Two terms I’ve grown accustomed to, in writing about video games, are “marketing cadence” and “work in progress.” They relate to all the authorized pre-release preview stuff I see about upcoming video games. And they help explain why Sunday’s unprecedented Grand Theft Auto 6 leak would dismay so many within the industry.
This leak, comprising about an hour of in-development footage, is a work in progress in its rawest form, albeit without that little disclaimer at the bottom of the screen. And it definitely doesn’t follow some marketer’s plan, which is to hand-feed a discussion of a big game’s features, to sustain interest in (and desire for) a game from announcement to launch.
But setting Stuff They Don’t Want You to See loose into the wild like this is hardly a victory for transparency, or whatever higher-minded idea some might try to attach to what was, from the looks of it, an online burglary. The truth is that this is just hype of a different kind, and just like the more conventional hype, we’d all do well to cool our expectations.
Clearly, this is incomplete
It’s strange to see Twitter comments comparing the Vice City environment to Google Earth textures — as both compliment and insult — when it’s possible everything seen here is a placeholder. Yes, as Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier reported this summer, GTA 6 has been in development “in some form” since 2014. But I have no idea what “in some form” really means or what this game should look like at this point. Do you?
Take everything seen at face value: This is visual confirmation of previous rumors. It’s a cinch this game is set in Vice City, and I’m excited to go back there two decades after playing the original Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. We also know that developer Rockstar Games is committing to playable female and male leads, which would be a series first. But there’s so much more we don’t know about GTA 6 or about how it is being made, much less what Rockstar expects we will enjoy in it.
You’re not getting this game early
The hacker claiming responsibility — the same one who claims responsibility for hacking into Uber’s internal systems last week — says they have the game’s source code, and they’ve cryptically signaled that they want to strike a deal with Rockstar and its parent company, Take-Two Interactive.
Publishing the source code for this kind of a game is nothing to cheer on; the closest analogue to this is Half-Life 2, whose source code was stolen and published in October 2003. Fans were able to compile a playable version of the game one year before its launch in November 2004.
It’s unclear if the GTA 6 hacker’s threat is believable; they seem to have taken most of their assets from Rockstar’s internal Slack message system. But they also did seem to get access to much more within Uber. Either way, it’s unlikely that whatever they stole from Rockstar would do much more in the public’s hands than recreate the kind of janky demonstrations seen on Sunday.
And you’re not getting more info, either
Remember what I said about marketing cadence? I’ve never seen a leak, no matter how large, budge a publisher off their plan for talking about a game when they want to talk about a game. In 2015, a leaker gave up that Spike Lee was directing NBA 2K16’s story mode, and they also revealed two of the game’s three cover stars. 2K Sports (whose parent company is also Take-Two Interactive) didn’t acknowledge the leak until it made its official announcement, on its own schedule, a month and a half later.
They’re hardly the only ones sticking to the script. This past week, Capcom finally confirmed the initial roster of 18 fighters for Street Fighter 6 launching next year, even though that has been known since the beginning of June. Most of MultiVersus’ roster was data-mined in March, and Warner Bros. Games still confirms things at its own pace.
The closest you get, maybe, is something like the recent case with Ubisoft, which saw major details about Assassin’s Creed Mirage (including the name) leaked via YouTube on Aug. 30, and then partially confirmed them two days later, mainly as an announcement for a livestream event in which everything would be revealed, anyway.
The point here is, it’s not like Rockstar is looking at this leak and feverishly thinking about how to get ahead of the story, as in an episode of The West Wing. A sustained campaign on Reddit, gaming forums, or other social media isn’t going to pressure the company into making any kind of substantive reveal or acknowledgment of the leak beyond what it has already said.
This won’t change the finished product
Despite the leak of an incomplete game, Half-Life 2’s sales were largely unaffected and, critically, the game ended up as one of the best of 2004, and one of the best of all time. Grand Theft Auto is the most valuable franchise in video games today.
Although shares of Take-Two Interactive fell in before-the-bell trading on Monday, they have since recovered to where they were at close on Friday. Reuters, citing Bank of America analysts, says Grand Theft Auto 6 is expected to generate bookings (i.e., contracted revenue) of $3.5 billion at launch and $2 billion thereafter.
When you’re talking about money in billions-with-a-B, no amount of nitpicking over the few creative choices that are shown in the leaked videos will change developers’ minds. This isn’t an intentional leak that the conspiracy-minded might claim was testing fans’ reaction to a female protagonist or a kinder, gentler GTA. The ship has already sailed on those design choices. This is something else altogether, and it’s not a win for transparency in any sense of the word.
People’s jobs are in play here
A key point made in Bloomberg’s report this summer is that Rockstar Games, sensitive to its reputation for crunch culture, backed away from a more ambitious vision for Grand Theft Auto 6 in order to deliver a base game that it can continually update after launch.
There’s no question that having your unfinished work brought before the world to be picked apart is demoralizing as hell — I’m already thinking about how I’d feel if you saw a draft of this article leaked, or the discussions I’m having with my editors, benign as all of them are.
Since Red Dead Redemption 2 launched in 2018, fans have voiced a lot of justifiable concern for the workers making something in their name. In this case, those fans could end up extending, or at least endorsing, the damage done to said workplace by investing too much in this leak.
Take-Two Interactive has already told investors that it has “taken steps to isolate and contain this incident.” Increased workplace security and quality of life there are two dots that aren’t hard to connect. Remote work policies, for example, could be on the table.
The bottom line? This leak doesn’t tell us what the pace of development is like now at Rockstar Games. It doesn’t tell us what it’s like to be a woman working in that office, either. It doesn’t tell us if anything really has gotten better. But it sure could make things worse.