To call the Grand Theft Auto series “successful” is like saying GTA IV is underappreciated: obvious and accurate. Rockstar’s mammoth franchise has sold an obscene number of copies, generated more cash than roughly 10 Scrooge McDuck’s, and invited just as much controversy. The industry’s premier sandbox has become a major fixture in gaming and popular culture–Dave Chappelle once did an entire TV skit based on the series, for goodness sake.
But there were many instances when the celebrated series took on different forms during its road of development. Some early concepts were profound and nearly became permanent. Others were seemingly less significant yet would have produced lasting ripple effects. Would the GTA have such a hit if these tweaks altered it from what we know today? Maybe the changes could have somehow made it even more popular. I’ll let you be that. Let’s take a look at the myriad of ways Grand Theft Auto could have never (ever) been the same.
15. Obey The Law, Or Else
Would you believe a series that encourages breaking every law imaginable began life as almost the complete opposite? Grand Theft Auto’s first seeds were planted in project called Race ‘n’ Chase. Set in the top-down streets that would eventually become a recurring staple, DMA Design’s rough prototype was a classic cops and robbers-style game. The tech was impressive, but there was only one problem: nearly all of the designers preferred to play like a criminal.
As cops, they were forced to adhere to traffic laws and were prohibited from harming pedestrians. Basically, it was boring. Police were also more challenging to play, since you couldn’t just drive on the opposite side to escape traffic jams, for example. After deciding to lean more heavily into the outlaw aspect, Grand Theft Auto was born. Thank goodness, because anyone who’s tried to obey traffic laws in sandbox games knows it’s even less fun than being stuck in real traffic.
14. Living In A Cartoon World
You can describe the PS2-era GTA entries as many things, but I doubt “beautiful” is among the first adjectives to arise. The series’ old “blocky” look became iconic in its own way, but the first 3D entry, GTA III, initially sported a slightly more “cartoonish” appearance.
Behold the in-development screenshot above for your scrutinizing pleasure. While the difference isn’t quite night and day, Claude’s model appears noticeably simpler and vehicles have rounder edges. That bus in particular looks like someone stuck wheels on a log of chewing gum. The pedestrians also seemed to have wonkier proportions, like the dude in green with the comically tiny head and tree trunk-like legs. Maybe GTA III’s violence wouldn’t have invited as much controversy if you were instead blowing up the formerly Fisher Price-esque vehicles.
13. A Multiplayer Romp
Grand Theft Auto Online has been a runaway success for Rockstar, arguably eclipsing the popularity of Grand Theft Auto V proper. But we almost got an earlier taste of multiplayer in 2001. According to Rockstar, multiplayer for GTA III was a proposition the team tinkered around with but never took to any meaningful state. Deciding the mode ultimately wouldn’t be up to snuff, the team decided to concentrate their efforts towards developing Vice City instead. GTA III on its own was a revelatory experience; I can’t fathom how much further out minds would blown if Rockstar managed to cram additional players into Liberty City.
12. Coming To A GameCube Near You
A few GTA games have appeared on Nintendo handhelds, most notably Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for DS. That’s surprising in itself, given the big N’s traditional adversity to mature-rated games. But if things had turned out differently, Nintendo faithful could have possibly been blessed with the home console experience.
An enhanced port of first Grand Theft Auto was reportedly in development for the Nintendo 64. However, it got canned before anyone got a visual confirmation. Depending on who you believe, Vice City was strongly rumored make a GameCube appearance but that fell through, allegedly because of the game’s violence. I have a tough time buying that explanation; what the heck else would Nintendo be expecting? Still, given the PlayStation was the primary home for GTA for much of its life, it would have been bonkers to cruise the streets as Tommy Vercetti holding a GameCube controller.
11. Tokyo Drifted Away From Us
The only GTA titles set outside of the U.S. were the two London expansions for the first game. Last year, a source close to Rockstar revealed that somewhere in the midst of working on GTA III and Vice City, Rockstar employees took a trip to Japan. The purpose? Research for a potential game set in Tokyo. The studio even went as far as filing a trademark for GTA: Toyko in 2003.
