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ASA Ruling on Valve Corporation and Hello Games Ltd

Valve Corporation t/a Steam

PO Box 1688
Bellevue
WA 98009
USA

Hello Games Ltd t/a

79 Walnut Tree Close
Guildford
Surrey
GU1 4UH

Date:

30 November 2016

Media:

Internet (on own site)

Sector:

Leisure

Number of complaints:

23

Complaint Ref:

A16-351045

Ad

A web page on store.steampowered.com, seen in September 2016, for the game ‘No Man's Sky’. Under the title, text stated "No Man's Sky is a game about exploration and survival in an infinite procedurally generated universe". The page contained two videos of gameplay and 11 screenshots showing game features, as well as an extended text description of the game, part of which stated “Fly smoothly from deep space to planetary surfaces, with no loading screens, and no limits … Trade convoys travel between stars, factions vie for territory”.

Issue

Twenty-three complainants, who believed that some of the game content was not as depicted or described, challenged whether the ad was misleading.

CAP Code (Edition 12)

Response

Valve Corporation t/a Steam said they provided a store and distribution service for third-party computer games, on which they allowed developers to post videos and descriptions of their games on pages devoted to those games. Developers were responsible for the content of their games, marketing materials describing the games (including screenshots, narratives and videos), and establishing the game price. With the exception of games published by Valve themselves, neither Valve nor Steam wrote marketing copy for games hosted on the service. They explained that they had a refund policy, under which customers could seek refunds for games that had been played for less than two hours in the first 14 days after purchase. Valve said they had consulted with Hello Games, who would provide information in relation to the complaint.

Hello Games said that, unlike most other games, each part of ‘No Man’s Sky’ (NMS) was procedurally generated rather than manually developed. This meant that the game content was generated by way of a computer process as that content was encountered by the player. This computer process embodied algorithms that determined, for example, the probability of a player encountering a creature with a particular physiology, exhibiting a particular behaviour or existing in a particular habitat. They said the game contained 18 quintillion planets, each with its own terrain, weather, flora and fauna, and was effectively infinite in size or scope. It was unique, therefore, in that the user experience was not scripted and each user would have their own individual experience. Each player would begin the game on a unique planet, in a different part of the universe.

Hello Games said that, as each user’s experience would be very different, it would be difficult to recreate the exact scenes from the ad. However, they believed it was fairly straightforward to locate content of the type shown in the ad and to demonstrate that such content was commonly experienced by all users who played NMS for an average period of time. They stated that all material features from the ad that had been challenged by complainants appeared in the NMS universe in abundance. While each player experienced different parts of the NMS universe, there was a low probability that anyone playing the game as intended would fail to encounter all these features in some form within an average play-through. They said the game itself was documentary evidence in support of the ad and, since NMS was specifically programmed to enable players to experience everything described in the ad, they were confident that any average player could do so. They noted that some elements were rarer than others; for instance, the larger the scale of a space battle, the more unusual it was, which they believed was to be expected because it made for a more rewarding experience. With regard to the game features queried by complainants, Hello Games provided gameplay footage showing these features, which they explained showed extracts from NMS on a PC with average specifications; these specifications were given. The majority of the footage provided came from a play-through that had started from the beginning of the game and lasted for four hours. They also provided links to third party footage uploaded to a video-sharing platform by players of NMS, and a copy of the game.

In relation to the user interface design and aiming systems, Hello Games stated that the appearance of these functions (but not the way they operated) had been amended since the videos were created. They did not believe the appearance of these game elements was material.

Hello Games stated that the videos in the ad were produced using a gaming PC of average specification (based on the standard shown in Steam’s survey of typical user hardware), above the minimum specification. They said the quality of the graphics shown in the ad was inferior to the graphics the game was capable of exhibiting and was representative of the quality of the graphics of the NMS experienced by an average player. The videos in the ad were recordings of gameplay from the game, and the static images were in-game screenshots. They stated that the videos uploaded to Steam had an original resolution of 1080p and a framerate of 30fps with anti-aliasing. Performance of the game on a gaming PC typical of those used by Steam customers would run at 1080p with 60fps. They noted that post-release updates to the game also provided further visual improvements. They provided screenshots of the game uploaded to a third-party website by a player, which they said illustrated the high visual quality that players were able to achieve.

