Video games are hard to make. You might have heard that somewhere before.
Most people recognize that video games do not simply burst, fully-QA’d, from eggs laid carefully by an executive who then adjusts his T-shirt and blazer and steps onstage at E3 to announce their triumphant existence. But depending on how Extremely Online you are, you might not really have a good concept of exactly what they look like before they show up on your platform of choice, or even before we see them in shiny reveal trailers.
That’s one small part of what’s made the discussion around the Grand Theft Auto 6 leaks so tricky to navigate. Everyone has a different perspective on how much your average gamer knows about what in-development games look like, or how much they even should know. The games industry exists in a fog of secrecy around everything basic questions about how a gameplay mechanic will work pre-launch to sales numbers after launch. And perhaps that’s somewhat earned given the week’s events: Game creators worry that an unexpected leak will harm employee morale, muck up a carefully-plotted marketing campaign, or turn opinions about an upcoming game sour before its creators even have a chance to show off its best features.
But at the same time. it’s not true that information about how games look and feel early on is some esoteric, mysterious, unknowable thing. In fact, that information is everywhere. Game development details can be found in annual GDC talks from giants like Nintendo and Insomniac, and in official tweets especially from indie studios trying to build community. Heck, IGN has a whole video series chock full of these juicy game dev tidbits. If you want to know what your favorite game looked like before you got to play it yourself, chances are, that information is out there in some form or another.
And, delightfully, one positive response to the GTA 6 leaks has been that an awful lot of developers and others have offered to share even more of that early footage for our edification. Though many folks were already doing so on Twitter when we spoke up (largely in appropriately snarky responses to someone’s wrong suggestion that visuals are the first bit of a game to be fully complete), I also asked devs to answer the following question: What did your game look, sound, and feel like two years before it came out?
The responses are an absolute delight to wade through, and tell us a lot about the challenges of game development, as well as the many, many different philosophies regarding how one even goes about making a complete game in the first place.
Look, let’s get this one out of the way: No one’s signing a form two years out from a game’s release that says, “Yes these graphics are done and will never change ever, now make the game fun!” But it is true that some games actually look rather nice early on.
Some games have pretty well established their general art styles early on in development. Wayward Strand, which was just released last week, had its general art style and character designs in place a few years ago according to creator Marigold Bartlett. And its script was two-thirds of the way done. But it still took years more work to make something playable and complete. Even though the basic style was in place, there was a lot more work to do to polish it.
Similarly, Rose City Games’ Corey Warning shared an early gif of tactics game Floppy Knights from 2019. The final game would have much more detailed and complex art, but the basic character and card designs haven’t changed too dramatically since then.
And The Pixel Hunt, the studio behind upcoming narrative game The Wreck, showed off a rough animated storyboard from early development. It’s much, much, much simpler than the final version, but it’s easy to get a feel for the style and tone of what it would eventually be:
Hi there! It’s time for The Wreck’s random fact tweet of the day!
#9: To produce The Wreck, we first came up with a very rough version of the sequences we were going to use – pretty much akin to an animated storyboard. But things moved a lot between that and the actual game! pic.twitter.com/OThOdGBmmM
— 🚗💥 wishlist The Wreck ♥️ (@ThePixelHunt) September 20, 2022
It’s Just a Placeholder
But far, far, far more common in game development is the glorious placeholder asset. In-development games are full of these, because while a studio is still ironing out all the other gameplay details, it’s a waste of time to spend a bunch of resources and energy making something beautiful that may get scrapped in the end.
For smaller developers, this often means using free asset packs, such as Sherveen Uduwana did for upcoming game Midautumn:
this is the first gameplay test I ever did for midautumn!
