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The ‘Grand Theft Auto’ Leak Is Enormous News That May Not Matter

A massive leak of footage from the next big Rockstar Games release recently shook the video game industry. What does it mean for ‘GTA,’ fans of the franchise, and the way games get made?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Late on Saturday night (Los Santos time), something incredible happened: A rumor about Grand Theft Auto VI actually turned out to be true. If any online algorithm has learned that you like video games, then you’ve almost certainly seen “GTA VI” trending at some point (or maybe many points) over the past several years. And when you clicked—because of course you clicked—you were almost definitely disappointed to discover that the source was some baseless speculation about potential protagonists, settings, or release dates. This time, though, the smoke on social media was wafting from a five-alarm fire: one of the most scandalous leaks in video game history. Nine years to the day that Grand Theft Auto V came out, nearly 100 videos and screenshots of an early version of its successor had surfaced.

The leak came from a thread at the website GTAForums, where a user named “teapotuberhacker”—who claimed to be the same person who hacked Uber last week—matter-of-factly stated, “Here are 90 footage/clips from GTA 6.” And there they were: images and nearly an hour’s worth of clips of a nowhere-near-half-baked build of the game, including videos of a female playable protagonist (accompanied by a male sidekick) orchestrating a hostage situation inside and outside of a diner, a male playable protagonist strolling around a strip club and talking to NPCs at a pool, and several sequences of outdoor driving or walking. Much of the footage featured debug code and other normally non-public-facing architecture and interfaces that illustrated some of the systems working under the hood. The leaker also posted images of assorted game assets and snippets of additional Rockstar code.

In the hours after the illicit data dump, fans debated whether the material was real or an extremely elaborate hoax. But by Sunday morning, credible reports had confirmed its authenticity. And on Monday, GTA developer Rockstar Games—which had already started spamming takedown orders in an attempt to play Whac-A-Mole with the rapidly proliferating footage—ended any doubt, announcing that it had “recently suffered a network intrusion in which an unauthorized third party illegally accessed and downloaded confidential information about our systems, including early development footage for the next Grand Theft Auto.”

For fans of GTA who’ve spent two console generations anticipating the next mainline title in one of the medium’s most famous franchises, seeing the first tangible evidence of GTA VI’s existence was as wondrous as spotting Bigfoot on Mount Chiliad. The notoriously secretive Rockstar didn’t confirm that the next GTA was in progress until this past February, and it still hasn’t announced the game’s title or release date, forcing analysts to parse Rockstar parent company Take-Two Interactive’s financial disclosures for clues about timing. Most estimates suggest that the game won’t be out until at least 2024, which means it may be some time until Rockstar officially lifts the lid. (GTA V wasn’t unveiled until less than two years before its September 2013 release.) In February, Rockstar said “active development” was “well underway,” adding, “We look forward to sharing more as soon as we are ready.” Clearly, Rockstar wasn’t ready yet.

Given the scope of the leak, the fame of the game, and the years of Rockstar radio silence surrounding the follow-up to the second-best-selling title of all time, the unsanctioned sneak peek was huge news. Yet it was also surprisingly—or perhaps not so surprisingly—underwhelming. GTA VI, or whatever it will one day be dubbed, looked … well, like an early version of a video game, which is to say, understandably unfinished. The leak was less interesting for what it revealed about the forthcoming game than what it didn’t, and couldn’t, convey about Rockstar’s next open-world opus. If anything, the leak highlighted how odd video game development and publicity are compared to the creation and rollout of other visual mainstream media. It also served as a reminder of how inconsequential most major video game leaks have turned out to be.

One reason why the GTA leak wasn’t as momentous as it might have been: Most of what was shown was already known. The existence of the game wasn’t a secret. Neither was its setting (Vice City, Rockstar’s fictional take on Miami), its multiple main characters, or its playable Latina lead—the last of which will be a milestone for a franchise with a history of predominantly male protagonists. Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier reported those details in July, so the leak largely corroborated his account rather than broke new ground. That’s not to say that there was nothing new on display—the leaked content confirmed or hinted at various mechanics, activities, and animations that hadn’t been announced, as well as the names of the Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque duo Schreier had described—but the leak was mercifully missing any massive story spoilers or shocking feature reveals.

