Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why People Leak and Other Musings Over the Alpha Mess-up

This post is inspired by Tim Howgego's post of yesterday about the Alpha leakage and how Blizzard has handled it.

If you haven't read it I suggest that you take your time and do it. It's really long, as all of his articles are, but it's worth it. This is an in-depth analysis with a lot of good points and interesting angles about Blizzard's relationship to the fansite, their acting in NDA matters and the consequences of it, and it's by tar the best I've seen on this topic in the blogosphere until now.

Adam Holisky at WoW.com did another effort a couple of days ago to make something on these lines, but for all the good intentions, he missed the point a bit, suggesting that concerned Blizzard staff leaked inaccurate information because they were misinformed. Sorry but you lost me there. (There is some good stuff in this post too though, so by all means, read it as a complement to Tim's post).

Tim on the other hand seems to be well informed and likely to have some good inside sources at Blizzard, or at least a solid knowledge about their way of thinking. He apparently is a bit concerned that he in writing this post is speaking too freely for his own wellbeing. With his position on "the edge", not being an official fansite, but at the same time with a lot of visitors and a great deal of respect within the community, Tim is "stupid enough" to write about how things are, as he puts it. I guess it might cost him the +1 font size link from WoW's official site to El's Extreme Anglin' at the worst, but I'm glad he's taking the risk.

Friend and family, heh?
So with this lengthy introduction I'm finally getting to my own thoughts. And they are currently mostly preoccupied with those so called friends and family. I keep asking myself: who are those people? How do the Blizzard staff know them? Are they spouses, brothers, neighbors or someone they met in a bar?

Because: what kind of friend are you if
  1. someone puts their trust into you, sharing their innermost secrets,
  2. you assure them that you won't tell a soul about it and
  3. within a couple of hours you nevertheless share the secret with someone who shouldn't know it, well aware of that it immediately will spread all over the Internet?

I certainly wouldn't expect it from the persons I call friends and family. And yet it happened. Blizzard really need to be a bit pickier in their acquaintances.

I suspect that it's yet another evidence of my coming to age that I react against it. After all we're living in an era when nothing, absolutely nothing is too private to expose, either it's your sex life, your lack of appreciation for your boss or pictures from your latest booze party escapades. The boundaries were dissolved years ago ago, apart from in the minds of fossils like me, and a non-disclosure agreement is a futility that no one expects anyone to take seriously. Apparently.

Reasons for leaking
Yet it bugs me a bit. And you may wonder: what's in it for them? Why do people leak this information that they agreed not to leak in the first place?

There are two possible explanations. The nice one is that they're suffering from innocence or even stupidity.

In my job as a media manager I tell people over and over again that in reality there isn't such a thing as "off record" and that you can count on that anything you tell a media person can become official. Any interview starts at the first moment you talk to a journalist and doesn't end until you're saying goodbye. Don't get lured into believing anything else.

But can those friends and family be THAT stupid, that they accidently share something they shouldn't share in a moment of "oops!"? I don't think so. I think it's rather about persons who have very small egos and lead rotten, insignificant lives want to feel - or pretend - that they're somewhat important. They probably don't get any money from leaking. But they get a kick, and that can be just as good as an incentive.

I've seen a few commenters suggesting that Blizzard themselves are behind the massive leakage, as a part of their marketing plan. Sure, in some situations you might want to give out a piece of news exclusively to a selected media in order to get as much attention as possible, or even pretend that you have accidently leaked out a secret, when you in fact did it on purpose.

But to be honest, I doubt this is the case here. It doesn't seem well timed enough and even if there's a lot of buzz going on now, I think they could have gotten a better impact if they had been able to retain control over what and when to release, portioning it out bit by bit to get maximal exposure to it.

Blizzard's doubtful damage control
However, the damage is done and there really isn't much Blizzard could do to put back the rabbit into the hat. So now they're apparently in a phase of some sort of damage control. To be honest it looks a little bit silly and futile, or even harmful, as pointed out by Tim Howgego.

For some reason Blizzard hasn't yet taken action against MMO Champion, in spite of their official declaration that the NDA still is valid.

