The Complete History Of Grand Theft Auto
From humble beginnings, Grand Theft Auto would segue from controversial videogame to notorious media brand. Stuart Hunt braves Liberty City and speaks to the people responsible for one of videogaming’s most popular franchises
Liberty City is a virtual homage to the bustling streets of New York and is unarguably the most infamous metropolis of any videogame to date. It’s become as iconic to the series as the freedom, the carjacking and the infectious wrongdoing, and for many it marks the very first time they ever came to experience an ‘open world’ environment in a videogame.
The person responsible for designing and building Liberty City was Peter Farley. Ironically, his background wasn’t in programming or videogames – although he admits to being brought up on a staple diet of ZX81 and Spectrum – but in architecture. Working for a small architecture firm after finishing the first year of his degree, Peter came to realise that a career in construction really wasn’t for him, and decided to answer a job advertisement, posted by DMA, who at that time were looking to expand and hire a new team of level designers.
“I had no real idea what a level designer was but I’d always loved videogames. The interview process was spread over two days and I remember thinking at the time that it was one of the most challenging things I’d ever been faced with,” admits Peter. “On the second day I was sat down in front of a puzzle game that they had in development and was tasked to build a fully working puzzle in 30 minutes. I was left alone to sweat it out. I don’t think the puzzle even worked. But they must have seen something, because I got the job.”
At the time that Peter joined DMA, the company would be divided while it worked on two very different projects: Body Harvest, a planned launch title for the Nintendo 64, and another, slightly less highbrow game for the PC. Body Harvest was DMA’s flagship project, and Peter remembers vividly the interest which the game generated among the new recruits.
“There were four level designers that started at the same time as me. I remember being shown around on that first day. We were going to be split up based on the needs of two new projects that had just been started and we all wanted to work on Body Harvest. It was just so damn sexy, all those 3D graphics, the N64 development kits and Silicon Graphics workstations sat around – it was like mission control at NASA,” explains Peter. “Anyway, as it worked out, neither of us got to work on the Body Harvest project, our skills would be put to use on a rather drab-looking top-down racer which at that point had the working title ‘Race ‘N’ Chase’.”
‘Race ‘N’ Chase’ is where the genesis of Grand Theft Auto can be found. Mike Dailly, who at the time was lead programmer at DMA, had been working on a code that would produce isometric cityscapes. Viewed from an aerial camera that the player could intuitively manipulate, and coined Rotation, this engine would become the first Grand Theft Auto prototype. However, fate would intervene when Bullfrog released Syndicate Wars, and after spotting its glum Orwellian Blade Runner-style skyscrapers, Mike knew that his engine looked just too similar and decided to rework it. Oddly, it was after seeing the Sega Saturn game Clockwork Knight that Mike considered switching the engine to a side-on perspective, but after a conversation with a colleague, he decided to set his sights a little higher.
“I was speaking to John Whyte (who at the time was working on Body Harvest for the N64), and he’d been trying to get an overhead racing game past Dave Jones [DMA’s founder] for a while. Dave, however, wasn’t interested,” explains Mike. “It then occurred to me that although I had a side-on engine, all I needed to do was add a floor and it would easily become an overhead engine. I set about using the previous GTA prototype as a base. Using cubes, I built an array of perspective points then, with a simple 3D array, attached faces to each active cube. I removed interior faces (since they couldn’t be seen) and rendered the resulting city. Looking at it, they decided to restart Race ‘N’ Chase, but using the new engine since it would allow far more freedom and a true perspective. GTA was a real team effort, and had input from every team member, this was how it all started. It shows how important true R&D is, without it several DMA games would have never been started.”
The parallax movement of the buildings, and the way in which the camera would lock on to your car and pull away the faster it travelled led to the possibility of creating an overhead police chase/action game. And so Mike’s overhead city engine was
used as the backdrop.
When Peter was assigned to the Race ‘N’ Chase project he was keen to utilise his knowledge of architecture, and set about plotting each map on a piece of paper. This was how all of the cities inside Grand Theft Auto would begin – as 2D maps of roads, sidewalks and buildings – and once complete, using a map-editing tool, they would be translated into the vibrant and detailed 3D cities that we can see in the game.
