Assassin’s Creed 4 reveal proved embargo failure, and rigidity of publishers
Ubisoft has made the existence of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag official, with a good number of images of the game’s box art. The game is coming to the PS3, Xbox 360, PC, and Wii U, with the PS3 version including an hour of “exclusive gameplay.” There is more information coming about the game this Monday, when the embargo for the press pre-briefing expires.
Which is why the events of the last few days have been incredibly silly: The press was forced to pretend to not know that the information being leaked to them was accurate.
When you have to pretend to be ignorant
The easiest way to know whether a rumor or leak is legitimate is to follow a bunch of gaming writers on Twitter. If they all get grumpy when something is leaked, take note. This means that not only did they know that the leak is real, but the power behind the official announcement has been weakened. The time spent traveling to a preview event, preparing stories, and hoping for a big rush of interest when they’re allowed to report on what they’ve seen is somewhat lessened.
This series of events took place this week, as a tipster mailed Kotaku a poster that showed art from Assassin’s Creed 4, and it became big news.
The image raced around the Internet, with sites often posting it as a question: Is this the new Assassin’s Creed title? Or they had to be cagey, and say this could be the new Assassin’s Creed title. In many cases, not only did they know the images were real, but they had seen the game, knew many details about it, but couldn’t discuss this without breaking embargo or getting into trouble from their signed non-disclosure agreements.
“The downside of embargoes was on display two days ago when the whole gaming press had to pretend they didn’t know AC4: Black Flag was legit,” Polygon’s Justin McElroy stated via Twitter. “In the end, I think embargoes are good for both readers and press, but publishers have to be agile enough to respond to leaks.”
Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo faced the situation head-on once the game was officially announced in a blunt post that mirrored the frustration felt by many of us in the press.
“But it is maddening to not be able to level with you guys and gals; it is unacceptable for us to sit on news tips sent to us independently; and it is nauseating to recognize that this situation was partially of our own making. Some may say that the simple solution is to refrain from signing future embargoes, but, as I wrote above, verbal agreements are common on this beat and often are simply a matter of courtesy—the price for seeing something rough-edged a bit early,” he wrote.
“In the future, we can be more clear with those who show us games that we will run tips that are clearly sent to us independently and that, if and when we do, we will have to be able to more clearly acknowledge their veracity,” Totilo continued. The entire post is worth reading. It’s a no-win situation for everyone involved.
What can be done
There is no easy solution to this problem. Embargoes help to keep everyone on an equal footing, and they allow us to sit back and spend time on our coverage. If I felt like I had to rush back to the hotel room after an event to vomit up words as quickly as possible to be competitive, my coverage would suffer.
It’s the same way with game reviews; I’m expecting code for a much-anticipated game later today, with an embargo of next week. That lets me sit back, make a cup of coffee, and play the game for an extensive period of time before sharing my thoughts. Without that embargo, speed would become the most important thing in getting coverage up. Embargoes, by and large, are things that are good for both the press and publishers.
These situations get stupid when information leaks, and writers have to pretend to not know if something is real. Or you could break the embargo, which hurts your relationship with the publisher, break the NDA, which could have legal consequences, or not run the information at all, which is ignoring news.
None of these options are appealing, leading to the awkwardness of that Assassin’s Creedposter. The best response from a publisher would be loosening restrictions once this sort of information is released, allowing the press to confirm its validity, inform readers of when the features will be going up, and the whole thing becomes a non-issue.
In the past I’ve had news given to me from a third-party source that I trusted completely, and I ran the information and broke the story. I felt pretty good about things, but to my surprise I was attacked by certain members of the press moreso than the publisher who lost the advantage of a big, unified reveal.
They had seen the game, signed the paper, and now their coverage was old news. In reporting the story, I had caused that time to be all but wasted. I’ve felt the same way when I’ve known about news under embargo, only to see it leaked. Everyone assumes it’s the publisher who sends the heat your way, but the press has a vested interest in a level playing field.
The best move for a publisher is to allow for confirmations when news becomes public. They may lose some buzz, but it erases this tension, and it’s not like a game this large is ever going to want for publicity. Expect this sort of thing to be added to NDAs in the future, or the press refusing to play along with these silly games.