October 6, 2022

Like many, my first thought when I saw it GTA 6 the leak was ‘fuck it’. The second was a flashback to the protocols that occurred when leaks or security breaches, no matter how small, occurred when I was on the development side of the industry: usually, angry-faced people burst into the room and demand that no one touch anything . The third thought was what Rock star, the king of image control and information flow, would do it now. I was thinking of that sequence in The Bourne Identity, where the embattled CIA station chief demands that the agency ‘get it all up’. All of them, in this case, are a collection of killers, each with cold names and even colder intentions.

As far as I know, Matt Damon isn’t involved, and Rockstar’s ghost didn’t send Clive Owen to have a philosophical conversation with the person responsible for this leak, as much as it might want to. However, he teamed up with the FBI, so maybe I wasn’t that far off. Either way, the answer will be swift and sweeping, like what happened with the closest thing to this I can remember, the Half-Life 2 leak. (And we all know what happened there.)

Will GTA 6 look as good as GTA 5 running like this? (You know, when it’s over).

The reasons for this answer are obvious. There is a gigantic financial element at play here. There are security issues with the source code and other exposures that could derail the entire project. And there is the reputational damage, which has already happened. Seconds after the leak, the internet was flooded with people disappointed with how it looked. That it looked like shit. If it was what it looks like, it would be a huge disappointment and, just quietly, what have the (lazy?) developers been doing all this time?

These were some of the more lucid views: at least the words made sense in order. Others seemed to just be cast into the universe with no regard for reason or reason, as opposed to reality as it was. So what is that reality? Basically, I’m amazed that any video game gets released, and that if you could see what all your favorite games looked like just three months before release, you’d insist that some sort of arcane magic was performed to make them end.

I know this because since 2007 I have worked directly on the games themselves, on high profile or visible franchises/brands (including Battlefield, Harry Potter, Burnout, Half-Life, Total War and others) as a writer. In that role, I’ve seen them in their pre-release state, mostly as a very nervous PR person begs you to remember Not finished. In one part of my current role, I advised and consulted on mechanics and modes for high profile releases. Regardless of my work in the industry over those 15 years, one thing remains the same: making games is hard, and either everything comes together in the end, or it doesn’t. The difference between success and failure, especially for the so-called triple A, is absolutely slim.

Can the ‘Thelma & Louise’ dynamic live up to this collection of idiots?

For example, in one well-received shooter you may have played, guns didn’t work until about two months before release. Weapon. In another shooter, the weapon didn’t have a scope until deep into the dev, so team members would have to stick some blu-tac in the middle of the screen to aim the gun. I should add, this was a port of the game that had been missing for years.

On a stunningly ambitious and completely over-the-top open-world racing game that people desperately want a sequel to (and I’ll never play again), even launching it just a few short months before its E3 gameplay demo – which I caused many, many breakdowns – it was a challenge. Especially on the PS3, which at the time was like trying to program advanced graphics on a kazoo. When, at the end, a teammate and I smashed the E3 demo, causing the entire PS3 to shake, the sound of anguished wailing would have made Michael Corleone blush.

There are many, many more stories like this. I once got a promotion on the battlefield a few months after the launch of an ambitious turn-based strategy game, when I arrived on the night shift (people were on it 24 hours a day trying to get a release date) and my boss said ‘you’ve been promoted. I quit’ and simply walked out of the office.

The reason: the much-vaunted sea battles, a key selling point, just didn’t work. Every morning, at the end of said shift, I would have to write handover reports (to the incoming test teams, as well as the development and production teams), telling them as diplomatically as I could that, yes, we regret to inform you that it is still completely screwed.

It takes a lot of work to make the old Vice City look like the new Vice City.

Guess what? Each of those games came out and, to a greater or lesser degree, looked nothing like what they looked like literally weeks before. (Some games, especially annual sports titles, can change dramatically even between the review stage and release.) Some of them scored great, most of them you’ve played or heard of, and at least one of them caused a real problem on review day . One August, an important magazine gave the game an 8. The developer on the project said ‘I’d give it a 10’. Someone replied with ‘that’s why people who make games don’t review them.’ Play the fight music in the lounge.

Fortunately, it calmed down before it got out of control. But this kind of emotional response didn’t necessarily come out of the blue either, and this is another part of a GTA 6 (or indeed, any game) leak that could have drastic and unprecedented consequences: these things aren’t made by robots, they’re made by an army of people whose are different motivations for everything to go well, but whose commitment and sacrifices are mostly not.

It’s exhausting to spend years of your life working on these things, especially when it doesn’t seem like progress is being made to the outside world (or even to some counter in the production office).

So having about 90 videos is, I imagine, mind-blowing – especially when people who know nothing about it give it a head start. (An example of how online opinion can change in literally seconds: a top-secret E3 trailer for a game I was attached to went live on the show with no leaks. It had a long intro, and people in chat were literally saying ‘ what the f*ck is this lol.’When it was revealed, the place melted. It’s such a fine line.)

Thankfully, there’s been plenty of pushback on social media, with many game developers – both big and small – showing off what the Metacritic darlings looked like in dev. Whether that will be enough for the Rockstar teams, I don’t know. But in my own opinion, what I saw looked really, really good for where it seems to be in the development cycle.

And with that in mind, imagine what it will look like when it’s released in 2148.

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