It’s a well-known fact that the three game maps – Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas – were based on the cities of New York, Miami and San Francisco respectively. They also contained subtle nods to well-known areas of each city. For example, Liberty City’s sections included Park (Central Park), New Guernsey (New Jersey) and Brocklyn (Brooklyn).
The first hurdle that the team had to overcome was getting to grips with the mapping tools. None of the team had any experience of using map editors, and while the tool chain at DMA was very well instigated, it would take a lot of time for the new team to learn all the different techniques that were available. Also, the team would find that they had no way of viewing the city in three dimensions until they ran it in the actual game.
“Personally, it was a pretty smooth transition to go from designing individual buildings to then designing a whole city.
The design criterion is different. For the game, you were designing form and function to support gameplay, rather than in real life where you design a building to support an activity or movement. But the actual process was remarkably similar,” explains Peter.
Given the theme and subject of Grand Theft Auto, you’d expect the team to be governed by a strict list of rules and the missions to be pencilled in before development began to help ensure its safe passage through the censors. But Peter confesses that working on GTA was quite a liberating experience.
“The working brief was non-existent other than some guidance from the head of art,” recalls Peter. “Most of us had no experience at all and were making it up as we went along. I think that spirit of adventure and freedom is conveyed in the final game and went a long way to helping to define many of the design decisions. In terms of the look and feel of the city the level designers worked closely with the artists to create locations and a style for each of the cities. Once a set of tiles had been completed it was then the level designer’s job to use them like Lego blocks to create the city. I think the art team was always quite amazed and sometimes horrified at the manner in which we creatively used their tiles to create new textures and forms.”
Grand Theft Auto is a brilliant juxtaposition of a dour and depressing world, but painted with vibrancy and colour. It certainly feels the most chipper of the series, as it holds this brilliant sense of irreverence and fun throughout its missions. The way your character would comically hop over the bonnets of cars and pepper those poor Hare Krishnas all over the road as they tried to cross in front of you was just so strangely enjoyable. The realism and popular culture references of the later games have all but drowned out those jubilant audience cheers and squeaky voices that pumped from those blue phone boxes.
“When we started the game it used 8-bit graphics and the palette was much darker and more realistic than the final release. At this stage PC technology was moving at a really fast rate and with the game taking a while to finish anyway, the decision was made to switch to 32-bit graphics, giving us a much wider palette. I think the whole art department at DMA spent the next two weeks redrawing the game tiles and sprites. The result was a much brighter and more colourful game, which in the long run helped reduce some of the impact of the adult nature of the game,” explains Peter.
Liberty City took four to five months to design and build, and the mission design and scripting would take a further six months. Over the course of its development the core team would change, other departments would be drafted in to assist, and at one point DMA’s entire art department were put to work on the game.
The original Race ‘N’ Chase design was the one that DMA pitched to BMG. And it wasn’t until after the publisher was on board that the name would later be changed to Grand Theft Auto. As the game presented the player with so much choice, checking for bugs and glitches proved to be very difficult and the game’s development would stretch from 15 to 30 months. Its ‘open world’ environment lacked constraints, allowing for plenty of different routes and ways to complete its missions. And each needed to be played through to its completion because, as was the nature of the engine, every new element that was added could potentially affect another.
“It’s kind of hard to overrun when you don’t have a schedule, but we were aware that GTA, like all the other projects DMA had then, was taking too long. I think the publisher was more concerned than us though,” Peter says. “Most team members worked extra hours because we were all so excited by what we were creating. There was this energy and feeling about the place that what we were working on was really special and that it really mattered. At DMA there was this mentality that a game wasn’t finished until they were happy with it. Very few developers are ever in that position so it was refreshing, and ultimately led to some great innovative games. It also led to some turkeys that should have been canned after six months but weren’t.”
Grand Theft Auto debuted on the PC in 1997. Initially developed in DOS, it would later be ported to Windows, PlayStation and
it even found an admittedly poor, but technically impressive, Game Boy Color conversion. There were also rumoured to be Nintendo 64 and Saturn conversions in the works, which would have been refined ports of the PlayStation port, but sadly they never found a release.
What really helped to set Grand Theft Auto apart from other games of the time was its sense of freedom (hence the name Liberty City), as fun could be found by simply deviating from the missions and exploring the game’s colourful environments.
