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The chaotic origins of Grand Theft Auto

By Jack Yarwood. Posted

The Grand Theft Auto series is now synonymous with the billion-dollar juggernaut it’s become under the guidance of Rockstar Games. Before all that, though, it began life at Dundee’s DMA Design, which made Grand Theft Auto (1997) and Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999). The games introduced many of the traits that became series hallmarks: the exhilarating police chases and shootouts; the irreverent NPCs; the ridiculous radio stations.

Before the release of Grand Theft Auto III, however, publisher Take-Two shut DMA down, moving a number of its staff from Dundee to the newly formed Rockstar North in Edinburgh. It was a controversial decision, but helped to further establish the Rockstar brand – a name that still dominates the industry today. To hear more about the series and its turbulent rise, we tracked down a bunch of ex-DMA and Rockstar personnel to discuss the original game’s controversy, how the series evolved, and why it almost never happened in the first place.

Race ‘N’ Chase

The GTA story began in March 1995, when a team at DMA Design met up to discuss ideas for a new PC project. Back then, DMA was mostly known for its hugely successful action puzzler Lemmings (1991), and to a lesser extent, shooters such as Menace, Blood Money, and Hired Guns. In need of a new project, the studio started kicking an idea around for a racing game.

Race ‘n’ Chase – as the project was eventually called – used programmer Mike Dailly’s Legovision graphics engine, giving players the choice between three top-down cities to explore. Playable modes included cannonball run, demolition derby, and bank robberies where you could choose to be either a cop or a robber. As development progressed, however, the team chose to focus on the robbers instead, with the latter proving the more exciting. Along with this new direction came a new name: Grand Theft Auto.

One of the surviving mock-up images of Race ‘n’ Chase – the game that became Grand Theft Auto

GTA was an open-world game split between three cities based on real locations in the US: Liberty City, San Andreas, and Vice City. The goal was to earn enough money to beat each stage, but how you did this was entirely up to you. You could pick up jobs from a payphone that had you assassinating rival gangs or transporting passengers, complete special objectives scattered around the map, or steal cars and sell them on. You only had a limited number of lives, though, so you had to keep an eye out for the police who would try and hunt you down.

Progress on GTA was anything but easy, with the studio lacking structure: multiple other game ideas were also in the works at DMA at the time, including a Metal Gear Solid-like game called Covert, later cancelled, and Body Harvest, a title later published by Nintendo. “Grand Theft Auto was one of maybe eight or twelve projects,” says Colin Anderson, the audio manager at DMA. “We were also keeping all these other plates spinning as well. It’s odd from my perspective, because the only one out there that anybody ever cares about now is Grand Theft Auto, but at the time we didn’t know that.”

“It wasn’t the golden child in the company,” says Steve Hammond, a writer and designer at DMA. “That was Body Harvest… that was the one everyone cared about; that was going to make it big. Grand Theft Auto was just this other thing trundling along in the background.” 

Speaking to those at DMA who played it during development, GTA wasn’t exactly stellar: it wasn’t fun to play, and technical problems were rampant. “It was a mess,” says creative manager Gary Penn, who moved from publisher BMG Interactive to the GTA project. “There was a point where I was at BMG and seemed to be about the only person trying to keep it alive. I’m not entirely sure why; it was going nowhere.”

Recalls Brian Lawson, GTA’s project manager: “There were no proper car chases with cops, only a single pistol weapon, no health bar (just one-shot-and-you’re-dead), and the progression system was more mired in mission completion than in the score-based system we ended up with.”

There wasn’t a single eureka moment that fixed GTA’s issues. Rather, those at DMA point to a number of changes that helped get the game on track. Among these was an overhaul of the vehicle handling, the introduction of the in-car radio, and the change from a linear mission structure to an arcade-style points system. Inside BMG, the game started earning a number of fans. Among them was BMG head of development Sam Houser, who’d later become a major creative force behind the series.

To prepare themselves to make the game, Rockstar Toronto watched car chase movies like The Italian Job, Bullitt, and Robbery

The Fallout

Grand Theft Auto released on PC in October 1997, but before it came out there was a change of ownership behind the scenes, with the British software house Gremlin Interactive acquiring DMA Design. As part of this acquisition, Gremlin honoured BMG’s original publishing agreement, allowing the publisher to release GTA on PC and PlayStation in Europe. When the game came out, audiences reacted favourably to its anarchic mix of driving, shooting, and open-world hijinks. But along with the praise, there was also a backlash aimed at the game’s adult-oriented content.

