The Secret

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?”

Comments

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.

Nice.

If they'd said that the change in Steam distribution was a spoiler, there are some people on this site who would flay everyone at Polygon for revealing spoilers.

Remember those full page Nintendo Power spreads where they used to lay out complete levels including enemy locations and secret doors?

SPOILER ALERT

My guess is that they were just engaged in a fairly ham-handed version of the communication-management process that I find myself employing at work. That is to say, I often share information and ask someone not to share it more widely until I've had a chance to speak to so and so and meet with that other department to have a discussion. It isn't a "secret" per se, but it is useful to avoid the confusion & distraction that can result from a message being released into the wild before the affected parties have all had a chance to get up to speed.

Elysium wrote:

Why the hell was this a secret in the first place?

I wouldn't call it a secret. I would say that it's just DF giving their backers a heads-up the day before they planned to send out the press release, and asking backers not to publicly talk about it before said press release was sent.

They did the same thing for the reveal of some of the voice actors, e.g. sent backers an update to tell them about it the day before the news was made public and, again, asked us not to publicly talk about it until they broke the news. Which you probably would have known if not for...

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.

Some of it could also be corporate politics, I think. If you are releasing this information to several press outlets but, say, IGN is supposed to have the first chance to break the news or something, then when some snot-nosed backer spills the beans (or in this case, a competing press outlet) then someone is going to be unhappy.

That's just guesswork, though. More guesswork, it's essentially making sure the information is delivered in clear and full detail as opposed to someone tweeting it in just 140 characters or less and the rumor mill spreading from there.

There's also the other side of this coin - in that same message, they also asked the press to hold an embargo of Jan 27th for reviews.

The next day, they recanted on the embargo, but still ask that spoilers be treated as such, especially in reviews.

It reminds me a bit of "lets have a meeting to talk about a meeting", but as a backer I did appreciate the heads-up that a message was coming out the next day. Why they didn't just hold a day, have the press release hit the wire, and send the backer update at the same time - I've got no clue.

The more you guys discuss Broken Age, the more I think you can't see the forest for the trees.

I agree with Elysium's comments on the forest, and I don't have anything to say about that. I just wanted to express my thoughts on the tree that sparked his post.

giggle... Till Tuesday.

garion333 wrote:
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.

Nice.

Heh, "dank" cave.

ranalin wrote:

giggle... Till Tuesday.

Right? And with the image for the article. *insert Orson Welles clapping gif*

Do you know a little German?

LiquidMantis wrote:
garion333 wrote:
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.

Nice.

Heh, "dank" cave.

It's the little things that I enjoy when I write.

The real losers here are KS backers; when companies think it would be nice to share an update to their backers but refrain from doing so because they expect it will go public by doing so, that will be to avoid being Polygoned.

Keithustus wrote:

The real losers here are KS backers; when companies think it would be nice to share an update to their backers but refrain from doing so because they expect it will go public by doing so, that will be to avoid being Polygoned.

I do agree that Polygon should have waited ONE DAY and put out their release when the official presser hit the wire - they could have had it typed up and ready to go thanks to having at least one backer on the writing staff.

But at the same time, if that's the way that DF wanted to play this out, the time to start setting that expectation isn't in the "hey guys, we're announcing the start of the release tomorrow" update.

I think DF was aware of the headache inducing secrecy. You can tell they had learned their lesson when they went with a different policy for massive chalice, no private backer forum and public development updates.

To the question, "Why the hell was this a secret in the first place?", I'd point to some extent to the whiny forum drama posts that would show up on the DF backer forums any time they updated the press before giving the backers a heads up. An early poll following the campaign asked the backers whether to keep the forums private or not, to which a majority said yes, therefore urging DF to keep its promise and entertain the private club.

Therefore yes, in this unhealthy relationship, the gamers have a share of the responsibility.

McIrishJihad wrote:

Why they didn't just hold a day, have the press release hit the wire, and send the backer update at the same time - I've got no clue.

This. Wanna know the best way to spread a message? Tell a whole bunch of people individually, but ask them not to tell anybody else.

Since the backers are acting as publishers, I think it makes sense for Double Fine to treat them with the sort of respect that they would treat a publishing partner. I would also suppose that for a good portion of backers, it felt really nice to be on the inside of the process. That good feeling is what will get folks back to the crowd-funding table the next time DF wants to develop a KickStarter funded game.

I suspect that Sean is correct that Double Fine doesn't care that the info got leaked. As long as the backers feel like DF is treating the financiers of the game with the respect that is due to them, Tim S. is happy.

my quick response to this is: "BLAME CHRIS REMO"

But in all seriousness, this is mostly in response to the mini uproar among the backers when they didn't get the news directly from doublefine first. In the beginning stages of production, several backers received news from either Kotaku or other game news sites before their kickstarter update. If i remember correctly, this was during the title announcement of "Broken Age" at an event, and this was done without any backer's prior knowledge of the name.

Us backers were peeved from not being the first to know, and proceeded to complain at the message boards. So, now whenever there are major announcements, they would send out a backers only email announcing it and asking backers to stay quiet until the official announcement. So this isn't really about a company's obsession for secrecy, but about gamer's sense of entitlement (which is a whole other can of worms).

All I can think of when I see that image is "Yeah, why won't New Glarus just ship their beer outside the state?"