The game was well received by many in the gaming press, garnering rave reviews and even a Gold Award in PC Format. However, the tabloids, most notably the Daily Mail, would criticise Grand Theft Auto for its violent themes, which many people felt it was trying to glamorise.
“I think one of the reasons GTA was so well received was the amount of detail – it showed the love and attention that had been heaped on the game by the people making it,” says Peter. “Team members would always come up with new ideas like the tank or the rocket launcher and they would just get added into the mix and no one ever said no, or that something couldn’t be done! There are a few things looking back that could have been better – the road layout was trying to map too closely to New York and without diagonal road tiles the area around the park ended up being not much fun to drive around. Also, some of the missions were left over from the very start of the development process and perhaps weren’t as well thought out as some of the later ones. But I guess for virtually everyone on the team it was a learning process and, despite all our mistakes, people loved the game, warts and all.”
After the release of GTA, BMG was bought by Gremlin Interactive. It was under Gremlin that DMA released two expansion packs for the PC. GTA: London 1969 and London 1961 were Life On Mars-style mission packs that set the series on the streets of London in the swinging Sixties. These expansion packs would help DMA gauge the demand for a full GTA sequel and help to keep the franchise fresh in the minds of gamers.
Colin MacDonald was the producer and project manager for Grand Theft Auto 2, and joined the company shortly after the acquisition by Gremlin. Colin first got into games by purchasing a SAM Coupé home computer. Its relatively small installed base meant that there was very little software available for the machine, and what would begin as a hobby for Colin – writing software for the machine – soon grew into a small development and publishing company. This would lead him to handling some big licences, including Lemmings, and it would be this Lemmings link that would eventually lead Colin to join DMA as a producer and take on the reigns of GTA 2.
“We had a very good idea of what everybody had fun doing in the original, so we didn’t mess with that. And in essence, every GTA game ever since has taken the same approach,” says Colin. “But we added a lot of game functionality to try to enhance the GTA experience. We also gambled with moving away from the contemporary setting of the first game, and opinion has been split ever since on the particular pros and cons of that decision.”
For the sequel it was decided that the setting would move ‘X years into the future’ and the missions, rather than bleating from the hearing end of a telephone or the buzzing of a pager, would come from the mouths of warring gangs that populated the game’s three cities. You had the pristinely attired Yakuza, the twitchy Loonies, the Russian Mafia and the Rednecks, among others, and each was given a detailed backstory that fleshed out their world brilliantly. This idea of basing GTA around the criminal activities of contesting gangs has since become a mainstay in the franchise, although from GTA III onwards it’s been used to help fuel the game’s narrative rather than its individual missions.
It was agreed that the underlying engine for GTA 2 would remain similar to the DMA one – which Colin admits had gone through a few changes – but the engine was completely rewritten to make the cars look more solid and realistic against their shiny, futuristic setting. They would be first drawn and mapped in 3D before being transformed into the 2D forms that we saw
in the game.
“Because we could see from the first game what worked and what didn’t, we were in the fortunate position of being able to plan fairly effectively, so there weren’t many drastic changes that occurred throughout the development. The GTA 2 pills scattered around the cities for collection is the only major feature that I can think of that wasn’t planned from the very start,” recalls Colin.
Grand Theft Auto 2 was released in 1999, and would debut on both the PC and PlayStation. It was later ported to the Dreamcast and also received a shamefully laggy Game Boy Color port a year later. Shortly after the release of GTA 2, Gremlin was bought by Infogrames, and shortly after Dave Jones decided to leave the company to join Rage Software. DMA was later sold to Take-Two where it was renamed Rockstar North; a move that would change the face of the Grand Theft Auto franchise forever.
Grand Theft Auto III was released in October 2001 and debuted on the PlayStation 2. Rockstar’s decision to set the game back in Liberty City was a smart move as it would send out a clear message that its intention was to pull the game apart and rebuild it from scratch. The biting satire, glum urban setting and tangible sense of freedom would tilt the videogame industry on its axis. If you strip it down, Grand Theft Auto III can really be seen as a brilliant hybrid of two earlier DMA games: Body Harvest and the original Grand Theft Auto. It’s likely that when it was bought by Take-Two, the DMA team would have been a collective troupe that had experience of working on both titles, a team that had expertise in 3D sandbox gaming and a vast knowledge and experience of the Grand Theft
Grand Theft Auto III was praised for the technical ground that it broke. Realistic weather effects and full night and day cycles helped lay down the foundation of what we now consider the 3D open-world template, or ‘GTA-clone’, as it’s candidly known as now. The game became a global phenomenon almost overnight, and has retained its prestige ever since.
