Transparency: Leaks only hurt bad games
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.
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.
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.