We investigate the feud between leaker and developer.
Gaming leaks are something we’re all familiar with, whether they’re unreleased cosmetic items, unannounced titles, or even confidential information that developers don’t want their fans to know. But do leaks help the game itself, by boosting interest and engaging new and current audiences, or do they harm the industry by ruining carefully planned twists and announcements? Or perhaps the only people being hurt by leaks are the developers themselves, as fans are usually impatient for news, and way more likely to enjoy any new content, whether it is true or not.
There are distinct differences between the terms ‘leakers’ and ‘dataminers’. Leakers can be someone close to a project that reveals sensitive information to fans, either through anonymous internet accounts, or straight-up NDA-breaking announcements. Dataminers are usually simply fans of the game with the know-how to crack the code left behind in patches or updates. Because dataminers just look at lumps of data that may or may not make it to the live game, it’s best to take all their info with a grain of salt.
These leaks are usually posted on Reddit or Twitter, where they can be seen by a mass audience, and shared around with ease. Battle Royale and shooter games fall prey to leakers most of all, the top victims being Fortnite, Call of Duty and Apex Legends.
This may be because of their popularity and the hunger the community have for the latest news. It could also be that unreleased code is abundant in games with so many patches and regular content updates, ready to be sifted through by eagle-eyed and inquisitive dataminers.
The most well-known dataminers in the aforementioned game genre, include people such as ILootGames, TheGamingRevolution, and Biast12. The king of them all, Apex Legends dataminer That1MiningGuy, left the internet recently in a shock departure, surrounded by tragic circumstances.
The “stress” he referred to as the reason for leaving, to is most likely in reference to a clash with Respawn Entertainment, the developers of Apex Legends. The controversy stemmed from T1MG’s tweets regarding Titanfall’s (another Respawn title) Smart Pistol, leading some of his followers to believe it was coming to Apex. Not only this, but at the dawn of Season 4: Assimilation, fellow dataminer ILootGames leaked a screenshot from the trailer, revealing the plot-twist that was Forge’s assassination by Revenant. T1MG then retweeted the image, to his massive following, leading to Respawn staff sharing their disappointment in his involvement in the “spoiling” of the twist, which T1MG took very personally.
Although no legal action was taken in the case of T1MG, it wouldn’t have been the first time a developer took matters into their own hands, and the law’s. Activision and leaker TheGamingRevolution had a spat recently regarding some sensitive Call of Duty information. Call of Duty: Warzone, which was released on March 10th, 2020, but was leaked by TheGamingRevolution in the YouTube video below far earlier (February 13th to be exact), leading to a copyright strike from Activision.
Now, some people may believe that Activision knew what they were doing in terms of not hiding the code well enough in their patches and updates, or secure their promotional material, making the leak “controlled”. Of course, this creates buzz, gets the fanbase excited, and any publicity is good publicity, right?
Perhaps the strike was merely for show. However, just like Respawn Entertainment, who released Apex Legends with no fanfare or marketing, Warzone was released under the same strategy –launching relatively out of the blue, with only a smidgen of build-up from a press perspective. So, no money or time was wasted on any Warzone press, so why get copyright law involved for this leak, which inevitably benefited them anyway?
Activision didn’t stop with the YouTube strike, however, as they turned to Reddit leakers for their next legal attack. Leakers on the forum were subject to copyright claims and even legal action, including users who leaked cover art.
It’s thanks to TorrentFreak that we have this information, who was able to procure the court documents detailing the files claimed by Activision, and their attempt to subpoena Reddit Inc and get the company to give up the location of the users to take the individuals involved to court directly. However, as Reddit is a third-party platform and operates under the freedom of speech, the courts favoured Reddit on this occasion. Subpoenas have worked in the past, however, in cases of users on Discord and 4chan, and the punishments vary; but they do exist.
Epic Games managed to fully sue a game tester by the name of Lucas Johnston who leaked unreleased images, in the case of Fortnite: Chapter 2, seeking $85k in damages. To add insult to injury, this resulted in Johnston being fired from his job.
GGRecon talked to dataminers Biast12 and ILootGames to get their take on when developers try to sue leakers. Biast12 approached the subject from a diplomatic position, saying “at a point do I think it's ok to sue leakers, but I do think [developers] need to at least ask first, I think most leakers wouldn't do it if they just got asked to stop first, or at least I would”. ILootGames echoes that statement, adding “I think it’s way too far to sue a dataminer. Someone leaking private info that’s under an NDA makes sense though.”
