In the wake of a “network intrusion in which an unauthorized third party illegally accessed and downloaded… early development footage for the next Grand Theft Auto,” Rockstar Games wrote that they were “extremely disappointed” that details of their next game, Grand Theft Auto 6 (GTA 6), were shared.

“Disappointment” is not the worst of it for Rockstar, a company that executed the most successful game launch to date. Eleven million copies of GTA 6’s predecessor, Grand Theft Auto (GTA V), were sold on the first day of release, generating sales of $1 billion in just three days and instantly recouping the $250 million development cost several times over. GTA V remains the paradigm of a successful game launch.

What’s so bad about pre-release leaks?

Piracy takes a huge bite out of gaming revenues, which is why companies invest in preventative measures like anti-piracy software and legal action to recover damages.

But exposure of game content before release often also represents a significant threat. To understand why, let’s dive into an analysis of Rockstar’s GTA V marketing strategy. Rockstar relied on anticipation to sell their game, releasing the first trailer two years prior to launch. They also involved fans directly in the promotion, soliciting auditions for fans to appear in the game itself.

This precision-timed campaign successfully built consumer word-of-mouth, fanned excitement, and generated the “buzz” that drives customer interest and sales, especially for action-adventure games.

In the pre-release period, however, buzz is easier to kill than to build. In the absence of actual, solid information about characters and storylines, creating positive buzz depends on the ability to carefully control information and images relating to the game. It means creating media-worthy events that genuinely pique the interest of the press and of gaming influencers. 

The role of buzz

Before a new film, game or other product associated with positive social capital is released, only three types of information are typically available to individuals in the target market:

  1. Signals of quality that potential adopters can infer from producer and distributor actions.
  2. Speculation regarding quality that is shared by the media, critics and other consumers.
  3. Signals of the product’s social salience, based on the intensity of media coverage and consumer buzz.

Owners of products with high social salience are most able to influence and control the first type of information. For GTA V, the painstakingly crafted trailers, TV spots and outdoor ads revealed just enough to feed buzz and encourage speculation. They conveyed the impressions, images and most importantly, feelings Rockstar wanted to project, with release timed to sustain ongoing engagement.

Media, critical and consumer speculation cannot be controlled, but it can be influenced. Rockstar’s online contest was a brilliant way to build interest and fuel direct engagement, while keeping key elements of the product dark and building suspense.

Protecting the carefully orchestrated sequence of actions to build anticipation among influencers and encourage them to create more pre-release buzz is essential for robust sales both upon release and into the future.

Three ways to kill buzz

Keeping this in mind, let’s return to the issue of leaks, which can harm action-adventure game sales in three ways.

  1. Released content is disappointing. Inevitably, the quality of “early development versions” like those released in the Rockstar intrusion are inferior to the final game or promotional clips. Rationally, gamers certainly understand this but their emotional response is likely to be disappointment.
  2. If released content reveals too much information. Anticipatory speculation and discussions about storylines and characters allows gamers to feel like participants in the creative process. Release of any clips reduces the imaginative space and dampens speculative engagement.
  3. Release timing is poor. Buzz is heightened through carefully timed release of information, as Rockstar demonstrated in the GTA V release. If information is released too early, the actual release will be perceived as old news.

Attacks like the one on Rockstar are coming faster and more furiously. In the recent Activision Blizzard breach, which started with a successful phishing attack on a “privileged user,” leaked documents included a spreadsheet detailing Call of Duty updates and events scheduled for the year ahead, as well as names and anticipated release dates for new installments.

Avoiding leaks, breaches and hacks of pre-release proprietary content is essential for maximizing action-adventure game anticipation and sales.

Content exposure: The other risk facing the gaming industry

The threat actors behind the Activision Blizzard breach exfiltrated source code for League of Legends and Teamfight Tactics in addition to employee data and release plans. The company was fortunate that no pre-release game content was revealed.

Like gaming companies, the film industry develops sophisticated IP that’s delivered via digital channels to provide immersive entertainment experiences. Both industries expertly promote their products with exceptionally effective marketing techniques.

The industries also share similar production process vulnerabilities, with many third-party and work-from-home developers, animators, designers and VFX professionals accessing and sharing proprietary content across digital platforms, where it is at significant risk of exposure. Unlike gaming, however, the film industry has vast experience battling piracy and content theft and a studio system that wields considerable power over specialized production houses, enabling its Trusted Partner Network (TPN) to enforce strict content protection practices based on MPA Best Practices Common Guidelines.

Protecting content-in-process

For much of the gaming industry, the risk of pre-release content exposure takes a back seat to issues of piracy, fraud and misuse. But for story- and character-driven games like GTA, pre-release content protection is a serious concern. It’s time for companies to take a tough stance on preventing data leakage and cyber theft, and adopt modern, proactive digital production process protections.