With regard to a concern raised about the speed of galaxy warping footage in one video, Hello Games said there were a number of factors that defined how quickly a player would ‘warp’ to a new system. This included the specifications of a user’s hardware and the complexity of the system or galaxy to which they were warping; a system with fewer planets or less complex life would be warped to more quickly. They said players were not likely to use warping very often (usually around three times in the first 10 hours of gameplay). In the video in the ad that featured warping, the player warped to a sparse system with a single planet, one moon, and hardly any life; this took 3 to 5 seconds. They noted that the footage they provided (recorded on a PC with a similar specification to that used for the trailer) included a warp to a larger and more populated system, which took about 5 seconds. They therefore believed that the warp times shown in the ad were normal for the type of system shown, on a standard gaming machine. They confirmed that they did not edit the video in the ad to suggest that warping of this type was quicker than was actually the case.

With regard to the claim “Fly smoothly from deep space to planetary surfaces, with no loading screens, and no limits”, Hello Games stated that there were no loading screens when flying from deep space within solar systems to planetary surfaces. They said the environments and characteristics were generated in real time while a player moved through the game, including when they warped between systems, during which time the player could continue to interact with the game.

In relation to the claim “factions vie for territory”, Hello Games said that this was part of the story or narrative of the game and manifested itself through the player’s journey and interactions with three factions during gameplay. They referred to a third-party video describing the characteristics of the three factions. Hello Games explained that solar systems were occupied by a single faction; when players interacted with a factioned non-player character, they would sometimes mention their dislike of the other factions. There would also be fights between factions which the player could take part in, and doing so could increase the player’s reputation with the faction they sided with. Hello Games said they chose the word “vying” purposefully because it suggested that there was an on-going struggle.

Assessment

Not upheld

The ad contained several screenshots and two different video trailers for the game, as well as a text description. We understood that, as NMS was procedurally generated, player experiences would vary according to what material was generated in their play-through. The summary description of the game made clear that it was procedurally generated, that the game universe was essentially infinite, and that the core premise was exploration. As such, we considered consumers would understand the images and videos to be representative of the type of content they would encounter during gameplay, but would not generally expect to see those specific creatures, landscapes, battles and structures. We therefore considered whether the game and footage provided by Hello Games contained gameplay material of a sufficiently similar type to that depicted in the ad.

We understood that the user interface design and the aiming system had undergone cosmetic changes since the footage for the videos was recorded. However, we did not consider that these elements would affect a consumer’s decision to purchase the game, as they were superficial and incidental components in relation to the core gameplay mechanics and features. We therefore did not consider the ad was likely to mislead in that regard.

Complainants had questioned whether the structures and buildings shown in the screenshots and videos could be found in the game. Hello Games provided footage of buildings and structures that were a similar type to those pictured. Some complainants challenged whether water was depicted in the same manner as in the game. We reviewed the Hello Games footage and noted that it showed bodies of water broadly consistent with those shown in the ad. Both these elements were observed during gameplay. A number of complainants were concerned that large-scale space battles of the type shown in one of the videos was not part of gameplay. We acknowledged Hello Games’ assertion that the larger battles were more unusual, and noted the footage they provided of a materially similar type of battle. In relation to these features, we considered that the ad did not depict gameplay that differed materially from the footage provided by Hello Games, and that it was therefore unlikely to mislead. Some complainants had raised concerns that the behaviour of player and non-player ships and sentinels shown in the ad was unlike that experienced in the game. The footage provided by Hello Games showed ships and the player’s vessel behaving in a similar manner to that depicted in the ad. The footage provided did not show a ship flying underneath a rock formation, as in one of the videos, and we had been unable to replicate similar behaviour in the game. However, this was a brief shot within a wider sequence and we did not consider that, in the context of the ad as a whole, this was likely to mislead. Further, some complainants also challenged the depiction of animals in the ads. Hello Games provided footage in response, which we noted showed similar animal behaviour to that shown in the ad. Although animals in the trailer were shown moving large trees, which was not observed in the footage or during gameplay, we considered that this was a fleeting and incidental scene, unlikely in itself to influence materially a consumer’s decision to purchase the game, and that it was not misleading.

