Rockstar's GTA 6 confession highlights everything I hate about gaming hype trains

Transparency is the best method of managing expectations.

The way that video games are made and promoted needs to change. Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games’ sly GTA 6 confirmation is evidence of that. Now, we all know for sure that this game exists, yet its formal announcement comes as an existential shrug at the end of a press release about yet another GTA 5 port.

What Happened — On the morning of February 4, 2022, Rockstar Games announced a release date and further details for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S ports for GTA 5. Billed as a “Community Update” about “GTAV for PS5 and Xbox Series X|S, Updates to GTA Online, and More.” That “more,” as it turns out, includes Rockstar’s first official confirmation that GTA 6 is in development.

“With the unprecedented longevity of GTA 5, we know many of you have been asking us about a new entry in the Grand Theft Auto series,” it reads. “With every new project we embark on, our goal is always to significantly move beyond what we have previously delivered — and we are pleased to confirm that active development for the next entry in the Grand Theft Auto series is well underway. We look forward to sharing more as soon as we are ready, so please stay tuned to the Rockstar Newswire for official details.”

An image of the next-gen update for GTA 5.

Rockstar Games

What it means for GTA 6’s development — Whether it’s an indie game or the biggest of big-budget games — like GTA 6 — all video games go through pre-production, production, and post-production. There’s the planning stage, the actual development, and then bug-fixing and polishing. We know that preliminary work on GTA 5 began circa April 2008 and that full development lasted around three years. So if Rockstar is openly admitting that GTA 6 is in “active development,” that’s a good sign that the process is moving along smoothly — but also a confession that the company has been already working on it for several years.

So why did it take so long for Rockstar to admit what everybody already knew?

It shouldn’t have taken this long — Rumors and alleged leaks about GTA 6 have been swirling for years. Its predecessor, GTA 5, was originally released in September 2013. The first legitimate reports of the sequel’s development came back in April 2020, when games journalist Jason Schreier reported for Kotaku that Rockstar was rethinking its development approach to the title.

“One plan that management has laid out for the next game, a new entry in the Grand Theft Auto series, is to start out with a moderately sized release (which, by Rockstar’s standards, would still be a large game) that is then expanded with regular updates over time, which may help mitigate stress and crunch,” he wrote at the time.

A month later, he reiterated in an interview with Inverse: “I don't really think it's any big secret that they're working on another GTA.”

In other words, work on GTA 6 was an open secret for almost two years. Why? Who did that benefit? And what is the rationale behind it? A better approach probably would have been to issue the February 2022 statement in April 2020 instead, even if the game was still in pre-production.

It’s all about the money, but who’s right?

Rockstar Games

Managing expectations vs. announcing too early — During a September 2009 earnings call, the CEO of GTA publisher Take-Two Interactive, Strauss Zelnick, somewhat famously got a bit riled up when asked about any GTA 5 announcements.

"We're not going to announce it, we're not going to announce when we are going to announce it,” Zelnick said, “and we are not going to announce a strategy about announcing it or about when we are going to announce it either, or about the announcement strategy surrounding the announcement of the strategy.” Wow. Okay.

Take-Two has a history of keeping these sorts of announcements secret for as long as possible, and there are good reasons for that. Consider the problems that plagued Cyberpunk 2077: Announced in 2012, teased in 2013, riddled with production issues and delays, the game was finally released in December 2020 after a heavy promotional campaign that involved Keanu Reeves appearing on-stage at E3 2019 in front of a horde of screaming fans. By most accounts, we’d consider Cyberpunk 2077 a total debacle. It had one of the buggiest and most disappointing big-budget launches in modern history. Mostly, it’s the victim of an eight-year hype train that built up expectations too much.

Final Fantasy VII Remake, however, had the opposite effect: Announced at E3 2015, its lengthy production lasted almost five years, but that April 2020 launch delivered a polished, refined, engaging, and fun experiences both newcomers and Final Fantasy fans alike.

If you can launch a good game without bugs, it doesn’t really matter how or when you announce it.

Nervous Ron definitely leans into those GTA 6 conspiracies.

Rockstar Games

In an increasingly digital era when rumors and leaks spread like wildfire, and fans have so many loud opinions online, secrecy is less effective at managing expectations than it once was. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have full-on transparency.

Some of gaming’s biggest successes in recent memory are defined by early access releases and ongoing updates. Fortnite was famously in “Early Access” for three years, and its evolution over time with refreshing seasonal content and map changes contributes greatly to its ongoing success. After being announced at The Game Awards 2018, renowned Roguelike Hades was in Early Access until its full release in September 2020. Then it went on to become pretty much everybody’s Game of the Year.

Warframe, Anthem, and Outriders were each labeled “Destiny-killers” across the industry, and yet Destiny 2 thrives today thanks in part to a holistic and transparent approach to development. Anthem? Dead. Outriders? Nobody talks about it anymore. Developer Bungie’s approach is so successful that Sony bought the company earlier this week and not for the Destiny franchise, but for the company’s successful and apparently unkillable approach to game development.

The Inverse Analysis — The bottom line here is that it feels a bit ridiculous for Rockstar Games to have waited this long to admit that GTA 6 is in development. If the concern is managing expectations, then transparency is the best way to mitigate that. Even if you sacrifice a bit of the hype generated by total secrecy, if developers can deliver a solid game experience, it won’t matter in the end. Right now, however, the GTA 6 confirmation feels like the least interesting bit of gaming to come out of the action-packed first few weeks of 2022.

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