As mouthwatering as that idea sounds, designing a game around Tokyo’s road system apparently became a big issue. The source also stated the challenge in creating new brands and vehicles from scratch fueled the decision to ultimately keep the series entrenched in the U.S. of A. If GTA: Tokyo saw the light of day, it potentially could have led to other non-American settings and given the series some international flair.
10. Watch Out For The Kids!
Grand Theft Auto’s dense worlds contain nearly everything you would imagine in a real-world city except for one glaring omission: kids. I can understand why; if the franchise attracted ire before, I think people would literally burn Rockstar to the ground if players could wreak havoc with a sidewalk full of tykes.
DMA Design reportedly flirted with the idea during GTA 1’s development but decided against it. No one knows the reason for this, but given the obvious moral ramifications, I’m sure we can take a pretty good guess. The same rumor applies to GTA III, with files suggesting the inclusion of children supposedly found within the game’s code. Rockstar, however, has flat out denied this particular claim. Still, the series would have been a whole lot darker if (and tougher to enjoy) if young pedestrians could get caught in player’s crossfire.
9. These Old Logos Were… Definitely Logos
Logos are a critical yet somewhat overlooked element of marketing. It’s the first impression customers have with your product, so nailing a good one is vital. Grand Theft Auto’s current title logo is clean, stylish, and iconic. It took a few revisions to get it just right, though.
The concept in the upper left is pretty much like the GTA 2 logo only with a 3 because, well, it’s for the third game. Points for logic. The upper right showcases a stencil lettering that, frankly, looks atrocious. But hey, it could have been worse, maybe. The bottom logo actually isn’t half bad; a solid B+ for sure. Would the series trajectory be any different if Rockstar decided on one of these instead? Eh. If nothing else, they’d clash horribly with the established box art design.
8. The Switch-A-Roo That Never Was
Grand Theft Auto V concluded by presenting players with something of a Sophie’s Choice. As Franklin, he must choose whether to kill Michael, Trevor, or “Option C”: the canon, “everyone survives and lives happily ever after”, ending. However, some curious hackers dove into the game’s files and found evidence heavily suggesting Rockstar may have planned to have Franklin bite the dust if players chose Option C.
Moreover, they would then assume the role of Franklin’s BFF Lamar for the rest of their time with the game. The proof? A ton of discarded dialogue and animations for Lamar left buried and forgotten. It wouldn’t be the first time the studio pulled such a stunt (If you played a certain Rockstar masterpiece you know what I’m referencing). Had Rockstar gone through with this bombshell, it would have changed the way people view GTA V’s story quite a bit–for better or worse.
7. First-Person Way Back When
Playing GTA in first-person was a pipe dream I’m not sure many people asked for until Rockstar made it a reality anyway in GTA V. Before that, the viewpoint was restricted to weapon aiming and a free look option. But some files recovered from the depths of GTA III and Vice City suggested a full-fledged first-person setting may have been in the works at some point.
It wasn’t anything impressive since the work never saw completion. Still, it’s cool to think Rockstar had the idea in mind a decade earlier. Crafty fans have since implemented their own working first-person mods into GTA III.
6. San Andreas Was Almost For Grown-Ups Only
Hot Coffee. If you were plugged into the game industry in 2005, you couldn’t escape those two words. That year, someone dug into the nitty gritty of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ code and unearthed an abandoned mini-game called Hot Coffee. It allowed the player to actively participate in CJ’s, uh, “fun time” with the ladies he courted. Normally, the game left that stuff to the imagination; Hot Coffee put it front and center. When news broke of its existence, it swelled a hurricane of controversy.
Lawmakers, angry parents, and more demanded that, in light of this discovery, the game should have shipped with the dreaded “Adult Only” rating. As the name suggest, games slapped with the ultra-rare rating can only be sold to customers 18 and up. Many stores refuse to carry such titles, adversely affecting sales. The ESRB agreed with the angry mob, and, for a time, San Andreas temporarily bore the label. Rockstar halted copies containing the mini-game and shipped new discs where it had been purged. But just imagine where the series reputation would be had Rockstar said “screw it” and featured Hot Coffee in the game from the get-go.
