What did opportunistic politicians, fear-mongering media types and ambulance-chasing attorneys have to target before Grand Theft Auto? Oh, that's right - they had Mortal Kombat, Night Trap and Carmageddon. But Grand Theft Auto has become so ingrained into popular culture - and into the ongoing debate over videogames and violence - that it is hard to remember when the controversial franchise wasn't with us.
The series certainly has come a long way since it debuted in 1998. Ten years and 70 million units later, the game is making its first appearance on the current generation of game consoles and is almost assuredly going to be one of the top-selling games of 2008 in spite of - or perhaps partly because of - its controversial nature.
We asked a cross-section of games industry professionals to share their thoughts on one of the most popular videogame franchises of all time.
Q:Were you familiar with the top-down games of 1997-1999 before playing GTA III?
David Amor:I remember the media outcry a little better than I remember the game.
Frank O'Connor: I certainly was, back when it was DMA Design. Scottish gamers represent!
Jamil Moledina:Yes, that team has been innovating with great games since Rockstar North was DMA Design. Dave Jones had built an amazing development team that released engrossing titles like Blood Money and Lemmings before the first Grand Theft Auto.
Grand Theft Auto brought the anti-hero to games through humour, which was a new idea in the late 1990s. I really enjoyed this title, and it brought a jolt of absurdity to an otherwise consistently earnest landscape of games.
David Perry:Of course I had played the original version of GTA. It was cool for it's time, but my heart has always gone out to games like Driver or even the old arcade game "Chase HQ" - driving games where you really felt like you were pushing it, either chasing or being chased, above and beyond just getting the fastest time. That feeling of being at your limits is cool.
Servan Keondjian: I played GTA 1 on PS1 for about an hour and dropped it.
Ted Price:Nope. GTA III was my first exposure to the franchise.
Q:Did you recognise how GTA III's open-ended sandbox gameplay could or would shape gaming, or did you underestimate its influence?
Ted Price: Speaking for myself only - not the Insomniac crew - I definitely underestimated how much GTA III would influence game design. And I'm not sure who coined the term "sandbox" but whenever I hear it, "like Grand Theft Auto" usually follows in the same sentence.
David Amor: I might be getting my gaming history confused but I recall there were other open-ended sandbox type games before GTA III. I think it was the game's subject matter and authenticity which was more influential.
Jon Van Caneghem:I’ve always been a fan of open-ended, sandbox-style gameplay. Providing both a linear story to progress through, and an open sandbox world to play in was a tenet of the Might and Magic RPGs I created, and to see that done in GTA III, with the amazing production quality they achieved, was very impressive.
Frank O'Connor: Absolutely. I have very little time to play games, and an even shorter attention span. The fact that I could dive in, smash a few cars, run amok and then resume my original mission with little penalty or confusion, was a real godsend for someone of my spastic mental acuity. I could also tell, even then, that the game's wildly spinning moral compass would create both ardent followers and horrified crusaders.
Jamil Moledina: To be honest, it wasn’t the sandbox gameplay itself that I found groundbreaking, but rather the overall narrative experience that really broke the mold of what games can do. I mean, a sandbox without a reason to play in it is just an academic exercise. Rockstar North’s execution has to be credited with bringing the worlds that inspired GoodFellas, Miami Vice, Boyz N the Hood, and Eastern Promises to the game controller. Capturing that zeitgeist and giving people the ability to live in it is what really moved the needle for the industry.
Servan Keondjian: For me the open game play originally came from games like Driver which impressed me technologically, especially as driver 1 and 2 were on PS1. GTA III took a leap forward with the way the game play seemed together on multiple levels and how it was so easily accessible to a wide audience. At the time. I remember thinking developers wouldn't copy it - publishers just wouldn't give them the time or budget to pull something like that off.
Q:Were you immediately hooked, or were you initially unimpressed?
Servan Keondjian: I liked it straight away - it was obvious this was a serious piece of work.
Jon Van Caneghem:I was hooked immediately! I spent a considerable amount of time just looking around the game world and trying to find new jumps.
Ted Price: At the risk of sounding like a heathen, I wasn't initially hooked. I'm a big fan of great graphics and GTA III wasn’t breaking any new ground with its visuals. So I began playing the game with low expectations. But the game eventually won me over mostly because I loved driving around and trying to run people over.
Jamil Moledina: I felt I was playing something special from the get go. Again, it was for me the story and how the technology enables a completely freeform way to access the story that was the hook.
David Amor: If I'm honest, I was initially unimpressed. It wasn't my kind of game so it almost passed me by. I was evaluating Renderware at the time - a middleware solution that they had used, too - so I spent more time looking at the game's engine than playing the game.
Frank O'Connor: Oh I was hooked. It was absolutely liberating. The genre may be dead wrong for comparison, but very few games other than GTA III and Tetris let me sample small chunks of the experience at my own pace. GTA's free roaming experience, complete with linear tasks and non linear "jobs" was perfect. Small, digestible bites.
Q:What was it about the game that impressed you the most?
