Xbox Exec Talks About The Culture Of Secrecy In Gaming
"Games are a highly experimental medium," Shannon Loftis said.
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While movie studios might let fans know about films coming years down the line--for example, we know the fifth Avatar movie is coming in 2025--video game companies are very rarely that transparent when it comes to their release schedules. One part of this culture of secrecy might be for competitive reasons. Announcing a project years in advance could give other studios time to react and respond. But another major element to this is that games and movies are not at all the same in how they are produced. Shannon Loftis, who heads up first-party production at Xbox, spoke with GameSpot recently about the culture of secrecy in gaming, when the right time is to announce a game, and the pain of cancellations.
"Games are a highly experimental medium," Loftis said. "And it's a line that we have to walk between talking to gamers about the games we would like to make and knowing that we are going to be able to deliver them. The worst part of my job is when I have to break promises. Obviously we had Crackdown 3 planned for a November 7 launch and we had to announce a few months ago that we had to move it."
"I am very conscious of the fact that that hurt people. Folks were very excited and they got very disappointed and it's not something I like to do."
Crackdown 3 is now slated to arrive in 2018. It was a significant loss for Microsoft's holiday 2017 lineup of exclusives, but Microsoft has been quick to point out that its lineup remains strong this year and beyond. For Crackdown 3 specifically, Loftis said in an interview with Polygon that the game was announced too soon.
She told us that for every game announcement, Microsoft considers a number of factors before letting the public know what it is working on.
"For every game announcement that we do, we have to decide when is the right time to talk to people about this, how much code do we have to have in place, how much risks do we have to have mitigated," she explained. "It gets very mundane around technical risks; and do we have a core mechanic that we like."
Many big-time studios work this way, but there are of course exceptions. For example, Bethesda announced Fallout 4 in June 2016, releasing it just six months later. The game never got delayed and it was a smash hit, surpassing Skyrim's sales. Of course, Bethesda was in an enviable position with Fallout 4, given that it was the latest entry in an established series, so Bethesda didn't necessarily need a huge awareness campaign.
Charles Randall, who worked at BioWare and Ubisoft, addressed gaming's culture of secrecy in a Twitter post that went viral earlier this year. He said such secrecy exists because of the "toxic culture" in gaming. "You know why we have to keep what we're doing secret from the public? Because of the toxic culture surrounding it," he said. Randall acknowledged that marketing has some role to play in why games are kept a secret for so long, but he still called for letting the public know more about games before release. "God help you if you let any amount of the public know what you are working on before it's set in stone," he said.
"I think radical transparency is something I would love to try at some point as a game developer" -- Loftis
One new trend in gaming that is changing things is the early access model. Games can be announced and released before they are even finished--and this can be extremely lucrative. Loftis said Microsoft is "studying that very closely," and the company is already involved in that space with its Game Preview program. It sounds like you can expect further investment in this space from Microsoft going forward. Intriguingly, Loftis said she would like to see a game developed with "radical transparency," which is pretty far from the norm for Microsoft and other big-name companies.
"Game design in general is turning more into a dialogue rather than a monologue and finding ways within our ecosystem and use our early access program, Game Preview, to get gamer input, I think is one possibility," she said. "I think radical transparency is something I would love to try at some point as a game developer. Like, 'Hey, here's three takes on a a concept, which one do you want?' Pretty sure [Xbox boss Phil Spencer] would be supportive."
Loftis went on to say that she's found that ideas and execution are oftentimes equally weighted in the overall perception of a game. And while she is personally interested in a game that is developed with "radical transparency," she stressed that it's not something actively in the works at this time.