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Why Games Revealed at E3 Are Often Barely Games

Footage shows that Ubisoft's 'live' E3 gameplay for Ghost Recon: Future Soldier was heavily scripted.
February 14, 2016, 6:00pm

When footage of an unreleased video game is shown at a major media event like the Electronic Entertainment Expo, it's usually taken as a given that we're seeing footage from a finely polished segment of an otherwise finished game. Swarms of bugs may remain, whole levels and features may be undesigned, but it's generally wise not to show these defects.

We rarely get a glimpse at the measures developers take to achieve their glorious first impressions, but that changed a bit this week when YouTube's PtoPOnline posted footage from what it claims to be the specific build of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier Ubisoft showed at their E3 press conference in 2010.

The video shows that even though developers may claim to be showing live footage, it's often a half-truth at best. The build caters to the gameplay of someone following a specific script, as few bits look out of the ordinary if you mimic the original 2010 E3 presentation to the letter. With a controller in their hands, though, PtoPOnline realized that much of the action is automated aside from general movement. The footage thus grants the illusion of effortlessly skillful play, as opposed to real-life scenarios where misclicks and premature shots mar the experience.

At one point, for instance, the narrator sneaks up on an enemy soldier. Rather than requiring him to hit "A" on the gamepad as in the retail release, the game takes the reins once he's in range and pulls off a melee execution flawlessly. Elsewhere, moving to another part of the map causes an automatic shift in daylight, thus letting the player to appear to enter a new zone without risking the potentially embarrassing complications of a loading screen.

The Original 2010 E3 Presentation

Things fall apart once the narrator breaks from the intended path entirely. Enemies ignore gunfire as though pollen were wafting onto their uniforms, and at other points they fail to spawn at all. Eventually, the narrator veers too far from the scripted playing field and falls straight through the world.

It's fascinating to see, but it's hardly unheard of. PtoPOnline itself previously showed similar tactics used for footage of Intrepid's canceled B.C. game, and the channel notes that Bungie admitted to using similar tactics for its Halo 2 footage in 2003.

And the practice isn't just limited to games. As The New York Times revealed back in 2013, the iPhone that Steve Jobs took on stage for his landmark 2007 presentation was a barely workable prototype. Much as in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, the team had scripted a "golden path" of actions Jobs should take to create the appearance of a finished product. They programmed the phone to always show a full five bars of signal strength, and Jobs had to know how long he could play a song without the music app crashing. Worse, the whole thing might have crashed if Jobs had surfed the Web first and then sent an e-mail rather than the other way around. But of course, the whole thing went off without a hitch.

The iPhone went on to become a generation-defining device; Ghost Recon: Future Soldier went on to a buggy launch with numerous missing features. Had audiences seen them as they really were at that point, though, it's doubtful anyone would have been very excited about either of them after those initial presentations.