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Transparency: Leaks only hurt bad games

We examine the benefits of having gaming footage leaked.

I’m going to assume something: we are all intelligent people.

We all understand when something isn’t quite finished. When we see footage that says “pre-alpha” or “not the final product,” we know that whatever we are seeing is subject to change. As intelligent people, we know that if something is released before it is finished that it’s meant to entice us into buying or give marketing feedback.

Footage from Star Wars: Battlefront leaked yesterday. We know that the game is technically still in a stage somewhere between alpha and beta. (I’m losing track of where that line is anymore, but that’s a story for another day.) The reactions were mixed, as they had been when the first game footage released at E3. Those who disliked the game were just reaffirmed that they still thought it was rehash of Battlefield, and the fanboys geeked out over another Star Wars game and the reemergence of the original Battlefront.

Given the reaction of the community at large when any game footage is leaked from alpha or beta footage, it’s easy to say that leaked footage doesn’t actually hurt any game unless it’s a bad game. But let's look at the costs and the benefits of companies not letting testers release footage.

Free advertising

Famous circus man PT Barnum is attributed with the quote, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Although there probably is such thing as bad publicity, there is a lot of good that can come from exposure, especially if you’re not having to pay for that exposure.

When a player streams or makes a video of his playthrough of a game that’s not been released yet, it’s unfiltered. It’s raw. It’s pretty similar to what will happen when the game is actually released. Although the game isn’t finished, a developer -- someone who wants the game to be good -- should want more people to see what he or she is working on to help better judge how the game will be received.

If we take the recent Battlefront leaks as an example, the developers see not only the reaction of the person who actually released the footage but also the reaction of media outlets and fansites. More than that, it gets the name of the game in front of people.

Test marketing

So the game received free advertising by getting the name out there, it also gained a free test market. Of course, it’s less controlled than what would happen in-house, but at the same time there is data that can be gathered. Developers can also gather data for items that can still be changed in the game based on how the public receives them.

Many people are going to disagree with me, but I believe the general public isn’t stupid. Most people understand when a game isn’t finished. They might not know all the nuances behind what would make the game finished, but the judgement level is is certainly set lower when a potential player knows that the game in the footage isn’t finished.

But NDAs, right?

During the '80s and '90s, software was simple and quickly copied. Even now, when a game is in its early stages there is definitely good reason to close off the public access. If you’ve watched the HBO series Silicon Valley, then you can see the possible issues when other people get ahold of your software in its early stages. I’m a big proponent of copyright in the light of encouraging creative growth for inventors and artists.

However, by the time that a game is publicly being tested, then it is beyond the point where knockoffs will be created that can even come close to competing. If it were truly a big deal for there to be knockoffs then Blizzard would likely have the tightest NDA over any other gaming company in the market. But, as it stands, Blizzard lets the public take screenshots, stream, and create video off its games, even when games are in test phases.

Who does it hurt?

I’m often curious about this question myself.

I can think of maybe two groups of people who would take issue with leaked game footage with legitimate reasoning: the games press and those who make bad games.

That I’m aware of, GameSkinny nor any of the other media sites that I've worked for get exclusive rights to gaming information or footage from AAA titles that was not gathered themselves. We might get exclusive interviews or access to something demos that other outlets are not allowed to see or participate in, but there is always an element of gathering the information yourself. Some games media outlets like IGN gain exclusive access to trailers or game footage without any real footwork involved. (This isn’t to say that I don’t think IGN deserve it; I’m just saying that there is less legwork involved in their gathering of that information.) Publishers give large sites like IGN first crack at this type of information because it’s huge advertising for the game.

Imagine if the “exclusive, first-look” at some major triple-A title was pointless because some gamer gained the same footage because he released some beta footage publicly and the publisher did nothing about it. It might not mean a whole lot the first time, but after a while of similar things happening, that exclusive footage that the media gains become worth less and less because the leaked footage always gets more traffic.

Lastly, publishers who make bad games will hurt if footage leaked of just how unfinished or unpolished their games are. I think this is obvious. And the solution is obvious, too. If your game is not ready for public consumption, then don’t release it in any public fashion.

It can be debated if the Star Wars: Battlefront footage was leaked on purpose, probably for the exact reasons I listed above. Regardless, NDAs are an archaic institution because viewers are intelligent and there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Published Jul. 3rd 2015
  • Mathenaut
    Putting spoilers in a different category for narrative-heavy games, this article's premise is mostly on point.