On May 4, Boubouille writes:

"The Alpha is protected by a Non-disclosure agreement, which basically means that anything I could post could get me sued. I'm not saying it will happen, Blizzard has been fairly forgiving with everything posted on the site in this past but I think you will understand that I cannot just post everything I find without checking a few things first."

He confirms that the picture of the dragon published elsewhere is real, but doesn't want to publish it himself. About 24 hours later the floodgates open and there are screens and leaked information all over the place. I don't know if we'll ever know exactly what happened there, but Tim Howgego suggests that Blizzard is letting it pass because the owner of MMO Champion can help to promote WoW as an e-sport. A conspiracy theory! Yummie! Actually it sounds quite credible to me.

Why it might be harmful
While letting MMO Champion get away with it, Blizzard has made sure to take action to prevent any premature publishing at the official fansites. They have received letters threatening them that they'll lose their status if they publish or even link to the leaked content.

So far they keep their mouths shut, but under protest, such as in this editorial from World of Raids. The editors also point out that the benefits of being an official fansite in reality are very small. You don't get any VIP pass, you don't get any alpha invites, in the past they've at the best had two or three beta keys. The perks are "minimal at best, if any". No wonder they're pissed!

And the effect of this might be quite harmful as Tim Howgego points out. While MMO Champion has an editor with a certain ethic standard and probably wouldn't promote gold selling, hacking, account trading and such, there are way more shady unofficial fansites who do those things and now get an opportunity to get more visitors, with leaked unofficial information as a lure.

If official fansites don't publish anything but the blue approved Cataclysm material, the audience will find their way to the sites that have that information, according to Tim Howgego, and he has a point. The mainstream players may end up as clueless tourists at darkside sites with low moral standards which they wouldn't have visited in the first place if it wasn't for the NDA politics of Blizzard. And that's bad.

Punish the good guys and let the bad guys get away with it. Does that really make sense?

And who's the bad guy in the first place? In my world the "friends and families" deserve some spanking. Not just the sites that might want to spread the news.

Not a spoiler free zone
Finally, maybe you'd like to know what you can expect from the Pink Pigtail Inn when it comes to Alpha information.

Well, I can't say that PPI is a declared Cataclysm spoiler free zone, such as Too Many Annas. I write about any stuff that is on my mind, and I might talk a little bit about suggested changes that are up for discussion, as when I rant about the changes to 10/25 man raiding or the perils of underwater zones. Mind you though - both of those topics were based on official information, not on leaks. But if you're very strict and don't want to hear a single word about Cataclysm before you have it installed on your computer, you'd better stay away from my inn to be safe.

On the other hand I too like the sense of discovery and mystery, unfolding a new expansion, and I don't want to destroy my own enjoyment of Cataclysm by looking into all details in advance. So I definitely won't opt in for a beta key. Apart from this I'm still preoccupied playing and writing about Wrath, and I basically don't write any informative posts on anything ever, so if you want solid spoilers and previews, this isn't the place for you.

This was all I had to say for the time being, but I'm likely to come back to similar topics. Blizzard's way of dealing with PR challenges never ceases to catch my interest.


Grimmtooth said...

First of all, I think "Friends and Family" should not be taken too literally. I think it's more an internal euphemism for "trusted inner circle."

Second of all, tin-hat theories aside, the most likely theory is probably a lot less interesting. As stated already, the test client - source of the mined data - can be discovered using the right search terms in the right bit-torrent client.

Couple that with, well, carelessness, something that Blizz has shown real talent for over the years. They've made one bad decision after the other without a clue that the response would be what it was, and yet most people would have been able to.

In the final analysis, I really think this will come down to clumsiness and some solid detective work by someone familiar with their methodology. (props to MMOC)

Vigorless Fragmentary said...