5. Very Short And Not So Sweet
Grand Theft Auto’s missions tend to be fairly involved affairs and have only expanded in scope as the series progressed. V’s heists, for example, were lengthy, multi-part escapades with seemingly a zillion moving parts. But when the first game was coming together, the early blueprint for missions were all about brevity.
Early designers have stated the prototype for GTA 1 featured bite-sized missions, taking about five minutes to get through. Further, players selected them from a mission select screen, which is quite the contrast from visiting an NPC. The evolution to the current format came during a brainstorming session where someone pitched the idea of multiple missions within a single, prolonged level. That kernel blew up into the open format that defines the series today; a good thing, as the designers have since admitted the smaller missions would have caused Grand Theft Auto to “flop”.
4. It Almost Got Way Too Hot To Handle
Aborted missions are common part of development for this series. I’ve included this one because it was set to appear in the first game, and thus could have helped shaped the tone going forward. DMA designers discussing the development of GTA once let fly that there was once a proposed mission where the player burned a church to the ground. Yeeaaah.
I probably shouldn’t have to explain why they decided this wouldn’t fly, but it’s the same answer to the question of kids: people would absolutely flip out. At least, more so than they normally do over over these games. And given that this was slated for the debut title, the studio wouldn’t have the clout of popularity and money to help extinguish the flames. Grand Theft Auto as a series would have probably survived even if this mission made the cut, but starting out with a black eye that severe wouldn’t have done it any favors.
3. Box Art And 9/11
Contrary to popular belief, Rockstar states the September 11th terrorists attacks had an overall minor effect on Grand Theft Auto III’s gameplay. Among other small tweaks, certain assets had to be re-textured (ex: cop cars that less resembled NYPD vehicles) and an undisclosed mission got the ax. The most dramatic and visible change, surprisingly, applied to the game’s cover art.
As you can see in the image above, GTA III’s original cover resembled a classic movie poster. Unfortunately, the game released mere weeks after 9/11; American society’s heightened sensitivity to violence made the artwork’s exploding vehicles and bevy of guns seem a bit much to digest. Thus, Rockstar decided to soften up the cover for the western release (the European version retained the first design). The classic windowpane look–which Rockstar co-founder Sam Houser claims was created in a single night–became the preferred look by the team and the series standard.
2. Zombies Long Before The Undead Nightmare
Among the myriad of things DMA Design threw at the wall to see what stuck during Grand Theft Auto 1’s conception was a horror theme. To be more specific, zombies. In an interview with GamesRadar, designers who worked on GTA 1 discussed how the team had ideas for missions designed around the film The Omega Man (based on the novel, I Am Legend). However, the team couldn’t find a way to smoothly implement the idea into the established structure, so the zombie stuff was left on the cutting room floor.
Needless to say, the series would likely be a lot different If GTA 1 wound up leading with zombies. Would it have essentially been a 90s take on Dead Rising? Maybe it could still happen. After all, Rockstar managed to successfully shoehorn the undead into the comparatively straight-faced Red Dead Redemption so anything’s possible.
1. Failure To Launch
What’s the biggest possible way Grand Theft Auto could have turned out differently? How about that it nearly didn’t happen at all. DMA’s work on Race ‘n’ Chase was a wholly collaborative effort, with ideas spitballed and implemented in a haphazard fashion. Though it led to pivotal “aha!’ moments, the designers have since admitted they had little idea what they were doing from a planning standpoint. Brainstorming sessions became infamous for the heated (occasionally physical) debates between team members.
DMA’s publisher, BMG Interactive, took notice of the semi-chaotic development as well as missed milestones. That didn’t exactly inspire faith in the crude-looking project. In particular, Race ‘n’ Chase went against BMG’s desire for 3D games to compete with the cutting edge titles of the time, such as Tomb Raider. As such, Grand Theft Auto came under constant threat of being shuttered entirely. Of course, the game jumped every hurdle to release. But it’s crazy to imagine what the state of the industry would be if Grand Theft Auto’s engine never started.
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