'It's just about fun': Original Grand Theft Auto programmer shares inside look at how the first game was made

The first Grand Theft Auto game was released in 1997. Image: DMA Design / Take-Two InteractiveThe first Grand Theft Auto game was released in 1997. Image: DMA Design / Take-Two Interactive
The first Grand Theft Auto game was released in 1997. Image: DMA Design / Take-Two Interactive | DMA Design / Take-Two Interactive
Keith Hamilton was one of the programmers behind the first two Grand Theft Auto games. Here, he shares how GTA was made and his thoughts on the franchise's continued success.

Enthusiasts of the beloved Grand Theft Auto series will have imagined themselves behind the wheel of the series’ hot rods – cars modelled on the likes of the Aston Martin Vantage and the Lamborghini Diablo.

For Keith Hamilton, he can boast having some of those cars in his very own home office.

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The lead programmer of the first two Grand Theft Auto (GTA) games, Mr Hamilton is speaking to The Scotsman from the office, with bookshelves full of model cars proudly on display behind him.

“When you see the cars that you drive [in game], it's just like a top down view and rather than drawing it from scratch, they took cars and model cars and took a photo from above and then took it from there,” he explains. “So they're secretly behind me here, cars that actually appear in the game.”

Keith Hamilton was one of the lead programmers behind the original Grand Theft Auto game. Keith Hamilton was one of the lead programmers behind the original Grand Theft Auto game.
Keith Hamilton was one of the lead programmers behind the original Grand Theft Auto game. | Keith Hamilton/Pufferfish

The improvised creativity of the first GTA game feels distant from how the franchise now operates. Earlier this month the trailer for the sixth instalment in the series was released – hours ahead of its set announcement time due to leaks – racking up more than 93 million views in just 24 hours and breaking records on YouTube.

And though he helped create the original games in one of the best-selling video game franchises of all time, Hamilton seems just as excited about the release of Grand Theft Auto VI as many fans online. 

Now the head of software at Pufferfish, an Edinburgh-based technology company which creates interactive spheres, he said: “I'm really excited to play the game. I can't believe we have to wait until 2025.”

Keith Hamilton is now head of software at Edinburgh-based technology firm Pufferfish. Keith Hamilton is now head of software at Edinburgh-based technology firm Pufferfish.
Keith Hamilton is now head of software at Edinburgh-based technology firm Pufferfish. | Pufferfish

But unlike those who have been anxiously anticipating the game’s release for years, he has insight into what those behind the scenes at developer Rockstar Games must be feeling. 

“I sympathise. As soon as you put a date of any sort on it, you're putting pressure on the team. But they've been working on that for years already. They'll be sick of it, I imagine, and they'll want it finished.” 

GTA: Made in Dundee

The level of work which goes into titles published by Rockstar from their offices around the world, including from the Edinburgh-based Rockstar North, is another element far removed from the humble beginnings of the series. 

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The first Grand Theft Auto was created by DMA Design, a development studio in Dundee which, at the time, was known for platformers such as Lemmings. Hamilton joined the team in 1993 as the PC programmer of the third game in the series. 

“I just answered an ad looking for programmers… It was literally a little tiny advert in the classifieds in the newspaper. And I didn’t even know it was a games company. I didn't know who they were,” said Hamilton.  

“I was interviewed by a couple of people, and they took me on. Before that, I was working as writing software for credit card terminals.”

Lemmings was created by DMA Design.Lemmings was created by DMA Design.
Lemmings was created by DMA Design.

Chancing upon a career in games development, his first commercial release was New World of Lemmings in 1994. It marked a turning point in Hamilton's career and while he admits that he learned a lot from the experience, he is “not particularly proud of” the game. 

But there wasn’t much time for reflection at DMA. After one game was finished, staff were onto thinking about their next project. 

For Hamilton, this would eventually lead to Grand Theft Auto

He said: “I wanted to build a game that I would want to play. We didn't do focus testing. Didn't do comparisons of the market, nothing fancy like that. It was literally, we were young guys in our early twenties and we were the target market at the time, so we just built a game that we would want to play.” 

From Race 'n Chase to Grand Theft Auto

Working alongside Mike Dailly, the pair came up with an idea for a top down racing game which used an engine created by Dailly to create a 3D-effect cityscape. Originally known as Race ‘n Chase, early design documents describe elements such as the ability to steal cars.

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“It wasn't just a normal race round the loop. It was in a city. There was cops and there was robbers and there was some kind of interplay between them that we gradually worked out.

“But we then realised... there was pavements in the city, there was other things to do. It was also interesting if you were out the car sometimes and you'd be walking about. But then as soon as you had the walking about and also the cars, how do you explain that you suddenly get into a car and drive it? 

