Today we could safely say that Grand Theft Auto is the most successful saga in the video game industry. The latest title released by its company Rockstar, GTA V, has become the second best-selling game in history -only behind Minecraft-, and the sum of its other games makes it a unique franchise in the sector.
However, this was not always so, and behind the success of the GTA formula there are dozens of secrets that have made it what it is today. In this article we will review the origins of GTA and GTA 2, the games that laid the seed that germinated with GTA 3, the title that laid the foundations of what we understand today by a Grand Theft Auto.
The beginning of a revolution
In 1994, brothers Sam and Dan Houser, originally from London (UK), were working at the video game company DMA Design, which they had founded a few years earlier in Edinburgh. At that time, the company had created several titles, including the popular Lemmings, but they were looking to expand their horizons and try something new.
The idea for GTA came after Sam Houser saw Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas, one of the most famous mob movies in the history of cinema. Houser was so impressed by the way the film presented the world of crime and corruption that he decided to focus his efforts on a video game with the same atmosphere.
At that time there were already some games about mafia and crime, but they considered that it was a genre that was still to be polished and in which they could contribute a lot. Thus, the DMA Design team started working on the game in 1995. However, development soon turned into a nightmare.
One of the biggest challenges the company faced was working with the hardware limitations of the time. The video game was originally released in 1997, when computers and consoles were not yet very advanced in terms of graphics and technology. The DMA Design team had to work hard to create a game that looked and felt good in just 1.44 megabytes. Today, that would obviously be insane.
To make this possible, DMA Design had to develop its own game engine, which allowed them to create an open world that was generated as the player progressed through the innovative technique known as “top-down perspective”. What seemed like a stumbling block turned out to be a trump card for the game, as it introduced a revolutionary technology that would later be copied by many other studios.
Instead of showing the game from a first-person or third-person perspective, the team opted for an aerial view of the city. This allowed them to create a larger and more detailed world, and also allowed them to overcome some of the aforementioned technical limitations.
When they made the decision for this perspective, they approached GTA as a racing game, as vehicles were going to become very important. However, after creating the game’s weapons and a more open world, they realized that they had created something much bigger and more ambitious. The game eventually became a sandbox focused on action and exploration. And, despite the challenges they encountered, it was finally released in October 1997.
GTA was a revolutionary game in many ways. The player controlled a character that moved in an open world, where he could steal cars, commit crimes, run away from the police and do missions to earn money. They were mechanics never seen before, and that despite how controversial they were seen as a breath of fresh air in the games of the moment.
GTA’s initial reception, however, was mixed. Some critics praised the title’s innovation and its focus on player freedom, while others criticized it for its violent content and overhead perspective, which made the world feel distant and cold. Be that as it may, the game was a moderate commercial success, selling more than 1 million copies worldwide.
Building on success
After the release of GTA, DMA Design was quick to begin work on a sequel: Grand Theft Auto 2. The idea behind the game was to expand the world and gameplay of the original, and take it to a new level. Now that they had gotten the hang of the technique, they could take all the discarded ideas from the first game and apply them.
GTA 2 was released in October 1999, just two years after the first, and featured many improvements over its predecessor. The world was larger and more detailed, and was presented in an isometric view, which allowed for greater immersion in the game world. In addition, the gameplay had been expanded, with the addition of new weapons and vehicles, as well as a variety of missions to complete.
One of the most notable features of GTA 2 was its setting. The game was set in a city called Anywhere, which resembled a futuristic, dystopian version of New York City. The city was divided into different districts, each controlled by different criminal gangs, allowing the player to choose which faction to join and which missions to complete.
Curiously, it is one of the few cities that have not been repeated in the following games of the franchise. While Liberty City, Los Santos and Vice City have been appearing, we haven’t heard more about Anywhere since GTA II came out. Perhaps, because it looked so much like the New York of Liberty City, it just didn’t make sense. Or maybe they’re saving themselves for a sort of Cyberpunk 2077 from Rockstar.
The city was much more dangerous than the first game. It was a dystopian place, full of criminal gangs and warring factions. Each of the city’s districts was controlled by different gangs, allowing the player to choose which faction to join and complete specific missions.
Another innovative feature of GTA 2 is that the game included a soundtrack full of licensed songs from renowned artists. This was something quite unusual for a game of the time, and it gave the title a unique and vibrant atmosphere. As we have seen later on, this has become one of the key elements of the saga.
The reception of GTA II was similar to that of the first, and the bottom line is that critics weren’t sure what to say about them. There is no doubt that they were innovative and revolutionary games, but they were also violent and controversial. This has dogged the saga forever, with a particular emphasis on the third title and GTA: San Andreas, but it seems that the waters have calmed down over the years.
GTA and GTA 2 were mild commercial successes, but they laid the groundwork for future installments of the franchise. The series continued to evolve and improve with each new release, and today, with DMA having become Rockstar, the whole