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20 Years of the Free City


October 2001, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto III — and the whole pop culture paradigm has changed. It’s hard to say anything about GTA III that hasn’t been talked about a million times over the past 20 years, but suffice it to say it laid out a blueprint for open world games so complete that the industry The game industry has largely followed it to this day.

To celebrate the game’s 20th anniversary, we recently spoke with Rockstar North art director Aaron Garbut via email about his time working on GTA III, and what it meant for Rockstar as a player. as a company and its overall legacy in 2021.

Game Info: How did DMA/Rockstar develop its technology to the point where GTA III could be done?

Aaron Garbut: There is no technological evolution. Grand Theft Auto III is a new team in a new studio, excited about the possibilities of newer consoles and the effort to create an immersive world in 3D. We do not build it on top of existing technology but develop it from scratch throughout the life of the project.

We just wanted to build a world that is as alive and open as possible, while giving players the toolkit and flexibility to explore and play in that world. We’ve built the narrative structure and game flow to push them in the right direction and give direction, but fundamentally, we’re excited about the openness and freedom of the players. The challenge we’re trying to solve – and continue to do – is basically, how do we build a place that’s fun to survive and provide players with enough toys and systems? to interact and mess around? There are obvious technical challenges with that – building a large, diverse urban world and making sure it flows in so we can build to the variation and scale that we want. The fact that we wanted it to feel as alive and as player-like as possible – and not at the center of it – meant that we needed to keep the world working even when the player wasn’t playing. play on duty or cause chaos. . We need systems to be as solid as possible and also be able to scale to complexity. Basically, we design what we think we want to play ourselves, and then we figure out how to make it.

HOLD: Do you remember any of the early versions or prototypes you saw of GTA III?

AG: When we finished our first game at DMA Design, we had some time to prototype and come up with ideas. We also have access to a few Dreamcast development kits. Over the course of a few weeks, we’ve been trying to create several blocks of a city with its harbour, retail and brownstone. We’re actually playing, but we’ve added characters that walk on the street and cars drive around.

I think we had some conversations with some of the original GTA code groups about GTA in 3D and was dismissed for being too complicated. They did some testing that pushed the camera back a bit in the old GTA engine, but that was far from the goal we were trying to achieve. We are enjoying ourselves; we were young and arrogant and made the wise decision to redirect the project to GTA – we knew we could do it and it appealed to us a lot more.

During those early days, shortly after moving to Edinburgh, we met regularly with Sam. [Houser, co-founder of Rockstar Games], who has been yearning to move GTA to full 3D for a long time. We’ve known him since the last project we worked on, but we quickly became a lot closer in the early days of GTA III. We were all very in sync from the beginning. Most of us are still going in the direction we started then.

HOLD: 20 years later, what do you think is the common legacy of GTA III?

AG: I think GTA III is a glimpse of what can happen in open world games. It shows that games can be more about the player than the designer – that we can build increasingly diverse, detailed, and complex worlds, and create complex systems that humans can’t control. play can interact. That we can stop thinking about levels and start thinking more about the world, about the cohesive space, with the characters living inside them with our players. That we can fill these worlds with care and let players explore and interact. That we can build toys and tools, worlds and systems for players to play with. But beyond all that – more than toys, living, breathing worlds, systems and the like – that we can create a sense of place and players can be happy when be there. Sit in their car, listen to music and watch the sunset. The idea is that with the right complexity and reliability comes diversity, not only in what players can do but also in what they want to do. If the world is complex enough, it exists to pull players into it to experience content and possibilities so diverse that players define for themselves what they can and will do. It’s been a long way compared to the games before GTA III, but it’s been a journey we’ve taken since then.

GI: What does GTA III mean to Rockstar North as a development studio?

AG: GTA III sets the template for how we make games. we [learned] a lot from it, but mostly, we just learned how hard it is. Creating worlds with the density of detail and content that we want to be able to navigate with speed comes in all sorts of complexities. Having content exists in that world along with open world systems – the surrounding world, the police, the gang, etc., creates even more complexity. I guess we’ve learned that we don’t mind taking the hard road if we feel the results are worth it. And the approach of interactive systems to creating complexity is what we continue to build on.

HOLD: This is one of those weird questions that there’s no humble way to ask it, but very few people embark on anything in their lives that could change pop culture. Have you ever thought about that? If so, how do you reflect?

AG: It’s a strange thing, actually a bit of an abstraction. My day-to-day life before and after GTA III is centered around how to build the most immersive, expansive, and diverse games we can create. We always have the last game we made as the standard that we need to push further to make something better. It was never about how these games were perceived culturally, critically or commercially; it’s about what we love about the last thing we did and how we can build on it.

From Grand Theft Auto III to Red Dead Redemption II, each of them feels like a continuation of the same journey, and each is approached with a new sense of ambition. It’s interesting and funny to see your work emerge in popular culture, to see references to it. Looking at player stats and imagining the absolute total time spent in our world is always in awe. But beyond that, we’re incredibly grateful to be able to create things that we think are great, and so many others agree to spend a lot of time on them.


This article originally appeared in No. 341 of the Game Information Provider.

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