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Self-censorship: Figuring out what to share and when to shut up
by Jen Whitson on 03/21/13 05:07:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This post has been cross-posted on

I’ve been thinking about self-censorship in the game industry lately. This is for a few reasons.

A developer friend was asked to write an article comparing his experiences working in one sector of the industry versus another. Given that he’s still doing business with publishers in his old sector, and receiving a paycheque from his employer in the new sector, he faces a dilemma: “Do I write a full tell-all? Or do I leave things out, so as not to burn any bridges?”. I suspect that every postmortem writer struggles with similar issues, wanting to vent about everything that went wrong, but realizing that an honest postmortem can result in job loss.

I’ve been struggling with similar issues both in my own role as a researcher and as someone asked to blog about life inside a games incubator. In the incubator, I’m constantly reminded that a developer’s success, especially if they are creating mobile games, is partially reliant on how visible they are. Thus, blogging about what teams are doing promotes their studios. My actual attempt to do this was a misfire, relegated now to the scrapheap. But this got me thinking about secrecy in the game industry as a whole, both on the part of researchers and on part of developers themselves. (And no, I don't care about the press wanting more information on game release details).

Exchanging Silence for Access

In terms of academic work, researchers self-censor their discussions about the game industry in exchange for data and access. What we can research and write about is limited by fears that we may say too much. We sign NDAs to allay fears that we’d leak details of release dates, budgets, and technologies to competitors; or that our critiques of manufacturers, publishers, and distributors might compromise future partnerships. We also promise not to divulge details like budgets and waning profits that might scare potential investors and employees. We also want to shield people from any potential fallout that may arise from what we write.

What this means is even the most general details about what game development actually looks like, such as the name of the studio or the type of game created, must be obscured and hidden in published work. From a legal and an ethical perspective, this anonymization makes sense. But I personally wonder if some of the negative issues that plague the industry (i.e. crunch, or the perceived failures of game development programs to prepare students for actual development work) might be related to these trade-offs. I’m in the rare position not to have an NDA, and haven’t ever been asked to self-edit, but there are strong ethical reasons to anonymize my data, like protecting the identities of my research partners (and not linking them to any half-baked blog post). But I struggle to decide what to share publically, what to censor, and what to ignore.

Secrecy in the Game Industry

On the side of the game industry, while individual reputation is generally linked to the studios one’s worked in and the names of games shipped, censorship is endemic. Publishers, manufacturers and studios have a vested interest in controlling the release of information about their products and protecting proprietary information. The large number of developers competing with each other for manufacturer and publishers’ patronage means that they accede to censorship demands or risk future contracts. Developers themselves can't mobilize because they depend on both publisher and manufacturer's good will, relying on them for access to funding, or the right to create console games. This has changed slightly with social and mobile games, but developers still rely on publishers and platform holders’ good will to gain visibility for their games.

Uncertainties about what exactly is covered by copyright, NDAs and corporate contracts means that, for fear of liability, everything is secret, from hardware, to character names, to engineering standards, to organizational structure, etc. So, how do we learn from mistakes, if we can't ever freely admit to them, or when we are open about our work, we risk getting skewered by the press, fans, publishers or investors?

Knowing when to talk versus when to shut up

I suspect that, like me, many people in the industry struggle with deciding what to share and what to censor. We talk freely with our friends and co-workers over beer, but are wary of saying anything publically that could endanger our futures. In contrast, others –Team Meat, for example—are incredibly vocal about their relationships with platform owners (and now about DRM), while post-mortems from Double Fine strike me as more “from-the-gut” than most. (Seriously, Gamasutra should put the 2005 postmortem of Psychonauts online. It's insane).

You could counter that the only people who are that open aren't at risk of losing their jobs. I don't agree, though. In their great 'Beers with Friends' talk at IGDA: Montreal last year, Capy argues that their success was rooted into talking to people on a 'natural' level, getting the game out there, and being honest about the stuff they might not have figured out yet (though this only works if the game is cool and not shitty). But in contrast, Brandon Sheffield points out the dangers of talking about a game too soon, and Brendan Sinclair gets even bleaker, talking about the toxic relationship between the press, developers, and players.

