Without a doubt, the biggest story of the past week has been the extensive leaking of highly spoiler-ish and relevant story and level details from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 by the popular gaming site Kotaku. Modern Warfare 3 is easily the most anticipated game of the year, in terms of popularity and, of course, financially, so a story like this would naturally attract tons of attention. It’s easy to see why: Modern Warfare 2 was the biggest game of all time at its launch, now surpassed only by Call of Duty: Black Ops and likely to be surpassed again by Modern Warfare 3. It’s not exactly a mystery why this leak generated such a huge response.
But something bothers me a great deal about this. I think this is a huge story, but not for the reasons that most others do. I think Kotaku erred in leaking these details. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Kotaku commited a very great wrong, one that not only damages Activision and the Call of Duty brand, but also the entire video game industry and its myriad partners, including the world of video game journalism. And the fact that only a select few have even noticed this bothers me even more.
You see, maybe I’m old fashioned, but I truly believe that journalism, even video game and entertainment journalism, is a noble profession with a set of ethics that all who practice it should adhere to. Journalism is there to protect people by exposing lies and keeping the powers that be honest. Reporters take the time to check the facts because we the people don’t have the time and resources to do so ourselves. They are a vital part of this world and one that should be embraced instead of marginalized.
Which brings me to Kotaku. I really have no idea what benefit they saw for their readers when they decided to post all this incredibly detailed information about a game series that, while it mainly lives and dies on its multiplayer, thrives on surprising people with amazing moments during the campaign aspect. Moments which are now ruined by this leak. And don’t even bother with telling me that people shouldn’t read it if they don’t want to be spoiled. As Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park: “You were so busy worrying about if you could that you didn’t stop to think if you should.” We aren’t talking about a screenshot or a leaked level name. We are talking about full details regarding every level of the game, including who lives and dies at the climax. This is an unprecedented leak and nothing else that has come before can compare to it. Remember the Whiskey Hotel reveal from Modern Warfare 2? It wouldn’t have had the same impact if you knew about it ahead of time, would it?
What bothers me is that only a disgruntled employee, perhaps ex-employee, would leak this information. After all, no one who is still actively working on this game would commit an act that is tantamount to artistic rape. Which makes this a malicious act, one designed to hurt Activision and perhaps the remnants of Infinity Ward. And Kotaku has given this vile act its implicit support by posting these leaks. Which is stunning to me because it is an act of blinding stupidity and short-sightedness while at the same time demonstrating a callous disregard to the very art and business of video games.
I think, in their haste to get more eyeballs on their page, that Kotaku has forgotten something very important about their role in the video game world: they are merely a vehicle for information. Nobody goes to Kotaku just for the sheer joy they bring to all the good little boys and girls of the gamer world. People direct their browers to Kotaku, to IGN, to Joystiq because they want information about video games. They want news. They want reviews and analysis and discussion about games because they love games. Video game journalism is a symbiotic relationship: publishers give these sites access to their games in return for these sites transmitting information about said games to the public. People read the site and people buy the games, if they like what they read. As long as the game is well-made and honestly reported on, everybody wins.
But Kotaku has violated that relationship, telling its partner in this case, Activision, to go suck on the barrel of an AK-47 and pull the trigger until it goes click. Kotaku did nothing noble here. This isn’t the Pentagon Papers and their source isn’t Deep Throat. Can you imagine Entertainment Weekly or Variety publishing massive spoilers about Inception or The Dark Knight months before release? They would never do such a thing, knowing full well that those studios behind the movies would cut them off, which honestly, is what Activision should do. They shoulf pull all ads from Kotaku and send no review copies of their games until a full and sincere apology is published on the website.
Activision doesn’t need Kotaku. They wouldn’t notice a single dent in their bottom-line if they did such a thing, even if Kotaku were to cry and post about how they are being black-balled. Which happened in the past with Sony and the leak about Playstation Home. Everyone on the Internet likes to compare it to the Wild West, but you know what? In the Wild West, if you messed with someone on this scale, you know what would happen? You’d get shot. So take that AK out of your mouth, Activision and point it at Kotaku.
What so many people fail to realize is that Activision doesn’t owe you a single bit of information about any of their products until they are damned good and ready. They answer only to their shareholders and even on the off-chance that one of you out there owns stock in Activision, you still aren’t entitled to confidential information about products in development. And just to take it away from the business side of things and mosey on over to the artistic area, it’s even more wrong. No one should have their art taken away from them and distributed to the masses in an unfinished state. It is flat out wrong and if I were one of the hundreds of people working on Modern Warfare 3, I would be in a state of rage at this moment.
Art is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight, but takes many hours of pain and struggle to achieve something worthwhile. And say what you want about Call of Duty, but we all can agree that they have hit on something that people find worthwhile. But to have that shown before it is complete can sap all the inspiration out of someone. To give you an example from our own world of video games, look no further than Valve and Half-Life 2. In 2003, hackers stole the source code for the unfinished sequel to Half-Life and posted it online. People dissected and judged major elements of the game that were incomplete. Gabe Newell has stated that everyone at Valve was devastated by this violation and it resulted in a very difficult time for the company. We all agree that Valve is a community of artists that always seem to look out for their consumers. And they were repaid with a terrible violation, one that had a high cost at the human level.
Now some may call all of this a case of envy, as we can all probably face the sad truth that GamerSushi will never be as large or as influential as Kotaku. But you know what? I’m fine with that. Because I know, at the end of the day, I can look into the mirror with a clear conscience and say to myself, “Today, I didn’t do anything to purposefully cause harm to the art and industry I love.”
But Kotaku can’t.
And that kind of integrity has more value than all the website hits and page views in the entire world.
Shame on you, Kotaku.