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Grand Theft Auto V: Scottish game conquering world

Grand Theft Auto V: record sales in first 24 hours. Picture: AP

Grand Theft Auto V: record sales in first 24 hours. Picture: AP

  • by STEPHEN MCGINTY
 

IT WAS a bag of swag so big even the murderous villains who populate the game could only dream about it: Grand Theft Auto V has taken almost £500 million in the first 24 hours on sale, the biggest entertainment launch in history.

The latest instalment of the Scottish-produced video game took £498m worldwide when launched on Tuesday – that’s almost £6,000 a second – and is now expected to quickly reach £1 billion in sales.

The game, which features mafia bosses, prostitutes, Hollywood bosses and bank robbers, took five years and almost £170m to produce. It has already earned back the cost of development, the majority of which was done by Rockstar North in Edinburgh, and is set to become the most successful video game yet released.

Sales of the game have dwarfed in a single day the £300m in revenue which Grand Theft Auto’s fourth instalment generated in its first week nearly five years ago.

Yesterday, Strauss Zelnick, chairman and chief executive of Take-Two, the parent company of Rockstar Games, said: “All of us at Take-Two are thrilled with the initial response to Grand Theft Auto V. Once again, the team at Rockstar Games have outdone themselves, setting the entertainment industry’s new standard for creativity, innovation and excellence.

“Beginning at midnight on Monday, consumers around the world gathered in anticipation to be among the first to experience the evolution of this remarkable series.”

The key in the ignition of Grand Theft Auto was first turned in Dundee. In 1997, computer games company DMA Design developed a demo called Race ‘n’ Chase. DMA was founded by a former apprentice engineer at the Timex factory, Dave Jones, with his £3,000 redundancy package.

The programmer, Mike Dailly, had designed an elaborate three-dimensional city and fast cars were chosen as the sleekest means of exploring it – a fellow programmer’s suggestion of dinosaurs was rejected.

The company pitched the idea to BMG Interactive, a gaming division of a German music conglomerate, where Sam Houser, whose mother once played a gangster’s moll in Get Carter, made two key suggestions: change the name to Grand Theft Auto and do not let the player chose to be the good guy.

Mr Jones subsequently scrapped the option to play a policeman in hot pursuit. “It was no fun. It didn’t let your imagination run wild,” he said.

Mr Houser handed Jones a publishing contract for £3.4m to develop the game. Together, Mr Houser and DMA embraced the idea of the gamer as anti-hero and instead of avoiding pedestrians, awarded points for running them down.

As Mr Jones said: “The analogy we used to use was that the player was Pacman. The ghosts were the police and the little dots that Pacman used to run around and munch were the pedestrians.”

Before the game’s release, parent company BMG Interactive sought advice on how to minimise negative publicity on account of the games antisocial violence. The publicist Max Clifford advised them to embrace the scandal as a means of generating publicity and attracting adult gamers.

Politicians and police were briefed on fictitious scenes and the Police Federation of England and Wales condemned it as “sick, deluded and beneath contempt” – and the resultant publicity ensured its immediate success.

Shortly afterwards, BMG sold off its gaming division so Houser founded Rockstar Games, took his brother Dan on board and together commissioned a sequel.

While the Houser brothers moved to New York and embraced the lifestyle of rap stars, the games were designed and coded in Scotland by DMA, which eventually became Rockstar North in 2002 and moved from Dundee to Edinburgh. The staff were encouraged to wear blue velvet Rockstar tracksuits and jokingly brandished replica rifles and shotguns – weapons purchased to allow the art department to render faultless in-game replicas.

Mr Jones left the company in 1999 and over the past 15 years Leslie Benzies, an Aberdonian who got his first computer, a Dragon 32, at age 11, has overseen the last three Grand Theft Autos. He is now president of Rockstar North.

From a cavernous fourth-floor office, with views of Arthur’s Seat, in which sits an Apple iMac, whiteboards filled with vehicle printouts and scented candles, Benzies oversees a Scottish staff of several hundred, as well as hundreds more in offices in London and America.

Together with the Houser brothers, he has pioneered the increasingly explicit and controversial content of the games such as permitting characters to have sex and kill prostitutes.

Controversy has been good for business, with sales of Grand Theft Auto games topping 150 million worldwide and earning Sam Houser a spot on the cover of Time magazine, where he was praised for his ability to “weave tapestries of modern times as detailed as those of Balzac or Dickens”.