How to choose?

This is obviously a big issue, with no one-size-fits-all answer. So what I want to know is how do you figure out what should be shared and how to do it? Maybe more importantly how do you deal with something you’ve said, but now want to take back?

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Chris Clogg
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I did some googling, and found this postmortem... but couldn't find Psychonauts.

(either way I'm reading it lol)... anyway, thanks for the article! I personally love when game-devs speak out, ie Gabe Newell calling out PlayStation development difficulties.

Edit: more googling revealed this (it's deep in this magazine pdf):

Christian Nutt
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Hate to be a spoilsport, but if you want to support the magazine, you can buy digital back issues here:

Phil Maxey
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I think talking about what you are working on at a relatively early stage is not only good for the game but also critical from a promotional point of view. Who are you making the game for? unless you intend an audience of 1 (yourself) then involving the players should only be a positive for your project. I would say though that it's always better to understate how great the game could be in the early stages, one thing you don't want to do is get players expectations raised too high only to under deliver, but as long as you are realistic with what you are trying to achieve than it's all good as they say.

Emppu Nurminen
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Just wondering, isn't the Marketing 101 to have some target audience than no audience at all? Why games differ from here, considering they have far more boarder spectrum to be considered from players POV than, stagnant medium like movies, comics, literature so on?

Brian Kehrer
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There is a lot of knowledge I think developers would like to share that isn't shared. Personally, there are details I withhold, even with my comparatively moderate amount of experience. Why?

1. I'm less concerned about my personal relationships (because these are typically companies or people I would never willingly work with again), and more concerned about my colleagues, who may do business with another branch of the same company.
I can take responsibility for my own words, but I cannot protect others. My slice of the truth isn't worth endangering other people's careers. I expect many other developers feel the same way.

2. The knowledge I have to share is already commonly known among professional developers.
And this is where the problem comes in. A lot of the gaming press is formed by industry outsiders, players, and fans. While their opinions are awesome and vital, they often fail to read between the lines when reviewing failures of AAA titles, management decisions, or other important development news.

When an industry veteran reads a censured postmortem, they probably have a very different opinion of what went wrong than a player reading the same article.

Small companies, or independents have the luxury of calling out whomever they want, as they can fully appreciate the risk, and come to a consensus about sharing that risk. It is much harder for an individual in a large, multi-faceted organization to do the same.

Tyler Shogren
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Since the industry is over-supplied with labor, secrecy and loyalty can be demanded from employees or someone else can be hired. Really, the oversupply of willing gamers eager for their chance to work for a game company is responsible for the epidemic of groupthink in the industry.

David Serrano
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"Publishers, manufacturers and studios have a vested interest in controlling the release of information about their products and protecting proprietary information."

But publishers, manufacturers and studios also have a vested interest in sharing information within the industry. The more information the industry can collectively compile and make available via libraries or databases, the lower the likelihood that publishers, manufacturers and studios will repeatedly devote time, money and resources toward reinventing the wheel. And for every secret or trick they share, they may learn twice as many in return.

It's absolutely fascinating that an industry which understands the power that can be harnessed by allowing large groups of people to tackle and solve a problem in virtual environments doesn't understand they can harness this power in real life.

Kelly Kleider
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So who owns the shared library? What happens when a contributed library becomes critical path, but does not have some form of GPL? or worse, is actually owned by someone who didn't authorize it being included into the shared lib?

I'm not being a dick, just pointing out one of the difficulties in leveraging shared libraries. Usually, small developers don't provide enough meat to litigate (think squirrel) but a bigger company might provide enough meat (think moose) to make the effort worthwhile.

In that landscape, it is in the interest of the bigger companies to discourage sharing, because they have the advantage of internal resources. If they won't expose themselves to liability due to risk, then you won't see them champion information sharing.

Dimitri Del Castillo
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What's the use in having an NDA when every game made is either a sequel or a rehash?