The six of you following my every move were certainly led to believe that today’s update would be about PR’s influence over review scores and media coverage. I’m so very sneaky. That update is still coming — possibly blowing away all expectations by being the second post in a single day! — but I thought I’d toss something a bit less in-depth together. Okay, after writing it… it’s not so short after all.

Urban Dictionary lists the following:
bullshot: n. A screenshot fabricated by a company to misrepresent the graphics of a game; a combination of the words bullshit and screenshot.

Seems Penny Arcade coined the phrase (shit, seriously, 2005? Seems like just yesterday), but the actual practice of “creating” screenshots has been around for ages; it’s become more prevalent in recent years, as the visual quality of games has increased alongside consumer expectations. If you want to see some examples and some more insight into bullshots, you can check out Blake Snow’s piece at Forget that clown, though (*blowing a kiss to Blake*) — I’m the star here! Let’s take a quick look at bullshots, shall we? More after the jump.

What happens?
Throughout a game’s PR and marketing campaign, the publisher or developer needs to create promotional screenshots to show off a game’s visuals. It’s important to note that the final polishing of a game — those extra steps that take the game to final quality — often isn’t done until the last few months of the project. That will vary, of course, from one game to another, as some teams may aim to be “art complete” much earlier in development. Anyway, these shots will usually be created with whatever game content is available — so if a game is being announced two years before its release date, there’s a good chance that the aforementioned game content is not final, only partially available or completely non-existent.

Trust me, from the PR and marketing rep standpoint — unless you’re a soulless bastard — this whole process is a bit unnerving. It makes me feel more than a little slimy… like I just ate twelve Big Macs and pigged out on Doritos while playing Fallout 3 for ten hours straight (not necessarily professing my love for any of those three things… they’re just examples of the greasiness, people). I much prefer the idea of actually capturing images from a final product and presenting them as-is. I remember working on Neverwinter Nights, creating my own levels in the toolset and snapping off hundreds (thousands?) of screenshots throughout the promo campaign. We’d pick the best ones, they’d get routed through approvals, and everything was great — we’d just toss out the shots with screwy shadows, weird textures, characters stuck in the walls, etc.

Things just aren’t that easy anymore. Advancing technology dictates that games take more manpower to develop and that dev teams usually have to work with tighter timelines. You’re constantly tweaking artwork, textures, lighting, etc. so taking a perfect screenshot a year before release is pretty much a pipe dream. So again, you take what you can get — maybe you only have a few characters finished, while the levels aren’t close to finished yet. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a good vertical-slice demo (essentially a small “slice” of the game representing its final game quality). In that very awesome case, you have at least a small area — with just a couple of characters/enemies and a few rooms in the level — to work with, merrily snapping screenshots and having to make minimal adjustments. But in other cases, you do the best you can. If lighting isn’t final, an artist has to go in and paint the lighting and shadows. If visual effects like explosions aren’t implemented yet, you have an artist add the explosions.

Why does it happen?
It seems like the most nefarious consumer-deception tactic around: Megapublisher A comes out and announces Big Shooter X from Big Studio Y, says it will be the best-looking game around in 18 months and releases “screenshots” to back it up… but they won’t show off a gameplay video for another six months. They won’t demo the game to press for another year. The screenshots are a vision of what they hope to deliver, and are meant to excite the masses.

Thus we come to the reason for bullshots’ existence: customer, shareholder and retailer) expectations. The very nature of video game PR and marketing is somewhat fucked. There are few other industries that push product visibility for such a long period of time; there’s really very little chance that a game announced two years before release will be unveiled with assets that weren’t somehow custom-produced for that particular opportunity. That being said, fans expect screenshots to be awesome… and I’m not trying to point fingers and call gamers jerks, because I do it, too. If I see a screenshot, I expect it to look cool, or else I’ll probably lose interest in that game. So let’s say a publisher takes the honest route and releases a screenshot of an in-development game without doctoring it. Imagine the outcry. NeoGAF would explode with cries of, “hahah, what a piece of shit!” Other hardcore fans would laugh at the lack of anti-aliasing. Yet others would ridicule the terrible facial expressions. Or the missing texture on the floor. You get the picture.

Companies want to create hype for their products, and unless they come out of the gate with awesome assets, they’re going to be fighting a long, uphill battle to achieve popularity or to get enough page views at GameSpot (or wherever) to warrant continued coverage. Ultimately, fans don’t seem to care if shots have been doctored. There may be some outcry early on in the publicity campaign (Killzone 2, anyone?), but in the end, all will be forgotten and a game will be left to cement its own legacy.

Anything we can do about it?
Yeah, not sure. I’d love to get to the point where we’re not announcing games too far in advance. Case in point: I was part of the effort to announce Dragon Age at E3 back in 2004. Sure, there was a big media blackout for a while, but that game has been in the public eye for five years already, and fans have expected a constant flow of assets — screenshots, videos, previews, etc. How could BioWare’s product five years ago possibly have represented the final quality of the game? Apart from a few rare cases, do you know of any movies that have been talked about for five years? How about two years? A year? We’re somewhat idiotic in this industry, though, having established long ago that we absolutely can’t have successful products without building up months or years of hype.

Could we get by with the Hollywood model? Could we feasibly just give fans minor details — talk about the people involved in the project, share the overall vision, toss out some concept art — and save the major hype for the two or three months before release? Could we skip the crazy spending in the year leading up to release, removing presence at trade shows, cutting out the trailer budget during that time, and saving it all for a big publicity and ad push at release? I think so, but it’s going to take one ambitious and daring genius to change the way the entire gaming publicity machine has worked for the past twenty years. Think about it: we’d be able to say goodbye to release delays; while you’d obviously need to provide a general timeframe for shareholders, it’d be much easier to say, “here’s the first trailer, and the game is coming out in three months!” than predicting a specific release date in advance. All assets would be final — sure, you might get ten trailers in that month, but as a fan you’d have a guarantee that all videos and screenshots are representative of the final game. For publishers, you could condense all of that spending into one huge push — how much TV time could you buy for the cost of an E3 booth?

It seems like it would work out well for everyone. But are things going to change anytime soon? Probably not. So deal with it, and enjoy all the bullshots you’ll be fed this year! They’re sure to be tasty.

Thoughts? Got a major beef with bullshots? Don’t care either way?

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