Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of Grand Theft Auto 1’s release, and it turns out that not everyone was convinced the series had a future ahead of it back in 1997. In fact, GTA was the project voted “most likely not to succeed” by devs at DMA Design (the studio now known as Rockstar North). It now makes half a billion dollars a year from GTA Online (opens in new tab) alone. I guess hindsight is 20/20.
The story comes from a BBC interview (opens in new tab) with Colin Macdonald, a former DMA dev who joined the company a few months before it shipped GTA 1. Apparently, the mood around the studio was pretty sombre, at least insofar as GTA was concerned. Macdonald said that, “mid-development, the direction of the game wasn’t clear. It was also quite buggy—you couldn’t play it for more than a couple of minutes without it crashing”—which GTA Online players might suggest hasn’t changed much—and that “at grassroots level there wasn’t a lot of confidence in [GTA 1]”.
Macdonald said that the mood around the office had actually started to pick up around the time he joined, since GTA was almost done and the team was “actually quite happy because they had kind of got shot of it”.
In fairness to DMA, it’s not quite the case that the devs were ready to chuck GTA in the dustbin of history. Instead, they were looking forward to starting with a clean slate on GTA 2, avoiding the pitfalls and frustrations that had made the first game’s development such a dispiriting quagmire. Still, it’s probably fair to say that no one at DMA back then would have believed you if you’d told them what a gravity-warping, light-bending titan the GTA series would end up becoming.
These days, of course, we’re all still processing the fallout of the enormous GTA 6 leak (opens in new tab) that took place earlier this year, which revealed two playable characters, a Vice City setting, and entailed an FBI investigation and the arrest of a 17 year-old hacker (opens in new tab). Call me a pessimist, but I’m not sure a leak of GTA 1 materials 25 years ago would have entailed an international criminal investigation and mainstream news coverage. How times change.