I've been writing and reporting about video games for a long time. It's not only a career, a way to pay the bills and put food on the table, but a passion that drives me out of bed every day, full of curiosity and excitement. The exhilaration felt when breaking the first details on the PlayStation 4 Pro or the fractured breakup of Infinity Ward and Activision is matched only by a desire to enlighten and inform the people who read my work. But none of that's possible without the people who trust me with sensitive information, who take a risk that I won't put their jobs in jeopardy. I've got a pretty clean track record with that. But one time, I fucked up.
Why write a story like this? Why open myself to criticism that will, inevitably, be used against me by people with questionable motives? Because mistakes happen, we learn from them, and that's how we get better. It's that simple.
This happened back in 2007, when I was working for 1UP, a gaming publication that no longer exists. (It was most notable for pioneering the personality-based games coverage that's become the standard nowadays.) Being the news editor at 1UP was my first "real" job. I'd been writing news articles for 1UP for a few years, in addition to contributing features and reviews to other magazines (EGM, Xbox Nation, etc.), but becoming 1UP's news editor was A Big Deal. Beyond the fact that I was only 22-years-old, having graduated college only a few months prior, I was offered the job after Luke Smith, now creative director on Destiny 2, left for Bungie. Luke made an impact by breaking stories. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
In early November 2007, I'd heard from a source close to Sony that Cory Barlog, game director on the critically acclaimed God of War 2, was leaving Sony Santa Monica. Given how important the God of War franchise was to Sony at the time, and how vital Barlog's leadership had been to making God of War 2 a special entry in the series, his departure would have a huge impact.
My source passed on the information almost immediately after Barlog had revealed the news to everyone at Sony Santa Monica. People loved working with him, and were devastated to learn that Barlog wouldn't be around for God of War 3—the studio's next project, and their first for the PlayStation 3. Part of the reason my source was even telling me about the news was because they were personally upset about it. It was an opportunity for them to vent.
(Each reporter has different ways of handling relationships with sources, but often, you end up talking with sources about a variety of topics, most of which will never end up getting used in a story. It's about trust, and it's common to become friends with sources over time.)
Our conversation eventually touched upon the idea of breaking the news that Barlog was leaving, and while my source didn't have a problem with me using the information, he wanted me to wait a few weeks. Emotions were raw within Sony Santa Monica, and having this break into the open, which would immediately invite speculation about why he was leaving, which would make things worse. My source asked me to sit on the news because using it earlier could put them at risk. I agreed; I was playing by their rules, not mine.
I ended up casually mentioning the news to a few people in the office, discussing what it means for Sony and God of War, and letting them know we'd have a pretty cool scoop to break in the near future. Not long after, I got pulled into a meeting. When it was over, I'd been told that we got confirmation from Sony that Barlog was leaving and we could run a story. Sony had sent over a statement, which means it was official, not a sourced rumor.
What the fuck?
I hadn't authorized anyone to reach out to Sony. In fact, that's the opposite of what my sourced had asked. With a mixture of confusion, anger, and realizing the cat was fully out of the bag, I took the statement from Sony and began to write a story. (In retrospect, I wish I'd been more upset at the people who were responsible for this happening, but I was young, new, and had never been in a situation like this before.) It's not like I could tell Sony, "Hey, actually, we're gonna wait!" A little later, an article was on 1UP. (The link no longer works, even using the usually-great Wayback Machine. The only real archive is a NeoGAF thread.)
"We just received confirmation that SCEA Santa Monica game director Cory Barlog, best known for his work on God of War II, will soon leave the studio to pursue other opportunities.
"We can confirm that Cory Barlog, game director for God of War II, is leaving the SCEA SM Studio and we are grateful for his work and creative vision for the critically acclaimed God of War franchise," says a Sony spokesperson. "Moving forward, we are confident in the God of War team, as they are an extremely talented group of people that are passionate about the franchise and dedicated to creating even more epic content with God of War: Chains of Olympus for the PSP and God of War III for PS3."
