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The Grand Theft Auto 6 leak is bad for everyone. Yes, even you

After years of hype, fans finally got to see their first look at Grand Theft Auto 6 this weekend – but not in a way that Rockstar Games intended.

In the dead of night on Saturday, a user on GTAForums posted a bombshell: 90 videos pulled from an early build of Grand Theft Auto 6. On Monday morning, Rockstar publicly confirmed the authenticity of the clips, noting that they were stolen in a “network intrusion.” The developer says that the breach won’t have any “long-term effect” on the project, lamenting that its creators are simply disappointed that it was revealed in such a manner.

While perhaps not much may change for Grand Theft Auto 6’s development cycle, the leak has already spurred some heated reactions and debates. Some have complained about how the unfinished build looks, well, unfinished. Others have used it as another way to dunk on the recently released Saints Row, joking that the rough GTA footage already looks better than a fully finished game. Developers are lamenting for their peers whose work in progress is now being dissected by fans who might not really understand what they’re looking at. On top of all that, there are a lot of genuinely curious onlookers who are excited to see how the sausage is made. That’s sparked calls for the usually secretive video game industry to offer more transparency to help players better understand how much work goes into making a game.

In the confusing aftermath of the unprecedented leak, there’s a question that’s lingered in my mind for the past 24 hours: What does anyone actually gain from seeing early footage of Grand Theft Auto 6?

The mother of all leaks

If players seem shocked by this weekend’s Grand Theft Auto 6 leak, that’s because it’s genuinely shocking. While game companies are no strangers to hacks (just look at CD Projekt Red), it’s highly unusual for actual development footage of a game to come out early. Major developers tend to keep games of this scale locked up behind closed doors, only showing off carefully prepared trailers and gameplay late in a game’s development cycle. Seeing a game like GTA6 in such an early state is like seeing Bigfoot stroll into a CVS.

What makes this moment especially surprising is that it’s happening with perhaps the most anticipated video game of all time. For the better part of a decade, GTA fans have been starving for information on the sequel. That’s created an obsessive culture around it, one that’s always on the hunt for leaks and inside information. While the game’s development has been given a TMZ treatment from traffic-hungry press and clout-chasing Redditors alike, Rockstar Games has kept its head down throughout the endless wave of gossip. It’s only come up for air once to confirm that the game is indeed in development.

Rockstar Teaser Image 2

Those years of anticipation have now gone out with a whimper. Rather than getting introduced to the world of GTA6 with a carefully assembled trailer, fans have now seen it through a series of rough vignettes pulled from an early build. While it’s unlikely to affect the game’s bottom line, it does put a damper on its eventual reveal — for better or worse.

Though there’s a fair amount of sympathy for Rockstar amid the leaks, others see this as a potentially positive moment. These leaks give players a rare chance to see what a game really looks like when it’s in development, demystifying the process. Some reactions have gone as far as to insinuate that a leak like this could be avoided altogether by giving players a peek behind the curtain more often.

While it’s a sweet thought, there are some holes in the argument. At a fundamental level, developers simply don’t owe anyone that level of access. We don’t expect this kind of transparency from any other artistic medium. No one is asking bands to release unmastered drum tracks while working on a new album. Cinephiles aren’t demanding to see dailies from film sets with actors standing in front of a green screen. Writers aren’t expected to publicly share early drafts of their novels. So why should a developer share pre-alpha footage of a game it’s working on? Why turn the artistic process into just another product to consume?

Making the Believable Horses of 'Red Dead Redemption II'

That’s not to mention that the gaming industry isn’t totally secret about how games are made. You can go to the Game Developers Conference YouTube channel right now and watch several hourlong talks that painstakingly detail how some of the biggest AAA games came to be. In fact, you can watch Rockstar go in-depth on what went into creating horses in Red Dead Redemption 2. Anyone who wants to see how games are made at a high level can do so with relative ease.

There is value in transparency when it comes to craft. It can help players understand how difficult it is to make games and promote kinder attitudes toward developers. But those resources do exist, through talks, dev diaries, and more. Rockstar can, and sometimes does, deliver that information without taking players along for every step of the ride.

Managing expectations

If the conversation surrounding the GTA6 leaks are any indication, there’s more reason to keep it secret. Some of the immediate reaction to the footage is already proof of that, with a subset of players complaining about how the build looks — a frustrating response to a work in progress never intended for public consumption.

There’s a more practical reason for the lack of transparency, though. While players have had a wish list of things they’d like to see in the game for years, they now have specific expectations. One sequence shows an armed robbery, with the game’s two heroes holding up a fast food joint. Even in its early state, it’s a promising sequence that mirrors the tension of a Hollywood holdup scene. What if the scope of the giant open-world game balloons and the sequence is ultimately left on the cutting room floor?

Being strategic about when and how a game is shown is as much of a self-defense mechanism as it is a marketing trick. It helps studios guide expectations for players, giving them a realistic sense of what they’ll do in the game. When studios overpromise, it tends to be a recipe for disaster. Just look at the negative response to 343 Industries ditching Halo Infinite’s split-screen co-op. Features like that are often cut from games during development without players knowing, keeping anyone from getting too attached to anything.

In our latest dev update, members of the 343 Industries team discuss the studio's priorities, player experience goals, and offer details on what you can expect with #HaloInfinite in the coming months. https://t.co/C8jAYzZ3Jf pic.twitter.com/LSeEwE22Na

— Halo (@Halo) September 1, 2022

When Grand Theft Auto 6 does eventually come out, it’ll now be subject to an extra layer of scrutiny. You’ll likely see fans comparing the final game to the leaked videos, and dissecting what’s changed. And while that’ll be an informative experience for anyone who really wants to see how games are made, it’s a potential nightmare for Rockstar depending on how much the release changes between now and then.

This weekend’s leak is fascinating as a piece of social media gossip, but that’s all it’s ultimately good for. There’s no positive outcome; it’s just a logical occurrence in a culture that’s obsessed with inside information. Developers walk out of it disappointed, a potentially exciting moment for fans has been deflated, and everyone now has skewed expectations for the final product. This doesn’t offer a reprieve from gaming’s annoying hype cycle; it just supersizes it.

Waiting nearly a decade to see a new game might feel like torture at times, but patience is a virtue in this case. There’s no sense in spoiling dinner by eating a tub of raw cookie dough before it, as tempting as it might be.

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