Twitch is having a rough time right now, to put it lightly. Recently, a massive leak revealed the site’s entire source code, additional data and information on other Twitch properties, streamer payouts for the last three years, internal security tools, and a potential Amazon competitor to Steam, the massive online game storefront. The leaker, who remains anonymous, revealed on notorious forum website 4chan that they leaked the information in order to “foster more disruption and competition in the online video streaming space.” Twitch is aware of the incident and is looking into it – for that Digital Trends piece, they later sent me a statement saying that they’re “working with urgency to understand the extent of [the leak]. – but nothing new has emerged since then.
In terms of culture, the most talked-about aspect of the leak so far has been creator payouts, which reveal exactly what the top streamers on Twitch make purely through subscriptions, bits, ads, and other Twitch-specific items. (The numbers don’t include sponsorships, ad money from YouTube, merchandise, or other common revenue streams for content creators.) Leaks are nothing new to the gaming community – fans have been talking about leaked games, content, updates, patches, events, and more since the rise of the internet – but it seems like most legitimate announcements today are foretold in the weeks or days beforehand by leaks, data mines, or similar events.
Leading the leak
We’re reaching a leak fever pitch, a state of being where very little is truly a surprise anymore. Leakers’ motivations vary widely, from disgruntled ex-employees releasing NDA’d material to make their former employers mad, to data miners who just want to be the first to know what’s coming next for their favorite game, to supposed champions of “disruption and competition” like the Twitch leaker. (I hate that I have to say this, but if you want to foster competition in streaming, go stream – and do it well – on a different platform, like YouTube. Do not leak another website’s source code.) There are Twitter accounts dedicated to finding and reporting on leaks. Sometimes leaks even come from companies themselves, like when developer Respawn Entertainment accidentally revealed a new gun, the Nemesis, in an Apex Legends event trailer. That article is now my best-performing article of all time. People care about the content that comes from leaks and they want to see more, but I can’t help but wonder if that method of delivery is all it’s cracked up to be.
I get it! I really do. Everyone wants new content, and they want it now. I’m not going to make an old person joke about kids these days and their need for instant gratification, but it’s generally true that the more frequently a player base gets new in-game content, the happier it is. I’m no exception: I love getting new stuff in the games I play. I can’t wait to see that Nemesis in Apex! At the same time, I’m also a game dev, and I know how it feels to be on the other side of the wall. New characters, maps, weapons, items, and events take time and money to make. Generally speaking, the longer you spend on a feature, the better it works: more time means more opportunities to tune, balance, and playtest, all of which are essential parts of the iterative process that is game design.
Leaks throw all that out the window. Oftentimes, they’ll reveal things that aren’t ready to be seen yet by fans, sparking unnecessary debate and anger over a feature or mechanic that may never actually make it into the game. Sometimes they’ll spoil a big announcement, like what happened with Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, a Switch game that was going to be the big surprise at the end of Ubisoft’s E3 2021 press conference but was instead leaked the day beforehand. Sometimes I wonder why I bother to watch E3 anymore; though the show is arguably on its way out anyway, it shouldn’t be because all the essential information is being leaked beforehand.
Some, like the Twitch leaker, claim that leaks are a way of taking back power from big media companies that control the flow of information. Digital media ownership and piracy are huge topics that are beyond the scope of this essay, but for now, I’ll say this: consider not only the large company that these games are coming from, but each of the individuals who worked hard on the content for your favorite game. Consider the way they would feel if something they intended to be a big reveal was instead leaked beforehand or released in an unfinished form. Consider how that may make them feel powerless.
Media amid leaks
I’ve talked a lot about Nintendo, including how the company continually clings to nostalgia – often to its own detriment – but it also clings to privacy. The Big N has historically been one of gaming’s most tight-lipped companies, refusing to send out embargo information to journalists for big reveals and keeping their information so close to their chest that very little ever gets out. This philosophy even extends to their hardware: when manufacturers and gaming companies were transitioning to the standard DVD-sized discs to hold game data for consoles, Nintendo stuck first with cartridges, then with the GameCube’s donut-sized discs in order to avoid piracy. (Their reasoning was that standard-sized discs could be inserted into almost any computer to have the data ripped off of them; with cartridges and proprietary discs, would-be pirates would need more advanced hardware and software to extract the game’s files.)
While many consider this philosophy to be something that’s holding the company back, in the face of events like the Twitch leaks, I find myself wondering if Nintendo has the right idea. It’s not fun for consumers and fans to be completely stuck in the dark, but at the same time, the company’s Nintendo Direct videos and major reveals are almost always genuine surprises. (I’d be willing to bet that the Mario + Rabbids leak came from the Ubisoft side rather than the Nintendo side. No shade to Ubi, but based on Nintendo’s corporate atmosphere…it makes sense.) And you know what? I like it. It’s a breath of fresh air. It’s fun not knowing exactly what’s going to happen beforehand. As a journalist, I’m often cued in to events and reveals ahead of time because of work, but I try to keep the stuff I really like a secret from myself. I let my coworkers handle those write-ups.
While the Twitch leak was on a much larger scale than many of the middling game leaks I’ve discussed here, I still think it belongs in the same category. Leaks for any and all reasons are here to stay, but I’m starting to wish they weren’t. On the internet, a platform where anyone can know just about anything at any time, I’m rediscovering the value of secrecy, of the big reveal, of the showiness and room-wide gasps that come with an unexpected revelation. Particularly in the era of COVID, where in-person events are still limited and I’m getting almost all of my reveals through the internet, first impressions of games mean a lot. If that first impression comes through a leak or other less-than-legitimate means of acquisition, it simply doesn’t feel the same.