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The Failure of Secrecy: The alpha, leaks, and the WoW community

The past few days have seen leaks on an unprecedented scale. For better or worse, nearly the entire visual artwork of the expansion is out on the internet, and key and yet-unseen components of the lore, landscape and mechanics are now laying wide open for those who care to look. Many people have drawn lines in the community -- some believe these leaks are good, and others believe them bad.

In both camps, basic information is lacking as to exactly what leaks are, how and why they originate and what they mean for the common player. It's critical that we as a community take an introspective look at what these leaks mean to us, why they happen and the consequences we all face as a result.

Let's begin this examination with a basic question ...

What are leaks?

At the most basic level, leaks are previously unreleased information given to the press with the intention of distribution to the public. In the case of WoW, a leak can range from a release date for a patch to an entire client of a new expansion. Leaks like these comprise of data that are accessible publicly, one way or another, and are generally not considered trade secrets.

Another type of leak, which is much more serious, is something like the source code to Windows 2000. Something that like is very sensitive and has a lot of real-world implications. WoW doesn't have anything secretive like that which can impact the very security of our computer networks and commerce infrastructure, even though WoW leaks are important to Blizzard in their own regard.

NDAs, C&Ds, beta and alpha-bet soup

When dealing with leaks (and particularly recent events), there are a few terms that generate a lot of confusion. Let's clear them up.

Non-Disclosure Agreement
: The mystical NDA. This is a legally binding contract that says you cannot release the information you're given. If you break the contract, there are real-world consequences. People who work at Blizzard are under an NDA. You are not under an NDA unless you sign one.

Cease and Desist Order: The C&D. This is an order issued by a judge that says you must stop doing something you're doing. You have to follow it, or else you're going to face serious, life-changing consequences. If you violate an NDA and publish information, you'll get a C&D order that requires you to take down the information ... or else. A C&D order is different from a C&D letter; a letter can be issued by anyone, but doesn't carry any judicial mandates.

Alpha: A game that is in early development; probably is under an NDA.

Beta: A game that is in the later stages of development; may or may not be under an NDA.

The Cataclysm alpha

Going on now is a massive and unprecedented leak of information from the Cataclysm alpha by MMO-Champion and the Nihilum Cataclysm Wiki. They are uncovering literally every upturned stone, every deformed building and every crack in the land. This leak will go down in history as one of the largest and most complete game leaks ever.

The Cataclysm client and associated files came from publicly accessible download sources Blizzard made available for those people participating in the alpha. We're not going to link to it or tell you how to get it, but the Cataclysm alpha client is now in the wild. People can download the data to their home computer, fire up a model viewer and go to town.

The story of the Cataclysm leaks is unfolding, and it could take some interesting twists and turns. No one knows where this will all end yet. But we do know how we got here.

It began with leaks leading up to BlizzCon 2009, progressed to a long information "dark age" during which Blizzard barely said anything of substance about Cataclysm, and ultimately resulted in this week's super-massive spoilers. The path from hyper-speculation, to hearing nothing to, hyper-sensitivity is clear, and it's a leading factor in the huge interest generated as of late.

Reactions to the current leaks have been mixed. Some sites are eating up the information; others are swearing off. Blizzard has sent out heavy-handed letters to official fan sites (WoW.com has no official relationship with Blizzard, and we are not a Blizzard fan site) telling them that they can't publish any information still under the NDA, or they'll have their fan site status removed.

Blizzard is deleting forum posts about this left and right. You can't mention some sites on the official forums right now without your post likely being deleted. If you post leaked information, you're banned. They have every right to do this, of course, because these are their forums, but still -- this level of message control is a bit odd when people can access the information so easily elsewhere.

Improving the system

Personally, I don't like leaks. They are a necessary evil in our business, but they encourage too much cloak-and-dagger behavior that in many ways can hurt the community it wishes to support. People behave like children in a candy store over leaked info, and when the candy store has 11.5 million people running around screaming, it gets to be a bit much.

