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Before 'Grand Theft Auto III', open world games were a huge gamble

Art director Art Garbut says the genre's first commercial success was never a sure bet.

Rockstar

Today is 20th anniversary of Grand Theft Auto III, one of the most innovative and beloved games in history.

Before its rerelease within Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy — The Definitive Edition on consoles, mobile, and PC later this year, we’ve been thinking about the state of open world games since these titles first hit the scene two decades ago. With titles like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Red Dead Redemption 2, it seems like the open world genre has reached a point of near saturation — taking us from the bottom of the sea to the depths of deep space.

But there was a time 20 years ago, before selling 14.5 million copies, winning nearly every Game of the Year, and launching its franchise into the stratosphere, when GTA III was an enormous risk for a studio to take. Development of the title began shortly after the release of Super Mario 64, a technical marvel for its time. How did Rockstar Games even set about developing it? How could they create a realistic world — an entire city — from scratch?

This was 2001.Rockstar

“To do the kinds of things we wanted to do, we needed a physics engine that would give us more connection of the vehicles to the world and the objects within it. We wanted to ground players in the experience, triggering missions in person, talking to people from where they lived and worked. We wanted to give the world height and to play with that height,” says Aaron Garbut, offering insights on his time as Art Director for the Grand Theft Auto series. “Some of these elements were there in 2D games, but the distance and the top-down perspective allowed them for them to be far simpler. The shift into 3D meant we had to reconsider how all these disparate parts would come together since players were ‘in’ the world now, not just looking down upon it.”

Before GTA III, there had been Shenmue, a before-its-time title from Sega that saw critical acclaim for its innovative, if unpolished, attempt at building a realistic 3D town for players to interact with. At the time, Shenmue was the most expensive game ever produced. Unfortunately, it never saw a return on the investment, as players struggled to understand its subtler, intimate appeal. Other than Shenmue, there was little to no precedent for the mechanics required to make an open world game function — let alone make it fun to play or, hell, even marketable.

“We are focused on building worlds.”

GTA III helped clarify our approach to making games, and it’s something that has stuck with us in every game we make, from GTA III through to GTA V, the Red Dead Redemption series and everything else: we are focused on building worlds – and on making these worlds as believable, detailed, interesting, varied and alive as possible,” says Garbut. “Even as our ability to tell stories in these worlds has improved over time, we still want to ensure that the world will allow you to find your own path and your own story – where it’s as cool to hang out in a car listening to music and watching the sunset as it is to skid into a mission location, guns blazing. Where the game can be whatever you need it to be.”

The whip.Rockstar

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to describe something to someone who has never seen it. Which made gauging its potential success nearly impossible. “I remember that we showed it at E3 and Rockstar’s other title, State of Emergency got all the attention. That was hard, but you regroup and use it as fuel.”

But upon release, players, dazzled by the bustling Liberty City streets, endless possibilities, and the promise of vice galore, flocked to the PlayStation 2 just to get a taste. Ports to the Windows and the Xbox would come later, but the innovations in GTA III — it’s camera system, atmospheric story-telling that had to be able to function in any order the player might see it, NPCs living a variety of different lives simultaneously, currency and criminal status effects, etc. — would make it the PlayStation 2’s signature game, selling not just itself, but the premise of the very console.

The world of Liberty City.Rockstar

“Making GTA III, it felt like the game we had always wanted to play, we thought it was very cool but really, we had no idea how it would be perceived. We knew there was nothing else like it, but we didn’t know if people would feel the same way about it that we did – we just knew that we wanted to share that excitement with everyone else,” Garbut reveals.

“Can you ever really know these things? I think maybe you can feel when something is good, but it takes an alignment of the stars to make a mark on the world at large. We are all incredibly grateful that people loved it as much as I did.”

You can read more about the development of Grant Theft Auto III on our sister site, Inverse.