Those alpha leaks are always intentional, and by blizzard - dont believe for a second that a company like them would hand out any free so-called 'family' passes to anyone they can't trust (and they can trust no one) if they hadn't calculated the risk about possible leaking beforehand and possibly using it to their advantage. that would indeed be very noobish how you say yourself, so no way that they don't know that this is what's gonna happen.
personally I think they really don't mind and au contraire. or MMO-champ and other leaking sites would be off the face of the earth soon.
This is like the whole goldfarmer 'issue' which isnt really an issue to blizzard at all while so many players keep wondering 'why arent they doing more about it?'. ever considered that blizzard might have a piece of that goldfarming cake? or are people really that naive to think a multi-billion enterprise like blizz (vivendi, whoever benefits in the end) doesnt know how to play the capitalist game? :D
'allowed leaking' is part of a marketing strategy and its done by many companies, not just blizzard.

Chewy said...

I've had a lot of experience with product launch and NDA information, not in the gaming industry but in my own field. What I've found is that they're only as effective as the company is willing to enforce them.

Take for example the alleged dismissal of an engineer who lost is post because he showed Steve Wozniak a prototype of the ipad the day after it was launched. Apple take leaks very seriously.


Either Blizzard are careless as Grimmtooth suggests or they've not really thought through how they're going to react when information is leaked, so they don't know how to handle it, which in turn means it's not very effective and so leaks will happen.

In answer to your question, "why ?" because there are no consequences.

Green Armadillo said...

I don't know how they're specifically getting the alpha client this time, but historically (perhaps due to the way the Blizzard DL works?) it has been possible for people who are NOT in the alpha and therefore have NOT agreed to the NDA to download and datamine the client. If you look closely at MMO-Champion, the first posts after the alpha launch said that he couldn't post anything until he was able to get it from a non-NDA'ed source, and he subsequently got the full client, so I'm guessing the same is true this time.

Why not go to a password-protected download? Dunno, you'd think they'd have the budget to pay Fileplanet for an authenticated full client download and that would solve the problem. Maybe they actually don't mind some of the leaks?

Holly said...

Not sure what my opinion is here, I think you have to expect anything that leaves the inner workings of the company to get leaked. I expect people to leak things even in company, honestly, and in the end, I have to wonder if blizzard is hurt in any way for it? I think the argument that over at.....gizmodo? I think it was when they got in trouble by leaking the newest iphone, that one hurt the company a little bit, since when their competitors get a whiff they can design accordingly, and launch with it at roughly the same time, but when pictures of a dragon, already announced by blizzard to be in game, to be the intellectual property of blizzard gets leaked, are they really hurt by it? Oh no that means aeon is going to release a dragon encounter at the same time?

In the end the blizzard leaks are sheer publicity, and -good- publicity at that, plus it's the alpha, who knows what could change by beta alone. I just can't get riled up either way about it. If I were told a cataclysm 'secret' would I personally spread it? I'm not sure, but either way I think it's naive of blizzard to not just accept their stuff is going to get leaked unless the punishment is like, death.

Talarian said...

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."
- Robert J. Hanlon

In your own posts you've wondered about Blizzard's PR around fansites, their own website, andusing Twitter with the devs in a half-assed way. We see the Devs running amok on the forums (though I like this aspect personally and find it refreshing, it's honestly a PR nightmare waiting to happen without proper vetting by trained staff).

Blizzard's customer service and PR have always been awful, and this is more of the same. I imagine their story around handling the (inevitable) leak is probably mostly incomplete, and inconsistent. They figure that they can largely ignore the PR aspect and focus on making a compelling game, and people will flock to it. And generally, it's worked for them so far, so why rock the boat, eh?

Iapetes said...

There's absolutely no way they could prevent the alpha from leaking. It's just not ever gonna happen.

Jen said...

I can see another good reason for leaking the alpha. Not ethical and a bit childish, but something that seems tempting to me.

I love spoilers. I want to read about the Cataclysm and the sense of awe is not such a big deal to me. I got a lot of awe out of seeing 'forbidden' pictures on MMO Champ. So what if a person in the alpha wanted to share the fun with their friends? They can't join the game without their own keys, but what if the alpha person 'accidentally' leaked it, therefore allowing him/her to be able to debate everything with his/her friends?

I'm not saying this is excusable, but imo it's a very human and possible motivation.

As for friends and family - yes, it does mean friends and family. If you know someone at Blizzard and he/she trusts you, you can get into the alpha. "Inner circle" might be taking it too far, I doubt everyone with a key hangs out with the developers after work :)

Markus said...

