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Gaming To Hell In A Handbasket

The trials, tribulations and musings of an MMO veteran trying to find the next holy grail.

Author: Strayfe

Dev Chats, NDAs and Secrecy: Why?

Posted by Strayfe Tuesday December 4 2007 at 1:02PM
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From time to time I like to sit in on various Dev chats just to keep abreast of what's happening in the wide world of game development.  I think, in theory, it's a really good idea to foster a solid community with your playerbase, as opposed to remaining that distant and aloof entity responsible for game changes.  Often times people forget that there's a person, or a whole team of people who are responsible for that recent class nerf, or that new endgame raid, or those new abilities.  Reminding your player base of this fact contributes positively to the gaming environment.

However, having said that, I have to wonder about the recent effectiveness of this strategy.  It seems to me that, as a developer, if you're going to voluntarily offer to field questions from the community, you have to be ready to answer them.  Having sat in on the LOTRO Dev chat yesterday, I watched the whole thing with a mixture of amusement and incredulity.

It was like watching the recent Republican primary debate.  A heavily moderated environment with carefully selected, unsurprising questions, which had already been addressed in the last chat.  The Devs had legitimate answers for, at most, 3-4 of them.  The rest of them were ignored, deflected, or evaded as skillfully as any Capitol Hill veteran could hope for.

But why?

"Here we are, we're taking an hour to answer questions that we've already covered.  Don't ask anything else, though.  We're running out of one-liners."

At first, the reasoning behind this may elude you, but if you stop to think about it, it's really quite basic.  There are only a couple motives behind refusing to offer information, and those are fear and control.

Of what?  

Well, it's the same reasons NDAs exist.  It's the same reasons that, for many game developers, the features in that upcoming expansion are as closely guarded as Area 51.  One can imagine a few possibilities, but the main ones that spring to mind are rather disquieting for those who choose to read into it.

Are they afraid to tell us what they're working on because they don't have confidence in their vision?  Because they don't have confidence in their ability to implement these features in a timely manner?  Because they don't have confidence in the features themselves?  Do they think someone is going to steal their revolutionary idea?

All of that is part of it, of course.  But those are all symptoms of the larger virus:  Accountability.

Game developers do not want to be accountable to their subscribers. 

If they tell players that they're going to implement X, but for some reason, perhaps hardware limitations, they are unable to implement X, and instead they implement Y, the player base has a collective meltdown because they were all expecting X.  They head out onto forums and proclaim their displeasure with the "lying, manipulative game devs".  Eventually, word of mouth spreads, old subscribers cancel, and new gamers are reluctant to subscribe because of said company's reputation as liars.

This is pretty much why NDAs exist as well.  Games in beta do not want their beta testers heading out on forums and running down a list of gameplay features, mechanics and videos showcasing the game, because that would make the developers accountable for that content.  When the game goes live, people would expect to see the same things they saw in the videos, the same features that they were told would be there.  It would get the ball rolling too soon.  It would put them out there for criticism.

By enforcing absolute secrecy about the new game, or new patch, or new content, or new expansion, game developers can then easily fool the sheeple with clever ad campaigns, double talk, propaganda, legalese, and other intricately contrived crap designed to get Joe Gamer to drop down his money before he realizes that Feature X is watered down and Feature Y is nothing more than a copy of Feature Z from that other game.  Hell, Feature X may not even be implemented on initial release.

It would prevent people who don't like features X or Y from buying the game.  So, there you go.  When all is said and done, the god damned dollar is responsible for more semantic nonsense. 

Not all companies do this.  Square-Enix is very good about releasing information in advance of release and sticking to it.  Yet, so many companies are dreadfully afraid of being accountable for the garbage they crap out.  So much in fact, that they're willing to pull out all the legal stops to avoid the spotlight.

Darkfall listed all of their proposed features from the beginning.  What they intend to do is well known in the MMO community.  Whether or not they'll stick to it, and have everything they said they would on release... who knows. 

But I can tell you this. 

It's better to set high goals and fall short than it is to hide your goals and brag to people that you've met them.