We currently live in an era known as the information age, a time of increasingly intense connectivity from which the game industry is not exempt. Leaks have always been a problem with videogames and gaming news, but they now occur, largely as a result of the internet, at an alarmingly frequent rate. They can reveal things as minor as a new character in Mortal Kombat X or as big and news-worthy as the next Halo game. For someone who likes keeping up to date with all things gaming, I lap up gaming leaks with no sense of caution whatsoever, but are they really a good thing for the industry as a whole?
Whether you personally enjoy a good leak or not really depends on how much you like surprises. I know people who will constantly avoid any gaming news that has been leaked because they would prefer to be taken in by the official reveal rather than a pixelated twitter picture. But others, like myself, like to know all they can about a game before its release, regardless of how that information has been officially disseminated.
However, some leaks can be disastrously spoiler-ific, which can not only ruin the surprise for many who hate spoilers, but also thwarts the developers’ or publishers’ plans for how they were going to present their game leading up to its release. The recent Super Smash Bros leaks which revealed the remaining character roster basically ruined the suspense and impact of the high-polished trailers that Nintendo were gradually trickling out for each character. Leaks can also be misrepresentative of the truth or even factually wrong, yet their effect can still be just as damaging by ruining gamers perception of a game, which is particularly unfair for the game’s reputation.
Case study time; in 2004, Alex Gembe hacked into the valve corporation network and leaked the Half-Life 2 source code online, which allowed those who dared to actually play parts of the game itself. This was at a time in which hardly any information had been officially revealed for the game by Valve, who are notoriously secretive about such things. It caused over $250 million in damages and was considered as theft of the video game itself (Gembe eventually served 2 years in prison for this). The consequences of this leak caused huge setbacks and public embarrassments for Valve; most notably by revealing that the studio were much further behind in their development of the game than Gabe Newell had publicly let on. The whole ordeal was a messy, confrontational affair. However, Half-Life 2 still went on to sell 8.6 million copies on release, so the impact of the leak seems to have been, at least in a commercial sense, minimal. On the whole though, this example of one of the biggest video game leaks in history does reflect the fact that the process of leaks, at the very least, is a pretty negative aspect of the industry at large.
Some games, like Metal Gear Solid 2, completely relied on the fact that people didn’t actually know what they were in for when they bought the game. Other games have shocking twists that need that surprise factor to be fully effective, which would be lost if details of the plot were leaked before release. It should be noted that whistleblowers often leak information to get some sort of revenge at the game developers or publishers for whatever reason (often it’s an ex-employee who had an uneasy relationship with his associates), which shows that the leakers themselves see leaks as a bad thing.
Then there’s also the theory that companies leak information on purpose. This may seem weird, but leaks often generate more attention than your average reveal as they are associated with secrecy and mystery. Companies thus capitalise on this reality to enshrine their unofficially announced information in a new level of hype. Sony have been notoriously accused of doing this, with both reveals for their hardware (such as the PSP GO) and first party video games (The Last Guardian, anyone?). It certainly comes across as pretty manipulative and even further highlights the fact that we should intake all leaked information with a grain of salt and a healthy dose of cynicism.
So, to conclude, what to make of this increasingly “leaky” environment does to an extent depend on the eye of the beholder, but this trajectory where leaks are becoming more and more frequent is perhaps worrying. Imagine an E3 where every game announced is already known about; there are no special surprises, no unturned leaves, no “woah” moments. Instead E3 becomes an event which regurgitates what we already know, rather than one which reveals what we didn’t. The information age which I referred to earlier may result in a future in which nothing is left in the dark, which might become just a little bit boring. Leaks might be nice for a juicy insight into that video game you’ve been waiting to hear news from, but in the long-run they are almost undoubtedly an unhealthy phenomena that disadvantages both consumers and producers in the game industry.