The GTA 6 leak helped nobody. However, it did indirectly result in a ton of game developers talking candidly about how games are made, which is always a treat. Many devs even shared some in-progress builds of their own to put the leak into perspective and correct hasty criticism of unfinished games and graphics. We rarely see the games industry rally around things like this, and it's even rarer for so many devs to come together and explain how the sausage is made.
This is a leak, not GTA 6
The GTA 6 leak, which dumped unvarnished gameplay and screenshots from a scrappy build of a game that's still deep in development, led to some truly bewildering assumptions surfacing online. Video game development is difficult to understand at the best of times, which is perhaps why so many players took to social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit to air out some wild opinions. Graphics are the first thing finished in game development, don't you know. It was hot, misinformed takes like this that spurred a notoriously protective industry to share some of the worst versions of their beloved projects – the amazingly ugly, brilliantly broken drafts behind the games we love. It would almost be impressive if such misunderstandings weren't disconcertingly common.
For all the calls for more transparency in how video games are made, there's a reason many developers don't show builds or share details long before their games come out. Quite a few reasons, actually, and the GTA 6 leak has highlighted a lot of them. For starters, a non-trivial portion of the gaming population looked at the leaked GTA 6 footage and seriously assumed that this is how the final game is going to be. The irony is that if the leaked build had looked worse, just comically blocky and rough, fewer people probably would've taken it the wrong way. But you don't have to dig very deep to find ridiculous comments condemning the 'lazy devs' at Rockstar or telling them to 'fix the graphics.' It's been nine years since the release of GTA 5, so why doesn't this look way better?
The answer, as countless game designers have pointed out this week, is that every project has different priorities, and graphics can be pretty low on the to-do list.
All games start off ugly
What art looks like for a video game in development. https://t.co/15bo6L6qMaSeptember 20, 2022
Why does GTA 6 look so rough in that leaked footage? Well, obviously because the game's not finished yet. It probably won't be finished for years, which means the graphics are going to be extra unfinished right now. But why is that?
I am not a game developer, which might explain why I find it useful to think of making a game like building a house. The analogy holds up here: you can't paint a house that isn't built yet. And it would be a waste of time to paint parts of a house when you haven't even finished the framework. What if you paint it early on but then want or need to change the frame or materials? You'll just have to paint it again. Better to keep it ugly but workable for as long as possible and only commit time and resources to prettying it up once you're confident in the base.
"Graphics are the first thing finished in a video game" Here's what early versions of Cult of the Lamb looked like pic.twitter.com/F5EyEH6M9rSeptember 20, 2022
You can say roughly the same thing about a game that's still in production. As many developers have explained while pointing to their own early builds, graphics are often one of the last parts of a game to be finalized, at least in terms of the build that will be shipped. Early art is typically a proof-of-concept mock-up, or a placeholder that sees huge changes later on. And even after devs have decided on a style, roughed out environments, iterated on characters, and so on, those assets may not be added to the latest build for a while. To go back to the house analogy, you can have the paint ready, buckets and buckets of it, but keep it in storage until the time is right.
The misunderstandings around this process reiterate why these leaks are bad. Whether it's a spotty report on an unannounced game, or a video of a build that doesn't represent a final game, leaks inevitably lack context. We'd be having a totally different conversation if Rockstar had released similar footage itself and framed it as a pre-alpha look at the next GTA. We'd get better footage, for one, which would change how the game is perceived and let the people in the know direct the conversation. Devs and artists could head off incorrect assumptions and ultimately tell us way more about the game. You don't get that with leaks of the same material, which can make naturally messy projects look much worse off than they actually are.
Leaks are not transparency
I'm not running defense for companies here; I just want to try and correct some misconceptions to the best of my ability. I'll always want developers to share more pre-release details and insights. I think it's good to learn and see how games work. This is undeniably naive to say, but I like to think that even a crude understanding of production and troubleshooting can give non-devs (like me) a more useful perspective for criticism and analysis. I was intrigued to see the guts of the Dead Space Remake and the lovably blocky Skate playtest, for example. But these kinds of previews are only helpful when they're couched appropriately, whereas slapdash leaks can and do hurt players as well as creators.
As we've seen, leaks can give people the wrong idea about how a game is shaping up. They can also string people along or set them up for disappointment by mentioning elements which may be cut or overhauled by the time a game's properly revealed or released. There's a reason those aren't talked about publicly until they're set in stone. Leaks are harmless entertainment at best, but they're often actively harmful and counterproductive, especially when they're handled haphazardly. It's one thing when a leak reveals important information that would never have come to light otherwise, but that's not what this was.
If anything, this leak was a reminder that many games don't come together until right at the end, which is why in-depth premature analysis is often wasted effort. If you look under the hood of virtually any early dev build, you'll probably find some parts made from bubble gum, bailing wire, and live crabs. Games may be held together with duct tape and prayer even at their best, and this leaked GTA 6 build was never even supposed to be seen by the public. It's no wonder you can still see the staples and glue.
There's been talk of leaks like this cutting through the smoke and mirrors of games marketing to give players a real look behind the curtain. Here's my question: a real look at what? This leak tells us more about how GTA 6 won't look, and even less about how it'll play. The fallout has been more speculation than information, and much of that speculation has been misinformed or done in bad faith. Leaks are not the antidote to pre-rendered trailers that tell us nothing about how games actually play, in part because they have a lot of the same problems. At least trailers, no matter how far-fetched, allow for creative control.
I understand wanting more openness in the games industry. I do too, so I'm thrilled to see so many developers talking openly and comfortably about the amusing, ugly realities of making games. I want this behind-the-scenes stuff to be visible and celebrated – and some of it is, if you know where to look. But fragmented leaks of otherwise confidential builds aren't going to get us anywhere. In fact, they can easily make things worse. Are game devs supposed to respond to unfair criticism and, in the case of this leak, literal cyber attacks with open arms? Besides, I'd say there are many other areas of game development that would benefit more from greater transparency than freakin' graphics. Games are gonna look how they're gonna look, and they're gonna come out when they come out. No amount of leaks is going to change that, so if we're going to ask for transparency, let's at least ask the right questions in the right way.