By the Book: Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto
Read a chapter from David Kushner's new book about Rockstar Games' industry-changing franchise and find out where the series got its lawless streak from.
In 2004, David Kushner's book Masters of Doom provided readers with an unprecedented inside look at id Software and the creation of the industry-shaping first-person shooter Doom. Next month, Kushner follows that effort up with another in-depth look at a hugely influential developer and game; this time chronicling the hidden history of Rockstar Games and Grand Theft Auto.
In Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, Kushner follows Sam and Dan Houser as they grow from kids merely obsessed with American pop culture to game designers that helped shape it. The following is an excerpt from the book detailing the origin of the Grand Theft Auto franchise at DMA Designs, the studio that would be acquired by--and eventually come to be synonymous with--Take-Two Interactive's Rockstar Games label.
Nerf Crossbow. The Crossbow takes three Basic Arrows or five Mega Darts, with a maximum firing distance of 41 feet and one shot per 2.28 seconds. The range makes this killer ideal for long-range battles.
Nerf Ballzooka. This blaster pumps out a whopping fifteen ballistic balls in just 6 seconds, with a maximum distance of 34 feet. Rate of fire is an impressive one shot per .37 seconds. It will have your enemies screaming, "It's raining balls!"
If you took a job at BMG Interactive, you needed to be properly armed. At any given moment, the Nerf guns would be drawn, unleashing a flurry of bright-yellow foam darts and balls across the room. The playful atmosphere went with Sam's new territory. He was making only £120 a week, but he was living his dream. As the English oddballs of the German music conglomerate, the gamers relished their outsider status, having taken over a backroom of the company's London headquarters.
They had reason to get their game on. By 1996, a new era in video gaming had dawned, thanks to the success of the Sony PlayStation. After releasing the new PlayStation console in Japan in December 1994, the company had sold 500,000 machines in the first three months. Sony called the £300 million debut "our biggest launch since the Walkman."
Sony hired the stylish Chiat\Day ad firm to handle the U.S. release. In England, they marketed the machine to an edgier, hipper demographic--"the cool kids of London," as Sony's Phil Harrison put it. The company created a promotional lounge at the Ministry of Sound nightclub, filling it with PlayStations and sleek displays. Fliers got passed out to clubgoers with the words "More Powerful Than God." Sony was on its way to sales of more than 8 million PlayStations worldwide for the fall of 1996.
So much for Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Games were becoming edgier, and Sam had a kinetic new colleague who shared his passion, Jamie King. A slim, handsome 26-year-old with a nervous excitability, King was a fledgling music video producer who'd been introduced to Sam through a mutual friend. King could keep up with Sam's encyclopedic passion for pop culture. They shared a love of John Cassavetes and the French black-and-white gang flick Le Haine, fashion and art, Tribe Called Quest, and JVC Force. King, brought on as an intern, quickly proved he could keep up with Sam's indefatigable work ethic, too.
What they needed to work on now more than anything was this new game: Race 'n' Chase. Though it had technical chops, it was missing something crucial: balls, preferably as big as the yellow ones flying around the room. On his screen, Sam looked down on the virtual city, the buildings rising in chunky colored blocks. Little cars puttered along gray streets with white hash-mark lines. Traffic lights blinked from yellow to red. Ant-like people paced the sidewalks. Sam pressed one button on the keyboard, and the door of a car swung open. He pressed another, and it closed.
By casting the player as the cop, they realized, they had cut out the fun. Some dismissed it as Sims Driving Instructor.
Senior producer Gary Penn--a former journalist with a streak of Johnny Rotten and a taste for bright green socks--felt dejected. "This is a fucking simulation," he said, bemoaning the game's "stupid details." Up in Dundee at DMA, the developers were starting to agree. By casting the player as the cop, they realized, they had cut out the fun. Some dismissed it as Sims Driving Instructor.
When an unruly gamer tried to drive his police car on the sidewalk or through traffic lights, a persnickety programmer reminded him that the stop lights needed to be obeyed. Were they building a video game or a train set? Even worse, the pedestrians milling around the game created frustrating obstacles. It was almost impossible to drive fast without taking people down, and, because the player was a cop, he had to be punished for hit-and-runs.
Race 'n' Chase hit a road block. There was just no way to have a fast and furious arcade-style game while playing by the rules. The DMAers stared at the screen, as the cars and the people raced around. Maybe there was another solution, they realized. Instead of having to avoid all of the pedestrians, what if you got points for running them over? What if you were the bad guy instead? Video game development is a highly collaborative work in progress, with constant feedback along the way. As the publishers of Race 'n' Chase, Sam and the others at BMG would frequently get new iterations--or builds--of the game to evaluate and comment on. The developers would then go off and implement necessary changes.
One day a new build of Race 'n' Chase arrived for Sam and the others to try out. At first, it seemed the same. With the top-down perspective, the gamer felt as if he were hovering over a city in a balloon, looking down on gray and brown rooftops. Puffy green trees poked of out of green parks. Horns honked. Engines roared. When you tapped your forward arrow on the keyboard, you saw your unnamed character, a tiny guy in a yellow long-sleeved shirt, stride across the street.
