to invent a plausible lie” level of lying. We have screenshots of the game looking better than it does now. And they didn’t come from hackers. They came from you.

The PC version does indeed contain some old, unused render settings that were deactivated for a variety of reasons, including possible impacts on visual fidelity, stability, performance and overall gameplay quality.

Technically it’s not “unused”. It’s “used only for marketing”. And by “old” we mean “less than a year ago”. But I quibble.

Again, I understand. Maybe the team was able to get the game running smooth for that tightly controlled E3 demo, but once the engine settled down you realized you couldn’t maintain that quality during the fast-moving open world sections of the game. Open-world city games are the absolute most challenging types of environments in a lot of ways. Getting all that scenery from the disk into memory just in time – without having a few frames where the player finds themselves looking at an empty space where some objects should be – is hard. Keeping things visually diverse without running out of memory is a technical and artistic challenge. And this is to say nothing of all the challenges that come with populating and animating everything when assets are appearing and vanishing from the world at a constant rate and the player is moving fast. It’s like trying to put on a stage play for a running audience. You don’t have a backstage area to work with. They can go anywhere at any time and you have to have the scenery ready.

You’re in a tough spot and technology is a pain in the ass sometimes. I get it. But stating things that are clearly untrue won’t fix that.

Modders are usually creative and passionate players, and while we appreciate their enthusiasm, the mod in question (which uses those old settings) subjectively enhances the game’s visual fidelity in certain situations but also can have various negative impacts. Those could range from performance issues, to difficulty in reading the environment in order to appreciate the gameplay, to potentially making the game less enjoyable or even unstable.

Really? You’re going to claim that the mod “subjectively” enhances quality? You’re saying this is only subjectively better than this? You know it’s not true. You know that we know that it’s not true. And I know that you know this. We are all completely aware of the lack of truth here, but you said it anyway. It takes a special kind of dysfunction to lie to someone when the lie is just as unpalatable (and far less plausible) than the truth. Despite what people have been taught, you don’t actually have to act this way if you work in PR.

Everyone excuses stuff like this by saying “that’s just PR”. As if there’s no difference between slick, calculated PR and contemptuous, clumsy PR. If I’d been given the job of justifying this move to the public, here’s how I would have handled it:

“While the mod in question may indeed offer improved visuals to some users, we want to stress that this isn’t endorsed or supported by Ubisoft. The diverse configurations of PCs made it infeasible to test these settings in time for a concurrent launch with the other platforms.”

(I want to stress this “quote” is mine, not from Ubisoft. I’m offering it here as an example how to communicate without perpetrating falsehoods at the rate of twice a sentence.)

This statement has lots of things going for it: It acknowledges the mod without endorsing it, and stresses the mod is “use at your own risk”. It gives PC gamers something to ponder. Sure, maybe the game could look better, but do you want to wait until months after the PlayStation and Xbox launch to get it?

Most importantly: It’s very likely the truth.

Addendum: It has been pointed out that the really big demonstration for Watch_Dogs that produced all of the amazing screenshots was at E3 2012, not E3 2013. That was before the devs had access to the final specs of the next-gen consoles, and two years is a long time in game development. It still doesn’t excuse the contemptuous PR, but it does explain how we wound up with such a graphical disparity in the first place.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided and is looking for a mod that will make Aiden Pierce less tedious and boring.

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