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No Man's Stream: Leaks Mar an Indie Milestone

Ignorance or cynical self-interest; there's no other explanation for broadcasting hours of footage of a leaked, unfinished game

Whatever else the game may be, the launch of No Man's Sky is a milestone for videogames. It's the moment when the years of progress that have followed on from the liberalisation and opening up of game development - the tools, the technologies, the know-how and the platforms themselves - came to a head; the moment when an indie game, created outside the traditional studio and publisher system, got an AAA launch. No Man's Sky is Sony's summer blockbuster, a game with a weight of anticipation and a torrent of marketing that would normally be reserved for the biggest of the big franchises.

It's hard to convey just what a big deal that is, and perhaps as a result, many people will dismiss No Man's Sky's indie credentials to some degree. Yes, Sony was involved from a relatively early stage, and yes, it's thrown its formidable weight behind the project; but by all accounts it has remained hands-off from the actual development process, with Hello Games' labour of love remaining precisely that. The instant touchstone for comparison when talking about changes in the games industry is film, and indeed, the indie revolution in games has been compared to the launch of accessible technologies like Super 8 for film-making. With No Man's Sky, the democratisation of game creation takes another huge leap forward; it's as if an indie film suddenly leapt from the obscurity of the festival circuit to become the summer's biggest multiplex hit. That's not without precedent (The Blair Witch Project arguably did precisely that), but it's still a noteworthy line for games to cross.

"...people and publications who chose to stream extended footage of the leaked copy...with the conceit that it represented the final game did so either in inexcusable ignorance, or with inexcusable, self-serving, hit-chasing cynicism"

That triumph should serve as an inspiration to indie developers everywhere - just as No Man's Sky redefines the idea of a game world in terms of sheer size, so too does it expand the potential size of any indie creator's dreams. Yet the importance of the game in terms of its place in the industry's business culture, let alone its creative achievement, only makes it even more disappointing that its launch has been marred by the leak of an unfinished version, and the deeply cynical and self-interested behaviour of those who exacerbated the impact of that leak.

The version of No Man's Sky that was leaked several weeks ago, and trotted about the Internet as being "finished", was not finished. Vlambeer's Rami Ismail has explained the how and why of that patiently and excellently in a blog post on the subject, so I won't belabor that specific point - the concise summary is simply that games sent to be pressed to disc are still months from completion, and day-one patches routinely make major changes to the game, not just small bug fixes.

It's fine for gamers, for consumers, not to know that, but anyone claiming to be part of the games media has no excuse for being ignorant of the basic functioning of the companies and creators of the medium in which they claim to be expert. That means that those people and publications who chose to stream extended footage of the leaked copy of No Man's Sky with the conceit that it represented the final game did so either in inexcusable ignorance, or with inexcusable, self-serving, hit-chasing cynicism. Someone with the basic knowledge of the industry required to recognise the unfinished nature of the game would also know the damage that streaming hours and hours of footage of an unfinished game and labelling it as a finished product would potentially be hugely damaging to the game and its creators. Quite a few people, knowing that, apparently didn't care. Gotta chase those hits!

What's been done to Hello Games here is not comparable to the much more regular early leaks of games, which involve retailers breaking street dates and letting some people have the game early. That can be problematic too - again, the day one patch might not be ready, server infrastructure might still be patchy, and of course other players will be annoyed, especially if they've preordered the game and now see the Internet filling up with videos of other people playing it. In general, though, those leaks happen a matter of hours or days before the game launches, and the vast, vast majority of players never see any of the teething troubles they can expose.

"Now, however, one copy in the wild can translate into hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people being able to watch hour upon hour of footage of your unfinished game"

In the case of No Man's Sky, the unfinished version was circulating weeks ahead of launch. To use another film analogy, this version isn't like a leaked copy from a preview screening; it's like the leak of a work print of the film, with incomplete editing and rough special effects. Worse, it's like that work print is then seen by millions of people who don't know that the final movie will be different; who are, in fact, being actively told by people they assume to be experts that this is the final cut of the film.

This isn't the first time that this has happened, but in the case of No Man's Sky, there's been a perfect storm. The game is enormously anticipated, the leak was well ahead of the launch date - and we are now living in the age of streaming, which served to vastly amplify the impact and damage of the leak. In the past, a few leaked copies of a game turning up somewhere would have been annoying and upsetting for a developer, but not actively damaging - the worst case scenario being that someone who got their hands on a copy would post some screenshots and a write-up. Now, however, one copy in the wild can translate into hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people being able to watch hour upon hour of footage of your unfinished game. I can't imagine how that feels for a developer, but I'm guessing that "heartbreaking" isn't far off.

There's no point being angry at gamers who watched the streams; but criticism of those people and publications who broadcast the footage is perfectly valid. Moreover, I worry that there may be a sting in the tail of what's happened here. Streaming is a huge part of the wider games media now; it's a big deal and getting bigger and bigger with each passing month. Watching people play games online turns out to be a very popular pastime. However, there's a somewhat uneasy relationship between game creators and streaming services. On the one hand, creators are generally excited by the potential of streaming to reach new audiences and craft new experiences, and they're very aware of how big the commercial impact of being featured on a popular streamer's channel can be. On the other hand, creators are also aware that hours upon hours of footage of their game is being sent out to millions of viewers without any compensation whatsoever for the people who made the game. When your game is an online multiplayer title, an eSports focused game or similar, you're probably somewhat comfortable with that (though as streaming revenues grow your comfort levels may well decline); if your game is a single player experience, though, the trade off between reaching new audiences and simply showing off all your secrets, stripping your game of all mystery and demotivating potential players is a tricky one to calculate.