I personally think that Blizzard has no problem with the "leaks" and uses them for a marketing advantage. They know that most WoW players are eager for anything, any snippet of new information in regards to the game.

I don't mind reading spoilers when it comes to mages or my professions. I shudder to think how much time I spent reading the beta forums prior to each expansion and I think Blizzard prefers it that way.

Dwism said...

I do believe Grimmtooth is right, that it is datamining and not evul friends that are the root of this problem.
And as far as mmo-champion is concerned, I do believe he only publishs things like this when they have been leaked from elsewhere. Just like he didn't want to leak datamined things from the lich king fight.

He only did once other competitative sites started their leaks. So his morals lasts untill there is competition.

About Blizz PR in regards to this and many other things. They are not very good honestly. Remember the class prewievs where the spanish site launched info for a whole class 48 hours before it was scheduled to launch? That is some pro publishing going on there... I think the two of us have discussed their lack of finesse when it comes to marketing many times before, lar :)

Kurnak said...

Thanks for that link Larísa, it's pure gold. Several of you already have pointed it out: Blizz isn't very good handling PR and the official fansite program really looks like a joke. You have to comply with a set of rules and you don't get much in return. The most valuable of the program is being linked from the main page, but why would I go there if there's no juicy information to read? All the info ready to be disclosed should be passed first to the fan sites so they can post and write some articles about it before it reaches the mainstream. Since this has never happened people has turned their attention to data miners to get some fresh information.
Is data mining something evil? It's a grey area but as long as you're not using the info to cheat should be ok. After all, it's going to be released to the public sooner or later. And you know what they say: "I don't care if they talk bad about me, the most important thing is they're talking about me", so in fact this datamining is performing a very valuable marketing campaign for the expansion, while Blizzard doesn't need to invest a single cent. It's all gains for Blizz.
So imho Blizz should develop a real fansite program and not the current joke, be more receptive with people's opinions and show they really care with actions, not only with words like they do now.

gnomeaggedon.net said...

They have Alpha leaks now?

yes, yes.. I knew that, but I have paid it as much attention as the weekend footy scores.

The reason is simple... I am still enjoying WoLK, in fact TBC and Vanilla.

Just as I wouldn't participate in Beta, I am not going to chase down Alpha leaks.

To me that is just like opening your Xmas presents a week before Xmas for a quick peek, then rewrapping them.

There goes Xmas!

Will I care if you or anyone else spoils and I stumble across it. Not likely and I dare say that as Cataclysm draws closer I will being to peek, a little.

Right now though, leaks are like going out to dinner, enjoying what you are eating until the table next to your gets delivered a different, more interesting looking dish. I don't know if it's any better... but the flavor just drained from my meal.

Iapetes said...

Oh and by the way the NDA is worthless if the person leaking this stuff didn't agree to it, aka mmo-champion. They're just sandboxing the alpha client, they didn't actually get into the alpha test.

Gronthe said...

It seems that carelessness is the word of the day. Generally speaking, however, I think people leak stuff when they know they either won't get in trouble or the benefit of leaking it far outweigh the risks.

In this case someone like MMOC, I think, believed that maybe both would be the case and so far they are right. No consequences and benefit of driving people to their site. Win-Win.

Larísa said...

: Pure carelessness. Yeah. Maybe you're right. Maybe there even wasn't any link, just pure hacking, people making access into files they had no business messing around with? But on the other hand, wouldn't they need to have someone at least hinting the address to them, whispering it in their ears? It sounds strange that a company working with authenticators would have their secrets accessed that easily.

Fragmentary: I don't think they did it on purpose, but I think they knew there was a high likeliness that this would happen. And I don't think they're too bothered since it gives the game a buzz that it's desperately in need of right now. This said I think that from their own PR perspective they could do better if they took a bit more of control of this than they seem to have now. And acting more logically and consistently towards the official and unofficial fansites. That's just a mess.

@Chewy: Yeah. I agree. A bit careless and slightly clueless in the handling.

