the GTA 6 the escape helped no one. However, it did indirectly result in a lot of game developers talking candidly about how games are made, which is always a treat. Many developers even shared some builds in progress of their own. to put the leak into perspective and correct the hasty criticism of unfinished games and graphics. Rarely do we see the games industry come together around things like this, and it’s even rarer that so many developers come together and explain how the sausage is made.
This is a leak, not GTA 6
the leak from GTA 6, which delivered no-frills gameplay and screenshots of a rudimentary build from a game that’s still in development, led to some truly baffling guesses online. Video game development is difficult to understand at the best of times, which is perhaps why so many gamers took to social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit to voice some wild opinions. Graphics are the first thing to be finished in game development, don’t you know? It was hot, ill-informed takes like this that prompted a notoriously protective industry to share some of the worst versions of its beloved projects: the brilliantly broken, incredibly ugly drafts behind the games we love. It would almost be impressive if such misunderstandings were not disconcertingly common.
Despite all the calls for more transparency in how video games are created, there’s a reason many developers don’t show off 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. To begin with, a non-trivial part of the gaming population looked at the leaked images of GTA 6 and seriously assumed that this is what the final game would look like. The irony is that if the leaked build had been seen worse, just comically blocky and rough, probably fewer people would have taken it the wrong way. But you don’t have to dig too deep to find ridiculous comments condemning Rockstar’s ‘lazy devs’ or telling them to ‘fix the graphics’. It’s been nine years since GTA 5 was released, so why doesn’t this look much better?
The answer, as countless game designers have pointed out this week, is that every project has different priorities, and graphics can rank pretty low on the to-do list.
All games start ugly
“Graphics are the first thing to go in a video game” FYI this is what IMMORTALITY looked like for the first 2 years where we focused on balancing AI and combat gameplay vs how it shipped pic.twitter.com /lXoBQeKYUOSeptember 20, 2022
Why does GTA 6 look so rough in leaked images? Well, obviously because the game is not finished yet. It probably won’t be finished for years, which means the graphics will be unfinished at this point. But why is that?
I’m not a game developer, which might explain why I find it helpful to think of making a game like building a house. The analogy holds 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 frame. What if you paint it at first but then want or need to change the frame or materials? You’ll just have to paint it again. It’s best to keep it ugly but functional for as long as possible and only spend time and resources beautifying it once you’re confident in the foundation.
“The graphics are the first thing that is finished in a video game” This is how the first versions of Cult of the Lamb looked pic.twitter.com/F5EyEH6M9rSeptember 20, 2022
You can pretty much say the same thing about a game that’s still in production. As many developers have explained when pointing out their own early builds, graphics are often one of the latest parts of a game that will be finalized, at least in terms of the build that will ship. Early art is usually a proof-of-concept mockup or placeholder that sees big changes later. And even after the developers have decided on a style, roughed up environments, iterated on characters, etc, those assets may not be added to the latest version for a while. Going back to the house analogy, you can have the paint ready, buckets and buckets, but keep it in storage until the time is right.
Misunderstandings around this process reiterate why these leaks are bad. Whether it’s a spotty report about an unannounced game or a build video that doesn’t represent a final game, leaks inevitably lack context. We’d be having a totally different conversation if Rockstar had released similar images and framed them as a pre-alpha look at the next GTA. We’d get better visuals, for one thing, which would change the way the game is perceived and allow people who know how to lead the conversation. Developers and artists could avoid wrong assumptions and ultimately tell us a lot 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 really are.
Leaks are not transparency
I’m not defending companies here; I just want to try to correct some misconceptions as best I can. I will always want developers to share more information and details prior to release. I think it’s good to learn and see how games work. It’s undeniably naïve to say this, but I like to think that even a basic understanding of production and troubleshooting can give non-developers (like me) a more useful perspective for critique and analysis. I was intrigued to see the entrails of the remake of Dead Space and the Skate game test with cute blocks, for instance. But these kinds of previews are only useful when they’re worded properly, while careless leaks can hurt players and creators alike.
As we’ve seen, leaks can give people the wrong idea about how a game is developing. They can also mislead people or set them up for disappointment by mentioning items that may be cut or revised by the time a game is properly revealed or released. there is a reason those they are not spoken publicly until they are set in stone. Leaks are harmless entertainment at best, but are often actively harmful and counterproductive, especially when handled randomly. It’s one thing for a leak to reveal important information that would otherwise never have come to light, but that wasn’t the point.
If anything, this leak was a reminder that many games don’t come together until the end, which is why premature in-depth analysis is often wasted effort. If you look under the hood of virtually any early development build, you’ll probably find some parts made from chewing gum, bilge wire, and live crabs. Games can be held together with duct tape and prayer even at their best, and this leaked version of GTA 6 was never meant to be seen by the public. It’s no wonder you can still see the staples and glue.
There have been talks of leaks like this going through the smoke and mirrors of gaming marketing to give gamers a royal look behind the curtain Here’s my question: a real look at what? This leak tells us more about how GTA 6 No looks, let alone how it will play. The consequences have been more speculation than information, and much of that speculation has been misinformed or made in bad faith. Leaks aren’t the antidote to pre-rendered trailers that tell us nothing about how games actually play, in part because they have many of the same issues. At least the trailers, no matter how over the top, allow for creative control.
I understand wanting more openness in the games industry. Me too, so I’m delighted to see so many developers talking openly and comfortably about the funny and ugly realities of making games. I want these behind-the-scenes things to be visible and celebrated, and some of them are, if you know where to look. But fragmented leaks of confidential builds will get us nowhere. In fact, they can easily make things worse. Are game developers supposed to respond 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 graphics. Games will look as they will look, and will 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.