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‘Grand Theft Auto VI’ leak is Rockstar’s nightmare, YouTubers’ dream

(Washington Post illustration; Rockstar Games; iStock)
6 min

For the past several years, impatient Grand Theft Auto fans have attempted to pull off their own heist, aiming to extract even a morsel of concrete information about “Grand Theft Auto VI,” the inevitable sequel to the second best-selling game of all time. Over the weekend, they finally succeeded — in a manner of speaking.

On Sunday, a hacker leaked more than 90 clips of developer Rockstar’s mid-gestation heir apparent, prompting a mixture of excitement and criticism from fans and cries of outrage from game developers. But in truth, this likely changes very little about “GTA VI’s” overall trajectory. It’s just more grist for a content mill born of a secretive industry and a social media ecosystem that incentivizes sensationalism and bad faith.

Doubtless, this was one of the larger leaks in video game history, albeit one that consisted of footage (seemingly obtained from Rockstar’s internal Slack messaging system) rather than stolen source code that could actually delay the finished product, ala the now-infamous 2003 leak of Valve’s “Half-Life 2.” Still, it was met with widespread hand-wringing from developers and pundits across the industry, who expressed sympathy for Rockstar at the idea of having unfinished work shown to the teeming masses. While many fans viewed obviously early footage of player characters evading police and exploring a silent nightclub with forgiving eyes, some expressed outrage that they waited nearly a decade for what they perceived as a slapdash mishmash of subpar graphics and rigid animations.

To the uninitiated, this might seem like an odd reaction. After all, as Kotaku points out, people don’t look at Hollywood film set photos and assume the background of an entire finished movie will be green. But the video game industry — at least, where big-budget productions that rival Hollywood in terms of scale and cost are concerned — has long been obsessed with tightly controlled, prerelease PR campaigns in service of padded preorder numbers. Games are generally not shown to the public until they look equal parts gorgeous and spectacular, or their unpolished edges are hidden behind gameplay-free, computer-generated trailers and unindicative demos for years. Companies have spent decades insisting on absolute control, keeping employees under NDA and pretending entire games don’t exist just to maintain it.

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This clashes with an unavoidable reality: Games really don’t come together until they’re close to the finish line. Developers use gray walls and boxes to simulate what will eventually become vast cities or dew-doused forests. Characters T-pose instead of walking, running or flying. Glitches abound. Despite efforts — often on the part of smaller developers — to demystify the unsexy realities of game development, perfectly manicured PR cycles have contributed to the idea that games pop out of the oven fully formed. Conversely, if they don’t debut in a pristine state, it must be a sign of trouble.

This is not helped by the fact that big companies have used hype to veil half-baked games, most notoriously when CD Projekt Red’s massively anticipated 2020 release “Cyberpunk 2077” launched in such an unfinished state that Sony ended up temporarily pulling it from the PlayStation Store (just one consequence among many).

Major publishers’ tight-lipped approach has allowed social media to fill the void. On YouTube and Twitter, as well as numerous smaller websites that feed on Google traffic, there’s an entire cottage industry of rumormongers surrounding games like “GTA VI.” These people have already spent years claiming to be insiders who know intimate details about “GTA VI’s” creation when, in reality, most of them are just making stuff up. They regularly publish posts and videos containing fake maps and screenshots, as well as fake claims that a release date is just around the corner. Some of these garner millions of views. This has a knock-on effect: Fans end up hearing so much about “GTA VI” — even if it’s actually a fat load of nothing — they assume the game must be nearly ready for prime time.

Content creators are incentivized to do this because of the way major platforms are structured: Games like Grand Theft Auto are massively popular, meaning people search them every day and boost content focused on them into algorithms’ upper echelons. Constant churn and companies’ continued silence mean there’s little consequence for being wrong. Wait a week or two and everybody will either forget or move on.

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Supposed leaks have become such a pillar of online video game culture that some have begun “leaking” information even while receiving it through legitimate means. This week, for example, a leaker who went by the handle “The Real Insider” slipped up and revealed himself to be a YouTuber with nearly 200,000 subscribers who had just been using an alternate account to tell people about upcoming releases like “Assassin’s Creed Mirage” before publisher-designated press embargoes were up.

The very same social media content mill that disingenuously whipped fans into a frenzy before the leak is now benefiting from it. While Rockstar has done its best to remove actual game footage from major platforms, numerous YouTube videos sporting sensationalized titles like “Rockstar Calls GTA 6 Leaker a Liar?!” dissect everything from “GTA VI’s” graphics to its impact on publisher Take-Two’s stock price (currently $119.98, down 6.16 percent over the past five days).

It’s worth asking who actually benefits from this state of affairs. Not fans, who learn nothing of value until publishers are ready to begin profit-maximizing, sometimes-deceptive marketing rollouts (or until journalists investigate them). Not individual developers, whose hard work ends up alternatively misunderstood and maligned — something which regularly leads to harassment. Recognizing this, some developers at other studios have spent the week releasing videos of already-released games like Remedy’s “Control” and Microsoft’s “Sea of Thieves” from a time when they were in unflattering states. It has been eye-opening to see these multimillion dollar products sans animations and with giant mustachioed pill people taking the place of characters, but it shouldn’t be. Every game starts somewhere, after all.

Only big publishers and companies like YouTube reap measurable rewards by upholding their respective ends of this toxic cycle — and even that’s debatable. A leak like this isn’t going to sink Rockstar or its parent company, Take-Two, nor would an intentional demystification of Rockstar’s development process headed up by those making the game. When “GTA VI” comes out multiple years from now, it will almost certainly sell tens of millions of copies on name value alone, putting smiles on shareholders’ faces and money in their pockets. It will probably also be an exceptionally high-quality video game, if Rockstar’s previous pedigree is anything to go by. Fans will likely be sated. The leak will become a distant memory.

That in mind, what’s the point of all this secrecy, of enabling bad faith actors on fatally flawed platforms to dictate the discussion around unreleased games? Why keep doing things this way, aside from the fact that this is how the video game industry has always done it?