@Green Armadillo: yeah... we can only speculate about this, which is exactly what I'm doing in this post. It seems a bit odd that they haven't taken more measures to protect the Alpha client.

@Holly: it's good publicity but I'm not entirely convinced that it's the best possible publicity they could get in the long run if they handled the previews in a more planned and controlled way.

: yep. more of the same. I think so too, even though I didn't write it explicitly in this post.

@Jen: It's funny though if people get such a kick out of sharing with their friends. You would believe that they could get a kick out of being in the "exclusive club" - the selected few who have been invited, who KNOW what Cata will look like. If they had taken care of the alpha testers properly they might have gotten that sense of being in a secret club and having a huge responsibility, an obligation towards Blizzard, a sense of "belonging" and not wanting to let their friends and family down. But apparently Blizzard didn't work hard enough on this aspect.

@Markus: well... I would believe they cared a bit, even though they also see the advantages. They seemed to be genuinely bummed when Cata leaked right before Blizzcon.

@Dwism: yeah... maybe there's hope about the friends. I don't know enough about the hacking-torrent-aspect to make a call about it.

And yes, I agree that Blizzard could make a lot better on the PR side. As you know....

@Kurnak: yeah, Tim is really great and deserve more readers. He publishes very rarely, but what he writes is gold. About the value of being a fansite, I must agree that it seems small as it is today. Previously I have complained that the fansites are too few and that the selection is strange, but in this light maybe being in the program is more of a burden than an advantage to a fansite.

: oh yes, it follows a general trend in society. Where I live people start decorating for Christmas in October with the effect that they're SO fed up with Christmas even on December 25 (the major celebration in Sweden is on the 24th) that they refuse to eat Christmas food than and start taking down the decorations! They're burned out on christmas the day it starts! And they take the behavior into WoW, which is ridiculous. I wonder how many weeks into Cataclysm we'll be before we hear the first cries about burn-out coming from those who read every single leakage post about the Alpha and played the entire Beta?

@Iapetes: but I suppose they're players and as such have signed the three page contract you get every time there's a new patch? Isn't there things in there that cover this? Not that I rage over MMO Champion. I think he's doing a great job and I can understand and respect his decision to put it out there. I think there are others that could be blamed for this situation.

@Gronthe: Yeah. Probably carelessness more than corruption and evilness.

Grimmtooth said...


I wouldn't rule out an inside job completely, considering the reputation that the CEO has in the larger MMO world; making comments about keeping his employees scared of the bad economy to ensure harder work is something bound to endear him to the WoW developer culture that I've seen. Could very well be a case of getting back at 'the man'.

However, I've been working in the corporate software / consumer hardware world for a while, with some pretty big players, and my own observation is that there is nothing more clueless than a large corporation, unless it's a larger corporation.

How else do you explain the Zune? BROWN? ORLY?

Grimmtooth said...

@Larisa - oops, fatfingered SEND ...


Anyway ... all you need is a copy of last expansion's alpha client to get an idea as to internal naming conventions, then you can build a pretty spiffy search term, especially if your client supports more sophisticated pattern matching, like regexes (regices?).

The 'clueless' comes in when the same company, having been bitten once, goes right on and uses the same naming conventions next go-around.

I know engineers ... they like shiny ... and revamping the naming convention for alpha clients sounds about as shiny as radiator sludge.

Dwism said...

look at mmo-champ today. I called it right :D

It was yet another PR failure. That, or someone at blizzard is readin your posts :D

Fitz said...

It's really unfortunate Blizzard does not enforce their NDA seriously. I know the world has changed, but as someone who relies on corporations covering their inventions with NDA's nearly every day before they bring them to me, the undermining of such things can have devastating consequences (namely, lack of invention protection and possibly millions of dollars depending on the company).

I know that's not on the same level as the NDA consequences here. But not enforcing your NDA's undermines a system that is crucial in the "real world".

I'm with you Larisa, I see the blue posts and comment on them but I don't actively seek details as I want to be surprised. I will not beta.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say, for all those curious about F&F alpha.

I'm in it. How?

I know someone, who was guilded with someone who knows someone at Blizzard. That person got me and several old guildies invites. So this "inner" circle is far from F&F.