I just used the tiny rpg forest pack for placeholder assets. And then messed around with shaders and tweens until I liked the feel of the attack and the dash#screenshotsaturday pic.twitter.com/C4j4iPTWBy
— Sherveen Uduwana (@SUduwana) July 23, 2022
Some developers will even fill in gaps with assets from other games… though that means they absolutely must remember to remove them from the final game so they don’t get in trouble. For instance, here’s still-in-development, Wario Land-inspired AntonBlast with some very familiar heart containers a year ago:
maybe it doesn’t count, but here’s Antonblast circa November 2021, vs today (projected late 2023) – it looked a lot more like that first screenshot for longer than I’d like to admit! :} pic.twitter.com/xXTyeFAoRp
— tony grayson 💥 (@graysonZ80) September 20, 2022
And Soda Story, which borrowed Wilson from Don’t Starve for a while:
Wilson from Don’t Starve did a great job filling in early on in Soda Story. Helped us figure out how to mix 2D/3D after a LOT of trial and error 😅 pic.twitter.com/RboCEpfSYQ
— RhysD (@rhysdee) September 21, 2022
Far more often, though, developers will just use simple models and other things they happen to have on hand. One delightful example involves Neversoft using Bruce Willis as the first-ever skateboarder in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, because the studio had his model on hand from its previous work on Apocalypse. Early screenshots of World of Warcraft include entire placeholder towns and items that never made it to the final game. D-Pad Studios’ upcoming battler Vikings on Trampolines was first prototyped over 20 years ago, using what look to be visual made in something like MS Paint:
“Graphics are the first thing finished in a video game”.
Here’s what the first version Vikings On Trampolines looked like :-I
— D-Pad Studio | Vikings On Trampolines (@DPadStudio) September 21, 2022
And an early prototype of Little Big Planet doesn’t look that dissimilar:
“Graphics are the first thing finished in a video game”
P.s. We ❤️ all of the hard-working video game developers in the world! 🥰 pic.twitter.com/sGkvJDXfsg
— Sackboy: A Big Adventure | LittleBigPlanet (@LittleBigPlanet) September 21, 2022
In one of my favorites, this clip from early Control development, we see some fantastic placeholder objects labeled “Throw Me”:
Since graphics are the first thing finished in a video game, and CONTROL won multiple awards for excellence in graphics, here is footage from the beginning of development 🙂
— Paul Ehreth 🔻 (@bacon_sanwich) September 20, 2022
And in our Art of the Level on Double Fine’s Psychonauts 2, we saw delicious-looking placeholder food items:
Sometimes, most often in indie development, placeholders stick around for a bit longer than folks would like them to. Ilya Chkoliar, lead developer and owner of Elushis Music & Gaming, told us about the development of After The End: The Harvest, which was first released in early access on PC with almost entirely placeholder assets. Though Chkoliar had tried to make it clear that the art would eventually be replaced before the game left early access, After The End was critically torn to pieces in no small part due to the use of those assets. So Chkoliar spent several years rebuilding the game throughout early access before the assets were finalized and After The End fully released.
“Art is one of the last things that is finalized, so to speak. I find that it’s (generally) one of the easier things to swap out, once you’re nearing the end of a dev cycle. Time is usually better spent working on the systems as they tend to take exorbitant amounts of time.”
Chkoliar’s not alone, either. Chris King told me that MegaMan-inspired roguelike platformer 20XX changed its character art something like five to six times during development, including after early access hit. “The game’s visuals have big Ship of Theseus energy. I’m pretty sure *zero* of the game’s first Early Access visual assets made it into the 1.0 release of the game ~2.5 years later.”
One major advantage of placeholder art is that it lets developers be really, really messy while they’re still working to discover what exactly is fun about their games. One of the more famous examples of this is the first Splatoon game, which Nintendo showed early development footage of during a 2018 GDC talk. The very, very earliest prototype of Splatoon just involved grey “tofu” cubes spitting out black and white ink. The team kept the visuals as simple as possible while they sorted out the basic concepts that made Splatoon fun, and the rest came later:
In fact, Nintendo does this exact thing rather famously. In another notable example (and a GDC talk the year prior), we learned about how Nintendo made a Breath of the Wild prototype in the style of the original NES The Legend of Zelda. It was simple to make, and with it, they could experiment with “multiplicative gameplay” or making the game “so that objects react to the player’s actions and the objects themselves also influence each other.” When that worked out well, Nintendo later integrated that into the open world we saw in Breath of the Wild.