Even so, much of the initial coverage of the leak framed the security breach as a big blow to the studio. Schreier labeled it a “nightmare” for Rockstar; Polygon called it “highly damaging”; YouTuber LegacyKillaHD said the Rockstar sources he’d spoken to were “gutted” and “devastated.” One might well wonder why: Given that GTA V never stops selling, millions of people still play GTA Online, and the release of a smattering of pre-alpha footage of GTA VI became the biggest story in gaming, is there any real risk that the leak could derail the GTA juggernaut?

In short: Nah, not likely. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be costs that make this more than a newsy nothingburger (or a nothing Burger Shot).

Rockstar’s announcement said the studio was “extremely disappointed to have any details of our next game shared with you all in this way.” I get it: I wouldn’t have wanted this piece to be published when all I’d written was the first few paragraphs. That speaks to one of the most serious casualties of a leak like this: employee morale. Imagine you’re a Rockstar designer, working hard—though hopefully not excessively hard, given Rockstar’s newfound commitment to cutting out crunch—on a game that’s consuming much of your professional life and that you’re not allowed to talk about. One of the prospects that sustains you is the idea of dropping the culmination of your labor and passion on an adoring public when it’s at its most mind-blowing. Now imagine that some malcontent or opportunist steals your IP (and your thunder) and just tweets it out—or, you know, posts it out—when it’s not nearly looking its best. As a number of veteran developers noted on Twitter, this can be a bummer.

As Schreier observed, a leak like this may also “disrupt work for a while” or “lead management to limit work-from-home flexibility.” (The hacker claimed to have obtained the files from Rockstar’s international messaging Slack—and though that could have happened even if every Rockstar employee was working in the office, it’s possible that remote work may have led to more files being shared and hosted on Slack.) There’s also some risk of an even more extensive leak: The hacker, who claimed to possess GTA V and GTA VI source code, a GTA VI test build, and other assets, seems to be “looking to negotiate a deal” with Take-Two. (As part of the same message, the hacker remarked that the leak had gone “unexpectedly viral,” which makes one wonder what reaction they thought this would provoke.) Some analysts fretted that a source-code leak could necessitate significant reprogramming and possible delays.

Rockstar, for its part, projected confidence and downplayed such concerns, promising that “work on the next Grand Theft Auto game will continue as planned” and that “at this time, we do not anticipate any disruption to our live game services nor any long-term effect on the development of our ongoing projects.” In addition, Take-Two reassured its investors that it has “already taken steps to isolate and contain this incident.” (Uber, which acknowledged that Rockstar may have been victimized by the same offender, announced that it was working with “several leading digital forensics firms” and “in close coordination” with the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice, though there may be fewer options at the disposal of domestic law enforcement agencies if, as some reports claimed, the culprit was a 16-year-old U.K. resident.)

On the whole, the market mostly seems to have shrugged. Although Take-Two’s stock price sank early in the day, it bounced back by the afternoon. Other industry analysts sounded much more bullish, with Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter saying the leak was “interesting publicity and nothing eventful” and that “nothing meaningful will come of it”; Jefferies analyst Andrew Uerkwitz opining that the leak “won’t impact game reception/sales,” and Oppenheimer analyst Martin Yang concluding that “even the worst hack isn’t that bad.”

That seems counterintuitive, but it’s borne out by the history of high-profile hacks. In fact, some games may have done better because of the publicity and feedback caused by a leak. It’s not uncommon for script details, footage, or fully finished versions of games to leak (though that often happens closer to release, and sometimes accidentally); in the past couple of years, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Capcom, and CD Projekt Red endured huge hacks; last year, the stolen source code for Cyberpunk 2077 and The Witcher 3 was sold, and last month, Diablo 4 test builds began leaking. The GTA hack went (not at all unexpectedly) viral not because the theft was uniquely large, but because the GTA audience is.