"What's been done to No Man's Sky will sit heavily in the minds of industry executives trying to figure out what to do about streaming"

At some point, game creators and publishers are going to have to figure out where they stand on streaming services, and what legal framework they want to hammer out for that relationship. Different territories have different legal systems, of course, but there are few of them where unfettered streaming of game footage does not exist largely on the basis of tolerance by game creators. If that tolerance goes away, streaming services are going to find themselves forced to find compromises with the people who make the games they stream; compromises on revenue, compromises on content, compromises on control.

What's been done to No Man's Sky will sit heavily in the minds of industry executives trying to figure out what to do about streaming, and will weigh down the scales as they try to balance the enormous potential and positive impact of streaming against its negatives and downsides. If and when the hammer falls, and the Wild West freedom of the current streaming market is lost, those who chose to boost their profiles at the expense of Hello Games and its long-awaited game will bear at least some part of the blame.

Latest comments (7)

Robert Bantin Principal Programmer, CodemastersA year ago
Streaming is just the medium, not the issue I think.

In traditional media, if an legitimate outlet misrepresents you, your product or your organisation in a grossly unprofessional way, the standard recourse is to boycott them in their entirety: No more interviews; no more review copies; no more exclusives.

In the heavily competitive world of online media it should be no different - especially as there is a lot less for the vendor to loose.
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Drew Dewsall Editor, Game4AnythingA year ago
If you're a serious story based game player then why would you ever watch videos that ruin the game for you? Seems like a very strange thing to do.

Hopefully the games sales wont be affected too badly. Most people who buy the game are aware that the game will be evolving over the next few months.

The team at Hello deserve all the good things coming to them.
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Anthony ChanA year ago
The key to buying these games is the fact that the Indie developer is transparent as much as possible and engaging of its audience. Essentially the dev is building up their credibility. No Man's Sky by all means is a taste of what is to come, and we hope continuing engagement from the devs in terms of improving the game as time passes with updates.

Gamers buying into the game expecting a final FULLY polished flawless work of art are extremely naive - my gosh I think devs of much greater 'credibility' have given us worse garbage. I think Hello Games totally deserves all the kudos it gets and more for No Man's Sky.... Don't let the haters get you down!
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Show all comments (7)
Jordan Lund Columnist A year ago
I don't think it's fair to call the footage "leaked, unfinished".

The fact of the matter is that the code was finalized. A gold master was produced. Production was completed using the gold master and the finished package was shipped to retailers.

Was there a day 1 patch that dramatically changed the game? Sure, but the existence of that patch was not known at the time of the "leak". As far as anyone knew, that was the finished, completed game and for people who are not able or not willing to download the patch it is the game they get.
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Robert Bantin Principal Programmer, CodemastersA year ago
I don't think it's fair to call the footage "leaked, unfinished".

The fact of the matter is that the code was finalized. A gold master was produced. Production was completed using the gold master and the finished package was shipped to retailers.

Was there a day 1 patch that dramatically changed the game? Sure, but the existence of that patch was not known at the time of the "leak". As far as anyone knew, that was the finished, completed game and for people who are not able or not willing to download the patch it is the game they get.
Ok so....

1. Code is NEVER finalised: It just becomes "releasable". In this case the game assets are mostly code generated so the game content is and will be subject to constant and noticeable changes. Anyone that doesn't understand that is not really in a position to critique the game.

2. The original streamer had a first-submission gold master that had been leaked. If you knew anything about the submission process you'd recognise that "going gold" takes an inordinate number of submissions until the platform holder certifies the game. First submission code is work-in-progress, as the streamer readily admitted, and had to do damage control on once the commenters started to take it all out of context.

3. Amateur streamers notwithstanding, the pro media outlets were under embargo and so anything published during that time broke the embargo. Their actions are indefensible.

4. The scenario where someone can't/won't connect their console to the Internet is fraught with so many other challenges it's hardly the common use case. E.g. Day one PS4s shipped with Orbis v1.x and we're currently developing games with Orbis SDK v3.5x. Someone buying a PS4 with the expectation that they'll never connect it online is going to have big problems. Also, the day one patch was 853Mb. My iPhone handles bigger updates than that.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Robert Bantin on 15th August 2016 5:15pm

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic A year ago
As far as anyone knew, that was the finished, completed game and for people who are not able or not willing to download the patch it is the game they get.
Willfully obtuse - Day 1 patches are the norm on PC and console, not an exception, and anyone watching pre-release footage would know that. It could be argued that the average Joe doesn't know/isn't aware of them, but the average Joe isn't going to care about watching pre-release leaked footage of a game. They're too busy off having a life.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist A year ago
To be fair to Jordan Lund, it is fully possible for any player on PS4 to play NMS without any day 1 or 100 patch. For all Robert's and Morville's rebuttals, a game on a console's disc should be a playable version (as far as I heard it was with some minor bugs).

So what's the issue?

I mean, the day 1 patch may have been a day 5 patch (sometimes patches get delayed)... If even one person can experience something does that make it less of a reality?

Furthemore, maybe Robert has never worked in the media at large before but as to point 3, if another organisation releases something for which you are under embargo (or whatever equivalent) you are free to report upon that release as your embargo does not cover it.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by James Prendergast on 15th August 2016 6:08pm

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