On a normal day, after publishing a scoop, I'd leave the office to have some celebratory beers. In this case, though, I was trying to put out another fire, one lit under the ass of my source. When I found out Sony had been contacted, I told my source that someone took the information they'd passed onto me about Barlog and used it without my authorization. While that was true, it didn't change a fundamental truth: I'd betrayed the trust of my source. I didn't have to tell anyone about what I knew. When I did, I invited the possibility of a mistake.
My source was, understandably, extremely pissed off about what'd happened, and had little patience for excuses. When the news broke, Barlog was, from what I was told at the time, also extremely upset. He felt betrayed himself, unable to understand why anyone would leak this to media so soon after he made the decision. He reportedly stormed out of the office.
"Someone took the information and used it without my authorization. While that was true, it didn't change a fundamental truth: I'd betrayed the trust of my source. I didn't have to tell anyone about what I knew. When I did, I invited the possibility of a mistake."
There was a more pressing concern, too. Sony wanted to understand how the information could have gotten out so quickly, and were beginning to scan network traffic to see if any messages or emails had been sent while people were at work. In this case, my source had communicated with me on a service that could have been picked up by such a search. This was a newbie mistake on both ends.
Now, instead of being worried about Barlog's reaction, my source had good reasons to be concerned about their job. A journalist is supposed to protect against this very scenario.
We spoke over the phone several times that evening. I tried to reassure them everything would be fine, that companies threaten to search network traffic all the time, but it doesn't usually amount to anything. (I was making that up. I had no idea.) This would all blow over.
It didn't. In fact, it was the worst case scenario: they found proof of our exchange.
My source ended up getting called into a meeting that week to discuss what happened, a meeting they fully expected would end with them being fired from a job they deeply loved. As it turned out, they weren't the only person in the meeting because they weren't the only person who'd spoken to someone—media or otherwise—about what happened with Barlog. The news had come as such a shock to the studio that lots of people had started talking.
Rather than fire a bunch of people, the meeting served as a warning: Don't do this again.
When I heard about this, we both breathed a sigh of relief. It was an instructive moment, one that's weighed heavy ever since. I've never felt good about how that story went down, especially knowing the reaction it generated from Barlog. To be clear, it doesn't bother me if I piss someone off; that's bound to happen in this business. What bothered me was specifically how it all happened. I lost control.
Waiting might invite an opportunity for someone to beat me to the punch on a story, but that's fine. I'm usually beaten to the punch because I'm cautious—a lesson learned from this incident.
All this happened nearly 10 years ago, but it's never left my mind. Every time I write a story using privileged information, it pops up. It causes me to sweat. My source kept their job and has built a wonderful career in games, but because I was always too embarrassed, I never really asked them for information again. (We still keep in touch, though.)
But last E3, I had a chance to see a presentation for the new God of War game. The person walking us through the demo was none other than Cory Barlog. I'd never met Cory before, and after he finished pitching on his new game, I had a chance to interview him one-on-one. He didn't seem to recognize me, which made sense—all of this happened a decade ago.
When the public relations person signaled it was time for the last question, I turned off my recorder and told Cory I wanted to apologize for something that'd happened a long time ago. I explained how I was the reporter who broke that he was leaving Sony Santa Monica, and while I had zero regrets about reporting the information, I deeply regretted how it transpired.
My intention, I told him, was to inform the public on the departure of a major creative from one of Sony's most important studios, but as a young reporter, I didn't handle it properly.
There was a brief pause, as though he was trying to remember an emotional event that he'd long ago tried to put behind him, and he accepted my apology. We shook hands and left. I felt better.
The whole reason I'm telling this story is because of a question that came up on Waypoint Radio last Friday, in which someone asked about the motivations behind sources and how reporters handle the information passed to them. I've learned a lot since this happened in 2007, and am proud of my sterling track record since; not a single person who's passed anything onto me has gotten into trouble. Whether you think it's right of them to pass those details onto me is a different conversation. My job is to do right by them. Since then, I have.