ILootGames went on to say “I think that suing a leaker is one thing, suing someone who datamines is another. Datamining is just extracting from the game files info, it’s not someone breaking an NDA. I think it’s a bit crazy to go after people for sharing what they find in a game that they paid for and you gave them.”
ARE SOME LEAKS CONTROLLED OR MERE ACCIDENTS?
Believe it or not, there’s plenty of evidence of “controlled leaks” in the gaming industry. By this, we don’t mean leakers are being handed the information they release, we mean developers are purposefully adding salacious code into their game files, for eager dataminers to get their teeth into.
As well as dataminers, there are plenty of unavoidable ways games or info get leaked, even accidentally. For new titles especially, eagle-eyed internet-sleuths keep tabs on new trademarks from developers or companies, scouring the patent database for new titles.
Third-party companies who deal with a game’s release may also be involved, such as ratings boards, distribution companies or stores, and even job ads from development studios.
One infamous occasion of a title being leaked by mistake was Assassins Creed Odyssey, who’s title was revealed thanks to a promotional keychain, sent out too early by developers and leaked by store employees, who were puzzled by the new items.
A Reddit thread posed the question of whether the gaming industry should hide more “fake info” in its files, to trick hackers, and control the leaks this way.
We talked to dataminers Biast12 and ILootGames again, to get their take on controlled leaks, which they themselves find and release after diving into the code of the game Apex Legends by Respawn Entertainment. When asked whether or not controlled leaks exist, Tobias (Biast12) noted “yes and no [on the evidence for controlled leaks] because they mostly know what they put in the files”, going on to state “sometimes something can slip through the cracks, like the patch where all the legends got leaked”.
ILootGames echoes this unsure statement, arguing that “yes, they did plant code for Forge [the rumoured Legend who was assassinated before his introduction to the game], but even the way they did that seemed very suspect, it stood out a lot in the code. From my discussions with people, it’s not happening, they'd prefer leaks to not happen but they understand more so than most teams that; I'm only sharing what they themselves send out in the files”, and goes on to turn the blame back onto Respawn, continuing “if they control their patches tighter, I couldn't find anything to leak. The priority is up to them in this case”.
The dataminer isn’t trying to flip the script back onto Respawn too much, however, as he adds “I don’t want to hurt the team or hurt the fans. I’m more there for those who are impatient like me and want more content all the time. I fill the gaps with small amounts of leaks”.
SO, ARE LEAKS GOOD, BAD OR UGLY?
The internet is a vast ocean, allowing big and little fish to live within it, and the fragile ecosystem that houses developers and dataminers & leakers becomes a constant power struggle for control of the sea.
Because of the sheer amount of information on it, placed there by anyone at any time, and with a hungry mass audience ready for any shred of news, for a gaming company trying to time their press for a release just right, it’s a complicated game.
As a gamer, any news is good news, no matter the source. And the viral spread of leaks surely benefits the company in the long run, whether they were intentional or not.
Subreddit ‘GamingLeaksandRumours’ is a hotbed for leaking activity, with 30k members, any and all info that passes through will undoubtedly increase hype for any one title. Twitter accounts dedicated to posting leaks, as well as dataminers and leakers themselves, are rife, and their content spreads like wildfire.
As a developer, it’s a little more complicated. Leaks can be bad news for companies, flushing perfect PR strategies down the drain, along with the cash that accompanies them. A developer may feel they’ve lost control of the project, and it can be a huge blow to the hundreds of staff who worked on the game. For that, we have the utmost sympathy.
But as for controlled leaks, surely, they must exist. If more jobs were on the line, then code would be hidden to within an inch of its life, and NDA’s would be on the threat of death.
There are ways to do decent damage-control on info the developers definitely didn’t want to be public knowledge. Public statements can only go so far to prevent their name being tarnished after bad leaks happen, as in the case of a Pokemon Sword & Shield leak, which resulted in the following statement from Nintendo;
“Leaks hurt not just Nintendo, but the thousands of employees who work hard to bring games to market, and the millions of fans around the world who look forward to news and surprises.”
There's only so much developers can do to keep their hard work to themselves until the time is right, as dataminers get more skilled at their trade, and the call from fans for fresh information becomes louder.
So, in conclusion, do leaks help or harm the gaming industry? It depends on who you ask. But they sure are fun to discover…
Images via Clint Patterson on Unsplash, Activision & Respawn Entertainment