With a few more taps of the arrow keys, you maneuvered the character toward a stubby green car with a shiny hood, then tapped the Enter key. That's when it happened. The door flew open, and the driver--some other little dude in blue pants--came flying out of the car and landed on the pavement in a contorted pile. He got jacked. As you held down the forward arrow, the car careened forward, supple to the flick of the side arrows--left, right--with a satisfying vroooom. You headed toward a flickering traffic light. Why stop? This was a game, right? A game wasn't life. A game takes you over, or you take over it, pushing it in ways you can't for real.
So you drove through the light, squealing around a corner. As you took the turn too wide, you saw a little pedestrian in a white long-sleeved shirt and blue pants coming too close, but you couldn't stop. Actually, you didn't want to stop. So you just drove. Drove right into the ped--only to hear a satisfying splat, like a crushed grape with a wine-colored stain on the sidewalk, and the number "100" rising from the corpse. Score! This wasn't the old Race 'n' Chase anymore.
The moment that DMA let players run over pedestrians--and be rewarded with points, no less--changed everything. Instead of cops and robbers, the game became robbers and cops. The object was to run missions for bad guys, such as jacking cars, the more the better. The leap was radical. In the short history of games, players had almost always been the hero, not the antihero. You were the heartsick plumber of Super Mario Bros., the intergalactic pilot of Defender, the glacial-paced explorer of Myst. One obscure arcade game from the 1970s, Death Race 2000, let players run over virtual ghosts, and it got banned. Nothing put you behind the wheel to wreak havoc like this. As Brian Baglow, a writer for DMA, said "You're a criminal, so if you do something bad, you get a reward!"
The moment that DMA let players run over pedestrians--and be rewarded with points, no less--changed everything. Instead of cops and robbers, the game became robbers and cops.
Sam loved it. He had always been drawn to rebels, and now he was pushing games to be more rebellious too "Once we made you able to kill policemen, we knew we had something that would turn heads," he later recalled. Yet this wasn't about manufacturing controversy. In fact, that didn't enter their minds. The game--with its ugly top-down view--was clearly so cartoonlike and absurd, someone would have to be crazy to take it for the real thing. The focus instead was on milking the tech to make it as insanely fun as possible.
Ordinarily, game making was a machine-like system carried out by artists, programmers, and producers. A designer would come up with the overall idea, then producers would dispatch programmers to code the engine--the core code that drove the game's graphics, sounds, physics, and artificial intelligence. Artists would create models of objects in the world and fill in the details of the scene with objects and textures.
But at DMA, the system had become a free-for-all. The developers scurried back to their desks in Scotland, to come up with crazy shit. DMA's nearly 100 employees had taken over two nearby buildings, including one that housed a £500,000 motion-capture studio that no one had quite figured out what to do with. The Race 'n' Chase team worked separately in their own back section and quickly became the rebels of the group.
Up front, where coders worked on Lemmings sequels and other titles, bookish geeks toiled quietly at their desks. Yet the thump of rock music could be heard blasting from behind the wall in the Race 'n' Chase room. Back there, a dozen or so members of the team had transformed their corner into their own bad playground. A team of seven musicians had set up real instruments to record a soundtrack for the title (far removed from the electronic soundtracks popular at the time).
DMA's screaming gamer, in particular, was not real concerned about his hygiene. One day, someone stuck air fresheners under his desk. The next, little pine-tree fresheners hung from his lamp. Finally, he came back to find his entire desk covered in variations of air-freshening aids. For fun, they'd leave rotten food in one another's desks over the weekend.
With so much freedom to play and design Race 'n' Chase, anything was game. The developers included references to Reservoir Dogs, James Bond films, The Getaway, and chase scenes from The French Connection. They reported back to the meeting a week later, where Jones would shape the overall vision to go where no game had gone before. If someone brought him a feature he'd never seen in another game, he gave it his full backing.
He had Sam's and Penn's complete support, too. Sam had grown from an iconoclastic kid to a renegade businessman. "Fuck it," Sam would say. "Just put it in the game, I don't give a shit what people think!" He had a goal to push games into new terrain and wouldn't let any obstacle get in his way. He knew what he was up against: a surprisingly monolithic industry that had grown comfortable with formulaically heroic tales that, by and large, lacked originality.
He had refined his own style in working with DMA to produce the game. "If the game isn't coming together properly, I'll apply focus, drilling it in and pushing it through," he once told Dan. "I don't lay down the law, I'll just go in with enthusiasm and energy and do it in a pleasant but aggressive way. I don't take 'no' for an answer. I don't do it by being difficult. I do it by putting the right effort in."
The simplest thing Sam wanted was clear: freedom. Just like Elite and the other games he had loved as a kid, the newfangled Race 'n' Chase seemed like more than just a game. It was, most important, a world. The game takes place within three fictional cities, each modeled after a real town. Jones, the savvy entrepreneur, wanted to choose cities that would have the most impact on the market--and that meant the United States.
