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Opinion: Loose Lips Sink Ships

How does a company like Activision react when secret details of its biggest game of the year are leaked all over the media? Gamasutra business editor Colin Campbell ponders effects of the Modern Warfare 3 leak.
Few events have the power to enrage a company than a massive leak, the kind of blow-out job Kotaku did on Activision's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 last week. Big companies are fond of saying that they care most about their customers, their employees and the quality of their products. But what they really care about are their profits, their shareholders, their productivity. And their secrets. As a reporter, I've broken company secrets in the past and faced the full force of their corporate wrath. I remember getting hold of lots of details of Sony's E3 plans one year, a few weeks before the show. When I broke the story, Sony's executives were apoplectic, sincerely, genuinely enraged and hurt. They turned up for an ugly meeting with my bosses. They demanded the stories be spiked (my boss stood his ground). An unrelated, potentially lucrative deal between my publisher and Sony was killed off on the spot. At the time, I was cock-a-hoop about breaking a big story. I merrily pranced, a veritable Rumpelstiltskin. I'd still break a story like that today - a scoop is a scoop, after all - but this time I wouldn't feel good about it. Because this sort of thing really hurts people. Publicly, Activision has seemed to shrug its shoulders. It did a smart thing by releasing an official trailer. It made sure not to do anything dumb, like denying that the story was true. It gently suggested that Activision is the best place for entirely accurate reveals, (a notion that's self-evidently untrue, but worth putting out there). I have been unable to speak to anyone at Activision about this event (not surprisingly). But I have chatted with a few PR veterans (they did not want to be named) for some insights into life-after-leaks. One, who has worked as a senior PR for major games brands for over a decade said, "Leaks like this are the worst. They are an awful, awful experience." The other, who has worked on both sides of the media, said, "Activision will be traumatized by this. They are a pretty secretive company. The idea that someone is willing to put this stuff out there is damaging to morale, and to its sense of security." The timing is bad. Activision's PR and marketing teams will have spent a great deal of time and effort on lining up an E3 plan for MW3. The effort that goes into these plans should not be underestimated, nor their complexities, the number of agents who are involved. Such was the extent of the leak, that all the work will need to be scrapped and redone. Internally, Activision will want to find out where this information has come from. Again, the fact that here is so much data suggests someone or some persons (Kotaku cited "multiple sources") very much on the inside. However, in my experience core team members rarely pull this kind of stunt, because they don't want to damage the thing they are working on. It's usually someone connected but slighty separate. Motivation is hard to fathom. Perhaps it's about power, perhaps it's about revenge. Perhaps the person just really likes Kotaku. Either way, a leak fosters suspicion and paranoia, rarely a good mix in a corporate culture. (I won't say that Activision is already a paranoid organization, but nor is it especially noted for its openness.) Commercially, it's difficult to make the case that a game of this grand scale and promise will have been harmed. But if Activision had been depending on an E3 blow-out in order to secure certain specific commitments from retail, that now becomes incredibly difficult. Retail watches the media. The media, already sated by lots of MW3 information, will be looking elsewhere for its big stories. If you're rooting for Activision, you'll hope that there's some angle that Kotaku missed, that might light this game up again at E3. It's the media's job to break stories. Kotaku has its own pressures to worry about, and a few million extra readers and the kudos of a scoop will do those guys no harm at all. But you have to feel sorry for Activision (not an easy emotional challenge, I'll admit). Kotaku spilled a glass of claret over its pretty party dress, and then walked away laughing. [Full Disclosure: As well as being business editor for Gamasutra, Colin Campbell works for a marketing agency that provides content and blogs to brands. You can follow him on Twitter @brandnarrative.]

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