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Too good to be true: Why we should stay suspicious of cross-gen game trailers

OPINION: Tim Clark wants clarity in games marketing

Shiver my timbers matey, that Assassin's Creed IV trailer looks a bit of alright doesn't it? Check out the lovely particle effects as the cannonballs blast into those cerulean waves. Phwoar, etc.

Okay, but now tell me what format that footage is taken from? You can't. Not for sure anyway. The boilerplate at the end of the video lists PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Wii U as the destination systems. It also mentions the game is "coming on next-gen consoles and PC". But at no point does it specify the provenance of the footage we've just watched.

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So I contacted Ubisoft and asked. A day later the response came back that the video had been captured from "a high-end PC". Which was much as I expected, given the long draw distances, high-res textures and fancy whale physics on display.

Examine the sequence of shots at 1'13" and try to tell yourself that's how good the game will look on current gen consoles. So, does the lack of clarity from a game's marketing campaign matter? I think so, for a couple of reasons.

For starters, we're going to see a lot more of this sort of thing. The combined global sales of PS3 and Xbox 360 stand at over 153 million units. Even counting for repeat purchases (thanks RRoD!) that isn't an install base which any of the major third party publishers will be abandoning anytime soon.

"Clarity from a game's marketing campaign matters for a number of reasons."

Here's a confident prediction: the next Call Of Duty, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and FIFA 14 will all be 'cross generation' games. In fact, games like The Witcher 3 and the new Thief, which are only aimed at pimp PCs and next-gen consoles, will be in the minority for quite a while. Watch Dogs and Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag are going to be the model.

So the question for the companies making those games, 'which version do we show to the world?', is only going to become more pressing. And, as we saw from the Battlefield 3 pre-release campaign, the answer will most likely be 'the one that's running on a tricked out PC, silly'.

But if that does become the default response, as it almost certainly will, we could well be looking at a strange situation where PS360 owners go from being bombarded with videos of games running on their systems prior to release, to feeling like second class citizens whose versions barely get a look in.

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Here's the more pernicious aspect: the games industry does not have a fabulous track record when it comes to this sort of stuff. Being a million years old, I remember habitually buying games on Amstrad and C64 with arcade screenshots on the back. This would usually be flagged in a microscopically small font somewhere, leaving you to use your imagination to downgrade the visuals to what you'd likely be getting.

And not that much has changed since. A quick visit to Uncle Google will reveal innumerable examples of similar misselling. In 2008, EA was rapped over the knuckles by the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for passing off Xbox 360 footage of Tiger Woods as the Wii version.

In 2010 it was Square-Enix's turn, after eagle-eyed viewers noticed that slighty sharper PS3 footage of Final Fantasy XIII was being used to promote the Xbox 360 game. Small potatoes, perhaps, but it only goes to show how much gamers care about this sort of stuff.

Of course there are also more troubling cases, where adverts have seemed designed to deliberately mislead. Back in 2006 the ASA took the strong step of banning Activision's all-CG advert for Call Of Duty 2, which subsequently led to the use of those 'not actual graphics' disclaimers you see used now. Indeed, it's interesting to note that even for Bioshock Infinite, a game with its Metacritic rating in the mid 90s, Take 2 still felt the need to put out an all-CG TV commercial, featuring the same disclaimer.

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The waters are even muddier when you come to the shuttle crash that was the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines. Having been fingered by a Reddit user to the ASA for using footage of a more technically impressive demo in its trailers, Sega was forced to apologise and admit that the final game did indeed look worse. Once again, on went some disclaimers about the graphics.

Explaining that judgment, the ASA said: "Our role in cases such as this is to ensure that marketing material isn't likely to materially mislead the public." And that is very much the point.

Of course marketeers are going to try to get you hyped for their games, but they need to do so in a manner which also accurately depicts what you can expect from the finished product.

The imminent arrival of a new generation of consoles, alongside the existing temptation to use swanky PC footage, is going to be an irresistible temptation for many marketing departments. It will be down to the vigilance of the press and fans alike to ensure that, when necessary, bullshit is called.

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