Jamil Moledina: The GTA titles’ most impressive characteristic to me is their ability to transport you into an internally consistent and self-sustaining world. In most fiction, there’s usually something that breaks the suspension of disbelief, or you get the sense that the world is written so lightly that it’s only there to serve the needs of the protagonist. Not so here.
Ted Price: Nothing shocking here but for me it was the "go anywhere, do anything" feel. Designing a game with so few obvious design boundaries and not having it fall apart is sheer genius.
David Amor: The thing that impresses me most about the GTA series is its authenticity. So many games try and feel like they come from the street but they just don't ring true. I won't pretend I know what's street and what's not, but it works for me.
Jon Van Caneghem:The well-designed "sandbox-ness" struck me the most. Being framed in a modern setting made it instantly accessible and allowed people to experiment with things they would never think to do in real life - jumping cars, ridiculously reckless driving, and unbounded exploration to name a few.
David Perry:That taste of complete freedom was addictive, but I still think people missed just how remarkable it was. For every good game, there are a slew of clones - but with the first GTA, people just couldn't copy it. It was absolutely state of the art. Years later people still struggled to catch up.
Servan Keondjian: I was impressed by the attention to detail and the effort that had gone into making the whole thing consistent in all aspects of the play experience, of which there were many. That is hard to do well, and has often not been achieved by others who followed.
Frank O'Connor: Oddly enough, the graphics. They weren't state of the art at a macroscopic level, but if viewed in the context of the game's terrifying scale, they were sort of amazing.
Q:Were you concerned with the controversy and negative publicity that the series generated?
Ted Price: Despite the negative press GTA got, it definitely did incredible things for our industry. It had a tremendous effect on overall sales not only for the PS2 but for all consoles as more and more non-gamers began picking up controllers to try out the game. And like no other game, it demonstrated that games had finally grown up.
But it also shined a spotlight on an issue crucial to our industry’s survival - that as works of art, games have a clear right to the same first amendment protection as other media.
And let’s face it, for the past 10 years our industry has been a lightning rod for all those looking to blame society’s ills on someone else versus looking in the mirror. Even if GTA hadn’t come along we’d still be fighting to protect our rights to express ourselves creatively as artists. However, I think GTA III was extremely important in galvanizing our own industry into standing up and responding to the narrow-minded measures being proposed by poorly informed and opportunistic legislators.
David Amor: I'm always a bit concerned with games that, whether justified or otherwise, re-enforce the videogame stereotype.
Jon Van Caneghem:Yes, very concerned. After GTA III hit, the first question I’d get from people when I told them I worked in the Gaming Industry was "You’re not one of those people that make that Grand Theft Auto thing, are you?"
Frank O'Connor: I was an interested observer. I worked in the games press at the time - we were covering it as critics and as usual, watching the mainstream media froth at the mouth with a baffling lack of context and expertise.
I imagine this happens with other forms of entertainment, but nowhere can you find quite as much exaggeration and willful ignorance as in the mainstream coverage of games during that period. Things are marginally better now, but expect plenty of controversy ex nihilo for this one too.
Jamil Moledina: Frankly I wasn’t that concerned about the controversy around the GTA series. It seems that daring artists always fall under fire from some segment of the population looking to ascribe their problems to people telling make-believe stories.
It’s an emotional argument that gets play in the national media, but most people recognize it as the artistic expression that it is. If we honor The Godfather, GoodFellas, and The Sopranos as brilliant works of art, then it seems the height of prejudice to exclude Grand Theft Auto III for its subject matter.
Servan Keondjian: Not really, it got people thinking about where the boundaries should be and that can't be a bad thing. It was obvious people who had not actually played the game were complaining about it.
David Perry:For me, this game is not about the negativity that surrounds it. Let's face it - if GTA sucked, nobody would care less about the edgy material it contains. But it IS good, it's very fun, and don't let any of the negativity and bad PR decisions by Take 2 ever stand in the way of just how important this title is in the history of the video game industry.
Q:Did the game's success/sales figures surprise you?
David Amor: Yes. A friend was working on San Andreas and he mentioned that they thought it might generate about half a billion dollars in revenue. That's an incredible figure.
Frank O'Connor: Yes. Not so much the initial sales, but the growing popularity and seemingly endless "legs" the game had. It was almost viral. Most games launch, sell like gangbusters, then plateau and eventually languish. GTA III just kept on motorin'.
Jon Van Caneghem: The initial sales didn’t surprise me because the game was great, the production values were high, and it released at the exact right time of year. I was very surprised at how much the adoption of the franchise has grown, however. I didn't expect a Mature rated franchise to become as big as GTA has.
Servan Keondjian: Well, it made sense after I had played it, it was a great game and those are just rare anyway.. Add to that the negative PR which gave it an additional cool factor and it had to happen.
Ted Price: Absolutely. It was a good lesson for any of us who value anything else - like graphics, animations, etc. - over solid and innovative design.
Jamil Moledina: Yes the sales figures did strike me as bizarre. They just underscored the feeling that this experience touched a nerve with a broad public, and was being played by people outside the typical core demographic.
This, like the Gran Turismo and Guitar Hero franchises, was drawing an audience and fan base far beyond the scope of PlayStation Underground or GameStop Edge Card members. And that can only be a good thing for the industry.