Hype is cheap, reliable, self-perpetuating and most importantly, has a very generous gap between risk and reward. But why is the video game industry becoming so fond of the practice? Well, hold on to your posterior, as we dive into the swamp of mildly substantiated clarification.
Yesterday Runescape's community manager Mod Shauny accidentally leaked whatever project "Next Gen" is for Jagex, the game's developer and publisher. In the final minutes of a livestream, Shauny sorta-kinda pressed the wrong button and displayed a cryptic image with a logo and the words "Next Gen" on his screen, got up and started lamenting how he will loose his job with his co-host trying to calm him down about the whole matter. The video of the short incident is just above, so you can have a look for yourself. You can also take a short tour of the video's comment section, where the discussion whether this is an intentional leak or not is already in full swing.
The video game industry is slipping into the bad habit of producing 'leaks' in place of announcements. There is a lot of examples of this in recent memory. A picture of a Call of Duty poster was circling the internet for a while before Activision confirmed that the next series instalment is going back to World War II. And why not?
A plain old announcement is straight-forward and boring. Faced with the choice between just announcing a title and doing a partially undressed pole dance instead, doing the later, leak-shaped thing is really a no-brainer. An announcement might get some people talking, but a leak is sure to get them wondering and speculating, because it's a mystery, despite the only mysterious thing about it being the question when any given publisher will muster up the courage and come forward with what their next game will be.
An intentional design flaw of any hype-train is that it famously comes without any breaks installed. As No Man's Sky demonstrated, hype can be exquisitely profitable. Hello Games might care about the damage to their reputation, but Sony got away from the whole matter with several large bags full of money and barely a scratch to their image. The clear lesson, learned through cold hard currency, is that you can hype a game as much as you want, as long as you make sure there are no negative consequences for your company, customers be damned.
The old school way of pulling these tricks was through good old rumours, but these can be tricky, as they can backfire. It is best to make sure there is some substance behind that idle chatter, maybe a screenshot, or a blurry photo of a promotional poster or computer screen from some office somewhere. This takes a bit of speculation out of the whole affair, while at the same time providing something tangible that can ease the hype into the right direction. A rumour is just people talking. Anchoring that same rumour in reality with a healthy dose of pre-order information will make sure whatever consumer you are targeting won't just dismiss it as idle speculation.
Aspiring marketing experts have little to loose with this approach. Is your leak not proceeding in the planed direction? Is it generating too much bad publicity? Well, there is always the option of coming clean and actually disclosing some honest information about your game, relieving tension or concerns your potential customers might have. Not only does this make you look like the victim of those ne'er do well internet tricksters leaking your highly classified, extremely secure and sensitive information, but it also reinforces the idea that there is some conflict on display.
That imaginary war is between a publisher desperately trying to keep its' secrets safe, and a careless or disgruntled employee somewhere, causing harm to your business. Alternatively, it paints a picture of a heroic hacker, hammering away at his keyboard in some dark basement, providing gamers everywhere with the information they so desperately crave. Depending on your perspective, the story pretty much writes itself.
The press will run with it. On a slow day, a blogger or even a professional journalist will praise the heavens for providing him with something to write about, even if it's obviously a carefully crafted teaser. AltChar and myself are just as guilty of this as anyone else, but at least we try to hang a massive lantern on such instances. Sure, we report, but we make sure we voice our suspicions in the most sarcastic and mean spirited manner possible. We do this in the hope of not fuelling the hype-train any further, because at the end of the day, the discerning consumer won't be getting anything out of the leak, except maybe for a cheap, short-lived and premature thrill.
"But Telxvi, you paragon of journalistic virtue and integrity," I can hear you shouting in unison, "What proof do you have of these bold claims?" Absolutely none I'm afraid. Not until someone leaks an internal memo from some AAA marketing department, declaring that it is time for another leak, and I can't see that kind of leak happening any time soon. The beauty of the scheme is that it is quite impossible to prove, as the leaks are usually presented as malicious or accidental. Who would doubt the word of a corporation worth millions of moneyz when they say that a leak was beyond their ability to prevent? Well, Telxvi would - but he still can't prove a damn thing.
This leakage business still works like a charm, and there isn't any real downside to it. It helps stir up publicity and any potentially negative effects can be shrugged of as minor in comparison. The only way this will stop is some imaginary boy-who-cried-wolf scenario, or gamers becoming desensitised to leaks over time. Neither of those two are likely to happen in the near future.