Tobold's Blog
Monday, July 14, 2008
Are NDAs a good idea?

Rohan asked in the open Sunday thread whether NDAs were a good idea. He says: "My initial thought is that if you have a good game, an NDA will cut down on the amount of hype or positive publicity you can generate. If you have a bad game, people are going to ignore your NDA and post anyways, as the only repercussion is getting kicked out of the Beta/game." Interesting thought! Although it paints a grim picture of the only reason for people not breaking a legally binding contract is if the punishment for the infraction hurts them. At least the game companies must think that people who sign an NDA will actually stick to it, regardless of the quality of the game.

My take on NDAs is that they are a form of attempted control of public relations. I'm in one beta without NDA, Football Manager Live, so I can state freely that I like the game, even if the economy is screwed up. But then Football Manager Live probably needs all the publicity it can get, even if it's just me writing about it on a blog. I'm in another beta, for Warhammer Online, where the NDA only allows me to say that I'm the beta, and not what I think about the game. And I think that is what the guys from Mythic want. They have a huge and well-functioning marketing machine, one that is even more impressive than that of Blizzard. They have monthly newsletter, the Warhammer Herald, video podcasts, developer's blogs, they got everything. If they have bad news, like, hmmm, lets say not being able to finish 4 classes and 4 cities before release, they prefer to have Mark Jacobs doing the announcement and writing detailed explanations on various game forums. They have the PR under control.

And, beta leaks or no beta leaks, at least for them it works. They can live without the potential hype from people in the beta, because they already get enough hype from people who are NOT in the beta, who just react to what Mythic fed them. There are already lots of WAR fan blogs, in spite of the fact that the game isn't even out yet. I think they are much better off with the NDA they have. If you see some of the "beta leaks", you'll notice that they are based on outdated information, or misinterpret a test of something as being a problem in the future release. How would a game company be able to use a beta test to actually test something if then everybody went "I just saw this in the beta and I hate it" publicly? The purpose of the beta test is for the beta testers to say "I hate this" to the devs, and the devs to take it our or make it better for the release version.

The only "beta leaks" I believe in are those like in the case of Vanguard, where Sigil said "we are releasing this game in 3 weeks" and all the beta testers collectively went "no way!". But for games which still have months of development ahead of them, I'd rather have an NDA, and us relying on official announcements instead of rumors. I'm willing to worry if Mark Jacobs tells me that Empire won't have tanks, but I'm not willing to do so if some beta tester says that there were no tanks on the Empire character selection screen. Only when the game is released, or at least very close to release, or the developers say so, do we really know what features are in or not in. If NDAs keep the premature rumors low, than that is fine with me.
If it's actually a beta, have an NDA. If it's for gaining hype / popularity, then don't.

Public / Open Beta isn't really beta, it's more like an early peek at the game. It may not be complete, but at most it's a load test while they finish up a few things before release. At that point, they're under the gun and won't delay release to fix anything.

Nobody has "no NDA" for a real beta, that's just an illusion. They'll have different tiers of testing, with a sort of "everything that we're willing to show goes in this beta".

If betas early in development had no NDA, that would be disastrous for PR.
I think there are certain unwritten rules to begin with. Even in PC gaming, if you have a quality product, people will buy it, yes actually buy it instead of obtaining pirated copies.

If you have a genre, that is supposed to entertain for hundreds of hours, a NDA becomes less important, than for a game than is finished in 20 or less.

NDAs only affect a very small part of your audience: the hardcore. If your audience is 100% hardcore, an NDA is a must. The hardcore folks are smart. Word of mouth is so effective, that an undisclosed beta, can be killed by the fanboys before the product is finished.

The genre became so similar, that small differences can make a difference. If you have to protect those, an NDA is a must have.

