GTA VI leak: Beyond the videos

2022-09-23  News and opinion

We saw one of the biggest leaks in video game history last Sunday as a hacker uploaded a huge number of videos and images from Rockstar’s upcoming Grand Theft Auto VI to the internet, and it’s safe to say online discussion around this unexpected sneak peek has been a complete mess.

The early footage shows several interesting locations, features, and segments of dialogue that give us clues about what we can expect on the game’s release, which is likely years away. However, most of the comments I’ve seen on social media have completely ignored the big picture to focus on rough edges that are extremely unlikely to be present in the final game.

Watching all of this, I felt compelled to delay my planned article this week and write about GTA VI instead. I’ll stress that I have no special inside knowledge about the leak or the game itself, but I hope I can at least offer some more considered thoughts than those currently spewed across the web. In brief, the whole debacle has taught me three things…

1. People know nothing about hacking

“[X Rockstar employee] is going to be in trouble” was a common theme on Reddit, as wannabe cybersecurity experts offered rundowns of exactly how the person whose name appeared in some of the videos was outwitted by a social engineering attack that gave the attacker access. Others were sure that online messages indicated this was the work of a disgruntled employee.

The truth is that there are two things that we know about the incident - at least since Rockstar confirmed there was a “network intrusion” on Monday. Firstly, we know that a hacker gained access to some Rockstar systems (not even necessarily their network, since so much happens on cloud services these days). Secondly, we know that they were able to download some videos and images created at some point in the game’s development.

That’s it. We don’t know if they phished someone, we don’t know if they used some ultra-sophisticated zero-day vulnerability, and we don’t know if a storage platform was improperly configured and allowed them access. We don’t know what happened, and Rockstar is probably still piecing it together itself, so there’s no point in blindly speculating - especially when that speculation involves pointing the finger at individual employees.

On that point - sure, somebody’s name appears on screen in some of the videos, but if a hacker steals files from a shared location they could have anybody’s name on them, regardless of how they got in. That person just recorded the videos. Confidently asserting that they were the cause of the breach is at best foolish, and at worst borderline slander.

2. People know nothing about development

You’d have thought that in 2022’s tech-driven society, with all the developer blogs and behind-the-scenes footage we’re treated to, that people would have a rough idea of what goes into making a video game. Unfortunately not, it appears, as Sunday’s discussion threads were jammed with complaints about GTA VI’s graphics, despite the game being years off release.

“It looks nearly the same as GTA V,” people whined. Of course it does. The footage is obviously from a very early version of the game - likely borrowing a lot from the last entry - where the developers are testing out systems to see what works and laying the groundwork for later, more polished versions. There are going to be rough edges, and for all we know they could no longer exist, since we don’t know when the videos were captured.

Rockstar was evidently concerned about this reaction too, as evidenced in the statement it tweeted earlier this week:

“We are extremely disappointed to have any details of our next game shared with you all in this way. Our work on the next Grand Theft Auto game will continue as planned and we remain as committed as ever to delivering and experience to you, our players, that truly exceeds your expectations.”

In short: Stop judging our game on janky alpha footage that was never meant to be made public, you idiots. It’s also clear that many of the clips may have been recorded specifically to inform bug fixes, as the creator seems to focus attention on issues like clipping and AI mistakes.

If you watch the videos with a curious eye, rather than a critical one, they actually offer an inside view of game development that we rarely get to see. For example, the pop-ups that litter the screen during the restaurant robbery (like HOSTAGE_POLICE_ARRIVAL, GENERIC_CURSE_TO_SELF, and CALL_FOR_SUPPORT_RESPONSE) are a fascinating glimpse of how AI reactions, animations, and sound clips are handled behind the scenes.

3. Rockstar might actually deliver on GTA VI

At the start of August I wrote about how skeptical I am about GTA VI. Early details suggested that the series might be moving in the direction of live services following the success of GTA Online, and given that this is the first GTA game to be released since Rockstar worked out how to print free money, I’m concerned about what that might mean for the single-player experience.

While a few leaked clips haven’t completely allayed my fears, what they have done is reassured me that the minutiae and attention to detail that Rockstar is known for are still there. Beyond the debug messages, clipping, and placeholder textures, there are already signs of some real touches of class - the fluidity of new female lead character’s walking animations, for example, or the two NPCs discussing Lifeinvader conspiracy theories.

Between that and the obstructed views of Vice City in the background, I’m feeling much more confident that the detail that makes GTA’s worlds so much fun to explore will still be present. And then there’s the restaurant robbery, complete with the second main character controlled by AI to back you up. It could be a Story Mode set piece, but I’m crossing my fingers that this means more ad hoc interactivity with the world and NPCs than in previous games.

All in all, despite the fact that they certainly would have liked to introduce us to the game in a more controlled fashion, the GTA VI leak shows enough potential that it should really have been a net positive for Rockstar in my opinion. Instead, they’ve needed to engage in damage limitation because the internet is stupid and expects a game with years of development left to go to look like a finished AAA product - or at least that’s my two cents.

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