Assessing The Impact Of Leaks In The Games Industry

Earlier today a data dump of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia was leaked, with information from the Japanese game files (presumably a ROM) slowly making its way online via Reddit and enthusiast forums shortly thereafter. It’s no secret that game information, often for blockbuster or highly anticipated releases, leaks fairly regularly compared to other other mediums due to the digital nature of video games. On one hand, leaks of content and pre-release information are very common. On the other hand, strategic or “righteous” leaks, as seen in politics and other segments of the entertainment industry, seem less common in video games.
 
For the sake of convenience, I’ve broken down the various styles of gaming leaks into three categories. What’s your take on leaks in gaming? Maybe you feel there ought to be more, or perhaps your belief is that leaks ruin the fun and cause too many spoilers. Does somebody out there need to create a Wikileaks of gaming? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section.
 
Completely Unintentional Leaks
 
This sort of leak was not planned by anyone, likely serves little strategic benefit to the publishers or companies involved, yet was likely not intended to harm said entities either. Instead, it is merely the result of excited, passionate, sometimes rabid fans doing everything and anything to get their hands on game information ahead of release. Similarly, leaks regarding games that were never released can also fall into this category.


 
Recent examples are this morning’s Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia leaks, as well as leaked maps from an unreleased Half-Life 2 episode. In each case, there would be little reason for the involved publisher to strategically leak the information; instead it simply found its way out of the bag, so to speak, and enthusiasts (as they always do) lapped it up and disseminated it. For Fire Emblem in particular, it’s hard to imagine Nintendo wanting spoilers, spreadsheet-style strategic gameplay information, and high-res character art and assets floating around the internet before Shadows of Valentia is even available.
 
Leak assessment: Harmless and fun for gamers (just avoid spoilers), mild annoyance for publishers.
 
Strategic Leaks
 
With strategic leaks, the implication is that a game’s developer or publisher purposely let information out, either in coordination with publishers or by taking directly to forums or Reddit, in order to gain publicity or some other benefit. Of course, there’s little moral dilemma in doing this, as it’s still fun for gamers, and also tends to solve the spoiler problem that entirely unplanned leaks are generally prone to.


 
Though I don’t know that there’s hard proof, consider Rockstar Games. Without fail, every single title Rockstar develops has its open-world map leaked ahead of release. Is it very likely that Rockstar is so inept at keeping a lid on things time and time again? My guess is no. Instead, it seems feasible that Rockstar wants such information getting out at a particular time, and takes no issue in simply “allowing” it to happen. In concept it’s merely a cleverly cloaked marketing approach that all involved tend to enjoy, and in fact has already occurred for Red Dead Redemption 2. Undoubtedly there are other publishers spurring similar leaks, albeit perhaps less easy to spot. The Rockstar example is purely conjecture, but there's little doubt this occurs in general.
 
Leak assessment: Fun for gamers, beneficial for publishers. Usually no spoilers involved.
 
Damaging Leaks
 
Leaks of this variety are less common in the gaming industry, but certainly do happen. As has been demonstrated by recent events in politics and elsewhere, leaks are often one of the beast means of holding power accountable. For gaming, this usually boils down to exposing publishers offering payment in exchange for positive critical reviews or coverage.

Recent examples include engagements by Warner Bros. and Microsoft, regarding Shadow of Mordor and the Xbox One respectively. In Warner Bros. case, though its actions were not technically illegal, the ethics breach when it came to proper disclosure of the sponsorship (or lack thereof) was enough to incite a formal FTC complaint (PDF here). While not necessarily a leak in the traditional, “released to the public” sense, its clear the FTC was privy to true information regarding what transpired.
 
With Microsoft, the waters became muddied when the company claimed that it was primarily content partner Machinima who inserted the clauses regarded as nefarious, essentially offering bonus CPM cash to YouTubers presenting the Xbox One in a positive light. Still, much of the reporting on the subject held Microsoft accountable (despite later updates), and importantly, reminded the gaming public that these things do in fact happen.
 
Leak Assessment: Good for gamers (exposes dishonesty), bad for publishers (busted!). However, it is good for publishers in the long run, as they are forced to be more transparent.