Imagine a “Grand Theft Auto” game where, instead of causing mayhem, you’re the one stopping it. Every traffic light must be obeyed, and driving over pedestrians is strictly forbidden.
Before “Grand Theft Auto” became the instantly recognisable blockbuster that it is today, it was “Race ‘n’ Chase”: A cops and robbers game that felt more simulation than sandbox.
“There was just one problem: the game kind of sucked,” journalist David Kushner writes in his 2012 book “Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto.”
Beyond over-the-top stereotypes and pop culture parody, the “Grand Theft Auto” series is best known for being a sandbox experience: go anywhere and do whatever you want. Players delight in doing anything they wish. It’s a far cry from the original concept.
“Cops and robbers is a natural rule set that everybody understands,” the game’s creative lead David Jones said in the book. “They know how to drive a car. They know what a gun does.”
What Jones and his team missed at first was that the concept wasn’t nearly as fun as its equal — and opposite — concept: playing as the villain, and receiving rewards for being the bad guy.
“This is a f—ing simulation,” senior producer Gary Penn complained of the early versions of “Race ‘n’ Chase” said in the book. Penn was working at BMG Interactive, the game’s publisher, at the time. The game’s developer, Scotland-based studio DMA Design, quickly caught on with Penn’s assessment.
As Kushner writes in “Jacked”:
By casting the player as the cop, they realised, 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 footpath or through traffic lights, a persnickety programmer reminded him that the stoplights 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 roadblock: there was just no way to have a fast and furious arcade-style game while playing by the rules.
Rather than trying to figure out a way to work within those rules, DMA’s development team flipped the concept: The player is the anti-hero, the bad guy, and his objectives are bad guy objectives. Bank robberies, assassinations — and yes, carjacking — became mission objectives.
As the year’s progressed and the series grew into what it is today, those early concepts focused into the sprawling sandbox world most recently depicted in “Grand Theft Auto 5.”
For even more on the origins of “Grand Theft Auto,” there’s a great video from The Guardian right here: