Posted at 00:08 on 22nd January 2006 - permalink

This is a topic that you might expect to see investigated by Video Game Media Watch, although they’ve gone off the boil a bit recently so I thought I’d have a stab at it.

On May 16th, 2005, Sony Computer Entertainment demonstrated their forthcoming Playstation 3 console at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). Part of the presentation was a showreel featuring several terrifically visually impressive demo sequences contributed by different development teams.

One of these sequences purported to represent a new game in the Killzone series, under development at Guerrilla Games (who have since been bought by Sony). (The first Killzone, you’ll remember, was a game that was positioned as a technical showcase for the Playstation 2, and which was released to lukewarm critical response in 2004.)

Almost immediately, rumours began to circulate that this demo (and others on the showreel) was not generated in realtime but was in fact prerendered. These rumours were denied by Sony and have to date never been verified by anybody at Sony or Guerrilla, and yet they persist. In fact, it seems that this piece of footage has provoked reactions from some people that have gone beyond rational scepticism and descended into bizarre, emotionally-charged (or perhaps agenda-driven) hostility. You can view the demo in question here.

What can we say with any certainty about this demo? It is undeniably visually impressive, although as far as I can see it does not feature any single visual effect or scene that would be beyond the capabilities of graphics hardware with the tech specs that have been pencilled for the Playstation 3’s RSX (or indeed the Xbox 360’s GPU or the current high-end nVidia or ATi PC graphics cards). Lots of particles, camera-shake, depth of field. Some pretty lighting and slick animation but nothing light years ahead of games that are already on the shelves. There is certainly nothing to suggest a “city-sized level”, “hundreds of detailed characters onscreen”, “Pixar-quality animation” or any of the other exaggerated claims that have been made about the video by viewers with overactive imaginations.

The demonstration is obviously a scripted sequence, it has obviously been edited to show visually impressive setpieces, and obviously is not running on a production PS3 (as no such machine existed at the time). These facts are self-evident, true of all the demonstrations shown as part of the showreel, and not controversial in the context of a tech demonstration at the unveiling of a new home console. Regardless, these points have been cited as ‘proof’ that the demo is prerendered by numerous commentators in the months since E3.

One early example which may have been influential in this trend was that, in spite of the lack of hard evidence one way or another, several editorial staff on IGN expressed their opinion that they believed the video to be prerendered.

Shortly after E3, a rumour emerged that the demo was created by Axis Animation, an animation company responsible for the introductory FMV of the original Killzone. No evidence has ever been presented to support this rumour.

Close analysis of the video reveals at least two occasions where objects ‘appear’ suddenly, and other glitches (clipping, missing shadows) that would not occur of their own volition if the sequence was prerendered. Predictably, the naysayers explain these glitches as having been intentionally inserted as part of the deception.

Just when it seemed this controversy couldn’t get any more ridiculous, an email was published on a tabloid games blog purporting to be from Arjan Brussee, one of Guerrilla’s development staff. This email attempted to answer the question of the demo’s veracity by explaining that it was generated on a development system at a low frame rate, and then sped up in post production. It is then discovered that this email is a forgery. (Most probably based on comments made by Epic Games’ Mark Rein shortly after E3, in which he speculated that this was a likely scenario for some of the demos in the showreel.)

This whole climate of rumour-mongering and cynicism has been bubbling under for months, while in the interim increasingly visually impressive games have been demonstrated (e.g. MGS4), and even released (e.g. a fair chunk of the Xbox 360 launch titles), gradually dulling the lustre of the Killzone demo’s promises. But the damage is done: Google reveals comments all over the internet that simply take it as a given that the video was prerendered.

The problem I have with these comments is that they go beyond mere scepticism. Now, I harbour very strong suspicions over whether the video presented gives an accurate impression of how the finished game will look and play. But that’s all they are – suspicions. And if Guerrilla and/or Sony have ‘massaged’ the truth, while being thoroughly deplorable behaviour, that would not automatically lead to the conclusion that the video was prerendered. Stating as a fact that the demo was prerendered and similar effects couldn’t be acheived in realtime on the basis of a rumour is in effect making a dishonest claim about a developer’s work with no evidence. I can appreciate that everything shown by a hardware manufacturer at E3 should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt, but countering deception with further deception isn’t helpful.

This story makes it clear that there are people out there (presumably young kids with a lot of free time) who are actively feeding baseless gossip into the public consciousness, spreading from the least reputable message boards (IGN, Gamefaqs, Teamxbox, etc.) to unquestioning, publicity-hungry news blogs (Kotaku, Spong, Evil Avatar, Joystiq) and sometimes even as far as legitimate games news sites.

(Of course the other thing it illustrates is how difficult it is for people to get their heads around the fact that graphics hardware has advanced a considerable amount in the five years or so since the last generation of consoles – I distinctly remember similar feelings of outright disbelief when I first saw footage of Resident Evil 4, or the ‘Lobby’ sequence in 3DMark 2001.)

Every time I start to think that games and the media that surrounds them are maturing, something like this pops up and a vast swathe of commentators and audience revert to the logic of the playground.

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