How Rockstar keeps it real with Grand Theft Auto V

An image from Grand Theft Auto V, due for release in March.
An image from Grand Theft Auto V, due for release in March.
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THEY consulted off-duty police officers to get an authentic feel of the neighbourhoods. They pored over census data to make sure there was the right number of people in the area and with the right mix of gender, age and race.

They even took more than a quarter of million photographs and thousands of hours of video so that every scene is as real as possible.

As a design classic, the games have been compared to the Mini and red telephone boxes

As a design classic, the games have been compared to the Mini and red telephone boxes

Welcome to the world of Grand Theft Auto V, the latest version of the hit computer game that is destined to become the biggest seller of its type in 2013.

Rockstar North, the Scottish developer behind the eagerly anticipated next instalment of the series, has now given a glimpse of the forensic detail involved, revealing how its team travelled from Edinburgh to southern California to meet policemen, architectural historians and residents to do their vision justice.

The team at Rockstar North in the capital’s Greenside Row examined car ownership statistics to ensure the people and vehicles which populate Grand Theft Auto V are as close to reality is possible. Significantly larger in scale and ambition than any of its previous games, the studio left no stone unturned in its efforts to bring southern California to life.

Dan Houser, vice president of creative, said: “We go to quite extreme lengths to make sure we capture the right flavour of each area. We’ve always done a good amount of research, bringing a large chunk of the team over to photograph the locations, but since [GTA] IV this has really moved up a gear.

An image from Rockstar's new game Grand Theft Auto V, due for release in March.

An image from Rockstar's new game Grand Theft Auto V, due for release in March.

“We took over a quarter of a million photos this time and filmed many hours of video. We pored over the various online mapping and street view tools. Our research team created dozens of DVDs filled with information, documentaries, news stories, video clips, etcetera.

“Census information informed the population control in the game for each area. We looked at information on car sales and ownership in California to guide our vehicle list. Basically, any information we could get our hands on has been used in some way.”

He explained: “Our research team did a fantastic job hooking us up with the right people to show us around. From architectural historians and location scouts, to off-duty cops and DJ Pooh [a well-known rapper and record producer]. We were taken to the perfect places, educated, and kept safe.”

Aaron Garbut, the series art director and a University of Dundee graduate, added: “It’s a very structured affair and we came back with hundreds of thousands of extremely hi-res GPS-stamped images.”

Featuring three protagonists which can be controlled by players, the game’s action centres around the fictional city of Los Santos in San Andreas, based on Los Angeles. But Houser insisted that his team is not simply producing a slavish copy.

He said: “All this stuff just works as a guide, we aren’t just trying to copy or emulate the real place.

“We’re using it as a basis to push and pull into something vibrant and distinct. That’s easier to do when it’s based on the solidity of reality though.”

David Kushner, the author of Jacked: The Outlaw History of Grand Theft Auto, said: “The team at Rockstar take their research extremely seriously. People love the incredible level of detail they create – worlds based on Miami, New York, or Los Angeles, which offer real immersion. That’s what distinguishes them from other ­developers.

“One of the ironies of these games, which show off iconic American culture, is that they come from the minds of guys from Scotland. To some degree, the games are the ultimate love letter to the US from people who grew up watching classic films and listening to hip hop.”

The first GTA was launched in 1997 and the series has been a major success, both critically and financially. By the end of 2011, more than 114 million copies had been sold globally. Grand Theft Auto IV recorded 609,000 copies sold in the UK alone on its first day of release. In its first week, GTA IV sold approximately six million copies worldwide and grossed more than $500 million (£311m) and went on to sell another 19 million. Many are expecting Grand Theft Auto V, due to be released in March, to sell even more.

In 2006, Grand Theft Auto was voted one of Britain’s top ten designs among Concorde, red telephone boxes, catseyes, the underground, the Mini and the internet.

Industry analyst Jesse Divnich­ said he expects GTA V to be the number one selling game of the year.

“Don’t get me wrong, Call of Duty will undoubtedly be huge, as it is every year and it may even grow, but if I had to call what will be a photo finish race, I will go with GTA V.”

Twitter: @MartynMcL