Rugged History

The History of GTA – The Birth and Beginnings of a Legend

by Jack Napier on July 16, 2015

From a small and controversial company to the giant it is today, Rockstar has made some of the most acclaimed games in the history of gaming. Some of these games include a franchise that seems to be tailored to arouse scandal, but also one awarding payers full freedom, becoming more realistic from game to game.

The history of GTA begins in 1997. Starting out as a series of top down games, and eventually releasing one of the best looking and best selling titles of all time, the success of Grand Theft Auto has increased enormously along the years. So much so that Take 2 Interactive pretty much double their profits every time Rockstar announces the launch of a new game. The GTA series has been and continues to be a trend-setter when it comes to gaming, even giving birth to a wide range of clones across different platforms, with one of the more successful being Saints Row.

The echoes left by the first GTA in the gaming world are felt today, Rockstar also being the first company which deliberately sought controversy in order to popularize their games.

We begin our tale in the year 1988, with a company called DMA Design.

A screenshot from a DMA Design Game

1990 is the year in which DMA published and achieved success with Lemmings. They then delivered notable Nintendo titles such as Uniracers, Body Harvest and Space Station Silicon Valley. These titles became cornerstones of modern-day Grand Theft Auto, sharing two common factors: a big world and vehicle control.

Game design screenshot from Race'n'Chase

One thing that many don’t know about GTA is that this game was originally called Race n’Chase.

It was called so ever since version 1.05, during the concept stage of the project, with the original idea being to “to produce a fun, addictive, fast-paced multiplayer car racing and crashing game.”

Mike Dally, former DMA Designer, gave more details when he released 12 pages of game design documents, which outlined the concept that defined the game in one line:

“The aim of Race’n’Chase is to produce a fun, addictive and fast multi-player car racing and crashing game which uses a novel graphics method.”

The statement was made in 1995, when the game was still called Race’n’Chase, a name kept until 1997 when the first Grand Theft Auto was released, and the concept had shifted from fast-paced multiplayer car racing and crashing game to a modern organized crime simulator that tugged at the heartstrings of an entire planet.

Today, the first Grand Theft Auto will look archaic to many of those who only just discovered the series, in this 3D age when Rockstar compete with other big names in the industry in the development of cutting-edge immersive worlds. But in 1997, GTA was a top-down game in which everything was about gathering points and keeping up multipliers for a bigger high-score.

Yes, it didn’t exactly exude imagination. But the public loved it. That was, in part, due largely to the fact that the game offered a much greater degree of freedom than other offerings on the market, but the top-down perspective was also an opportunity to create a much larger world without consuming excessive hardware resources.

Besides all that, it offered a multiplayer mode, non-linear missions, a life and damage system implemented on most vehicle models and, last but not least, the feeling of accomplishment you got after completing the second-to-last mission. Players of the game will know what I mean!

Sure, we’re talking of an era when purchasing a new PC game was done by mail-order, and information about new games was gleaned either through printed media or word-of-mouth. So it came to be that the first GTA became successful, even though critics were quite rough on it, with publications such as Gamespot insisting that GTA is a good game to pick up from the bargain bin, but surely it wouldn’t win any awards. Despite the negative publicity, everything went according to plan for the developer (arguably even better than expected), and the game kept the company afloat.

In-game screenshot of the first Grand Theft Auto

I can’t speak for others, but Grand Theft Auto at the time, was one of the most “realistic” and free experiences I had ever seen. And I loved it.

This title birthed the empire that became the GTA franchise, and is also the birthplace of Liberty City (New York), San Andreas (Los Angeles) and Vice City (Miami).

Grand Theft Auto has a small selection of ‘radio stations’ which can be heard when the player enters some vehicles, with most vehicles having a limited number of radio stations (usually 12 but in some cases only 11). The PlayStation version offered only one station for each vehicle.

The original Grand Theft Auto was developed for DOS, then later ported to Microsoft Windows, Sony PlayStation, and Nintendo Game Boy Color. Surprisingly, the Game Boy Color version unchanged from the original, and city maps remained untouched even compared to the original PC version. However, in order to make it more accessible and ‘safe’ for younger generations, the game was censored, removing the violent images and swearing from the game.

In principle, Grand Theft Auto created an empire, and in doing so, brought Rockstar to legendary-status. In our next episode of this series we will look at GTA 2, with the same top-down perspective, but more ambition and some delicious development details.

If you’d like to add these titles to your collection, the Grand Theft Auto Classics Collection is still available on Amazon. You can help us out by using our affiliate link to purchase.

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