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Gaming's Culture Of Leaks: Will Players Ever Be Surprised Again?

There’s been a lot of speculation surrounding E3’s relevance in our modern minute-to-minute news climate. While it can be great fun to see all of the industry’s major players gather together in Los Angeles once a year and vie for the attention of consumers, the conference has seen a major drop-off in terms of bombshell announcements and unprecedented reveals. Thanks to the increasing accuracy of leaks and more transparent development schemes, some are starting to wonder if gamers will ever be surprised by a major announcement again.

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There's No Surprise In The Social Media Age

In the old days, keeping an upcoming game under wraps was beyond easy; given that news was primarily distributed through print media, unofficial info outed via an unsanctioned leak would almost never reach the eyes or ears of the casual audience. Before the internet hit the mainstream, fans really would have to have been in the know to get any details that weren’t approved by the game's publisher.

Now, in an era in which a stable internet connection is essentially a necessity for human life, info can reach us the minute it becomes available, and, within twenty-four hours, even major leaks are already considered to be old news.

There were metric tons of leaks cropping up before E3 2019, and those who didn’t want to be spoiled nearly had to plug their ears and disconnect their routers lest they unwittingly catch a glimpse at what Nintendo, Microsoft, and others had up their sleeves. In a way, it’s sort of a bummer; a truly breathtaking (har har) surprise would have to be kept under some extremely tight wraps to avoid making headlines via some loose-lipped insider hours or even days ahead of the official announcement.

Most of the major games presented at E3 were titles of which were already aware. Cyberpunk 2077 and the Final Fantasy VII remake look fantastic, but their presence at the conference was hardly shocking. Even some more obscure out-of-left-field stuff like the SpongeBob: Battle for Bikini Bottom remaster found its way to the internet before it was officially unveiled. Perhaps a few really unheard of indie games made it to the show floor without first being leaked, but knowing about everything beforehand has almost become a way of life for gamers.

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Seriously, we knew about the new From Software/George R. R. Martin collaboration, Ninja Theory’s zany multiplayer endeavor, and Watch Dogs: Legion’s gimmick of letting players take control of any NPC before E3 even officially started. That takes a lot of the fun out of the conference, and, while it’s primarily intended for games media, a lot of the spectacle is tarnished when we’re already pretty sure of what’s coming our way.

It's All About The Memes, And Has Been For Years

Yet, in all honesty, E3 hasn’t been about mic-dropping moments and jaw-dropping reveals for quite some time. While this year was definitely less dysfunctional than others, the conference has become a bit of a meme since the dawn of the previous console generation. From Sony’s infamous $599 PlayStation 3 and giant enemy crab to Ubisoft’s continuous parade of eye-rolling Just Dance nonsense, the focus seems to have shifted from “what will they reveal” to “what will go wrong?”

Even if none of the major secrets slipped out into the public space prior to Todd Howard or Phil Spencer trundling through another annual cringefest, it wouldn’t have made all that much of an impact on this year’s set of presentations. Aside from a few choice titles like Ghostwire Tokyo or the yet-to-be-named Breath of the Wild sequel, almost everything that was touted at the conference was publicly shown off well in advance. Quite literally almost everything Bethesda presented during their showcase was known about, and, aside from the aforementioned Tango Gameworks title, all the stuff they did show off to which we weren’t previously privy was… well, just horrible—yes, we’re looking at you, Commander Keen.

Leaks Might Be Good For Us

That seems to go hand-in-hand with another major issue plaguing gaming’s biggest stage this year; very little gameplay of anything was shown. While some behind-closed-doors footage of Cyberpunk 2077 or Gears 5 may have excited journalists, us stuck-at-home laymen had very little to go on. Cinematic trailers which, for all we know, are wholly unrepresentative of the games on which they were based were the apparent belle of the ball this year, as nearly every conference opted for some obscure CGI work rather than any actual in-engine gameplay.

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Yet, with an industry so entirely dishonest with itself, why not just learn everything through leaks anyway? Those who learned about Anthem via leaks would have known precisely as much about it as the folks who actually saw the E3 trailer. E3 has devolved into the gaming equivalent of a pre-movie trailer reel, and we may as well just read about it by way of an online article covering leaks and speculation; it would certainly save everyone some time.

What’s more, it’s not like leaks and the culture surrounding them are really anything new. They’ve had a fundamental impact on the way we play games since the late 90s, and possibly even before, and a lot of us have simply grown to accept them. It’s impossible to look up any game online without coming across at least a minor spoiler, and some releases have even been partially ruined as a result. Does anyone remember that time Valve’s Half-Life 2 was leaked a year prior to release? That was all the way back in 2003, and we’re still waiting on something to top that.

To put a definitive piece of punctuation on the matter; no, gamers probably won’t be surprised by much in the future. Still, that’s not to say that all of our surprises have to come as part of E3. Nintendo’s Direct streams often come with one or two surprises, and some of the best bits of info often crop up out of the blue or come coupled with a PAX conference. Traditionally surprises at gaming biggest annual event may be a thing of the past, but there will always be reasons to stay excited about the future.

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