History of: Grand Theft Auto (series)

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Grand Theft Auto just might be the most controversial videogame series ever made.

The Grand Theft Auto series exists for the exact same reason as Minecraft’s Creeper enemy: Because sometimes ‘It’s a feature, not a bug!’ is a valid statement.

This series began with a failed attempt to develop a standard top-down 16-bit driving game, and ended up being one of the most lucrative videogame series in history.

Join us as we take a brief look at the history of the Grand Theft Auto franchise.

History of Grand Theft Auto: The 2D Era


The beginnings of Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series go all the way back to 1987 to when a Scottish development house named DMA Design was founded.

They concentrated on the most popular gaming machines of the time, which – believe it or not – weren’t consoles, but certain home computers (all of which are now sadly defunct): Commodore 64, the Commodore Amiga (usually the 500 series), and the Atari ST.

Their most famous game was probably Lemmings, a puzzle game where you used certain skills to protect stylised lemmings (they walked upright and had green hair). The game was popular enough to not only spawn several sequels, but it also impressed Nintendo enough that Nintendo wanted to work with them. In fact, Nintendo asked them to work on a launch title for the then-unreleased Nintendo 64.

Nintendo were unimpressed with the game that DMA Design had created for them, a third-person action-shooter named Body Harvest. The game was delayed several times, and Nintendo had issues with the (sometimes quite graphic) content, which wasn’t really appropriate for the family-friendly company Nintendo. Between this and the communication issues caused by the English-Japanese language divide, both companies soon decided to part ways.

Just think: If they’d stuck with each other, the world would never have had the GTA series.

GTA Is Born

In 1995, DMA Design began development on a top-down action-shooter/driving game named Race’n’Chase.

The idea behind the game was simple: What if, instead of playing ‘Cops vs Robbers’, the players could play ‘Robbers vs Cops’? Instead of simply avoiding criminals (as seen in a similar game named APB), players would also need to avoid the police as well.

Most of them team were inexperienced, and progress was happening slowly – far too slowly for the higher-ups. In fact, one of the developers was so inexperienced that they made a mistake in the coding. The cops were supposed to follow you, and maybe pull you over.

That’s not what was happening in one particular build of the game. The AI-controlled cops were incredibly aggressive, even ramming into the player as if trying to kill them. DMA Design decided to capitalize on the coding error and make it a major part of the game.

The game was finished, and was released with a much more appropriate name: Grand Theft Auto.

The playable area in GTA contained 3 different maps, each loosely based on specific American locales: Liberty City (New York), Vice City (Miami), and San Andreas (California/Nevada).

The GTA team had used a very clever marketing tactic, one that gaming companies still use to this day: Whip politicians and other media personalities into a frenzy about ‘the immoral activities available to children nowadays’ (or something similar), sit back, and watch all the do-gooders give you free advertising.

You can just imagine the team saying ‘If the parents hate it, then the kids will love it.’

The game was, of course, popular enough to spawn a sequel (which used the same 2D art style).

History of Grand Theft Auto: The 3D Era

GTA: A New Dimension

Although GTA2 had added enough to justify its sequel status, DMA Design weren’t happy with it.

They (rightfully) felt that GTA was groundbreaking, and that GTA2 was essentially more of the same. They decided that they needed more dimension to the series – literally – and would make the move to 3D.

They developed the first 3D game in the series, GTA III, which was so well received that it was the best selling game in the year it was released. GTA III was published by Rockstar Games, which now owned DMA Design due to having bought their parent company.

Now owned by Rockstar Games, they changed their name to Rockstar North.

Rockstar North then released the ‘80s-themed GTA: Vice City, which was so popular that it was the fastest-selling game in history at the time.

The Tea Surrounding Hot Coffee

Apparently sick of writing stories revolving around the Mafia, Rockstar North’s next GTA title was GTA: San Andreas, which told the story of a gang war from the point of view of an African-American street gang.

It was also the first time, due to the prevalence of the internet, that those who weren’t impacted by gaming (as opposed to, say, parents who buy games for their kids) had heard of the controversies surrounding the GTA series.

We’re talking, of course, about the Hot Coffee mod (or ‘game modification’). If you use the mod, then the protagonsit, CJ, is able to have very pixelated ‘love times’ with his girlfriend. If you don’t use the mod (which obviously doesn’t come with the game), you can’t access that content.

Considering the low quality of the graphics, it’s amazing that this controversy still exists today – especially when the graphically-realistic Witcher and Mass Effect series are given a free pass for the exact same thing.

Rockstar North Are Still At It

Then came GTA IV, which was received in a similar fashion to GTA II: Not particularly groundbreaking, but more of the same good times.

Which brings us up to date with GTA V.

With a bigger map, 3 playable characters in the singleplayer campaign, and a multi-player component possibly more popular than the main game – and with more controversy than ever – it’s clear that Rockstar North still have the same pioneering spirit that they did back when they were still DMA Design.

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