Grand Theft Auto History – Volume 1
It's Open World Week on SamaGame! To celebrate, Jacco dives into the history of perhaps the greatest game franchise of all time: Grand Theft Auto. Today you read part one.
Grand Theft Auto is a rare franchise. Virtually everyone has come into contact with it, the games have broken countless records over the years and are pioneers of the open-world genre. This is the story of how this titan came to life and still stands out from the competition.
Two legendary games
For a franchise so obsessed with the U.S., you'd think Grand Theft Auto would come from the land of opportunity, but nothing could be further from the truth. The concrete idea for the game begins in Scotland, where a certain David Jones makes a little more work out of his hobby. On a Comodore Amiga – which at that time cost as much as a Ferrari – he played around with a local computer club. It's going so well that he releases his first game in 1988: the 2D sice-scroller Menace, of which some 15.000 units are sold.
This is accompanied by the creation of DMA Design, which stands for Direct Memory Access. This term was stolen from the Amiga manual. Still, Jones clearly has talent. Its big breakthrough is still to come: Lemmings. Yes, this legendary game, which has been released on just about every platform imaginable, was also developed by David Jones. Then began its career in collaboration with LucasArts, Midway (Mortal Kombat) and Rare to develop for SNES and Nintendo 64. After Shigeru Miyamoto reportedly dislikes and cancels violent shooter-racer Body Harvest, Jones shuts down to focus all his attention on launching something beautiful: Race 'N Chase.
Relatively close teenager Sam Houser pushes himself to the London music label BMG Records, where he secretly uses the interactive arm to express his passion for video games. It really doesn't go anywhere until Jones sets up his new game. The idea at first is that players control both police and crooks and take turns catching each other, but this turns into something much more daring: a real crime simulator called Grand Theft Auto. Players can run over pedestrians, shoot people, and run through the streets of Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas with music blaring over big, hairy women in the background.
BMG sees the controversy from afar, as no previous games gave the player such freedom. Instead of covering it up, as most publishers would, BMG welcomes it like controversial music. British PR master Max Clifford, who Jones says made GTA's name big, tips off a number of newspapers about the absurdly violent game and provides plenty of publicity. Regardless of the controversy, which remains a theme throughout the franchise, the game was praised for the large world and immense fun it offered. After the standalone expansion London: 1969 – and the previously free-to-play London: 1961 – it's clear that GTA is here to stay.
The success of Grand Theft Auto spurs the takeover of BGM by Take-Two Interactive – and thus the name change to Rockstar Games – but in the end this does not mean a leap forward in the quality of the next game. Maybe because Jones leaves the tent during the development process because he's desperate to do something new, but maybe also because of the zeitgeist. In 1999, mainly three-dimensional games appear, against which GTA 2 is quite old-fashioned.
Not that it's a bad game. The city of everywhere city is bigger, more beautiful and above all more lively, because many more people walk on the street. New features are also added, such as multiple radio stations – for which Rockstar, as a former music company, has enough licenses – and the ability to take photos from cars. So it's GTA, but a little better. Not anymore. Not less.
Open-world games defined
GTA 2 sells slightly less well than the first part and the technical revolutions of games like Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Tomb Raider motivate Rockstar to finally go for a fully three-dimensional sandbox. Easier said than done, because Rockstar has neither the experience nor the resources to achieve this. This is why the Criterion Games RenderWare engine is leased. You know, the engine that also runs great games like Need for Speed, Burnout and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3.
The engine is so flexible that Rockstar can quickly build a generic American city – which later becomes Liberty City – including NPCs, moving cars, a weather system and a day and night cycle. According to the marketing material in the run-up to its release in 2001, this is truly unprecedented. Rockstar can again expect a lot of controversy as the game becomes more realistic and shooting people in three dimensions is a different story. The Houser brothers live up to the Rockstar name by doing exactly what they want, in their own words, out of passion for technological advancement in games.
But what do you do when a plane breaks through the Twin Towers in the city your game is based on?? What line will you cross when an attack like this changes the world forever and you can do the exact same thing in your game? Rockstar rightly takes a step back. Within two weeks, the most controversial aspects are adjusted. Controllable planes are deleted, dialogue on radio stations is adjusted, and an entire mission is removed from the game.
Grand Theft Auto 3 is showered with praise, apart from any expected criticism. GTA 3 defines open-world gaming as we know it to this day. Fascinating, motion-captured characters with the voices of real actors? Check. A large world with story missions, side missions, and the freedom to go wherever you want? Absolutely. Adult themes that prove games aren't just for kids? All the way. Rockstar is essentially creating a new genre long after other titles had already experimented with large, open worlds. It is therefore undisputed that GTA 3 sells very well: more than 14 million copies.
Snooping in the 80s
With Grand Theft Auto 3, Rockstar Games created the ultimate playground, and it was good practice to control the engine. This means that the development of an extension, which will become a continuation, is proceeding at record speed. The setting for this comes from GTA 3. When Sam Houser hears the radio station Flashback from his own game playing hits from the Eighties movie Scarface, his initial love of gangster movies is awakened and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is born.
In a sense, Vice City is literally an extension of the previous part, but it is actually more than that. The atmosphere of the game is completely different: New York is gloomy and cold, while Miami is all about partying on a luxury yacht in your Hawaiian shirt. The colorful neon lights, nightclubs, and legendary 80's soundtrack make touring Vice City that much more enjoyable, as if you were in an episode of Miami Vice. But then as the boss of your own drug empire, which is the main theme of the game.
The botched narrative elements also ensure that this game is burned into our memory. Up until now, Rockstar's protagonists have been speechless and therefore not very interesting, but the fact that Tommy Vercetti is speaking makes a big difference. It also helps that Vercetti's voice is voiced by the charismatic Goodfellas star Ray Liotta, and the cast includes crazy, memorable characters like lawyer Ken Rosenberg. This delightful mafia atmosphere makes the story of Vice City much more memorable than anything that came before it.
However, it is still of the greatest importance to just tinker, with all kinds of improvements that make the world even more interesting. Take the car damage system, new aiming mechanics to improve shooting and the ability to finally fly around the city. When you launch the game today, it looks pretty dated, but you still have fun with it. For some, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is even the perfect package. Making it the best game in the franchise. According to others, however, Rockstar was not at the start until 2001.