One of the tweets of support for Rockstar was sent by Naughty Dog co-president Neil Druckmann, the creative director of The Last of Us Part II. Months before that game’s June 2020 release, videos of cutscenes, gameplay, and key plot points spoiled some players. At the time, Druckmann declared that he was “heartbroken for the team” and “heartbroken for our fans,” which explains why he had an “Ah shit, here we go again” burst of empathy for his Rockstar counterparts. Ultimately, though, The Last of Us Part II became one of the PlayStation 4’s biggest hits: It got great reviews and sold more than 10 million copies. The leaks, as Druckmann noted in his tweet this week, were “relegated to a footnote on a Wikipedia page.”

That’s pretty par for the course. Other games that suffered memorable leaks or hacks include Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare; Far Cry 2; Mass Effect 3; Fallout 4; StarCraft II; Halo 2; and The Witcher 3 even before it came out. Most of those games had something else in common: They were critical and commercial successes that are remembered less for their leaks than for being stone-cold classics. Just as is maybe the most notorious target of a hack: Half-Life 2, which had its source code stolen and released right after the game missed its scheduled release date in October 2003. Development slowed amid the resulting loss of focus, but if anything, the hack hammered home that the game needed much more work. Valve’s Half-Life sequel subsequently suffered multiple delays and didn’t come out until November 2004, but when it was released—well, it was Half-Life 2.

Rockstar’s situation isn’t the same as Valve’s. Bernstein analyst Matti Littunen told MarketWatch that comparing the plights of the projects “would not make much sense,” because while “the Half-Life 2 leak showed a clearly unfinished game just days before the planned release date, leading to a fan backlash,” the response to the GTA leak “seems relatively positive, with the fans just glad to have more evidence that the game they have been waiting for so long is taking shape.”

Granted, plenty of players reflexively criticized the footage for not resembling the perfected products they expect from Rockstar, even though there’s no reason why it would at this stage. Not only is the game likely years away from being finished, but at least some of the footage is old. It’s a minor miracle that any game gets made, and most games look like crap and play poorly until months or weeks before release—if not even later than that. Any expectation that GTA VI would look great today is based on a misconception of the development process, as many game-makers made clear.

Among the cognoscenti, the consensus seemed to be that GTA VI looks pretty impressive, actually. And as far as uninformed gamers go: If the next GTA makes good on Rockstar’s stated intention to “set creative benchmarks for the series, our industry, and for all entertainment,” it’s hard to imagine many players staying away from the fully polished product because of what will by then probably be a years-old, half-forgotten bump in the road.

The bifurcated takes among those who do and don’t understand development occasioned a second debate. Some argued that players would be better informed if game design were a more transparent process—if, say, more companies followed the lead of Electronic Arts, which last year showed unfinished footage from a fledgling Dead Space remake and in June released a “pre-pre-pre-alpha” reel from its upcoming game Skate. Others suggested that the backlash to the GTA footage, and the harassment that often greets developers who don’t satisfy toxic fans, makes that openness impossible (unless a game has already had some success). On the one hand, the gaming release cycle is strange: Big games get announced (or rumored) many years before they come out, and potential players can’t count on developers keeping them apprised of their progress. Unlike films and TV shows, which are harder to hide from prying eyes, games don’t generate steady drips of detail about scripts, titles, casts, shooting schedules/locations, and set photos. On the other hand, what would most game publishers gain by pulling back the curtain on their unpredictable projects before they’re ready for their closeups?

For what it’s worth, I don’t feel discouraged or spoiled by the GTA samples I wasn’t supposed to see. If anything, I’m more actively looking forward to the next GTA now than I was a week ago. Not because of what was in the footage—it was fine?—but because there was footage at all, which reminded me that this long-rumored, never-glimpsed game is going to be finished someday. (And gave me something Rockstar-related to chew on other than last year’s GTA Trilogy debacle.) Then again, I’d get this game even if Rockstar kept it quiet until the day it dropped, so the hack was in no way a win for Rockstar (or, in any lasting sense, for its fans). GTA VI is going to sell a million jillion copies, approximately, whenever it arrives and whatever secrets slip out. Even if teapotuberhacker had leaked footage of the full game, there’d still be no substitute for playing it.

To recap: A serious hack happened to one of the most hyped and hush-hush games in history. It’s exciting and devastating, a dream and a nightmare. It’s enormous news—and ultimately, it may not matter at all.