    Leaks only really hurt when they highlight flaws or signs of lazy development.
  • Ainyan
    Correspondent
    You make the assumption that viewers are intelligent when the exact opposite has been proven over and over.

    "This game is trash!" "It's still in beta." "So? It's still trash! Look at all of the bugs!"

    If we - and I mean both gamers and developers - still treated Alpha/Beta as a time to allow a certain segment of the population to help chase down bugs and stress test code, then perhaps I could see your point. But these days, being in the Alpha or Beta is less about helping to refine the product and more about 'being able to play it first'.

    I've been in a lot of alphas and betas. I routinely get into Blizzard alphas and betas very early on, I've participated in many of the current MMO-gen's betas, and I've run a few SP/MP game alpha and betas, and I watch the community. And inevitably, the community is filled with whining about unfinished features, clunky gameplay, and bugs.

    Not commentary. Whining. I am fully cognizant of the difference between the two. Commentary is: "I've found a bug. This is how you replicate it." Whining is: "OMG I can't finish this quest because of this bug, this sucks! [Company] needs to fix this!"

    Leaks during Alpha/Beta phases do two things: One, they frequently highlight unfinished features which the bulk of the gaming community immediately use to rip the game apart and two: they highlight features which might be giving the developer pause. I can name five features from, say, the WoD beta that did not make it live because they were too difficult/cost-ineffective to balance or didn't suit the overarching flow - features, I might add, that the community later claimed were 'promised' to them and that Blizzard was 'lying' to them because these features did not make it from beta to live.

    Too many people base their decision to purchase based on the information that comes out of beta - or worse, out of alpha, when the game is still being built technically and not just tightened. Even good games can suffer from the discovery of a serious bug, or from a feature not being fully implemented, simply because the community forms its opinions from incomplete information.

    And, let's be honest, when it comes right down to it, the developers own the rights to their game. If they don't want you talking about it, then you shouldn't be talking about it. Having access to an alpha/beta doesn't give you the right to ignore the wishes of the developer just because you think it'll be good press.
  • Larry Everett
    Featured Columnist
    I submit that players who would complain about bugs in a beta or alpha build of a game wouldn't buy the game anyway or were just looking for an excuse not to buy it.

    And there is a difference between being -in- the beta and seeing beta footage. I'm not suggesting that companies just let anyone into a game's beta or alpha. But by the time there is a beta for outside the developer, NDAs need to drop.

    And you're right, if you sign an NDA you should honor it. However, I stand by my statement that leaks only hurt bad games. If it's a good game, then leaked footage isn't going to hurt it.
  • Jerome Phiffer
    I would have to agree with pretty much everything you said. The assumption of intelligence is a bad one to make on things like this. Look up any early pre-alpha or alpha news on a game and you will see the community explode over minor details that shouldn't exist at that phase due to their ease of implementation. (Rainbow Six Siege No recoil anyone?)

    On the opposite of that spectrum you have people who are under some weird delusion that games that have been cash cow early access titles (looking at you Dayz) actually have hope at being a polished game, and will fight you to the death over it. I wouldn't call Arma 2 a polished title, but if that is bar they are aiming for... mission will be accomplished, or is. Still I'll resign full judgement until it is released in 20-whenever

    In the end, devs need help during alpha and beta testing (fading line I used to know) and shouldn't have to worry about damaging controlling something that is intentionally incomplete. At this point I think NDAs are less about getting your stuff stolen, and more about not having to damage control and deal with distractions. While good press can come from leaks, good games can also get a bad rap in a time when mob hating seems to be in style.
  • David Fisher
    Featured Columnist
    While I agree that leaks don't necessarily hurt "good" games, it does hurt some games that are more plot focused or that aren't really long drawn out games at all. It can also hurt games that have content hidden in the game's story mode or multiplayer modes that developers might want to keep secret. Think of Half-Life 2 for instance. Gabe Newel pulled down the whole project after major sections of the original Half-Life 2 were leaked, and as a result we have entered an alternate timeline where the true Half-Life 2 was never released.

    I'm exaggerating, of course, but I think if something like Starfox Zero had a leak of all its features and stages I'd be stuck wondering if I'd want to buy the game at all.
  • Larry Everett
    Featured Columnist
    I guess I put story spoilers in a slightly different category, but I still don't think that it would hurt the game, if the story was strong enough. I played through BioShock Infinite knowing all the spoilers, but I still loved it. (I know that's anecdotal, but think it hold pretty true.)

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