To sum it all up: NDA or not, is always up the the studio. There are pros and cons as always. Post WoW, we have yet to see an NDAed product, live up to the hype. AoC again couldn't hold up and the good news for WAR are dried out long time ago. The recent content cut won't be the last bad PR for this product - NDA or not.
Yeah I think NDAs are a good idea. The game is usually not finished when the NDA is in effect so any opinions leaked would be based on that. What the general public should know is what the finished game plays like and a NDA prevents (hopefully) them from hearing opinions based on unfinished games.

About developers releasing games early and beta testers reaction:
That beta testers cry out negative responses to games being released early happens all the time. Of course there are scales of non-finishedness too though. Not even WoW should have been released when it was because they had the horrible loot-lag bug (which still plagues the game now and then) at release.

Come to think of it, of all the games I've beta tested the only one I thought was ready for release was LOTRO, although I later found out that the mid-high levels weren't finished anyway.

Tbh, today I don't think that developers ever release a game that's totally finished. They just patch it up after release to the best of their ability. But at least then they deserve whatever reviews they get when the NDA is dropped then if it's released unfinished.
why would FM Live need all the pubilcity it can get? the game has been number one of the uk game charts for the past 15+ years? everyone that plays computer games and likes football knows about FM from Sports Interactive.

it will have all its features working, shipped and on time, can't say that many other mmo(s) these days.

Not sure if this applies directly to you, but I work in a technology incubator. We talk with early stage startups and entrepreneurs almost daily on new business concepts and ideas. We almost never sign an NDA.

Logistically, we try to avoid it. Based on the number of people we meet with, we would be constantly signing them. Wasted time.

However, part of our pitch to folks that want us to sign them before they will talk (and every once in a while we do sign them) is that we don't feel there is a lot of value, again at least in our industry.

The fact remains that the simple concept isn't the business. It takes a fully fleshed out concept, supported by a business plan to be the foundation of a business. THEN it takes an entrepreneur with all the required qualities, money and a supporting team to build the business. Even then, your odds of being successful certainly aren't guaranteed.

Get an NDA signed if you need to in specific instances, but as a blanket strategy for the entire discussion, I would say the cons outweigh the pros.
An NDA is mostly important to control when the press covers the game. You want the game to be in a near-final state before it gets reviewed, and the press are about the only people who respect NDAs and don't post articles early (because they have to).

The positive and negative hype will exist from players whether there's an NDA or not, so it's really more about ensuring the wider media coverage is accurate for the game than anything.
Can anyone point to an example where a NDA actually prevented Beta leaks?

Once you invite a few dozen or more random people to have a look at your game, someone will talk about it.

My guess is that most Beta NDAs are more a cover-your-ass thing, so if the game suffers from negative reporting the developers can tell the angry investors they did everything they could to curb the negative reporting.

If you want your Game to be a secret, don't invite the public to look at it until it is finished. Of course, that would mean hiring lots of testers instead of using overeager gamers to do the actual beta testing.
I don't know if this is an emerging trend, an exception to the rule, or an unfounded rumor, but rumor has it the Stargate Worlds NDA includes a significant fine for breaching the NDA. I don't know if such a thing would be enforceable even if true, but if it is we might see this become more common to prevent breaches.
graktar, penalty clauses for breach of contract are generally unenforceable, especially if they are punitive. You're pretty much limited to provable monetary damages. In the case of a writer participating in a public beta, such damages would be very low.
> I'm in one beta without NDA,
> Football Manager Live, so I can
> state freely that I like the game,
> even if the economy is screwed up...

you can say whether you like a game or not, just don't give intimate details. i broke NDA for warhammer and was kicked out, but the game was so bad (at that point, maybe it's gotten better?) that it was a non issue.
It seems to me the biggest issue with NDA's is the way companies use the beta's.

Lets be honest. Beta testing originated because it was cheaper to let us work out the bugs than to hire 1000 or more people to test it at your company. But somewhere along the line beta's became as much about publicity as testing and now its a big mess.

Companies seem to want the publicity when its good and look the other way if it's broken that way, but but want to punish those that break it and say bad things.
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