That GTA6 Leak didn’t help anyone. Indirectly, however, this led to a lot of game developers talking openly about how games are made, which is always a pleasure. Many developers have even shared some of their own builds in progress to put the leak into perspective and to correct hasty criticism of unfinished games and graphics. We rarely see the games industry rally around things like this, and it’s even rarer to see so many developers get together and explain how the sausage is made.
This is a leak, not GTA 6
That GTA 6 leak, which dumped unvarnished gameplay and screenshots from a shoddy build of a game still deep in development, led to some really confusing assumptions popping up online. Video game development is difficult to comprehend at the best of times, which is perhaps why so many gamers took to social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit to spread some wild opinions. Graphics are the first thing done in game development, you know. It was hot, misinformed takes like these that spurred a notoriously protective industry to share some of the worst versions of their beloved projects – the amazingly ugly, brilliantly broken designs behind the games we love. It would be almost impressive if such misunderstandings were not disturbingly common.
With all the calls for more transparency into how video games are made, there’s a reason many developers don’t show builds or share details long before their games are released. A couple of reasons, actually, and the GTA 6 leak highlighted many of them. For starters, a non-trivial portion of the gaming population watched the leaked GTA 6 footage and seriously assumed that’s how the final game will be. The irony is that if the leaked build would have looked like worse, just comically blocky and rough, fewer people would probably have gotten it wrong. But you don’t have to dig very deep to find ridiculous comments condemning the “lazy developers” 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 much better?
The answer, as countless game designers 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 ugly
This is what art for a video game in development looks like. https://t.co/15bo6L6qMa09/20/2022
Why Does GTA 6 Look So Rough In This Leaked Footage? Well, obviously because the game isn’t finished yet. It probably won’t be finished for years, which means the graphics will be particularly unfinished at the moment. But why is it like that?
I’m not a game developer, which might explain why I find building a game like a house useful. The analogy applies here: You cannot paint a house that has not yet been built. And it would be a waste of time to paint parts of a house if you haven’t even finished the scaffolding. What if you paint it early but then want or need to change the frame or materials? You just have to paint it again. It’s better to keep it ugly but workable for as long as possible, and only spend time and resources beautifying it when you can rely on the base.
“Graphics are the first thing finished in a video game” This is what previous versions of Cult of the Lamb looked like pic.twitter.com/F5EyEH6M9r09/20/2022
You can say about the same thing about a game that’s still in production. As many developers have explained while referencing their own early builds, graphics are often among the last Parts of a game are completed, at least in terms of the build delivered. Early art is usually a proof-of-concept mock-up or placeholder that later undergoes major changes. And even after the developers decide on a style, flesh out environments, repeat characters, etc., those assets might not get added to the latest build for a while. Going back to the house analogy, you can have the paint ready, bucket after bucket of it, but save it until the time is right.
Repeating the misconceptions surrounding this process as to why these leaks are bad. Whether it’s a patchy report of an unannounced game or a video of a build that doesn’t represent a definitive game, leaks inevitably lack context. We’d have a completely different conversation if Rockstar had released similar footage themselves and styled it as a pre-alpha look at the next GTA. For one thing, we would get better footage, which would change perceptions of the game and empower those who know to guide the conversation. Developers and artists could prevent wrong assumptions and ultimately tell us much more about the game. You don’t get that with leaks of the same material, which can make naturally messy projects look a lot worse than they actually are.
Leaks are not transparency
I’m not running corporate defense here; I just want to try to correct some misunderstandings to the best of my ability. I always want developers to share more details and insights before release. I enjoy learning and seeing how games work. That’s undeniably naive to say, but I like to think that even a rough understanding of production and debugging can give non-developers (like me) a more useful perspective for criticism and analysis. I was fascinated to see the guts of Dead Space Remake and the lovable blocky skate playtest, for example. But these kinds of previews are only helpful if worded appropriately, while slapdash leaks can and do hurt both players and creators.
As we’ve seen, leaks can give people the wrong idea of how a game is progressing. They can also irritate or disappoint people by mentioning elements that may be trimmed or revised by the time a game is properly revealed or released. There’s a reason this not spoken publicly until set in stone. Leaks are harmless entertainment at best, but they are often actively harmful and counterproductive, especially when handled haphazardly. It’s one thing when a leak reveals important information that would otherwise never have come to light, but it wasn’t.
If anything, this leak was a reminder that many games only come together at the very end, so thorough upfront analysis is often a wasted effort. If you look under the hood of virtually any early dev build, you’ll likely find some parts made out of chewing gum, scraping wire, and live crabs. Games, even at their best, can be held together with duct tape and prayer, and this leaked GTA 6 build should never be seen by the public. No wonder you can still see the staples and glue.
There has been talk of leaks like this one, cutting through the smoke and mirrors of gaming marketing to give gamers a real look behind the curtain. Here’s my question: a real look at what? This leak tells us more about how GTA 6 habit look, and even less about how it will play. The aftermath was speculation rather than information, and much of that speculation was misinformed or done in bad faith. Leaks aren’t an antidote to pre-rendered trailers that tell us nothing about how games actually play, in part because they share many of the same issues. At the very least, trailers, no matter how far-fetched, allow for creative control.
I understand the desire for more openness in the games industry. So do I, so I’m thrilled to see so many developers speaking openly and comfortably about the amusing, ugly realities of game development. I want these behind-the-scenes things to be visible and celebrated — and part of that is knowing where to look. But fragmented leaks from otherwise confidential builds won’t get us anywhere. In fact, they can easily make things worse. Should game developers react to unfair criticism and in the case of this leak literal cyber attacks with open arms? Also, I would say that there are many other areas of game development that would benefit more from more transparency than the darn. Graphic. Games will look the way they will look and they will come out when they come out. No amount of leaks will change that. So if we ask for transparency, we should at least ask the right questions in the right way.