Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Level Design Q&A

What's it like to create a metropolis like Liberty City or Vice City? Rockstar art director Aaron Garbut fills us in on the details.


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Aside from the ability to cause random acts of violence, one of Grand Theft Auto III's most appealing features was the living, breathing metropolis of Liberty City. It wasn't exactly vibrant, but the grimy streets of Liberty City were certainly teeming with life. If you stood on a corner for a minute, you'd notice taxis zipping by, ambulances rushing to the hospital, fire trucks racing toward a nearby blaze, people getting mugged, and delivery trucks making their daily stops. With the forthcoming release of Vice City, the designers at Rockstar North are upping the ante by making the gameworld seem even much more realistic. Aaron Garbut, the company's art director, indulges us with the details.

GameSpot: Is Vice City broken up into multiple sections like the cities in the previous games?

Vice City will be twice as large as Liberty City from GTAIII.
Vice City will be twice as large as Liberty City from GTAIII.

Aaron Garbut: The play area in Vice City is almost twice as big as Liberty City, at over 4.25 million square meters. We've packed it a lot more densely with huge amounts of detail and variety. The map is spread over the mainland, three smaller islands, and the large island of Ocean Beach. We based the map quite closely on the real Miami, but as always didn't stick so close to the real world that gameplay suffered. When we design the levels we build things for fun. If that means we move roads about, change the height of land, or alter the landscape completely, then we do it. There's nothing worse in a game than sacrificing gameplay for realism. If the game mechanics and gameworld are consistent, then they don't have to be realistic. Generally speaking, real cities are not designed for tearing around at 150 miles an hour, and they are very, very rarely built to squeeze as many ramps and stunts into as tight an area as possible.

GS: Did you do any on-location studies of any areas to help with the design of Vice City? If so, where did you go, and how helpful was it?

While many parts of Vice City are clean and upscale, others are distinctly run-down.
While many parts of Vice City are clean and upscale, others are distinctly run-down.

AG: After the near-death experience that was the development of Grand Theft Auto III, the entire team flew out to Miami to recover and soak in the atmosphere of the area. While the rest of the team sunbathed or propped up the News Bar, the ever-industrious art team headed out onto the baking hot Miami streets armed with digital cameras. We split up and covered every area we were interested in using for Vice City. The animation team armed with digital camcorders spent time examining exactly how women in bikinis and roller skates moved, and the city modelers braved both the seediest, scariest parts of Miami and got kicked out of all the best places. By the time we returned to sunny Scotland, we'd amassed countless hours of video and close to 10,000 digital photos. When scouting locations, we tried to get a cross-section of shots--a good few were wide angle to remind us how the place fit together, and the rest were details to aid in modeling and texture usage. The guys in the New York office also sorted out some professional location scouts from the film industry for us who provided us with some really excellent locations for any areas we hadn't managed to get enough detail on. I can't imagine capturing the feel of a city without all this resource material, never mind actually spending time in the place. Sending the entire team rather than a few leads allows everyone to understand what it is they are trying to make. We couldn't have done it any other way.

GS: How many different types of buildings will there be?

AG: Every building is entirely individual, each with far, far more detail than in Grand Theft Auto III. There are 60 or so interiors. Some, like the mall, have additional interiors within them, so I suppose you could say even our interiors have interiors. The entire city is so much more accessible than in Grand Theft Auto III. The buildings are generally lower, so there are far more rooftops to explore. There are far more back alleys, jumps, and hidden areas. And generally speaking, the areas are far more distinct but fit together more cohesively than Liberty City did. I think you'll be hard-pressed to find much repetition in the game.

Breaking and Entering

GS: Will you be able to go inside buildings? If so, how will that affect the gameplay? Will you be able to enter any building, or will only select interiors be available? Will there be any load time associated with entering buildings?

It wouldn't be a Miami-inspired city without tiki bars.
It wouldn't be a Miami-inspired city without tiki bars.

AG: I'm sure the interiors are probably one of the most anticipated new features. It's an addition we wanted to make from the outset. Like with everything else in Grand Theft Auto III or Vice City, we're too stupid to do things on a small scale. There are an awful lot of interiors of varying levels of complexity. These provide huge possibilities for gameplay. There are the obvious firefights (nothing quite like ducking down behind the railing of a moving escalator and picking off the enemy as you're moved to the top), but there are also quite a few hidden possibilities you can discover for yourself.

Obviously you can't enter every interior--apart from anything else, that would be boring. We picked locations that we think you'd like to see the inside of or are tied into the main plot. If you really, really want inside one of the buildings, chances are we've made an interior for it.

Some are small shops, like 7-11s, drug stores, jewelers, fast-food stores, and so on. Others are really quite complex multilevel areas. One of the buildings, for instance, is probably around the size of Chinatown and the red-light district from Liberty City combined, and spread over several levels. We don't want the interiors to feel separate from the rest of the map, so they are really there, built on location--you can peer out of the windows at passing cars or watch the sunset from your hotel room. There's no discernable loading time at all; they are part of the world.

You'll get to other areas of town by crossing these Florida Keys-style bridges.
You'll get to other areas of town by crossing these Florida Keys-style bridges.

GS: How much of a challenge was it to development to create a city like Vice City?

AG: Designing and modeling a game environment with the scale, detail, and complexity of Vice City is ridiculously stupid. That's why other, more sensible companies avoid it. There are similar games around that build levels of similar size, but play them and you'll quickly realize they're just extensions of the racing game format--simply big tracks with a few extra routes to take. The buildings are simple facades; they keep you on the roads and away from areas where the designers don't want you to go. This goes against everything Grand Theft Auto is about. We want freedom to exist in every facet of play. This posed a problem: We build a city detailed down to piles of rubbish blown against the steps or cigars smoking in ashtrays in cafés by the side of the road, and yet we want the players to have complete freedom. They should be able to buy some food in the café, enter alleyways to find fire escapes, get on the roof in a motorbike, have access to stairs, jump from roof to roof shooting at an enemy, have the chance to commandeer a helicopter from a helipad and fly over all this stuff gaining altitude until they can see kilometers into the distance. It's basically your worst-case scenario. Games artists like to cheat--it's how we cut down time and get to go home to see our girlfriends. Most games will only draw what needs to be drawn, so there will be nothing on the roofs of the building you're shooting past, or those buildings in the distance will hide the fact that nothing has been drawn around the corner. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see our girlfriends. We drew everything and made it work from every conceivable distance or height, allowed you go on top of buildings, go inside them, and even in some cases blow them up.

GS: We can't wait to try it ourselves. Thanks, Aaron.

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