In October 2001, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto III – and the entire pop-culture paradigm shifted. It’s hard to say anything about GTA III that hasn’t been said a million times over the past 20 years, but suffice it to say that it laid the blueprint for open-world gaming so completely that the gaming industry is still largely following it today.
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, what it meant for Rockstar as a company, and its overall legacy in 2021.
Game informant: How did DMA/Rockstar develop their technology to the point where GTA III was possible?
Aaron Garbut: There was no evolutionary technology. Grand Theft Auto III was a new team in a new studio, excited about the possibilities of newer consoles and pushing to create an immersive world in 3D. We didn’t build it on existing technology, but we improved it from the ground up over the life of the project.
We just wanted to build a world that was as alive and open as we could make it, and give players the toolset and flexibility to explore and play that world. We built narrative and gameplay flow structures to put them on the path and give them direction, but what really excited us was the openness and freedom of the player. Basically, the challenge we’ve been trying to solve – and we’re still working on – is how do you build a place that’s interesting to exist in and give the player enough toys and systems to interact with and play with? There are clear technical challenges to this – building a diverse, large city world and keeping it flowing so we can build at the variation and scale we wanted. The fact that we wanted it to feel alive and as much as possible feel like the player existed within it – rather than at the center of it – meant that we needed to keep the world active even when the player was on a mission or causing chaos. . We needed systems that were as robust as possible and that could also scale in complexity. We basically designed what we thought we wanted to play ourselves and then figured out how the hell to make it.
G.I: Do you remember any of the early iterations or prototypes of GTA III that you saw?
AG: When we finished our first game at DMA Design, we had some time to prototype and come up with ideas. We also got access to several Dreamcast devkits. Within a few weeks we managed to create a number of city blocks with docks, commercial areas and brownstones. We really played, but we added characters walking down the streets and cars driving around.
I think we got into some sort of conversation with some of the original GTA coding team about GTA in 3D and were dismissed as too complex. They were working on some experiments that moved the camera back a bit in the old GTA engine, but that was very far from where we were trying to go. We had a good time; we were young and arrogant and made a conscious decision to redirect the project to GTA – we knew we could do it and it was much more appealing to us.
During those early days, shortly after we moved to Edinburgh, we met regularly with Sam [Houser, co-founder of Rockstar Games], who has been desperate to move GTA to full 3D for a long time. We knew him from the last project we worked on, but during the early days of GTA III we quickly became close. We were all very much in sync right from the start. We’re still going in much the same direction we started out on the road back then.
G.I: 20 years later, what do you think the overall legacy of GTA III is?
AG: I think GTA III was a glimpse of what was possible in open world games. It showed that games can be more about the player than the designer—that we can build worlds of ever-increasing variety, granularity, and complexity, and create complex systems for players to interact with. That we could stop thinking about levels and start thinking more about worlds, about cohesive spaces, with characters living in them alongside our player. That we could fill these worlds with interest and leave it up to the player to explore and interact with them. That we could build toys and tools, worlds and systems for the player to play with. But also that more than all of those things – more than the toys, the living, breathing world, the systems and the like – we were able to create a sense of place and the players could be happy to be. Sitting in the car listening to music and watching the sunset. It was the idea that with the right complexity and believability comes variety in not just what players can do, but what they want to do. If the world is complex enough, it exists to draw players into it, to experience such a breadth of content and possibilities that the players themselves define what they can and will do. That’s a long way from what gaming was before GTA III, but it’s the path we’ve been on since then.
GI: What does GTA III mean for Rockstar North as a development studio?
AG: GTA III set the template for how we make games. We [learned] so much of it, but mostly we just learned how hard it was. Creating worlds with the density of detail and content we wanted, that could be traversed quickly, has all sorts of complications. By having the content exist in this world alongside the open world systems – the surrounding world, cops, gangs and the like – it creates even more complications. I guess we learned that we weren’t afraid to take the hard way if we felt the results were worth it. And the systems approach of interacting to create complexity is something we continue to build on.
G.I: This is one of those weird questions where there’s no humble way to ask it, but few people get to work on something that changes pop culture in their lifetime. Do you ever think about it? If so, how do you reflect?
AG: It’s a weird, kind of abstract thing, really. My day-to-day life before and after GTA III was focused on how to build the most compelling, expansive, and diverse games we could make. We always have the last game we played as a benchmark to push forward to do something better. It’s never about how these games have been perceived culturally, critically, or commercially; it’s about what we ourselves loved about the last thing we made and how we can build on that.
From Grand Theft Auto III to Red Dead Redemption II, each has felt like a continuation of the same journey, approaching each with a new sense of ambition. It’s fun and funny to see your work blow up in pop culture, to see references to it. It’s always overwhelming to look at player stats and imagine the sheer aggregate time spent in our worlds. But beyond that, we’re incredibly grateful that we get to do things that we think are great and that so many others agree enough to spend so much time with them.
This article originally appeared in Game Informer issue 341.
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