This Is What Happens When a Video Game Leaks
In late 2010, a video surfaced online of the purported ending cinematic from the second chapter of Blizzard’s StarCraft II trilogy, Heart of the Swarm. The clip oscillated between rickety undercooked cutscenes and black-and-white storyboarding, but it was enough to tip off a whole nation of StarCraft disciples to a lore ultimatum that wouldn’t be officially released for another three years. Sam, an artist at Blizzard who worked on Heart of the Swarm and asks to remain anonymous, remembers that day well. There’s nothing grimmer than a development studio office that’s just suffered a major breach of trust.
“We were like, ‘How did this happen?’ We were immediately alarmed. An email goes out from leadership acknowledging the leak. Really, all they could do is tell us, ‘Look, we’re sorry about this,'” remembers Sam. “At that stage, there wasn’t going to be an undertaking to resolve the leak by changing the story. We all had to come to terms that the ending is out, and the damage had been done. You only get to make a first impression once. We were building a whole game to climax with that video.”
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The nature of the leak was a simple mistake. As Sam explains, Blizzard partnered with a company called The Third Floor for storyboarding assistance on StarCraft II’s plot breaks. When Wings of Liberty, the trilogy’s first entry, arrived in the summer of 2010, The Third Floor incorrectly assumed that the work they had already completed and delivered for Heart of the Swarm was part of that package. In essence, the company wasn’t aware that Blizzard intended to release StarCraft II in three chunks, which meant that Kerrigan’s liberation was shuffled into an innocent clip reel, and onto the homepages of the international games press.
What was to gain in proliferating that information? Not much. Top-secret documents about a storied video game franchise is undeniably newsworthy, but Heart of the Swarm was eventually in players hands, with that same cinematic proudly intact. The arc of StarCraft as a series did not deviate from the path it was already on; eventually, the game comes out, and the slow march of time ultimately renders every leak obsolete.
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But that truth hasn’t stymied some from latching onto every hearsay tidbit, iPhone screenshot, and alleged E3 itinerary that passes through the industry salon. R/gamingleaksandrumors, the preeminent subreddit dedicated to contraband factoids on unannounced games, has 41,000 members. There are corners of this community that enjoy the clandestine information trade of unreleased games just as much as gaming itself.
“It’s fascinating because it’s sort of a mystery. Nobody knows because these [studios] stay so secret, so everybody naturally wants to know about them,” says Reddit user Nintelytroll, who moderates the r/gamingleaksandrumors community. “Most of these games have sequels and that generates excitement.”
Nintelytroll is one of the most fervent leak peddlers on the internet. In addition to r/gamingleaksandrumors, he also handles the subreddit r/GTA6, a 17,000 subscriber-strong outpost dedicated to the currently unannounced Grand Theft Auto VI. No substantive information breaches have trickled out of the Rockstar braintrust about its rumored forthcoming project — in fact, most of the posts on the subreddit are a parody of how barren the intelligence exchange tends to be. Still, it speaks to our collective appetite for scoops that the games we might be playing in 2023 or 2024 are already blessed with their own remote alcoves. The reasoning is clear; video game companies know that secrecy breeds intrigue, and marketing cycles fetishize hype more than any other resource. It’s only natural that gamers themselves have responded by participating in the culture that’s been laid out in front of them. Nothing is more satisfying than breaking the system.
Nintelytroll describes a purely laissez-faire approach to the content that’s posted in the Reddit nations he manages. Everything is allowed on the subs, he says, until a leak is proven to be definitively fake. It’s a policy that gives r/gamingleaksandrumors and r/GTA6 a scattershot, blunderbuss feel. Hundreds of unverified claims pass through the forum every day. The few that are thoroughly debunked are branded with a withering, “False.” That volume of information proves to be unwieldy at times, and occasionally, weaponized.
Last month, a group of hackers gained access to private servers and discovered a trove of cinematics from Naughty Dog’s forthcoming The Last of Us Part II. The sequel was already finished and awaiting its release; much like the StarCraft team, there was no chance of suturing the situation. Instead, Naughty Dog encouraged fans to keep eyes off the compromised material and hold tight for the street date. This is not the first time an extremely high-profile, anticipated game was leaked on the internet ahead of schedule.
The beta version of Half-Life 2 famously ended up on file-sharing networks in 2003. But even with that context, this The Last of Us leak felt different. Some bad actors posted the spoilers in all-caps letters on communities like r/gamingleaksandrumors as a way to intentionally deflate the anticipation of others. Others baked them into their Twitter names, so even if people muted keywords, they could still be spoiled. Nintelytroll isn’t sure what motivates that inclination. To him, it’s the equivalent of “real-life griefing.” A wrongly uploaded cinematic is one thing, a malevolently repurposed bounty of stolen gameplay, deployed specifically to ruin others’ experiences is quite another.
“It makes no sense. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s either for attention, to get famous on YouTube, or to just mess with a community they don’t like,” says Nintelytroll. “I find usually it’s just the first option, for attention.”
