Doctored screenshots make games look better, so are they false advertising? GamePro demystifies the practice by speaking to insiders.
In December of 2007, game developer Guerrilla Games admitted to altering newly released Killzone 2 screenshots in order to make them look more attractive. "There are only the tiniest bit touched up," said the company's QA manager, Seb Downie, in a PlayStation.com reply to savvy gamers who noticed discrepancies when compared to actual gameplay footage. "There was a little bit of color-correction done and some minor polish, but nothing major," he maintained.
Indeed, the advertised screenshot was hardly a radical improvement over its in-game counterpart. But it wasn't the first time Guerrilla Games had altered the game's appearance, either. Killzone 2's debut trailer, shown in 2005, looked a lot more glamorous than it did two years later when proper gameplay was shown at E3. And who can forget EA's exaggerated 2005 promo for its next-gen Madden? The screenshots looked superb, but the actual gameplay looked glaringly inferior when it was released later that year.
The Proof is in the Pudding
Faked, enhanced, or otherwise augmented screenshots are commonly called "bullshots." Their intent is to make a game look more appealing than it actually is, and their occurrence has largely existed since video games were first commercialized. So are bullshots misleading or just good marketing? "Exceptionally misleading," says Steven Kent, author of The Ultimate History of Video Games. But that doesn't mean Kent wouldn't employ the practice were he a game publisher. "It's kind of like negative campaigning in politics," he says. "Everybody hates it, nobody respects it, but it's the upstanding guy who won't stoop that gets blasted." In other words, bullshots are a harsh reality.
They're also influential. "Players look to screenshots to quickly solidify several elements of any given title in their mind: Theme, perceived quality, variety of content, and how the product compares to contemporaries," says Scott Steinberg, author of Videogame Marketing and PR. "A passing glance is enough to set the tone for thousands of viewers."
But it's not just game makers that dramatize product appearance in pursuit of increased sales. Cosmetic and beauty supply products regularly fudge the truth while citing wildly optimistic benefits and results. Even respected news outfits have been known to beguile. In 2006, Reuters admitted to altering a photo of a Beirut air attack for dramatic effect, and CBS digitally thinned an aging Katie Couric to entice a bigger audience. So if other advertisers are glamorizing products, it must be okay for game makers to do the same with screenshots, right?
Not really. "Doctoring game images is different from airbrushing a supermodel, lacquering a Thanksgiving turkey, or falsifying a four-inch tall Big Mac," says Troy Goodfellow, a seasoned freelance game writer. "With video games, the screenshot or video is part of what you are buying. When you see a photoshopped model, you aren't in the market for a model. And the proof of a burger is in its taste."
He adds, "The visual image of a game is an important reason to buy it, so lying about how the game looks is only marginally more ethical than claiming you have multiplayer when you don't."
An Inconvenient Truth
But even though bullshots are often used to falsely influence unsuspecting gamers, not all are designed with the intent to deceive, says EGM editor-in chief Dan Hsu. "Bullshots can serve a functional business purpose," he says. "Developers sometimes use 'target' assets as a way to show people what a game is supposed to look like. The purpose could be to help sell a concept to financiers or put a visual on something that's not there yet. But it's the company's responsibility to let the press know that these are, indeed, 'target' screens and not the real deal. If they do that, then you can't fairly call it false advertising."
When asked how often bullshots materialize, Hsu observes, "It's hard to say. But as far as those really obvious bullshots that are touted as real screens," he adds, "that percentage doesn't seem to be that high."
Regrettably, most publishers with a confirmed or suspected bullshot history declined to be interviewed when contacted by GamePro. Others simply ignored our requests, but one reputable developer, who wished to remain anonymous, replied by saying, "We don't do them [bullshots] and don't want to be associated with any article that talks with folks that do, even if it's to say we don't do them." It's clearly a sensitive and polarizing subject, regardless of the intent.
The historical success of doctored screenshots for creating hype and their mainstream adoption suggest that bullshots will likely persist. But their intensity should lessen and their frequency decrease over time given the speed and archival power of the internet. Add responsible journalism and a community of eagle-eyed players, and we could be well on our way to ensure that no gamer gets duped.
"There's no excuse for doctoring images," concludes Steinberg, who advises game makers to capture the perfect shot without using forgery. "It's one thing to make your product look as good as it can be, another to fictionalise or glamorise so-called in-game scenes. Call the latter what you will if it makes you feel better, but you're still lying to everyday shoppers."
Halo 3 looks good, but not this shiny, detailed, or well-lit (Bungie "Screenshot" - Feb 2007). Sorry Ubisoft, but Red Steel didn't look like this when it was released on Wii.