The series’ weird adoration for the Game Boy would end in 2004 with Grand Theft Auto Advance. This Game Boy Advance exclusive, developed by Digital Eclipse, was originally promoted as a top-down port of the GTA III that appeared on the PS2. But, probably owing to a large technical chasm, the idea was dropped and instead the game was set one year prior to the events of that game. This would mark the first and only time that a GTA game was not developed by an affiliation of DMA.
For the highly anticipated sequel, Vice City – which many consider to be the pinnacle of the franchise – Rockstar would continue its geographical trend and return to the second of the first three maps, but would add a brilliant twist: the Eighties. Setting Vice City in the Eighties allowed Rockstar to inject lampoon into the game and base its characters and missions on classic iconic Eighties cinema. Elements from classic gangster epics, such as Carlito’s Way, Goodfellas and, more predominately, Scarface, for its rags-to-riches story, were wholesaled over. And through its loud wardrobes, angular and colourful cars and radio stations, which blasted out emotive rock ballads, Vice City would recapture brilliantly the humour and irreverence of that first game. If GTA III laid down the template that future games in the series would look to adopt, then, like all good cinema sequels, Vice City would lavish itself in its own success, a feeling that seemed to suit its affluent and ornate setting perfectly. And through its property buying elements, you could really begin to feel like you were stretching your power and notoriety and leaving your mark across the whole of Miami.
By the time San Andreas was due for release, the groundswell of hype and hysteria surrounding the series was unlike anything seen before. Feeling the pressure, Rockstar would need to create something bigger and grander in scale than what had come before, and it would succeed in many ways with San Andreas.
With a main story that would take the best part of 70 hours to finish, a lifetime of secrets to uncover, three huge metropolises to work through – connected by miles of countryside – and no interconnecting loading times, thanks to its seamless streaming, no one could argue that the game wasn’t a technical marvel. But many felt, by Rockstar adding levelling up and appearing to concentrate on subterfuge elements of the game, that San Andreas lacked one vital ingredient: structure.
In typical Grand Theft Auto fashion, the franchise’s transition to a new platform, in this case the PSP, with the ‘Stories’ series, would prove to be another sterling effort by Rockstar. And also, in typical GTA fashion, it would kick things off by returning to Liberty City. Liberty City Stories (which was later ported to the PS2) was set three years before the original GTA III, and with a new protagonist, a new set of varied missions to work through and even allowing you to take to the skies in a helicopter, it would prove to be an almost flawless translation to the handheld. Although Liberty City Stories wasn’t the first GTA game to see Rockstar incorporate multiplayer elements (San Andreas has a few co-op missions), it was the first in the series to incorporate an online multiplayer mode, courtesy of the PSP’s Wi-Fi capabilities. Rockstar followed up the successful Liberty City Stories with Vice City Stories. It followed the same theme, but had the notable addition of allowing your character to swim and also included a refined targeting system.
So, history’s taught us that a return to the oily streets of Liberty City seems to mark an inaugural shift in the franchise, affecting a trilogy of games that seem to span over one generation of hardware. Early word is that GTA IV will be moving further away from those humble DMA days. Realism is said to be governing the game, with the gameplay, as well as the aesthetics, getting a customary burnished respray. Character customisation and levelling up is said to have been ousted, and the series has been given its most degenerate protagonist to date: Niko Bellic – a human trafficker and remorseless killer who hails from Eastern Europe. Finally, there’s the city itself, which is said to have less emphasis on scale and more on the denizens of Liberty City and the way in which they interact with one another and the player. For all of the cinematic storylines, controversial themes and bravado that drips from each new addition to the GTA franchise – despite being places which in reality we’d probably rather not visit – it’s really the cities themselves that are pivotal to the appeal of any GTA game.
They are virtual playgrounds without constraints that allow us to run amok without any fear of consequence. This is likely the reason why many people break free from the main game, deviate from the missions and seem content to find and shape their own Liberty City stories.