This is the question that affects everyone in the video game industry. Leaks are a fact of life for reporters, studio heads, and Reddit dwellers alike. But where is the statute of limitations? How do we know when a leak transforms from a relevant exclusive to an icky feeling of sabotage — something that can cause a lot of pain in unsuspecting people? That’s the question I posed to Jason Schreier, formerly of Kotaku and now at Bloomberg, who’s been responsible for more scoops than anyone else on the gaming beat. He gave me a clarifying example of his personal philosophy. In 2013, he acquired a bundle of script pages from the then-unannounced Fallout 4. Those pages included explicit details of some of that game’s major plot beats. But Schreier opted not to publish that part of his newsgathering, and instead used his knowledge to simply confirm that Fallout 4 was set in Boston, and more importantly, a real game in active development at Bethesda.
That context was necessary, added Schreier, because at the time of his reporting there was a widely circulated ARG called TheSurvivor2299 that purported to itself to be a Fallout teaser. TheSurvivor2299 was eventually revealed to be a hoax; Schreier published his story to share his facts, and discredit other falsehoods.
“The potential harm you might cause to game developers is one of the many factors worth considering when you’re deciding whether or not to report on a leak that’s been sent your way,” says Schreier. “I’ve certainly made missteps on this front over the years, but I’ve also made people mad with reports that I still think were necessary and justifiable.”
But those serious admonishments are fringe cases. Most developers I spoke to said that they don’t allow leaks to affect them personally for long. Eventually, a minor breach of information — a journalist getting their hands on a casting call — fades into background. Instead, it’s more insidious, and more frustrating, when a leak is coming from an internal voice that nobody can sniff out. After Sam finished working on StarCraft, he was moved to the Heroes of the Storm team. During that time, the team’s long term plans for future heroes were consistently posted on 4Chan with startling accuracy. A very small number of people were privy to those secure Heroes meetings; the call was coming from inside the house. As Sam explains, that can be incredibly demoralizing.
“We had to be a lot more guarded. We had these team meetings where we’d try to be transparent and say, ‘The next three heroes on the roster are this, this and this. And we’d be like, ‘Did we just give away the next few months of content?'” he remembers. “It was really troubling, because the poster on 4Chan was correct close to 80 percent of the time. It would make people not want to make things. It creates a lot of internal strife. Like, ‘Who is ruining our surprises? We’re supposed to all be involved in this!'”
But Sam also admits that he’s accidentally leaked a few things, too. It is exceedingly easy to screw up with embargoed information. All it takes is one conversation gaffe, one open tab, to spill the beans on a top secret project. Tim Willits, formerly the studio director at Id and currently COO of Saber Interactive, tells me that one employee snapped a photo of his friends in the office which happened to contain a work-in-progress firearm model in frame. Once the damage is done, it can be absolutely devastating for a team member to hold that blame. In general, Willits felt a responsibility to make sure that any inadvertent in-house leaks are handled with compassion, rather than punishment.
“They feel terrible. They say, ‘Are you going to fire me?’ No one has ever been fired for making a mistake, but they feel so bad for letting their team down. At the moment, it is a huge deal. But ultimately? It’s not a huge deal.”
Willits has been in the video game industry for more than 20 years. Broadly, he considers leaks to be an unshakable reality in this business, and tells me that he’d rather have people desperate for information about the stuff his team is working on, than a withering ambivalence of the content behind closed doors. After all, what’s more validating than a community drooling over a shotgun model?
“That thirst is what makes our job worth doing,” says Willits. “That people are so desperate to know about our games that they’re looking for any hints. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
That perspective is indicative of a philosophical shift in the mechanics of fandom; from Marvel movies to comic books, participating in the culture is more about what you know, than what you love. As for why people weaponize those leaks to disappoint other, more committed fans, nobody knows, but that also isn’t an attitude exclusive to video games. How many of us clicked on a harmless-looking forum thread only to learn, in bolded, underlined letters, that Snape kills Dumbledore? The needlessly ever-nubilous nature of these industries lend classified information a certain amount of power. I suppose it’s only natural for some to use that power for evil.
“We identify very strongly with our library of titles. It’s part of our identity. When you hear a leak, it becomes part of your expertise. You know something about the game in advance. You pay attention and examine the leak, you might understand more about it,” says Sam. “As gamers, people who are very passionate, it’s such a double-edge sword. The leak becomes as critical as playing the game. The fandom is so rich, it’s inevitable.”
Anyone who’s deeply cared about a video game franchise knows what Sam is talking about. Fallout fans accessorize Fallout rumors; collecting them and showing them off is as natural as stockpiling the in-game bobbleheads. After all, what is a better way to prove your Rockstar fandom than by demonstrating your commitment to Grand Theft Auto VI on Reddit long before everyone else shows up? Schreier argues that if video game publishers let developers be a little more transparent in their work, it might temper some of the more obsessive tendencies in the community. But of course, where’s the fun in revealing your secrets? Until the cycle breaks, it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever see the last of leaks. We don’t know anything, so we want to know everything.
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.