BMG was responsible for provoking much of this backlash, having hired the controversial PR firm Max Clifford Associates to generate interest. Believing that all publicity was good publicity, the firm exaggerated GTA’s violent content. But BMG underestimated the reaction from the British tabloid press, who criticised the game’s violence and joined UK politicians in calls for it to be banned.

“We weren’t setting out to be controversial,” says Brian Baglow, a writer on GTA and head of the PR department at DMA Design. “We didn’t include things because it shocked people. It was all about fun. So when the campaign hit and the controversy started – I believe Lord Campbell of Croy was the first person to ask for this sick filth to be banned – pretty much everyone on the team thought it was quite funny, because when you look at the game, it wasn’t graphic. Everything was implied.”

“It was a lot,” adds Jamie King, who worked at BMG and was later a co-founder at Rockstar. “The messaging obviously had to be controlled, especially with the UK tabloids. There was a bit of a reputation that this is an unhealthy game. This is a bad game. But we were on a mission to be, like, ‘We have 18-certificate films, why can’t we have 18-certificate games?’”

Amid the controversy, British tabloid News of the World tried to paint Baglow, DMA’s resident PR expert, as a law-breaking speedster. “They wanted to speak to Dave Jones,” says Baglow. “But I had to leave bear traps outside that man’s office to get him to talk to the press. None of the team would take responsibility for it, so I ended up going, ‘Fine, it’ll be me’. So there was a full page one Sunday in the News of the World of me scowling and wearing a BMG Interactive sweatshirt. [The News of the World had taken] a car crash I had when I was 19, when my car hit a patch of black ice on Knockhill… and turned it into a high-speed chase with the police in my XR3 or XR2i.”

Writing GTA’s mission dialogue was tricky, as many of the objectives had already been laid out. Most of the dialogue also had to fit on an in-game pager.

Fortunately, the game wasn’t banned in the UK, and the controversy merely drew more attention to it: GTA became a cult hit, something to play secretly with a bunch of your mates, out of sight of your parents. Behind the scenes, work was already underway on a sequel. BMG wouldn’t, however, be the publishers for the next entry in the series.

In March 1998, BMG sold its interactive division to publisher Take-Two for $9 million. As a result, a group of ex-BMG employees including Sam and Dan Houser, Jamie King, Arista Records’ Terry Donovan, and Gary J. Foreman all moved to New York to start a US publishing label for Take-Two that would later become Rockstar. Some of the first projects the group discussed were for an adaptation of Walter Hill’s The Warriors, a licensed game based on skateboarding magazine Thrasher (after a failed attempt to strike a deal with pro-skater Tony Hawk), and more GTA games. But there was just one small problem: Take-Two didn’t have all the rights to GTA.

“We were on a mission to get all the rights back,” says King. “Sam knew what he had with GTA, even if the rest of the world didn’t appreciate it. He had the vision and he could see where it could go. But it took a while for Take-Two to buy back the rights. It was all a bit messy… temporarily between GTA and GTA 2, we didn’t have the publishing rights globally.”

One of the most baffling and controversial features of the original Grand Theft Auto was the Gouranga bonus, whereby if you ran over a line of Hare Krishnas, you would receive a special points bonus

It may have been a messy process, but Take-Two eventually managed to track down the GTA rights, purchasing the IP from Gremlin entirely in 1998. The first GTA game Take-Two published was a simple reissue of the original – but the company had other, much more exciting plans for the future.

Spin-offs and Sequels

In December 1998, former BMG employees at Take-Two rebranded the US publishing branch to Rockstar Games. The new name was designed to signal the publisher’s disruptive aims, and to counter the idea that games    were only for kids. GTA was set to be a big part of this strategy, but GTA 2 was still almost a year from release. As a result, Rockstar tasked the newly acquired studio Rockstar Toronto with creating a couple of expansions to the original game to keep people interested.

GTA London: 1961 and 1969, released in 1999, played similarly to the original, but swapped fictional locations for London landmarks. Another key feature was its soundtrack, which featured licensed music for the first time in the series. Previously, DMA’s audio team had been solely responsible for creating the music for GTA’s radio stations. But the London expansions used Terry Donovan’s connections to get music from performers like The Upsetters and Harry J. All Stars. The idea was to add authenticity to the open world and bring the experience closer to a film. “[The GTA: London expansions] really didn’t add anything new in terms of mechanics or gameplay, but they were really sweet,” says Baglow. “Terry Donovan, the marketing director who had come from Arista Records, played an absolute blinder on the soundtrack. It was all Trojan records. Then you had all the different voices in Cockney too… and then if you skidded over some dog [poo], you got a big brown trail, which I think was the high point of the whole franchise.”

