Pitchford goes to Molyneux and beyond
How often we forget that demos are sales tools, designed to pitch consumers a dream of what may be, not what actually is. Dull knives slice cans like butter, hamburgers perfectly cook on a budget grill, and Aliens: Colonial Marines looks like a next-gen title instead of last-gen.
To put it simply: We've been lied to by Randy Pitchford and Gearbox. We passed those lies onto the consumers. Is it our fault for putting trust that the demo was real? Is it our fault that we believed it to be real?
No, it's Pitchford's fault for being disingenuous in presenting his company's latest game.
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At E3 2011, Randy Pitchford and Gearbox showed off Aliens: Colonial Marines in a closed theater. Droves of game journalists, GameStop managers, and their kids, that they always manage to somehow sneak into the show, came to see the off-hands demo; the one which Pitchford repeatedly told press and industry was "real live gameplay" featuring "sophisticated artificial intelligence."
Jim Sterling, Chris Carter, and I all heard the same thing, even though we were in different presentations (and representing different publications at the time).
"Gearbox called it a 'vertical slice' showcasing the gameplay sequences that'd appear throughout the campaign. Only trouble is, none of the gameplay shown ever happens, and we were never told it was just conceptual," Jim stated, in a recent internal email chain on the above subject. "I played the entire campaign waiting for things shown in the walkthrough and got none of them. The only gameplay retained is one siege room, and even that plays out 95% differently."
When screens from the previous demo are compared to the finish product, the lack of environmental detail, dated lighting effects, and linear-to-a-fault gameplay become apparent. Games shown at E3 don't suddenly look worse as development continues. Like early trailers for Hollywood blockbusters, graphics and gameplay in early game demos get repeatedly touched-up and expanded for release.
What exactly happened to the lighting effects?
As far fetched as it may seem, we can't rule out the possibility that this was some advanced demo, showing off a much improved engine and game sections, that was scrapped in favor of a much weaker engine and gameplay. The more likely truth is that Pitchford sold a mock-up (or as developers call it, a "target render") as a live demo. He lied to us. To our faces. We can't even get the truth out of them on who developed the damn game (was TimeGate a co-developer or just an outsourced company?).
Our industry runs on little white lies controlled by marketing. Peter Molyneux makes promises that won't be delivered, while major publishers distribute bullshots -- touched-up images that present the game in a better light than it ever will be when in the player's hands (see Edge's excellent article). Pitchford's act of deception goes beyond being a white lie. He earned fan trust and admiration through manipulation. Not only at press events, but also Gearbox's Community Day where the same demo was shown and presented in the same light of being indicative of the final game.
And the lies didn't even stop at the E3 demo. Gearbox and Sega kept showing a screenshot of the Alien Queen fighting a Power Loader. This scene does not happen in the game.
"It's rare, in all my years, to see a demo so unrepresentative of the finished product. Even worse, I've never seen a demo that looks so much BETTER than the finished product," Jim said. "The 'work in progress' warning attached to demos is to warn you the product doesn't look that rough. This may be the first game I've covered where it meant the opposite. Gearbox's definitely on the hook for dishonesty -- if not to us, then definitely to Sega."
Some may bring up Killzone 2 and its infamous 2005 E3 demo that blew audiences away with its graphical fidelity that has yet to be matched by a game of this generation. The difference with Gearbox is that it continued to use footage from this demo in its trailers. We at least saw the real Killzone 2 before launch.
By knowingly deceiving its fans, Gearbox has gone from being a company worth celebrating to a developer that plays dirtier than the big publishers that we so often damn for sleazy marketing campaigns and excessive pre-order programs.
Before founding Gearbox, Pitchford was a magician. Turns out he's still pulling tricks of illusion on the public. Soon his audience might ask, when is the vanishing act?