The Soapbox: The absurdity of the NDA

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|11.29.11

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The Soapbox: The absurdity of the NDA
Admiral Ackbar
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

So Star Wars: The Old Republic's NDA dropped. Now the entire world (officially) knows the skinny on BioWare's new themepark, and I'm hard-pressed to think of a more anti-climactic NDA death. Even if you weren't following the game over the past few months, you knew exactly what to expect -- provided you weren't a Star Wars or a BioWare virgin.

This complete lack of surprise is one reason why the whole MMORPG NDA thing is a joke, and TOR is just the latest in a long series of punchlines.

Star Wars The Old Republic - Chiss agent
Why an NDA?

The non-disclosure agreement, as it relates to video game software, exists primarily for marketing purposes, and it's largely about keeping the details of a product under wraps until the fan fires are burning their brightest. This mock-secrecy wouldn't be so bad if, at the same time, game companies weren't bending over backwards to hype the products that they don't actually want you to know about.

Star Wars The Old Republic - armored JediWhy do game companies try so hard to enforce NDAs? Ostensibly it's to protect a competitive advantage, but is it really? That supposition makes little sense in the AAA themepark MMO space, where each new game is a rehash of systems that were old a decade ago. Does BioWare really need an NDA to stop other firms from stealing its gear progression and story-is-the-fourth-pillar set-up?

Aside from perhaps Funcom, I can't think of another company that would spend bazillions of dollars making voiceover narrative the centerpiece of a virtual world, unless of course that company could also copy the Star Wars IP upon which the entire thing depends. Even if another company did want to copy TOR's ideas, few if any competing firms have BioWare's resources.

So what was the point of TOR's NDA?

My first thought was that it might have existed to protect BioWare's pre-orders (which, currently hovering around the one million mark, represent a considerable chunk of easily lost change). That can't be it, though, because pre-orders can still be canceled. Perhaps if the NDA had dropped a couple of days prior to December 20th, then that hypothesis might make sense. But a month prior? Nah.

What about heading off bad word of mouth due to buggy beta systems? That's very possible, but ultimately even the most ignorant forum warrior has to realize that alpha and beta builds are, by definition, buggy, and the lengths companies go to in order to ensure NDA secrecy far outstrip the potential damage that could result from a few grammatically challenged opinions.

So why? The only answer I can think of is to generate even more hype. I suppose I could understand that with your run-of-the-mill fantasy themepark, but it seems like overkill with TOR. The devs could've made a game based entirely on hippopotamus pornography and it would've sold a couple million boxes provided it had a lightsaber and the BioWare logo on the cover.

Ultimately, TOR's NDA was in place for so long because the primary objective of a game company isn't to educate potential customers about a product and allow them to make an informed purchasing decision. The objective is to sell as many units as possible no matter what, and this is done by delivering the right message -- not necessarily the truth because those aren't always the same thing.

PlanetSide 2 trooper
Some non-TOR examples

I'm speaking generally here, of course, and I'm not picking on BioWare's game exclusively. While TOR is certainly the most visible and most talked about pre-release MMO ever, other companies send out mixed messages about secrecy and hype too.

Consider Sony Online Entertainment's PlanetSide 2. I'm a huge fan of the original game, and of course I'm pumped about the prospect of an updated version. But from SOE's perspective, it's much safer to build hype with fluffy factional lore pieces (factional lore, in a shooter!) than it is to reveal the detailed mechanics of gameplay.

That strategy can also backfire, though, as we've seen with TERA and En Masse. TERA's American development has stalled, and the team keeps pumping out big-ass monster press releases that leave even hardcore fans (like yours truly) wondering why everything is shrouded in such secrecy if there's in fact a good game lurking somewhere under the layers of obfuscation.

TERA castanic slayer
Put up or shut up

Transparency is really what it boils down to in the end. And no game company has the motivation to be transparent because this industry is driven almost entirely by metrics and quarterly reports.

I'm not saying that NDAs don't have a role to play, and I'm not saying to completely avoid advertising your product. But advertise all of it, and advertise all of it honestly. And if you're not ready to advertise all of it honestly, whether because it's too early in the gestation process or because you already know you're going to be making significant alterations prior to release, then just keep quiet about it altogether.

Let me get back to TOR to close out this article: What actually changed when the game's NDA charade finally ended? Absolutely nothing, according to our informal polls on the subject. Those who have always loved TOR continue to love it, and those who find it to be average or worse have seen nothing in the slew of post-NDA "reveals" to change their minds.

So what was the point again?

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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