On January 13th, I got an email from Double Fine updating me on the impending release of Broken Age. As a backer of the project, I’ve been getting these emails for a while. If I’m honest, I’ve read maybe half of them. Did I say read? I meant scanned. This email, however, contained a small note that frankly I’d have never noticed if not for some other events. The content was this:
You may recall that at one point Broken Age was planned for release under the Steam Early Access program. This is no longer the case. For various logistical reasons, and because we believe Act 1 is a polished and satisfying piece of content in its own right, Broken Age will be a standard Steam release that includes a “Season Pass” granting access to Act 2 once it is complete.
Ok, well that seems completely reasonable. Also, how cool is it that this project, which arguably is as important for being the dawn of game funding through Kickstarter, is to a point where it’s as high a quality as any standard release? Answer: It’s very cool.
Then there was this bit:
This is something that will also be covered in the press release tomorrow, so please refrain from spreading the news now so all details can be shared together.
Later that day, a story appeared on Polygon revealing this super-secret insider information. The brief news article, which can be found here was factually accurate, but definitely did not fit with the spirit of, “Hush, hush! Keep it down now; voices carry.” Now, we could probably get into a discussion at this point about the role of the games press and whether the press should respect the wishes of publishers and developers' when it comes to the release of supposedly secret or sensitive information. But I think there’s something else we should be asking.
Why the hell was this a secret in the first place?
Look, I think this particular instance was a tempest in a teapot, and my guess is that Double Fine is probably just as surprised as anyone else this became a big deal to anyone. I envision in my head an intern at Double Fine running breathlessly through the studio, and in a moment of panic dashing straight into Tim Schafer’s office. “Mr. Schafer,” he grunts, gasping for air. “Polygon leaked it! Those bastards, they told everyone! They printed the story that we’re a standard Steam release with a season pass! What do we DO?!”
In this daydream, Tim looks up from his Judas Priest album liner notes, or issue of Guns N Ammo, or hardcore Hentai — look, how the hell do I know what Schafer reads? — and shrugs dismissively, because, like a sane person, he realizes (hopefully) that it doesn’t matter pretty much at all when or how people receive that information. That’s how I like to imagine it, because I like to imagine that Tim’s a cool guy. Maybe he stormed around his office kicking over trashcans and firing interns just so he could reassert his dominance in the world, but I hope not.
The point is this. The games industry has become overly-secretive. No, let me revise: It has become stupidly, impossibly, pointlessly, comically, overly secretive. It’s like the whole industry has taken a gigantic hit of some paranoia-inducing narcotic, and now huddles over its artificially prized possessions like Gollum in his dank cave.
I understand how older media industries like music, television and movies have struggled to embrace the socialization and freedom of information common now to our hedonistic age, and seeks to criminalize any action by a consumer that deviates from their carefully honed business strategies. Honestly, they must ask, do people not know how long those executives worked to put together those Power Points? The idea of power derived from controlling the message is far from a new one, and wherever there is that kind of malleable power, there is money to be made from that. But I can’t help but be disappointed that, as the central systems of the games industry grow, its natural response is to mimic the robber-barons of old media and tighten its grip on the largely meaningless information it has at its disposal.
Maybe it’s unfair to call it meaningless information, because as long as there are people who are willing, consciously or otherwise, to be manipulated by the control of that information, then it can’t be entirely pointless. Neither am I trying to say there shouldn’t be public-relations and marketing in the games industry, but it does seem to me that we’ve moved, as we have in so many ways, out of the realm of reasonable and into crazytown, where every nugget of information is funneled through strict channels with dire repercussions for those who go off message. To look at the security and the retribution on those who transgress, you’d be within your rights to think that the name of the next Call of Duty is a secret on which the fortunes of nations balance.
Look, this isn’t all on the industry, either. Gamers don’t exactly have the best reputation for not suddenly and unpredictably choosing to act like hyperactive baboons imbued with the power to Tweet over the strangest segment or tidbit of information. The desire to be shocked and surprised by every kernel of entertainment has almost become addictive, and we have been equipped and empowered to speculate for days, weeks, months over whether some game will be released on some specific day for some specific platform.
After all, some only-mildly-disturbed marketer could make the argument that without proper messaging -- and let me take this moment to hold a moment of silence for the noun "message" which, like so many before, has been infected with the dreadful illness Verbus Unnecessarius -- who knows how gamers will react to this seeming innocuous revelation that Broken Age is coming to regular Steam. Certainly gamer over-reaction has caught these poor people off guard more than once, though, again, I’d argue that’s because, at least in part, of the sensationalization these self-same marketers apply to the most mundane information.
It’s this weird kind of codependence: the industry acting as the manipulator and we gamers the unstable receiver, trapped by our own mania in this sometimes unhealthy relationship.
I suppose that’s a pretty cynical way of looking at things, and deep down I know that cynicism comes from the place in my mind where I have to come to terms with the fact that I’m as guilty as anyone else perpetuating the issue. Still, sometimes even I have a moment of clarity and look at some of these thin slices of information delivered unto us and for which we’re expected to be grateful and beguiled, and I have to ask to whoever might listen, “Really? This is what we’re doing now?”