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The Broken Age 'embargo' was a modern attempt to find meaning in rarity, and it won't be the last

Double Fine asked Kickstarter backers to hold their reviews or videos about the first part of Broken Age until January 27, when the game would be available for anyone to purchase.

This marks the rare time that players who purchased a game have been asked to abide by a press-like embargo. The directive has since been removed after the Internet as a whole failed to take it seriously, and reviews have been positive, but it’s an interesting look at how much the world has changed in 2014.

The issue of rarity

The issue is rarity, or at least the appearance of rarity. This is an aspect of gaming that has all but disappeared in the modern day; GameStop can’t really give you a guilt trip about preordering a game when ten other stores in the city have piles of copies, or you can go home and purchase it directly from the console. Your copy of Bangai-O on the N64 or Dreamcast becomes more of a curiosity than a practical item once anyone can buy the game from the Xbox Live Arcade.

Rarity, in many cases, is a thing of the past. It has never been easier, or less expensive, to play a variety of games. This includes those titles that used to require at last some eBay stalking or a lucky find at the swap meet. There are exceptions, there is still no inexpensive way to play games like Panzer Dragoon Saga or Treasure’s Game Boy Advance Astro Boy title, but they’re becoming the exception that proves the rule.

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Double Fine was trying, in some small way, to keep Broken Age rare. If you didn’t back the game, if you didn’t help plant the wheat, you don’t get to enjoy the fresh bread the moment it’s out of the oven. The people who helped the company achieve their goal are able to experience the game first.

One backer told me on Twitter how much fun he was having reading my good-natured complaints about wanting to go back in time to back the game so I could play it last week. He was enjoying the game, and the fact that in most cases the press didn’t have codes or access added to his fun. The game was rare, and he was on the inside. Value had been created by Double Fine and given to those who supported them.

This is why stories about the game that source backers-only information can draw such ire from the community: That information was supposed to be their's, it was something they paid for by backing the game and there is a sense that treating it like a press release devalues the communication with the backers. The argument is that the press needs to wait for the press release and the Kickstarter updates should be off the table when it comes to coverage. Those communications are meant to exist between the backers and the developers, not shared as part of a news story.

I could argue that this logic would never fly if we were discussing a new Activision or Ubisoft game, and it's the job of the press to report on this sort of information, especially once it becomes known to tens of thousands of people, but the negative response from some corners is strong evidence that Double Fine has created a strong bond with its fans and backers. Their relationship has changed, especially now that the company is working on multiple games that were funded by its fans.

The people on the other end of these updates are acting like a publisher, and they have a sense that these communications are, if not private, at least somewhat privileged.

Rarity as exclusion

The reality is that modern gamers seem to hate the very idea of rarity of any kind. Consider the reaction to Colin Northway’s Shader, a game that exists on a single laptop that will be modified to make sure duplication is more or less impossible. Glue may be poured into ports. WiFi and Bluetooth drivers will be removed. If the computer is destroyed, the game will be destroyed. The laptop is the game.

The headline for the story on Kotaku described it as "the rarest video game in the world."

"I see no problem in drilling the superglued screws out, cracking the netbook casing open and tearing the hard drive off," one commenter stated. "Superglue has very low shearing strength, which means that even if you can't pull two superglued things apart, if you give them a little twist, the glue gives way with virtually no damage to them." Then the game could be posted to file sharing sites.

Why would someone do this?

"To humiliate that pompous fuckwad," the commenter wrote. Many comments echoed this tone. There is a sense that any kind of rarity, that the act of keeping a game from players in any way, is an attack. The response from some gamers borders on violent.

You also see this when a game becomes exclusive to a console or platform. Not bringing an iOS game to Android? The developer is lazy and doesn’t like money. A game has been signed to one console exclusively? They sold out, they’re leaving money on the table, and gamers will never support them again.

The business of exclusives, and the reasons for developers to make their games exclusive, could fill a book. Releasing a game exclusively for this platform or that system often allows a game to exist at all, much less turn a profit. But there is a vocal number of gamers who react to the very idea of exclusives as a negative act aimed at players, as if the gaming industry sat down and decided to avoid profits in favor of exclusionary acts.

This is also accepting the massive assumption that exclusives make less money than multiplatform titles, which is a horrendously complicated and controversial claim.

Others are saddened by the loss of rarity. I’ve heard people argue that Nidhogg has become something a little less special now that you can buy it on Steam; the game has long enjoyed cult status at industry parties and indie game showcases. If you’ve played it in the past it means you know someone, you have access, you were there before it was "cool," or at least while it was cool. The masses can now buy the game, and the back-alley lean-to aspect of its past success has been removed.

There is a sense that any kind of rarity, that the act of keeping a game from players in any way, is an attack.

Good. It’s an amazing game, it deserves to be played by a wide audience, and the final release is better due to those years of play testing by other developers and industry folk. The time for rarity, in this case at least, is over.

But there is nothing wrong with trying to keep the rewards for backing your game special, even if those efforts will likely be futile. The developer who wants to create a single copy of his or her own game may be slightly pretentious, but playing that game becomes an event. You’ve touched something special and unique. That mint copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga means something to the collectors who take it out with white gloves to play on an immaculately maintained Sega Saturn.

Would that feeling change if Saga was released on Steam for $10? Would those backers of Broken Age be less willing to back the next game if updates were also e-mailed to the press? There is a certain privilege associated with the willful preservation of rarity: You are deciding, for better or worse, who will or will not play your game. The audience may not like where you draw those lines, and they are willing to push back.

The search for value or meaning in rarity is still going on, and Double Fine is in a unique place to set the ton for what comes next. The good news is that they're learning, and the industry will benefit from these early experiments.