Like Dickens, the creators of Grand Theft Auto seek inspiration from the real world. The reason Grand Theft Auto V is so heavily based on accumulating money, more than any of the previous games, was in reaction to the financial collapse of 2008, when the team first began developing the game and watched as RBS almost collapsed.

Today a number of the staff, such as Mr Benzies, are multi-millionaires with homes in the city’s most affluent areas.

The pioneering stylistic look of the games is largely down to Aaron Garbut, a graduate of the University of Dundee, who, as the company’s art director, has led dozens of Scots staff on tours of American cities over the years, most recently Los Angeles.

As he explained about Grand Theft Auto’s distinctive style: “Ours is the look Walt Disney might have gone for if he was a psychotic substance abuser with authority issues.”

In a recent interview, he explained the game’s new look: “Rockstar North is in Edinburgh in Scotland. It’s a lovely place in a lovely country but it’s typically quite rainy.

“I’ve been to California a lot now over the past ten years or so. The first thing that stuck with me is the sun – that’s an obvious one, especially when you live in the rain – but it’s not just in the sky. It feels like everything is sunny. The buildings, the people, the cars, the architecture, even the smog, it all centres around the sunshine. There’s poverty, violence, and a real underside to the city, but it’s the sun that gets you first … I’ve effectively lived more in the game world than I have in Edinburgh over the past several years as we’ve filled it out.”

Yesterday, the staff in Edinburgh were celebrating their latest success while drawing up plans for Grand Theft Auto VI.

As David Kushner, author of Jacked: The Unauthorised Behind the Scenes Story of Grand Theft Auto, said: “One of its great and largely unappreciated ironies is that a bunch of Scots created the most influential simulation of America ever made.”

The industry that dares to be bigger than Hollywood

The success of Grand Theft Auto V has once again shone the spotlight on the success of the computer games industry and illustrated that it has the financial muscle to take on and surpass Hollywood.

Just as film studios nurture franchises such as Star Wars, Star Trek and superhero movies, so the major games companies put their success and financial future behind games that can produce sequel after sequel.

Last year, one of the most successful computer games was Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 which earned $1 billion two days faster than Avatar, the three-dimensional cinema blockbuster released in 2009. Since the first game was released in 2003, the Call of Duty franchise’s total sales were said to exceed the worldwide box office receipts for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, according to Activision, the company behind the games.

What Call of Duty does on Earth, Halo does in the coldness of space with the shoot-em-up, first released in 2001 also a regular bestseller. The series, which centres around an interstellar war between mankind and a religious alliance of aliens known as the Covenant, has sold more than 50 million copies world-wide and grossed in excess of £1.8bn.

In a recent interview, Dan Houser said: “Of course we’re aware of Call of Duty – we’re not living under a rock … I’ve never understood why anyone would want to denigrate someone else’s work. Anyone who can make one of these games deserves a pat on the back – or to be locked up. It’s not the Olympics where only one person wins a gold medal. We’re not in direct competition with Call of Duty or with anyone. Our job is to make something we’re proud of and to return the Take-Two investors’ money to them – those are the only two things we have to worry about. To hopefully sell a lot of copies of a game, doing something we’re proud of – that’s what we focus on.”

Guns and prostitutes? That’s a slur on Hawick

The Scottish designers of Grand Theft Auto V have hidden a number of references to Scotland in the game which is set in the fictional city of Los Santos, modelled on Los Angeles.

In a nod to the debacle over the new trams in Edinburgh, the game features trams with the same distinctive white livery and red stripes as those that will, eventually, be trundling through the capital.

A saltire is seen flying over Vespucci Beach, the game version of LA’s Venice Beach and a boat is called Dignity, after the Deacon Blue song.

“The games have always been loaded with little nods to Scotland,” said a spokesman for Rockstar Games. “We don’t like to say how many as we like players to discover them for themselves.”

In the game one violent neighbourhood regularly plagued by gun battles and prostitution has been given the name of Hawick, which may surprise the inhabitants of the Borders town. In fact, they have been decidedly unimpressed with this recent “twinning”, with David Paterson, a councillor, complaining that he was “absolutely disgusted” as Hawick was “a lovely place” with “a lot of good things happening”.

He felt that the decision to name a violent, lawless ghetto after the Borders town was not harmless fun: “It’s going to destroy the reputation of the town.” While John Lamont, the local MSP, said he didn’t know why Rockstar North had decided to “pick on Hawick” but “they clearly do not know Hawick well.”

In a previous GTA game, San Andreas, the names of the horses in the local betting shops were based around Glaswegian jokes.

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