More so, people are banned and suffer consequences not because of ill intent, but because they don't know about NDAs and the system in general. They don't know that they're tasting forbidden fruit and are unaware they might end up on Blizzard's bad side. Good fans of Blizzard's games are punished. This is a key and important consequence of the current system.

Given that fan sites (both official and unofficial), Blizzard and everyone else involved in the creation of this community is here to provide a greater service to the millions of players enjoying the game, Blizzard can take steps to eliminate leaks -- or failing that, deal with them in a better manner. It's key that they address both the root causes of the leaks and the resulting consequences. This requires addressing a number of different situations that, when solved together, will make things much better for everyone involved.

First, Blizzard can be sure to listen to their employees' concerns. A series of leaks back in January was the result of a group of employees being very concerned about pressure being applied to them by their managers. They didn't feel as if they were being listened to and turned to outside organizations to get the word out about the problems they saw. In the past week we've seen leaks from Blizzard employees because they don't feel their company is being forthcoming enough with the community.

Second, Blizzard can stop doing alphas under NDAs. It's been proven that with a game this large clandestine approaches to data management just don't work. Word spreads around Twitter and unofficial forums about leaks nearly instantly -- and when this information is out, it can't be brought back in. There is no "delete" button on the internet.

Third, the amount of open and honest communication from Blizzard needs to sharply increase -- both internally and externally. Let's start with the internal communication. I'm told that a lot of times, people working at Blizzard don't know the whole story. They don't get told everything and are left piecing bits of information together to help form a holistic view of the situation. This leads to situations such as the January 2010 news when we incorrectly stated the public alpha was going to happen. A new alpha was happening, and a new, big client build was being pushed internally that was, by all accounts (and there were many), ready for public/external alpha distribution. Except it didn't go out. The information our group of people was getting from Blizzard themselves was only partially correct. The alpha stayed internal. Better internal communication would lead to less desire to leak things to the community, since everyone would know short and long term publicity plans. If Blizzard employees knew the plan was to announce a major development in two weeks, they'd have a lot less need to leak it early when they're not assuming the information would never be released, or released in months.

Blizzard's external communication can also improve by being more open and honest about release dates and testing phases. We've seen a vast improvement in this area over the years, but they still don't officially acknowledge a release of a patch until the downloader is going and people can already tell for themselves. The lack of official information leads to people's leaking the patch target release date weeks ahead of time, always published on major sites. We knew well in advance when patch 3.3 was going to drop; nearly everyone who visits any WoW site other than the official one knew.

The other result of the lack of external communication is the frenzied excitement that builds around any information Blizzard gives. This is great for their marketing campaigns, but fails when they let the lack of information drag on for so long that people are compelled to leak things. The fruit dangling in-front of those who publish leaks becomes, eventually, too great to resist; serviced by people who don't believe Blizzard is doing a good enough job at keeping the community informed. The lack of information, and the build-up to the release of that information, ultimately backfires on Blizzard.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, it's time that Blizzard stop burying their heads in the sand over leaks and unreleased information. It doesn't work to deny the situation. One solution would be to at least say, "Yes, it's out there. But we don't want to talk about it." An even better approach would be to start talking about what's done and not done yet in the leaked info. (A blanket answer of "it's all not done" doesn't work. While everything might be changed slightly, people shouldn't be incorrectly led to hope that the Super Awesome Super Shot XL10 may be buffed substantially when there's actually no chance of it.)

I do want to take a second to note here that in minor ways, Blizzard has acknowledged the leaks exist -- but they still won't address them any farther than to repeat the same tired legal line ("We don't discuss anything under an NDA"). They have reiterated there are only certain things people can talk about (with regards to published Cataclysm content) on their forums, and those things are only items which they've (the blues) have posted either on the forums or on the official site. This level of content distinction, is well, silly.

I write this editorial on leaks and communication not to bash Blizzard or to undermine the game and the community that surrounds it; I'm writing this to clarify the system of politics that goes into something like this. If this subject matter were better understood by the entire community, then we'd all be better off.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Cataclysm

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