There was palm tree–lined Vice City, based on Miami; hilly San Andreas, based on San Francisco; and gritty Liberty City, based on New York. To receive a new mission, players had to stroll up to ringing telephone booths in town. A mob boss, say, Bubby, would then explain the mission, described in a subtitle on the bottom of the screen. You'd have to go, say, steal taxis or kill rival gangsters. One mission, taken from the movie Speed, required you to drive a bus at more than 50 miles per hour; otherwise, it would blow up.
The thing was, some play testers didn't want to do the missions at all. Given the bad-boy nature of the game--cars to steal, pedestrians to crush--they had more fun recklessly joyriding around. Baglow, who oversaw the play testers, would politely tell them it was time to stop driving and go answer a phone for a mission, but he could sense their disappointment over being restricted from simply joyriding around.
Penn, the producer at BMG, thought the game should let players do what they wanted. "It's a virtual space," he fumed, "you're allowed to do what the fuck you like!" The amazing thing about creating a video game was that you could code your own solutions out of thin air. You didn't need to reshoot a massive scene of a movie with thousands of extras, you could just think and type. Gary Foreman, the thoughtful young programmer in charge of the technical production for BMG, came up with a solution for the mission structures on his own. There was no technical reason why the missions had to progress in a linear fashion. "Can't we just make it so you can answer any phone?" he asked.
Why not, in other words, just let the players proceed along their own paths, at their own pace--answering a phone whenever they wanted to or simply speeding off and having fun? This wouldn't be the first time that a game would let players freely roam in an open world or a sandbox. Games such as The Legend of Zelda offered degrees of undirected exploration. The Race 'n' Chase team also reminisced about an old Spectrum game called Little Computer People, which let players roam a two-story house doing random chores. Yet bringing that kind of freedom to a criminal world would break down the fourth wall as nothing ever had before.
Sam knew this sort of DIY freedom was revolutionary for the medium. "The problem with other games is that when you hit a point that's frustrating, you can't get past it," he once said, but in Race 'n' Chase, "when you hit a point that's tough, just go do something else. That's fucking great!" Even the audio became freer. If players could drive anywhere in the cities, why not have different radio stations in their cars, too? Such as country music when you steal a truck. Late into the night, the musicians stayed up recording the different radio tracks.
Jones had his worries about creating such an open-ended game world. Games were all about having an object, a purpose, a goal--shoot the aliens, get the high score. How would gamers respond to something as unrestricted as this? He hatched an idea of how to give them some focus: setting a goal of accumulating 1 million points. When he looked at Race 'n' Chase, the cars zipping around from here to there, he thought of a different model for the game: pinball. "Pinball, for me, is the ultimate," he said. "You have two buttons, and that's it. It's just superb for teaching players about getting feedback and hooking players for hours."
Not everyone dug the increasingly untamed direction of the game, though. One programmer stubbornly insisted on continuing to play the game as a simulation--and others walked by to find him dutifully stopping at the traffic lights in the game.
Race 'n' Chase could be similar, encouraging players to rack up as many points as possible--even by running people over. Not everyone dug the increasingly untamed direction of the game, though. One programmer stubbornly insisted on continuing to play the game as a simulation--and others walked by to find him dutifully stopping at the traffic lights in the game. Yet they realized that was the beauty of what they had created. You had the freedom to do anything, good or bad.
The only limitation was your "wanted" level. If you caused enough mayhem, a cop's face would appear on a meter at the top of the screen. Police cars would give chase if they spotted you. Commit more egregious crimes, and your wanted level increased. Now an in-game APB was put out on you. At wanted level three, police would begin to set up roadblocks. If you got busted, you got carted off to jail, and your weapons were confiscated. Yet to keep all of this from happening too frequently and ruining the game, Baglow suggested that there be Respray Shops, where you could pull in the car and get a new coat of paint.
Their living, breathing world teemed with life. DMA programmers would sit at their PCs and pull back the camera on the game, just watching cars drive on and off the screen. "The good thing about [the game]," said one coder at DMA, "is that you don't have to go down a predetermined path. And there's nothing as much fun as spinning a car over your friend's head six times."
They weren't only running over one another, however. Baglow, DMA's writer and PR guy, had an idea of other people they could mow down in the game. The inspiration came from his own real-life travels. Whenever he passed through London airport, he always got hassled by Hare Krishnas, urging him to be happy. "Gouranga!" they'd say, a Sanskrit expression of good fortune. Baglow hated it. Then a lightbulb went off over his head.
Back at BMG, a new build of the game arrived. King slipped it into his PC and began to play. As he tore down the road, he could see a line of small orange-robed figures moving down the street. The closer he came, the louder he could hear them chanting and drumming. Holding down his forward arrow, he careened toward them, plowing down each one as a point score floated up above them. As he smashed the last one, a bonus word flashed onscreen: "Gouranga!"
"Dude!" King exclaimed, "I'm running over Hare Krishnas!" The BMG crew marveled at this wicked weird world the gang in Scotland had created. Race 'n' Chase had come a long way from the geeky simulation that DMA had submitted a year before. It was time to give it a new name, something that captured its outlaw spirit: Grand Theft Auto.