Success on Grand scale for game stars
IN A nondescript building near the top of Edinburgh's Leith Walk, a small band of young men of unremarkable appearance have spent the past four years in pursuit of perfection.
Ensconced in their offices, they have worked night and day to create an alternative reality. Millions around the world have held their breath; millions more have posited theories as to the work going on behind closed doors. Now, the world they have created is ready to usher in its inhabitants.
In what is being hailed as the most significant release in video-game history, the latest installment in the contentious Grand Theft Auto series goes on sale today.
It is a franchise which already enjoys an impressive history, with sales of more than 66 million. The new game, however, is set to break all records.
It is estimated that Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA IV) – which is available on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 – will generate sales of 200 million worldwide in its first week, a scale comparable with even the most-hyped Hollywood blockbuster.
In terms of its marketing power and commercial acumen, GTA IV is a cultural phenomenon, but still, the series still has naysayers up in arms at its premise.
At first appearances, the plot of GTA IV, like its predecessors, is a rags to riches story. Players take control of Niko Bellic, an illegal eastern European immigrant who arrives in Liberty City – a pastiche of New York – only to become sucked into its criminal underworld, embroiled with gangs, shooting police, and using prostitutes.
With such content, the game can only be purchased by over-18s, but the GTA series continues to be the bugbear of politicians, none more notable than the Democrat presidential nomination hopeful Hillary Clinton, who described the titles as a "major threat" to morality.
It is a long-running argument which the latest game will doubtless perpetuate, but the Scot responsible for the title believes the medium of gaming suffers unfairly.
In his first interview with the mainstream media, Leslie Benzies, the president of the Scottish developer of the game, Rockstar North, made clear that cultural barriers often saw gaming misrepresented.
"There is a big fear factor here. It's (like] the coming of the railways, it's Elvis shaking his hips, it's cars going over 25 miles per hour and making people explode," he said. "We've had such a beating over the past three years, by the US government, the British government, the Daily Mail. 'You kill prostitutes' – that's usually the objection. I ask if they've ever played the game. Invariably they haven't."
For all the violence it portrays, if any game can help realign such perceived preconceptions, it is GTA IV. Far from a solitary pursuit, millions are expected to play the game online versus one another in the days ahead.
Some of its features, meanwhile, show how willing other media are to embrace gaming – Ricky Gervais, the star of The Office, features in-game as a fully rendered version of himself, delivering stand-up routines in comedy clubs. Moreover, music featured in the in-game radio stations is available to buy as a download. The latter option is only available in the US at present, but there are talks to replicate it in the UK.
Such is the demand for the title, several specialist games retailers were opening their doors at midnight last night to cater for demand, and 24-hour supermarkets were selling the game.
FROM HUMBLE SCOTTISH ORIGINS TO THE STREETS OF THE BIG APPLE
THOUGH its latest incarnation is a perfect realisation of New York, the genesis of the Grand Theft Auto series can be traced to the east of Scotland.
The idea for the series came from Dave Jones, whose company, DMA Design, was later to become Rockstar North. When he thought of the idea, his firm was located in a flat above a clothes shop in the city's Nethergate.
Originally, the game was to be called Race 'N' Chase, and was to feature the player as a policeman on the hunt for criminals. A swift rethink later, and Grand Theft Auto arrived to critical acclaim and huge sales. Later, Jones decided to merge DMA Design with Gremlin Interactive, a Sheffield games firm. His programming team still retained majority control over the future of the brand, and Jones continued to work on the second instalment of the game, released two years later. However, the intellectual property rights for Grand Theft Auto were sold to Take-Two, a New York-based games publisher.
Jones has since left the company, but is now CEO of Realtime Worlds, a Dundee-based firm which has enjoyed success with recent games such as Crackdown.
The president of Rockstar North is also a Scot. Leslie Benzies, a 37-year-old father of one, was a keen gamer in his youth, and believes the moral outrage against the series is misplaced. "We're very careful about who we market the game at and what is in the game," he said.
Hotbed of talent
IT IS the best Wii country in the world. The success of the Grand Theft Auto series and Rockstar North, its Edinburgh-based developer, is the tip of the iceberg in the Scottish games industry, which is playing an increasingly important role in the economy.
The sector, mainly set in the east coast, has about 350 firms based in and around Dundee, with a combined annual revenue of about 185 million. The University of Abertay, where Dave Jones is a visiting lecturer, is considered one of the best places in the world to learn how to design and programme games. It launched its course in computer gaming technology in 1997, and many of the industry's main players studied there.
Developers are attracting record investment, as publishers see Scotland as a hotbed of talent. This month, Realtime Worlds, a new firm created by Mr Jones, secured 25 million from a Maverick Capital, a US investment fund.
The company, which has a turnover of around 5 million, will use the money to develop its new action game, All Points Bulletin.
So successful is the sector, it is anticipated the games industry in Scotland will create nearly 2,000 jobs over the next three years.
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