— Nintendo of America (@NintendoAmerica) March 1, 2017
But Nintendo’s not alone in this – it may as well just be called “prototyping.” Sony Santa Monica, for instance, did something like this to sort out the Baldur fight in God of War:
As did PowerWash Sim (with developer Peter Hansen poking fun at the “visuals being done first” in his tweet):
If you knew how game development goes, you’d know that visuals are one of the first things done. So here’s a very early footage of @PowerWashSim, almost exactly what you got now. The next year is mission coding and debugging. All backend stuff. pic.twitter.com/Q6hfY5OGJE
— Peter Hansen (@peeteco) September 20, 2022
Rare’s Sea of Thieves wears its prototype on its sleeve here: you can access screenshots of an early build of the game just by watching the credits. It looks, delightfully, like Veggie Tales:
Guerrilla Games has similarly shown, proudly, the earliest versions of its powerful and detailed dinosaur machines. They look like funny lego block creatures! Apparently, each brick represents a different part of the machine that could be targeted or shot off. There’s tons more info and more fun images on the PlayStation blog.
And it turns out, we get this kind of thing from AAA studios all the time! The Dead Space Remake has shown extremely early footage, a year before the official official announcement. EA’s Skate reboot did the same thing. Naughty Dog did a whole segment for an IGN Art of the Level on a single, famous scene from Uncharted 4, showing off the gradual process of developing it from start to finish. And then they did it again for The Last of Us Part 2’s Rat King fight.
But this doesn’t just apply to games with complex 3D models. Here’s Terry Cavanagh’s Dicey Dungeons, for instance:
To be honestly I haven’t been completely following the latest games twitter thing, but here’s what Dicey Dungeons looked like before it was finished, lol pic.twitter.com/1ggNcdP445
— Terry Cavanagh 🎲 (@terrycavanagh) September 20, 2022
In fact, it’s probably safe to say that the vast majority of your favorite games looked like this at some point in their early life cycle. Here, have some more. Here’s a door in Polyarc’s VR adventure, Moss:
Sometimes, games or major pieces of them will be full of goofy, blocky shapes even up until close to release. One anonymous person familiar with the devleopment of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands told me that about a year before release that “some parts of the environment, like a castle wall, was gray box. No textures. This is probably due to the dev team tweaking level designs for the best player experience, and this stuff takes time!”
The Headless Heroes
Once games are out of prototype, though, that doesn’t mean the visuals (or any other elements) magically snap into place. For instance, as retired BioWare producer Mark Darrah explained, Mass Effect 3’s Shepard took a surprisingly long time to get his head on straight despite having been the hero of the previous two games:
In Mass Effect 3 (3!) 2 years out Shepard didn’t have a head.
It was the third one.
On the same engine.
No head. https://t.co/4hjmzz0Oho
— Mark Darrah (@BioMarkDarrah) September 19, 2022
In a reply, BioWare writer Patrick Weekes added that one year from Mass Effect 3’s launch, the only animation the team had ready was for the Reaper husk, “so that was how Shepard ran for a full month.”
Heads seemed to be a surprisingly common late addition, as former Harmonix tester Dan Johnson explained:
Beatles Rock Band was build on the same engine as RB1, RB2, and RB Lego.
One day after all the character art an animations were in, the daily build had no heads. Eyes and teeth were there, all animations were there. No heads.
The look-at tech was fully functional too. https://t.co/CYbKxJYRgO
— Dan Johnson 💙 (@coil780) September 20, 2022
Fortunately, it doesn’t sound like that particular genre of rhythm games requires characters to have heads for it to be fun. Per former Activision PR Jordan Dodge, Guitar Hero was a dang good time without, well, much of anything:
I remember playing v0.01 of Guitar Hero. It was an empty screen with some colored bars.
And that’s it.
