"Developers don't need to be so secretive," is a statement you often hear from players and fans. "There's no reason to keep so much information from us."
It's a common claim, and a post up on the Ask a Game Dev blog addresses it directly in a recent post. The problem isn't that the game industry is too secretive at all. There are many ways developers share information with each other, and "secrets" aren't hard to come by if you buy someone a drink at E3 and utter the words "off the record," the problem is that it's hard for developers to get that same information to the fans or the press in a way that benefits them or the game.
So why do these secrets exist?
One of the problems is that every story, every analysis piece like this one, and every tweet is considered marketing. And marketing is there to sell the game.
"The marketing department is to get as many people as they can interested in the game at the time it is released, but the public can also get turned off if they get an information overload," the post states. "If the interest in the game peaks too early, that translates directly to lost sales."
This is why fighting games reveal one character or background at a time. This is why a team will hide significant features until right before the game launches.
"Individual marketing teams will have varying responses to how to market their product, but the goal and means are generally the same — they need a steady drip of information to maintain interest in the product, plus they need something big and splashy for the various big press events like E3, Gamescom, TGS, PAX, etc."
It's not just about getting people talking, it's about making a game impossible to miss when big news is released, and it's about timing those moments in such a way that it helps preorders or sales.
If a detail about a game is news, then they want to control where and how that news hits. It's not optimal for the press, who have to work inside what can often be a tightly-controlled system of information and reveals, but when a company puts up tens of millions of dollars to create a game they want to make sure every effort is made to sell as many copies of possible.
This is why the Chris Pranger case is so baffling to most people who work in PR: You have someone who wasn't authorized to talk to the press making statements about the possible sell-through of games that may or may not coming to different markets.
Suddenly these games were in the news due to a Nintendo employee saying their audiences were too small. Does that help Nintendo, or could that potentially hurt the company? It's not surprising that he was fired, it was surprising that such a basic breach of common sense on his part became news.
It's helpful to stop thinking about these details as "secrets," and begin to think of them as marketing assets. The companies involved want to use each one as well as possible to increase sales. That's not great news for the press or the fans — people who want to know as much as they can as early as they can, in other words — but it's very understandable from a business perspective.
If you didn't know about it, it wasn't cut
While players and fans may think that someone sits down with a plan for a game and that plan is executed, the often terrifying reality is that game development, even big-name game development from veteran teams, is often more like trying to put out 100 fires with two or three watering cans.
It's often a chaotic, time-constricted process where you may not know what features, levels or even characters will be in the final game until months, maybe weeks before launch. So talking about any of it is incredibly risky. Imagine if a fan-favorite in previews was dumped five weeks before a game is supposed to ship?
"A lot of things get cut during development. Sometimes it’s for technical limitations, sometimes it’s for budget limitations, sometimes it’s for licensing, most of the time it’s for scope and schedule," the post said. All the emphasis in these quotes are from the original post. "Just look at the response to Mass Effect 3′s ending — angry fans the world over broke out the torches and pitchforks because they were promised 16 different endings, despite the fact that nobody from Bioware had actually explicitly mentioned the number of endings anywhere."
The author goes into more detail about this problem, and it's worth reading. Again, all emphasis and formatting from the original:
The hard core fans especially will take what the developers say as a promise, and we simply can’t make promises during development because features get cut all the time. This ends up becoming something of an arms race, because we have to watch what we say in public venues very carefully in order to avoid making promises. This causes the hard core fans to read over exactly what words were used and becoming forum lawyers, saying that since we didn’t EXPLICITLY SAY that we were doing feature A, that means we’re NEVER EVER GOING TO DO feature A and the game is doomed, and so on and so forth. Or they’ll call us liars or won’t believe us because we SAID we’d do feature B and we didn’t, and so we can never be trusted and we are the worst developers EVER and the game is doomed and so on and so forth.
So if you're curious about why something wasn't discussed during its development, be aware that it could be due to the fact the developer wasn't even sure it was going to work, much less survive to make it into the final version of the game. If it's never discussed, it's never officially "cut," which means you get to avoid stories about last-minute scrambles or troubled development. If something is brought up to the press and fans, someone in the company made damned sure that something would be in the actual game they would be playing, and it can take a long time for that call to come through.
It comes down to empathy
I'm not saying that all marketing is good, or that these strategies aren't sometimes abused. They aren't and they sometimes are. But when you consider that the goal with most games is to sell enough copies to keep your job and fund the next game you begin to see the stakes involved. Marketing and controlling the message is important when you look at it from point of view of someone with so much skin in the game.
"A lot of things get cut during development"
There are secrets that are bad. Shooting live-action trailers to hide the actual visuals of the game. Showing early scenes that aren't indicative of the final product once you know you won't be able to reach the target. Those are actively hurtful to the audience, but the instances in which that happens is dwarfed by the number of times developers and publishers are simply practicing what they consider to be the best marketing for the game based on content they hope is going to make it into the game.
The rest of the post is just as interesting, and you can begin to look at decisions games have made through a better lens once you really take in what he's trying to say. The vast majority of developers aren't trying to hide things from you because they're evil, they're trying to survive because they like making games. It doesn't always work out, but the industry also isn't keeping secrets just to keep secrets.
Any creative medium where big money is at stake and decisions are constantly in flux struggles with the same level of secrecy and fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
The game industry may seem too secretive to us, but we're just trying to decide where to spend our $60 or less and a few hours. The developer and publisher are looking at a situation that cost them a huge amount of money, that is always in flux, and they're trying to find the best way to sell a product they hope is good by the time it launches. If you take nothing else away from the post, just be aware that there are reasons for these decisions. It's not arbitrary, and it's not always aimed at hurting the player.
It's no wonder the best place for transparency is in Kickstarted projects. After all, in that situation they're using your money.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the blog post to Mike Laidlaw, who had tweeted the link.