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Grand Theft Auto Begins

Category: DMADesign Tags: GTA History Anniversary


It’s been 20 years since the release of the original Grand Theft Auto.

Theoretically I’m currently writing a “complete”” history of DMA Design, a task which gets trickier as the timeline progresses. More and more I wasn’t physically present, because how could I be in two buildings at once? But I wrote the internal newsletter at the time, in between my games-related work. And re-reading them has proved to be intriguing.

So I ought to know how GTA came about, twenty years since Dave Jones in a moment of sublime creation declared “Let there be Grand Theft Auto.” Well, it wasn’t quite like that of course. Most people who have an interest in these things know that originally there was a game called Race ’n’ Chase. However in my files — which are whatever I managed to take with me when I left — there is a newsletter item from February 1995. We were trying to get into the PC market for the simple reason that developing for the PC didn’t require a vast amount of approval like, for example, the Playstation did.

The item read, in full:

“NEW PC PROJECT Late news: the new PC project had its first meeting early on Monday morning. The purpose of this informal get together was to slap some ideas on the table and hope that some of them stuck. As it turned out, the result was inconclusive, therefore more meetings are planned.”

That meeting, dated 23rd January 1995, is where GTA began. Inauspicious. Low-key. Dull, even. So who had the idea for GTA? Was it Dave Jones? I wasn’t in the meeting and any recorded details are currently unknown to me. But here’s what I do know. Ideas aren’t created in a vacuum, and whilst I’ve seen games such as Miami Vice, Elite, Turbo Esprit credited for being an inspiration, I’m not so sure about that. I do have a lot of other information not available on the internet.

So here’s the best lineage, of sorts, that I’ve pieced together.

DMA’s 2nd game, 1989’s Blood Money, featured an enemy character — a two-legged fighting machine in the manner of Robocop’s ED-209, which became the lead character in another game, Walker. Walker was released and enjoyed modest success.

What you probably don’t know is that a sequel to Walker was planned, getting as far as early development. Called Atomic Battle System, the project grew in scope faster than our capability of implementing it. Eventually it fell over and was canned. Now the team still existed, so what could they do to avoid sitting idle? It was decided that they were to be used for another, simpler, project which could be completed in only six months. Ideas started to be passed to the Design Department.

The eventual winner, a top-down-view racing game concept we called 4×4, was first mooted in October 1993. Car games were not a new idea for DMA even then. We had created a car racing game in 1990 for the ITV Telethon that year, Super Offroad Hot Turbo Buggy Simulator. 4×4, it turned out, had existed as a previous concept but in a plan view instead. That game concept also involved racing as many different kinds of vehicle as possible. (An idea which then turned up, sans the racing part, in Body Harvest, but that’s another story.)

In the newsletter I listed some of the suggestions for replacing the doomed Atomic Battle System. Intriguingly, one in a sidebar of the October 1993 issue was for a “Drug Dealer and Joyride Game”. Unfortunately I didn’t list who had suggested it.

Damn. That might have been a scoop!

Now none of this is conclusive, but it is definitely suggestive. Car racing games had been in the air for years, and Dave Jones was a diehard car nut. Along with the technology demo Legovision created by Mike Dailly, these formed the basis of what was to become GTA. From this point onwards the story of GTA’s creation becomes more familiar. Race ’n’ Chase was a cops ’n’ robbers game until playing the robbers proved to be more fun.

Currently my history of DMA has involved writing down my memories. Now I’m slowly going through all the paperwork and placing events on a timeline, writing down facts and having my memories jogged. Once that’s done, it’ll time to talk to people and get their memories.

Like perhaps someone out there has the minutes of that meeting…

First posted on DMA Design NET

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I use British English spelling and idioms, if you tend to worry about that sort of thing.

Additionally I'm Scottish, so 'outwith' is unquestionably a real word. As is 'drookit', 'puggled' and 'numpty'. I am occasionally all three of those.

I created this site using a combination of W3 CSS, Jekyll, Emacs and my inability to enjoy web development IDEs.

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My name is in the very first paragraph of the first page of the first GTA design document*. (Excluding cover and table of contents. I mean, right?)

I directed Britain's first ever Star Trek fan film, which we started production of in 2003 and released in 2007. We're still making episodes: Starship Intrepid