Let’s Edit: Fred Dutton’s “Uncharted 3 plans ‘brilliant’ fire effects”

Fred Dutton’s February 7 Eurogamer article “Uncharted 3 plans ‘brilliant’ fire effects” is the kind of article that you’ve read many times on gaming sites. Whenever a site covers another’s interview, the resulting article can nearly always be generated using the following template: “[Effusive fanboy praise for an upcoming game] [Mention of interview developer did with other site] [Cut-and-paste of selected quotes from a tiny section of the interview] [Profession of faith in the accuracy of the developer’s comments] [Assurance that the game will undoubtedly be amazing]“. There’s no real reason for this type of article to exist. We don’t have the complete text–we’ll just read the original interview if we’re interested–and this simple summary adds nothing.  Even worse, it implies that the site does not have the resources to conduct their own original research. Whether Dutton asked no followup questions because it never occurred to him or because Naughty Dog is not returning Eurogamer’s calls is unclear. Either way, the only purpose that the article serves is to save Sony’s PR department some effort–it simply reprints some marketing copy that Dutton has apparently decided to take at face value. Let’s edit.

(Original text of the post in italics. My comments in bold.)

Uncharted 3 plans ‘brilliant’ fire effects [This is an inaccurate headline. Uncharted 3 is not planning the fire effects. Naughty Dog, the developer, is planning them. “Naughty Dog plans ‘brilliant’ fire effects for Uncharted 3” is how you should write the headline.]

Having mastered ice, water and snow in previous Uncharted games [I wasn't aware that Uncharted was considered the gold standard for these. Write more neutrally--others may be able to point to games which handled these things better] , Naughty Dog has set its sights on groundbreaking fire effects in the forthcoming PlayStation 3 threequel. [Avoid cutesy neologisms--this is a news piece.]

Speaking in an interview with the PlayStation Blog, Naughty Dog mouthpiece Arne Meyer explained that the game would feature realistic flames that slowly reduce the environment to ashes. [This is phrased too vaguely. Saying that the game will "feature realistic flames" imposes a subjective evaluation on something which has not yet been released; this statement cannot be said with any authority. And the assurance that the flames will "reduce the environment to ashes" doesn't make it clear whether you're speaking truthfully or if this is exaggeration for effect.]

“We’re always on the lookout for new technical challenges and we’re really happy with what we’re achieving with our fire effects,” he boasted. [Remove this sentence. It tells us nothing beyond the fact that the development team is pleased with itself. You may hope that the members of development teams enjoy their work and are content with their progress, but don’t conflate that with a promise of quality.]

“It’s not just a static asset – the fire deteriorates the wood realistically and there are blowback effects, like you would expect. The smoke is looking much better this time around.” [What is the smoke “looking much better” than--Uncharted 2? Other games coming out this year? CG fire in general? Follow up on this one.]

Referencing a level, trailered below, in which you have to escape a burning mansion, Meyer added that, in theory, you’ll be able to stand still and watch the building burn down before your eyes. [Here’s an area where you could get into some very interesting issues--while water and ice are difficult to program, they don’t have as dynamic an effect on the environment as fire does. How do you build an environment around the fact that it can be burnt to the ground? How do you reconcile the inherently chaotic nature of fire with the constructed obstacle course of a videogame level? What tricks is the team planning to avoid burning levels in such a way as to make them accidentally unwinnable? Do the graphics or performance deteriorate in any way because of this added factor? One of the reasons truly realistic procedural fire has not been implemented well is because of these and many other issues--how is the team handling them?]

“You could sit down and watch the chateau burn around you, if you sit there long enough,” he claimed. [The word "claimed" is a fairly loaded one--it literally serves the function of reproducing a statement while calling attention to the fact that said statement has not or cannot be proven. Why didn't you follow up to find out whether the chateau does indeed burn to the ground? How long does it take? How does this affect gameplay?]

“However, we want the player to proceed through the game at a decent pace so that’s not going to happen. Even in this demo, you can see beams deteriorating as they burn, and you can even take cover behind them when they give way and fall to the floor, only for that cover to disappear when the beam has burned away completely. [This paragraph does not contradict my questions from earlier and in fact leaves me with more questions. How do they ensure that the player will not simply stand around and let the mansion burn around them? Merely being told that "beams deteriorat[e] as they burn” doesn’t sound impressive if you consider that they could achieve the same effect through a scripted event. How does the procedural programming of fire change things?]

“Procedural fire is a pretty difficult technical challenge, especially on top of everything else you’re trying to get in the game, but it produces some brilliant effects, like the corners of the wallpaper starting to roll and then igniting, and then the embers flickering in the air. [It is true that realistic fire is one of the great programming challenges--there are so many variables involved that it requires very deep knowledge of the game's engine as well as of the physics of fire. I'd be interested in how the team researched this topic. Did they spend a few weeks burning things and filming the results before they started programming? Does anyone on the team have a background as a physicist? What were some of the big challenges here--what did they need to implement? They will of course want to keep some aspects of the engine to themselves as a proprietary secret, but again, the fact that you did no followup research gives off the impression that you are extremely incurious.]

“Essentially, we’re programming oxygen and then having the fire follow it around the environment,” he explained. [This tells us something, but not much.]

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, the too-hot-to-handle [Avoid puns] follow-up to [the] awesome [This is a news post. Stay neutral in your tone and do not editorialize about the quality of games] 2009 adventure, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, will be out on 4th November. [Do not state release dates as set-in-stone facts. Uncharted 3 is planned for release on November 4. Any number of things could happen to delay it.]

I said earlier that there is no need to write this type of article because it generally adds nothing to the conversation and the full interview is much more complete. This article is particularly egregious, however. The original interview by James Gallagher on the Playstation blog is a fairly breezy overview of the upcoming game–it briefly covers a few new gameplay mechanics, motion capture, and the fire effects. Let’s do a quick comparison, however. Gallagher’s article quotes 191 words from Naughty Dog’s Arne Meyer on the subject of procedural fire. Dutton’s article quotes the same exact 191 words–he quite literally copies the entire conversation about fire verbatim. To look at it from another angle, 62% of his 306-word article is lifted directly–Gallagher could probably get away with saying “plagiarized”–from the original interview.

Gallagher’s article is not especially hard-hitting or relevatory, but it’s a preview and gamers interested in scraps of news might find it entertaining. Besides, the Playstation blog is an official channel, and Naughty Dog is owned by Sony. It’s fairly clear that this article is little more than an arm of Sony’s marketing division. Dutton is taking PR-speak at face value. Gallagher does not have the license to probe any deeper; Dutton does his site and his readers a disservice by actively refusing to.

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