No menus. No end of song. Just scrolling bars. And you’d have to reset the machine to play again.
But it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing games.
— Jordan (@sirjordandodge) September 20, 2022
Sometimes it’s not just heads. Sometimes it’s entire character models getting scrapped and redone. Tara Voelker, former QA lead at irrational Games, helped me piece together the many iteractions of Elizabeth from the development of Bioshock Infinite:
*tries to remember what from Bioshock Infinite existed and made it to launch 2 years out*
🤔 the story wasn’t done. Liz looked different. Entire game modes existed that didn’t ship. The Luteces also looked way different. https://t.co/hCQObHGjnV
— Tara Voelker 👻 (@LadieAuPair) September 20, 2022
“So Liz ended up with two looks in the final game, one when you find in her the tower and one after she changes clothes in the airship which she wears for most of the game,” Voelker sais. “The latter always had the same vibes overall – but had she had changes in colors of the dress, cut of the dress, bust size, waist size and hair cut. You can see this in changes from the first announce trailer, the first gameplay trailer, and then game itself.”
“So in this ending, you actually see several models of Liz together,” Voelker continued. “The ‘young liz’ towards the middle in the white dress is a version that you don’t see anywhere else, a completely scrapped model that just got reused for this.”
Voelker added that not only did almost nothing from the very first Bioshock Infinite gameplay trailer ship in the final game, but there was also an entire scrapped multiplayer mode.
And it’s all because, in game development, things are constantly changing. Sometimes it’s (relatively) smaller elements, like what the HUD looks like in the case of Destiny 1:
I don’t think I ever sent this out widely before, but this is a video I showed when I spoke at a college art seminar years ago. This video shows the various Destiny HUD iterations before we landed on the final design. Enjoy!https://t.co/TP1PvGTahM
— David Candland (@drcandland) February 28, 2020
Other times, entire major sections of the game need a lot of work and fine-tuning before we can see them. The Game Kitchen, developers of Blasphemous, have been fairly open with their Kickstarter backers about the process of development, but reminded the world that their game looked pretty gnarly for a whole year before it came out – there were a lot more important things surrounding gameplay and systems to nail down before they could get to the “make game pretty” part.
This is no secret to any fan of @BlasphemousGame because since the early #Kickstarter days we were extremely open with our development (And we had nothing to lose back then), but #Blasphemous looked like this for a whole year before release.
— The Game Kitchen (@TheGameKitchen) September 21, 2022
It can be a bit easier, sometimes, for indie fans to get looks at early footage like that before a game has come out. In major studio development, we often don’t get these insights until a game has come out and people are doing post-mortems and GDC talks. But that doesn’t mean games don’t look like this in AAA, even up to near-release. Take Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege. One anonymous person familiar with the development of the game told me that a year before launch, there was basically only one map that was “in decent shape.”
“All other maps were in some level of work-in-progress with still a great deal of work to be done. The cornerstone feature of destruction was not working in many maps … Many of the smaller to mid-size props will still yet to be made as well. Core navigation like running around and shooting was in pretty good shape and many of the operator abilities were functional but still lacked visual polish. It was a minor miracle that game shipped at all but as it was communicated to the public in the season updates there was a lot of optimization and stabilization needed at launch.”
But given the constantly shifting budgets, priorities, and ideas at play in game development, this isn’t an uncommon story. In fact, some games have gone through even more dramatic changes. Joey Davidson told me about Techtonica, a factory automation game inspired by Factorio and Satisfactory. Two years before launch, it was a survival RPG.
“The pandemic happened, and our team fell in love with factory automation games and decided Techtonica was a candidate for the shift, and so we leaned in and changed a whole lot of stuff. There’s still some survival remnants in the code, which our community has even snooped around and found during the closed alpha.