With regard to concerns that the ad exaggerated the quality of in-game graphics, we understood the graphical output of the game would be affected by the specifications of each player’s computer, and considered that consumers would generally be aware of this limitation. We also understood the ad footage had been captured on a PC of broadly typical specification for the platform on which the ad appeared, and that the videos were presented with a lower frame rate than would ordinarily be used when playing the game. From the game and the footage provided by Hello Games (including material from third parties), we understood that the game was capable of producing graphics of much higher quality than that shown in the videos and of comparable quality with the screenshots, and considered that the images used therefore did not exaggerate the game’s performance in this regard. Two screenshots showed water and a type of illumination in higher fidelity than we had seen in the footage or during gameplay, but we did not consider that the difference was so significant as to mislead in this context. Some complainants were also concerned that ‘warping’ between systems was not as fast as shown in the ad. As with graphic performance, we understood that speed of warping would depend on the complexity of the destination system and the characteristics of a player’s computer, and considered that consumers would generally be aware of such dependencies. The footage provided by Hello Games showed a warp that was a couple of seconds longer than the one in the ad, and we understood that this example involved a more complex planetary system. During gameplay we experienced warp sequences to similar complex systems lasting in the region of 16 seconds. Although we understood that some players may have experienced longer warp times, in the context of an ad showing general gameplay we did not consider that such differences in speed were so significant as to be material. We considered that the ad did not provide a materially misleading impression of these gameplay aspects.

Text in the ad stated “Fly smoothly from deep space to planetary surfaces, with no loading screens, and no limits”, we considered that the reference to ‘no loading screens’ would be understood as a reference to a lack of interruptive or non-immersive interstitial screens during travel from deep space to planetary surfaces. Some complainants questioned whether the ‘warp’ sequence shown when travelling between systems was a loading screen. We understood that during the ‘warp’ sequence the new system would be generated and that, in this sense, it might be thought of as a ‘loading screen’. However, it did not represent an interruption to the gameplay experience, as it was contiguous and consistent with the preceding and following gameplay sequences. We also understood that warping was only used when travelling between systems, rather than travelling directly from space to a planet’s surface whilst in a solar system, and was not used particularly often in comparison with other game mechanics. We also noted that warping was featured in one of the videos in the ad, and that consumers would therefore be aware that this sequence took place during interstellar travel. Taking these elements into account, we did not consider that the ad was likely to mislead consumers materially about this aspect of the game.

In relation to the claim “trade convoys travel between stars”, the footage provided by Hello Games showed trade ships ‘warping’ into systems after travelling between solar systems. We therefore understood that this feature existed in the game. With regard to the claim “factions vie over territory”, we considered that consumers would understand from this that more than one faction would be present in the game, holding specific territory, and that there would be aspects of the game relating to tensions over territories and faction activities. We understood that players could interact with three different factions, who occupied specific areas, and could take part in battles between opposing factions (which would increase their reputation with the faction they defended). Noting the explanation and footage provided by Hello Games, we did not consider that this description differed materially from the relevant gameplay features.

We understood that the screenshots and videos in the ad had been created using game footage, and acknowledged that in doing this the advertisers would aim to show the product in the best light. Taking into account the above points, we considered that the overall impression of the ad was consistent with gameplay and the footage provided, both in terms of that captured by Hello Games and by third parties, and that it did not exaggerate the expected player experience of the game. We therefore concluded that the ad did not breach the Code.

We investigated the ad under CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 and 3.3 (Misleading advertising), 3.7 (Substantiation) and 3.11 (Exaggeration), but did not find it in breach.

Action

No further action required.

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