Rockstar’s Studio Head On GTA III And Why the Series is “Just Getting Started”

When you booted GTA III for the first time on a PS2 in 2001, as I did, you felt like you were in the presence of something new. Something different. Something – and it feels odd to say this, given the title, premise and OFLC banning that was to come – classy.

Sequel-informed players would have guessed on a bombastic intro video – murder, mayhem, more explosions than Michael Bay with a permit for WMDs. Hell, I think I anticipated a bit of in-engine footage, set to hard rock and centred on smushing conga lines of pedestrians, out for a sidewalk stroll.

What we got instead? Smooth jazz.

Better yet, Rockstar Games suggested an experience that was to be more considered, filmic even. Through a hypnotic coalescing of uneven window frames, we snatched juicy glimpses of what would soon blow our minds. Liberty City.

Here was a living, breathing playspace which, for the time, offered an epic sense of scale, complexity and freedom that our young minds had never known before.

Original GTA III Screenshot

Now that the 20 year anniversary and celebratory Trilogy Definitive Edition is upon us, GTA III Art Director Aaron Garbut has offered his thoughts on this touchstone experience – the entry that set this franchise on the path to becoming a multi-billion dollar selling behemoth.

“Making GTA III, it felt like the game we had always wanted to play,” says Garbut, who has since risen to Head of Development, Co-Studio Head, Rockstar North. “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. 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.”

One thing was for certain, moving the series from 2D changed the immersion of the experience – suddenly you were in this world, not above it. Garbut says this altered the way his team had to look at making the game. They needed a world that was far more detailed, that you could see right into the distance, that you could interact with up close and personal. It shifted expectations about how cinematic and connected everything could be, and it moved players away from some of the super gamey elements that had gone before.

Original GTA III Screenshot
Original GTA III Screenshot

Evidently, to do the kinds of things Garbut and his team wanted to do, they needed a physics engine that would give the player more connection of the vehicles to the world and the objects within it. Because hey—what would be the long-term appeal of a game about boosting cars if the whips you’re supposed to covet all handle like trolleys?

“We also wanted to ground players in the experience, triggering missions in person, talking to people from where they lived and worked,” Garbut expands. “We wanted to give the world height and to play with that height. Some of these elements were there in 2D games, but the distance and the top-down perspective allowed 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.”

With this being such a trailblazing title, Garbut and his team were taking on more challenges than a five-star hood trying to clap back at the po-pos. This was at an era where building something at the scale and detail desired (while being able to move around it freely at speed) just hadn’t been done. Likewise, third person cameras and aiming were still being ironed out in games – a facet I’m keen to see modernised in the forthcoming Trilogy Definitive Edition.

Original GTA III Screenshot
Original GTA III Screenshot

“We were building something unprecedented in scope and scale with this level of openness,” Garbut recalls. “How do you get this to fit in memory, how do you render a few kilometres away, how do you even get in and out of all kinds of vehicles in 3D? What I’m most proud of is that we worked out what we wanted to do, what we thought would be best, not what was easy. We gave ourselves a lot of difficult problems and not only did we start to solve many of them, but we started to see for ourselves a very powerful vision of what we wanted to do well into the future.”

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While there’s no doubt GTA III had a vision, when I reminisce on it with my mates, the visual aspect often takes a backseat to the soundtracks. Garbut gives special mention to the music and audio teams who were helping to build this new, more immersive space for the player – not to mention the music and endlessly quotable talkback radio stations and fake ads.

I love that Rockstar still owns the URL to www.sleepofflard.com and petsovernight.com.

Speaking of things that have stood the test of time and stayed with the company, Garbut says that a lot of elements in GTA III helped to clarify Rockstar’s approach to making future blockbusters.

Original GTA III Screenshot

“From GTA III through to GTAV, 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. “We want these worlds to be intrinsically fun – where you don’t have to do any one thing, you don’t have to play the game a specific way, or even experience the story unless you want to. Instead, you can just… be.

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.”

Interestingly, Garbut opines that prior to Grand Theft Auto III, games were things you played – an adventure you worked through or a puzzle you solved. GTA III made them a place you lived in. He and his teams have been making that place more visceral and real ever since. There’s a depth and permanence to that.

“I remember playing a lot of games growing up,” mentions Garbut. “But I remember spending time in various GTA’s. I’m proud of our team and of the path we have stayed on. It feels like we built the foundation, the ruleset, the blueprint. That we helped create a genre that others followed and found their own paths on.

Original GTA III Screenshot
Original GTA III Screenshot

I love open world games. I feel like they have so much further to go than where they currently are. I know that thanks to the success of all our open world games and the global team we have that has so many years of experience working together on them, that we are uniquely placed to push them further than ever and most excitingly of all, I’m confident we will.

There isn’t the same collective experience and knowledge, or the relationships built over this amount of time in one place anywhere else. So, I think Grand Theft Auto III’s true legacy is still to come – I think we take big steps forward on every title and I’m always excited to see the next jump forward. Grand Theft Auto III began the journey for us but we’re still only getting started.”

If you yourself want to see what all the fuss is/was about, you won’t have to wait long. Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition will be launching later this year on basically every platform. It’s touted to feature across-the-board upgrades including graphical improvements and modern gameplay enhancements for all three titles, while still maintaining the classic look and feel of the originals.

I for one can’t wait to see GTA III receive a sexy makeover and fresh chance to woo a new generation of gamers—like one of Fernado’s New Beginnings.

Stay tuned to Press-Start for our inevitable review of all three classics.

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