“We’re a team of 18 making an ambitious project. We have a stellar producer and leaders who do lots of great planning, but game dev is all about last minute changes and compromises to hit a mark.“
And then there’s Scribblenauts Unlimited, which was struggling during its development for the Wii… but was saved by a very unlikely console hero:
“Two years before [Scribblenauts] Unlimited came out, we were still a Wii game,” explained Brittany Aubert, lead producer for the game. “We were not confident the game would work due to the lack of touchscreen/keyboard. It WAS NOT fun. Had the Wii U not come out we would have been dead in the water.”
“When we first made the switch over we had to completely roll our own UI. We were using ScaleForm, but they weren’t given early access to the dev kits the way we were. We couldn’t even talk to them about support. So two months in to trying to port our Wii game to the Wii U (which didn’t have fully translated developer docs yet btw), we decided to roll our own. Our AMAZING engineer Christina Welk made a UI system we called MooseGUI. It stood for Managed Overwhelmingly Obfuscated Scaleform Equivalent. The tool we rolled to build the UI we affectionately called Squirrel … so that we could have Moose and Squirrel working together.”
Games, From Nothing
All games, at some point, are nothing more than an empty file on a computer somewhere, or a half-formed idea in someone’s head. When I asked developers what their games looked like two years before they came out, several people told me that they didn’t even exist that early on. Madgarden, developer of Death Road to Canada, shared one of the earliest clips of anything I received:
My first Death Road to Canada Vine: https://t.co/mmYf3icuNt We had a lot of the graphics done fairly quickly thanks to @mousefountain and it looked very much like the later game pretty early on. More vines along the way here: https://t.co/nMbET73P7A
— Madgarden ☁️ (@madgarden) September 20, 2022
But in a lot of the clips and images submitted, I was treated to a visual museum of how games evolve from simple blocks and empty rooms to full, fleshed-out games. For instance, there was the growth of Stereo Boy from simple quadralaterals to a stylized, puzzle-filled world:
I cannot stress how little our starting visuals represented where we ended up for Stereo Boy.
— dominic (@dddagradi) September 20, 2022
Cult of the Lamb’s simple, empty, in-development spaces to its stuffed, colorful, final version:
“Graphics are the first thing finished in a video game”
Here’s what early versions of Cult of the Lamb looked like pic.twitter.com/F5EyEH6M9r
— Cult of the Lamb 🙏🐑👑 (@cultofthelamb) September 20, 2022
Puzzler NecroBoy: Path to Evilship:
NecroBoy’s evolution in 2 years! Visuals were’nt the 1st focus of dev -gameplay mechanics were- but as soon as the final graphics were in place it changed everything for the feel of the game! But for a puzzle game, the hard part was to keep things clear while making it pretty ^^ pic.twitter.com/Ubw36A55NJ
— Yool Kiranyr (@yool_kiranyr) September 20, 2022
Top-down survival game Little Martian:
On the left is how Little Martian looked 2 years ago as a fun little prototype, and on the right is how it looks now. It’s kind of wind seeing the two screenshots side-by-side! pic.twitter.com/gITrS3gYTj
— Craig Smith 👽 Little Martian (@MartiansGame) September 20, 2022
3D sidescroller Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield:
here is the 2 year difference for Never Yield from when the game was first shown and when it came out. pic.twitter.com/pOm1q66rv4
— Aerial_Knight (@aerial_knight) September 20, 2022
Upcoming cottagecore adventure Mail Time:
This is Mail Time with about 1,5 years time from one to the next haha.
The first screenshot is from super super early builds where I was just working on getting the feeling of stuff right. Visuals naturally evolved over time ✨ pic.twitter.com/tAXVBye5MW
— ✨ Kela✨ making Mail Time 💌 (@KelaMakesGames) September 20, 2022
Snake sim and puzzler Snake Pass:
“Graphics are the first thing finished in a video game”
— Sumo Digital (@SumoDigitalLtd) September 21, 2022
But even when a game is coming from something, it still goes through these phases like this. Guild Wars 2 had the advantage, for instance, of coming after (obviously) Guild Wars 1. But as ArenaNet shows in these screenshots it sent over, that didn’t mean it automatically looked pretty the second someone dropped a castle into a map: