On September 17, a user called teapotuberhacker went to a Grand Theft Auto forum with what they claimed were 90 clips from Rockstar Games’ next big presumed hit, Grand Theft Auto VI. “[It’s] possible I could leak more data soon, GTA 5 and 6 source code and assets, GTA 6 testing build,” they wrote.
The hack was real. The next day, Rockstar confirmed that it had “suffered a network intrusion in which an unauthorized third party illegally downloaded confidential information from our system.” That included early footage from its upcoming game, leaving parent company Take-Two scrambling to get videos posted on platforms like YouTube and Twitter removed as quickly as possible. (Rockstar did not respond to requests for comment.)
Grand Theft Auto’s leak is one of, if not the, biggest leaks to happen in the game industry. The scope of what the hacker managed to steal, from videos to potentially GTA V and GTA VI source code—the building blocks that allow developers to uniquely craft their games—is mind-boggling. Yet despite suffering a massive breach, Rockstar Games isn’t alone. This week, a Reddit user posted 43 minutes of beta footage from Blizzard’s upcoming Diablo IV. Earlier this month, news about Ubisoft’s next Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed Mirage, was outed online ahead of the company’s flashy announcement; a YouTuber has since come forward to confess responsibility for the leak after he broke an embargo. In the past, hackers have targeted prominent developers like Naughty Dog, posting unreleased information about The Last of Us Part II.
In the immediate aftermath of the GTA VI leak, Take-Two’s stock dipped and the company assured investors it had “taken steps to isolate and contain this incident.” But the real impact may not be felt for some time. Content leaks are a development nightmare. Game-makers WIRED spoke to describe it as a demoralizing, even demotivating incident. “You work for years on a project and then a partially finished version of it is online,” says longtime creative director Alex Hutchinson, whose projects include Assassin’s Creed III and Far Cry 4. “And you are getting endless negative comments about it which you can’t defend because then you’re just giving oxygen to a bad moment.” And the knock-on effects can be even worse.
Players have already been critical of Grand Theft Auto VI’s leaked build and how the game—still in progress—looks. Much of this is driven by a misunderstanding of how development works, and how games will appear when they’re finished. Consider Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. On Twitter, Naughty Dog developer Kurt Margenau posted an early build of a car chase featuring hero Nathan Drake driving a jeep down what looks like a 3D graph, road neatly squared, past buildings that could be made of children’s building blocks. “Its goal is to represent the gameplay experience as closely as possible,” he tweeted. “Then iterate.” The video ends with a look at the final version, a glossy city brimming with color.
Leaks, developers say, skew the public perception of the game, imprinting upon players that the version they’ll buy is going to be … well, trash. “If you watched a Marvel movie filled with green screens and no special effects, you would have a completely tarnished impression of the final quality, and if you never saw the final film then this would be your permanent impression,” Hutchinson says.
The effects are more than skin deep. It can create barriers between developers and their community, and create increased security and secrecy around projects. Those repercussions go further, sometimes creating a trust vacuum for departments thought to have been the source of the leak. In some cases, it can lead to excessive crunch. “Leaks usually mean delays,” says former Activision Blizzard developer Jessica Gonzalez, if companies defer resources to the investigation and prevention of more leaks. (Rockstar has said it does not currently expect “any long term effect on the development of our ongoing projects.”)
If a hacker does, indeed, have the GTA VI source code, Rockstar’s woes get even worse, because Gonzalez notes, that code “shows how we write the game.” Another developer with over 20 years of experience working on AAA titles, who requested anonymity to speak freely, tells WIRED that “it’s bad but also pretty complicated.” Here, he says, leakers do real harm. “Source code is fluid,” he says, “so it’s a snapshot of a certain place and time that is not really set up to be navigated without a lot of time and effort, but still could be hugely damaging to a team if they have proprietary or licensed code in there.”
In games, developers are often depicted as being overly secretive of their work, and there are often calls for them to share more of their process to foster development literacy and demystify the work it takes to make a game. Some developers, like those behind Quake, choose to release source code for people to play around with and create their own features. But there’s a difference between creators choosing to release their code and having it stolen.
“Leaking, as much as anything, makes companies less likely to engage, even if the leak had nothing to do with the community at large,” says the AAA developer. “If your house gets robbed, you start putting in locks and bars and cameras and not trusting your neighbors as much, and that’s just shitty for everyone.”