Games News

Nintendo’s Aggressive Hunt to Find Pokémon Leakers Has Found a New Target

The company blames a small Portuguese website, given access to last year’s game ahead of release, for leaking Pokémon.
12 February 2020, 8:20am
Nintendo's aggressive hunt to find Pokémon leakers has found a new target.
Image courtesy of Nintendo

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Nintendo is not a company that leaks often, but when it comes to Pokémon, it happens on a frequent basis. On some level, it’s not a surprise; Pokémon is incredibly popular and people are obsessed with every little detail about it, upcoming or otherwise. But with the release of Pokémon Sword and Shield, Nintendo has not been shy about pushing back on leaks. Not only are they actively suing folks who leaked images from an unreleased strategy guide, but today Nintendo pointed the finger directly at a small Portugese publication called FNintendo, accusing their reviewer of leaking images that identified “new and unannounced Pokémon.”

The images appeared online in early November, around the time reviewers would have been given early access to Pokémon Sword and Shield, to fully play the game ahead of release. It does not appear the leaks actually appeared on FNintendo’s website, but in more discrete parts of the Internet. Historically, other Pokémon leaks have happened in places like 4chan.

“These photographs had been posted online and Nintendo, together with The Pokémon Company, quickly identified the person responsible for these leaks, and took immediate action,” said Nintendo and The Pokémon Company in a joint statement to Eurogamer.

When companies provide early access to a video game, it comes with a scary-looking document called a non-disclosure agreement. It’s basically a contract between the reviewer and video game company that stipulates when you can talk about the game you’re being provided ahead of release and what you can talk about. This tends to happen more often with bigger game releases, when the stakes are a lot higher for the leaking of material.

With Pokémon in particular, there may be no bigger secret than what creatures will (or won’t, given the controversies around Sword and Shield) appear in a new release. Nintendo slowly drips out this information over time, hoping to stoke continued interest in the next game.

“Nintendo will always protect its intellectual property and brands,” said the statement. “Leaks hurt not just Nintendo, but the thousands of employees who work hard to bring games to market, and the millions of fans around the world who look forward to news and surprises.”

FNintendo is not, however, the first place to break an embargo. It happens all the time, even if you don’t realize it. A publication will accidentally publish a review early, prompting the embargo to be shredded up, and allowing every other reviewer to publish, as well. Maybe the review is taken down immediately, and everyone pretends it didn’t happen. It is usually the case that companies frown in your general direction, not issue a public statement. The only reason for a public statement is to send a message.

That’s no clearer than what Nintendo said here:

“As a result, Nintendo will no longer work with FNintendo.”

When I’ve been around broken embargoes, the punishment has been, at worst, an angry call from a public relations person and a threat to remove pre-release privileges. It doesn’t usually go much further than that, but there are exceptions, as was the case between Kotaku’s reporting about various unannounced games from Ubisoft and Bethesda. As a result, Kotaku was quietly blacklisted, even if neither company publicly admitted it.

There’s nothing quiet here, with Nintendo having thrown down the gauntlet and taken punitive action against the publication in question. A lack of pre-release coverage will cost FNintendo traffic. A lack of traffic will mean fewer ad hits. Fewer ad hits means less money.

The difference here, of course, is the infraction itself and the context it exists in. Kotaku’s reporting bucked the marketing plans of massive video game companies and revealed insights into troubled histories of various projects. That’s information game companies would rather you don’t know but informs the public. Someone hitting publish on a review because they mixed up Wednesday and Thursday is an accident. Selectively leaking exciting pieces of a game you have early access to, information you signed a contract about, is different.

In a separate statement, FNintendo took responsibility for the event, and wanted to “openly admit to our readers that FNintendo was responsible for leaking some of these photos.”

“Nintendo offered us a copy of the game for review purposes, with clear embargo guidelines, to which we agreed,” said the publication. “This copy was then sent to one of our reviewers, who leaked the information. Following the investigation, FNintendo severed its relationship with this reviewer.”

FNintendo did not disclose the identity of the reviewer, nor is a review of Pokémon Sword and Shield currently featured on FNintendo’s website. A search of Internet Archive backups do not show an archived FNintendo during the period when a review might have appeared.

“We recognise it is impermissible to break embargo guidelines and we failed to handle the review materials with sufficient care,” said the website. “We fully respect Nintendo's decision to cancel the confidentiality agreement between our companies as a result of this breach of trust, and accept that we will no longer receive products from Nintendo, nor will we be invited to attend their events.”

The real question, though: what happens next? Nintendo will be releasing two expansion packs this year— The Isle of Armor in the summer, The Crown Tundra in the fall—and it remains to be seen whether Nintendo’s series of threats will cause the leaks to disappear.

I have my doubts.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).