Getting an Early Look at Games Can Be Good, Depending on How It’s Done

But good things come to those who wait

  • Leaked GTA 6 footage has gamers worried about how it will look come release time.
  • Developers say it’s normal for games to have visual assets added later in the production process.
  • Some developers have opened up about the development process to illustrate how games can change.
Engineer discussing with colleague while coding over computer at office

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Grand Theft Auto 6 is one of the most hotly anticipated games of a generation, and a hacker has stolen and leaked dozens of videos showing the game’s lack of visual polish. But despite gamer’s concerns, experts say it’s normal for projects to have visual assets added later, and they’ve given a peek behind the curtain to prove it.

The leak saw around 90 clips of GTA 6 shared on social media. But given the early stage of development, the videos depict a game that’s missing visual elements, which was striking to some who saw them. However, experts point out this is just the way game production works and that finished artwork and assets will be added later on.

“Large game development projects are not organized the way many might imagine,” game development industry veteran Glyn Williams told Lifewire via direct message. He added that disappointment among gamers is down to a misunderstanding of the process games go through when being built by large teams. Developers have since provided a better understanding of how big-budget games are put together.

Developers Explain How Games Are Really Made

If there’s one good thing to come out of the GTA 6 leak, it’s that developers are now opening up about how games are actually made. While some creative projects like movies are completed sequentially, that isn’t the case with games. Movies are filmed, then edited, etc, but Williams says things are different with video game projects.

“The goal is to have each department working in parallel, each doing their own thing. With any luck, they all get finished at roughly the same time,” he says. That means people shouldn’t expect games to look great until they're much closer to release, but it also doesn’t mean that visual work on a game isn’t happening—it’s just happening in parallel to other things.

Large game development projects are not organized the way many might imagine.

Illustrating that point, developers of popular games have shared footage of their own work at a similar stage of development. One striking example comes from Uncharted 4's co-lead designer Kurt Margenau, who shared footage of the game via Twitter. It shows a game that looks even less impressive than the leaked GTA 6 footage, but it went on to be a visually compelling title enjoyed by millions.

Margenau wasn't the only one in a sharing mood. The lead designer of Control, Paul Ehreth, published a video of the game during early development to help show how poor games can look. Control went on to win multiple awards for its art.

Other developers have pointed out that art is mixed into the game so late in the process that they sometimes use placeholder assets from different titles while other work goes ahead.

Williams notes that polish isn’t normally added until games are almost complete. 

“Art production has become the biggest and most intensive part of a modern game,” he said. “The art team might start at day one and not finish until weeks before publication.” 

He also points out that companies work this way for a reason, saying, “The gameplay team isn’t interested in aesthetics,” adding that “they don’t need ray-cast volumetric fog or dynamic shadow-casting clouds.”

A Lesson in Patience

While gamers were looking at the leaked footage of GTA 6 and worrying about its graphics, other industry insiders were more philosophical and suggested that perhaps the disappointment shouldn’t be in the quality of an early build of a game. Maybe it should be in the person who stole and subsequently shared the footage in the first place. 

Other experts say it’s leaks like this that cause such secrecy in the first place. And that just makes people want games to leak early even more, creating a vicious cycle.

Video game writer Alana Pearce works on top-tier PlayStation games at its Santa Monica Studio, and she’s particularly worried about expectations vs. reality.

“Leaks are awful for everybody, including excited fans, who are often looking at an unfinished product and creating totally false expectations based upon that. Everyone loses, it just sucks,” she said when commenting via Twitter.

But maybe the more developers share about the process behind making games, the more expectations can be better managed going forward. Right now, they can’t really win—if they share footage, it can often look bad. But if they don’t, people can feel incentivized to leak it instead.

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