Though the response to the expansions was mostly positive, it took a few developers at DMA by surprise. Some were annoyed at the liberties taken with the IP, which seemed counter to what the studio had intended the games to be. Many at DMA thought GTA took place in a parallel timeline to our own, so having the game go to London and feature real-world artists undermined that vision. Nevertheless, the decision proved successful with fans and became a common feature of the series, continuing with GTA 2.

Originally codenamed GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm), GTA 2 ditched Liberty City for a retro-futuristic landscape called Anywhere, USA. As in the original, players roamed cities completing missions, but this time there was a greater emphasis on gangs, and gang affinity.

 “When I got hired, I was told, ‘This is going to be X-rated, Sony is crazy,’” recalls Michael Keillor, a writer at DMA on GTA 2. “Then Sony was very quickly like, ‘We want a big hit game. It’s not really X-rated at all’… But [DMA] had some outline gang members and I had to flesh out the world. I didn’t know much about gaming. So I started giving a backstory to these gangs, and then the world around them…”

GTA 2 was less vibrant than its predecessor, boasting a more stylised retro-futuristic look to match its setting

DMA had more resources for the sequel, allowing them to put more effort into the game’s sound. Adverts were a notable addition, which would feature prominently on radio stations in later games. This came with some risks. “We were under a lot of pressure to deliver GTA 2 to a tight schedule,” Anderson says. “We needed to make sure everything was planned well in advance. All the lines we needed to complete the ads and the DJs were pre-written before the recording sessions, and all the actors had been pre-selected based on their demo reels.”

Despite these improvements, it failed to eclipse its predecessor’s success. Reviews were mixed, with publications praising the soundtrack while criticising the lack of innovation. That’s not to say it was a failure, but it was clear to everyone involved that the game needed to move into 3D to bring the series to new audiences.

Making A ‘Hit’

In the same month GTA 2 released, Take-Two announced it was buying DMA Design from Infogrames, a French company that’d recently acquired Gremlin. The idea behind the purchase was for Rockstar to have some continuity between the teams working on the GTA franchise.

But as soon as Take-Two completed the acquisition of DMA, the decision was made to split the studio in half. One half of the studio comprised the Body Harvest and Space Station Silicon Valley teams, and moved to Edinburgh to form Rockstar North, while the other half remained in Dundee at DMA Design.

For a while, it seemed that Rockstar intended to keep both studios open. But in March 2000, shortly after a round of redundancies at the Dundee studio, the announcement was made that DMA Design would close, with the remaining staff relocated to Edinburgh.

According to the former employees we spoke to, the relationship between Take-Two and DMA was tense, with DMA staff often feeling at odds with the publisher and distrustful of its intentions. To add to the studio’s woes, DMA was going through a bit of an identity crisis at the time. Not only had DMA co-founder Dave Jones left in 1999, but the studio was struggling to understand what games they could make that would fit with Rockstar’s catalogue.

Keillor, who left during this period, recalls: “When I went there, it was this incredible place with all of these different games. It was almost a throwback to eighties gaming, where it was lots of creative people making different games, and then there was one stellar hit and Rockstar came in and said, ‘We only want the hit.’”

“There was a huge amount of antagonism,” says Baglow, who was at Rockstar at the time. “And there was a huge amount of arrogant behaviour, and being honest, a lot of the activities at Take-Two were questionable.”

Despite DMA’s closure, work on GTA III continued, with the Body Harvest team taking the lead. The mission statement was clear: get GTA into 3D. After Keillor left, Dan Houser and radio personality Lazlow Jones became lead writers, producing a vast amount of dialogue. GTA III was a major improvement on its predecessor, and was a critical and financial hit. It was also the first release to have a single protagonist, allowing for a more cinematic story about betrayal and revenge.

The series has only grown in popularity since GTA III, but Rockstar hasn’t forgotten its Scottish roots. Not only is Rockstar North still going strong, but the firm recently acquired Dundee-based Ruffian Games, marking a return to the area.

Players could activate hidden side missions to make money in GTA III, including picking up a job as a taxi driver. Robert De Niro, eat your heart out

“Ruffian fits in perfectly with that Rockstar work ethic about getting stuff done,” says Penn, now an internal development manager at Denki Games. “Ruffian helped enormously with the first Crackdown, and it ended up salvaging some of Crackdown 3, so the studio has really good form not only in terms of getting stuff done but in terms of that type of game. I think that combination is ideal for Rockstar. I’m surprised it hadn’t happened earlier.”

“It’s a testament to the work Ruffian has done, and that Scotland has such a great talent pool,” says Baglow, now a board member for Creative Edinburgh. “They’re going to be doing some fascinating projects; whether we hear anything about them or not remains to be seen. [As for Rockstar] – we knew they’d come crawling back.

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