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Columns: Necessary Disclosure Agreement

By Tim Eisen on February 07, 2017

Necessary Disclosure Agreement

While discussing Camelot Unchained over a pint with a friend (they all know you don’t have friends) an inquiry arose, why does Camelot Unchained still have a non-disclosure agreement? What are they hiding? What don’t they want us to know? I like a good conspiracy as much as the next guy (Earth is round…but the universe is flat!) but I don’t think the NDA is for any nefarious reason. That said, why have an NDA at all?


Let’s start with the kind gamers know. To get into testing you often agree to an NDA. In case you are unaware it’s that thing many of us scroll down and agree to ASAP without reading. (At least I assume that is what the pop up is, I can’t say for sure since I’ve never read it…) It’s a wall of text that basically says to STFU about everything beyond this point. It says you can’t talk about, record, screen shot or stream what you see in testing. For people that have never seen one it’s like the angry cousin of the end user access and license agreement aka EUALA you speed scroll down and agree to before logging into a game. That is the kind we know but businesses have been using NDAs forever.

The business NDA keeps employees from sharing secrets with competitors or giving our vital information about a business and its projects. In a competitive industry secrets are guarded with great vigilance and sought with great desire. Gaming can be a ruthless industry. NDA’s are used to help guard the chest of information.

Not all NDA’s are created equal. Like the terms alpha, beta and launch NDA’s are unique to the company that creates them. They are as specific to the needs of a studio as the games they are making with one rule anchoring them; the first rule of dev club is no one talks about dev club.

Other than competition why maintain such secrecy? What is the worst that could happen? I recall mass concern over the size of light sabers in the very first SWTOR screen shot, not to mention the serious lack of appropriate Jedi garb! I’ll go further back to my beloved Star Wars Galaxies. (He can’t do a column without dropping that old ghosts name.) One of the first screen shots for Galaxies featured graphics that were better than the ones we got by launch and, worse yet, they featured an arm tattoo that didn’t make it to launch either!

Nowadays those tiny concerns can snowball into viral campaigns, gank reputations, crit marketing and take away from a game’s launch mystique. By mystique I mean the mystique of the unknown. You only get one launch day where the power of the unknown can reel players into trying the game. (You would know, you’ve lost a lot of green on pretty boxes that were empty.) The NDA helps preserve the unknown appeal. In the spoilers era that isn’t as easy as it used to be.

There is a reason every new image or video comes with a developer pleading with us to keep in mind this is development so things can and will likely change, not that it does any good. The very nature of a crowd funded MMORPG conflicts with how these games had been developed up until this point. It’s tricky, fans demand visuals yet take them as the final ruling. Complicating this some companies seem happy to misguide with marketing while others strive to tamper expectations and keep things on par with what is being developed. It’s such a problem that many companies opt for CG trailers and avoid showing any early gameplay altogether. (That and they love making things look more epic than they are.) Crowd funded games are not afforded that convenience nor should they be.

In 2017 do NDAs still work? Yes and no. Looking around the social internet and considering the convolution of pay to test games I’d guess they increasingly do not. Not because people aren’t cooperating but because so many games let players in at all stages of development all with their own NDA’s or complete lack of. Players have a hard-enough time keeping what Alpha or Beta means to each studio let alone if they can talk about it or not.

The fact that people pay to test also makes them less willing to keep quiet, especially if the experience is bad. “Buyer beware, the light sabers in this game are too big and they don’t even have arm tattoos.” We all know dissenting voices ring the loudest and happy people tend to keep quiet. Further paying changes the scenario. What was once a secret privilege earned with dedication has now become another toy to play with then toss into the pile.

So why bother with an NDA? I suppose it comes down to a leak vs a flood and timing. More and more companies are skipping them to maximize streaming (aka free marketing) or removing them after a certain point in development whereas as old games maintained them until open beta or even launch. Do I like NDA’s? As a fan, no. I’m not defending them, I’m just showing they exist for a variety of legitimate reasons beyond devs trying to hide dire things from fans. I’d love to see them go away but if I ran a studio and my financial security was an oversized lightsaber scare away from being harmed I’m not sure I would feel the same way. 

Tim Eisen / In my columns I walk the line between fan and critic as I document the development of Camelot Unchained, Crowfall, and Chronicles of Elyria.