The Real Impact of the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and ‘Diablo’ Leaks

On 17 Sept. a user named teapotuberhacker went to a Grand Theft Auto forum with what they believed were 90 clips of Rockstar Games’ next big supposed hit, Grand Theft Auto VI. “[It’s] I may be leaking more data soon, GTA 5 and 6 source code and assets, GTA build 6 tests,” they wrote.

The hack was real. The next day, Rockstar confirmed that it “had undergone a network intrusion where an unauthorized third party illegally downloaded confidential information from our system.” That included early footage of the upcoming game, prompting parent company Take-Two to scramble to get videos on platforms like YouTube and Twitter taken down as soon as possible. (Rockstar did not respond to requests for comment.)

Grand Theft Auto‘s leak is one of, if not the, biggest leaks in the game industry. The scope of what the hacker managed to steal, from videos to possible GTA V and GTA VI source code – the building blocks that allow developers to create their games in a unique way – is mind boggling. But despite a massive breach, Rockstar Games isn’t alone. This week, a Reddit user posted 43 minutes of beta footage of Blizzard’s upcoming Diablo IV. Earlier this month news about the next one from Ubisoft Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed Mirage, was published online ahead of the company’s flashy announcement; a YouTuber has since come forward to plead responsibility for the leak after breaking an embargo. In the past, hackers have targeted prominent developers such as Naughty Dog by posting undisclosed information about: The Last of Us Part II.

In the immediate aftermath of the GTA VI leak, Take-Two’s shares fell 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 on a project for years and then a partially completed version of it is online,” said creative director Alex Hutchinson, whose projects include Assassin’s Creed III and Far cry 4. “And you get endless negative comments about it that you can’t defend, because then you’re just oxygenating a bad moment.” And the knock-on effects could be even worse.

Players are already critical of Grand Theft Auto VI‘s leaked build and what the game – still in progress – looks like. Much of this is caused by a misunderstanding of how development works and what games will look like 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 with hero Nathan Drake driving a jeep through what looks like a 3D graph, neatly squared roads, past buildings that could be made of children’s building blocks. “The goal is to best represent the gameplay experience,” he tweeted. “Then repeat.” The video ends with a look at the final version, a shiny city brimming with color.

Leaks, developers say, are distorting public perception of the game, inculcating players that the version they will buy will be… well, trash. “If you saw a Marvel film 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, this would be your lasting impression,” Hutchinson says.

The effects are more than skin deep. It can create barriers between developers and their communities, and create more security and secrecy around projects. Those impacts go further, sometimes creating a trust vacuum for departments believed to be the source of the leak. In some cases, this can lead to excessive crunch. “Leaks usually mean delays,” says former Activision Blizzard developer Jessica Gonzalez, as companies defer resources to investigate and prevent more leaks. (Rockstar has said it does not currently expect any long-term impact on the development of our ongoing projects.)

If a hacker does indeed GTA VI source code, Rockstar’s problems get even worse, as Gonzalez notes that that code “shows how we write the game.” Another developer with over 20 years of experience working on AAA titles, who asked for anonymity to speak up, tells WIRED that “it’s bad, but also pretty complicated.” Here, he says, leakers really do harm. “Source code is fluid,” he says, “so it’s a snapshot of a particular place and time that’s not really set up to be navigated without much time and effort, yet can be hugely damaging to a team if they’re there proprietary or have a licensed code.”

In games, developers are often portrayed as being overly secretive about their work, and are often asked to share more of their process to promote development literacy and demystify the work required to create a game. Some developers, like the ones behind earthquake, choose to release the source code for people to play with and create their own functions. But there is a difference between creators who choose to release their code and have it stolen.

“The leak makes companies less likely to participate, even if the leak had nothing to do with the community at large,” the AAA developer said. “When your house gets robbed, you start putting locks and bars and cameras in place and you don’t trust your neighbors that much, and that’s just shit for everyone.”