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I wish it didn’t take federal crimes to see video games mid-development

Something needs to change

Wolverine sitting at the bar with his back to the camera, one half of the image in color and the other half in stark black and white. Illustration: Ian Walker for Polygon | Source image: Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The recent Insomniac Games hack saw over a terabyte of the developer’s data illegally distributed online after it refused to pay a $2 million ransom to the Rhysida ransomware gang. The leak includes employees’ personal information, which means developers are not only experiencing the heartache of seeing their works in progress stolen and uploaded, but also, they just got doxxed. It doesn’t get worse than that. And I wish it didn’t take such drastic and devastating measures to get a look behind the curtain at in-development AAA games.

Over the last few years, criminal intrusions into the digital bowels of some of the biggest and most beloved video game studios in the world have provided us with details on internal projects long before studio public relations departments were ready to share official news. A breach of Capcom’s security in 2020, for example, was how most folks learned that long-anticipated games like Street Fighter 6, Dragon’s Dogma 2, and a Resident Evil 4 remake were waiting in the wings.

Leaks are a contentious subject. While I don’t have much sympathy for a multinational corporation’s bottom line or its best-laid drip-feed advertising plans, I totally get why developers banging out animations or environments wouldn’t necessarily want that labor revealed before it’s finished. Video games aren’t just products for mass consumption, they’re art — and I can only imagine how crushing it must feel to have your art ripped away from you and put on display before you’re ready to share it.

But as someone who cares about games, I’ve always been captivated by how and why the things we play work the way they do. Seeing footage of Insomniac’s talented team working out not only major gameplay mechanics but also the minutiae of Logan’s movement in grid-covered test environments was like Christmas morning for me. This peek behind the curtains at Wolverine’s development is fascinating. It never should have happened in the way that it did, but imagine a world in which AAA developers had more opportunities to casually share in-progress work with the incentive of raising public awareness of how games are made.

Actually, you don’t need to imagine when you can just look to filmmaking for a perfect example.

King Kong director Peter Jackson famously produced a series of over 50 video diaries while filming the 2005 remake, the first of which was published well over a year before the movie hit theaters. Almost a decade later, he would do the same thing for The Hobbit, uploading behind-the-scenes highlights from the set directly to YouTube. The only comparable project I can recall in games is Double Fine’s regular updates on the progress of Broken Age, and those videos were available during development only to Kickstarter backers before eventually being made public after the game’s release.

I follow a lot of indie and solo developers for this exact reason: They aren’t shy about sharing fun little details en route to a full release. We Kill Monsters is one of my most anticipated upcoming games, but I would have never known about it if not for its creator, Jacob “Glass Revolver” Williams, sharing atmospheric clips of his steady progress for the last three years. In some ways, these previews act as marketing themselves, and they influence me more than showing up at some Geoff Keighley commercial extravaganza with Jordan Peele and a pre-rendered cutscene. But there could be another advantage to major studios sharing highlight reels full of approved development footage before games officially release: education.

Starfield was a big hit when it launched earlier this year, but frequent complaints regarding the concessions Bethesda made — empty worlds, an overreliance on fast travel menus to get anywhere — to achieve other ambitions obviously stuck in the developer’s craw. Shortly after a Bethesda representative was found to have left comments pushing back on negative Steam reviews, studio design director Emil Pagliarulo decried “how disconnected some players are from the realities of game development” in a lengthy thread on X (formerly Twitter).

“[Y]ou can dislike parts of a game. You can hate on a game entirely,” Pagliarulo wrote several messages later. “But don’t fool yourself into thinking you know why it is the way it is (unless it’s somehow documented and verified), or how it got to be that way (good or bad). Chances are, unless you’ve made a game yourself, you don’t know who made certain decisions, who did specific work, how many people were actually available to do that work, any time challenges faced, or how often you had to overcome technology itself.”

Many workers in the video game industry want people to understand the process of making games so they can have informed opinions about what they play, but at the same time, studios insist on being secretive every step of the way. What’s worse is that leaks tend to make studios even more secretive, rather than less so. We really only learn about game development through Noclip documentaries produced decades after the fact, or when contrite managers are forced to step forward and explain why a release didn’t meet expectations. It’s partially a byproduct of a depressingly sizable portion of the audience being reactionary assholes willing to harass and mock developers over puddles, to be sure, but it’s more than just that. Everyone, from developers to journalists to average Joes waiting for the next Mario game, is handcuffed to a hype cycle driven by industry propagandists, and it doesn’t do anyone a bit of good. (Well, maybe investors, but I don’t count them as people.)

I love video games, and my appreciation of the art form naturally extends to the people who toil away in low-paying, underappreciated jobs creating them. We hear all the time that “making games is hard,” but the familiarity of this phrase doesn’t take away from its core truth: Every game is a minor miracle. I think if studios were willing to take a leap of faith and share how messy code and silly workarounds become a finished game, that communal knowledge would lead to greater appreciation for the art they produce. We could all do with a little more education.

The next level of puzzles.

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