“Well that's theft. You're stealing it,” Hamilton laughs.

“[Grand Theft Auto] honestly just evolved from trying out things. I think it's the reverse to the way that games generally work these days, or at least [how] AAA games do.

“We just thought of fun things to do. And then eventually tried to explain why that was happening, in the world, by having some justification for it. So yeah, you jump in the cars, that was you stealing them. But, 'oh wait a minute, what happens to the driver of the car?', well, we'll just chuck 'em out on the ground.”

GTA was almost cancelled while being made

He describes the work environment at DMA Design as “chaotic and yet, somehow productive”. There was no set career structure or roles in the company, and although Hamilton was named as the lead programmer at one point he was also managing artists and testers on the project. 

“We were actually all very inexperienced. I mean, I had done one game before. Everyone else in the team was pretty much that level, one or zero games before. So just keeping them all together and going in the right direction, actually producing something useful… and building a game that actually worked, never mind for fun, was the basic challenge.”

Though he found it stressful at the time, Hamilton said: “Great bunch of people to work with, never been anything like that since.”

Getting GTA to market wasn’t without its issues though. 

“At the time almost every game was going 3D, that was the big thing. And it looked really quite dated. And then that caused a problem, because there was many times where it could have been cancelled.”

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It feels hard to believe now, knowing how popular the Grand Theft Auto franchise has become since the first game was released in 1997. 

'I thought that players would actually stop at red lights'

Describing some of the “crazy ideas” behind the game decisions, Hamilton acknowledges that they spent most of their time and effort on making the game “fun”. 

“It was all about fun and just letting the player do crazy things that they would like to do, but they can't do in real life. It's just all kind of cartoonish, just absolutely going for it.”

Despite this, he also was interested in creating the kind of open world that GTA is now recognised for. 

“I was actually really keen on the idea of building a functioning, living city,” he says.

“There is sense in it, in that the more of a functional city it is – as in, if you'd park up the car and just stand there things happen – you see cars go past, they're doing something, there's things going on, they stop at traffic lights, the traffic system all kind of works. 

Grand Theft Auto IV being played on a Playstation 3. (Picture: Cate Gillon/Getty Images)Grand Theft Auto IV being played on a Playstation 3. (Picture: Cate Gillon/Getty Images)
Grand Theft Auto IV being played on a Playstation 3. (Picture: Cate Gillon/Getty Images)

“But the more that all nicely works, the more fun it is for you to break it when you start playing. You feel like you have an influence on the world if the world works even when you're not doing things.  

“That meant that we actually built a functioning traffic light system so there was traffic in the city and it would stop at the lights at the right times. And if you went through a red light, your wanted level would go up and the police would start chasing you. I think that ended up staying in the game. But in practice, everybody ignores it. Nobody ever stops at a red light, that would be ridiculous. 

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“So there's naivety on my part, I thought that players would actually stop at red lights to stop the police wanting to chase them. But of course everyone wants to go through the red lights, and they want to be chased by the police. That's all part of the fun.”

These aspects of gameplay are evident across the franchise, and are likely to once more appear with the release of GTA VI. 

But back in the nineties, that level of success was far from the mind of Hamilton. 

“The biggest fear we had during development was not that it was going to be cancelled, because we always believed we would get it finished, [but] that somebody else would have that idea and get to market before we did. So every time there was a games magazine [that] came out with a story of a game that was a bit like what we were doing, we were 'oh no, let's get our game quickly, let's get it done'. 

“But as it turned out, we managed it. There were other games that came out and there was competition, but nothing was quite the same.” 

Dundee game shops always had GTA as the No. 1 bestseller

The success of Grand Theft Auto wasn’t guaranteed, something which Hamilton appreciates. 

“I mean, actually seeing it physically on the shelves in a shop was brilliant.

“I remember we used to go into the local software shop and rearrange the top 20 so that our game's number one. Whether it really was or not. That was normal. In Dundee, the local games were always number one on the chart, funnily enough.”

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Grand Theft Auto V is one of the best-selling games of all time. Grand Theft Auto V is one of the best-selling games of all time.
Grand Theft Auto V is one of the best-selling games of all time. | Getty Images

The first Grand Theft Auto game was a bestseller in the UK even without the mischief from those at DMA. GTA V, which is the most recent entry to the series, is even one of the best-selling games of all time

When asked what he believes makes the Grand Theft Auto franchise so successful, Hamilton said: “I think what's good is that it hasn't forgotten its roots – in that it doesn't take itself too seriously. 

“It's about gameplay that is 'what would the player enjoy actually doing?' That's the heart of everything in the game. It always has been. 

“Above story, above artwork, above quality of animation, above violence, above sensational effects. It's just about fun. If it's not fun then you don't include it in the game. And you can see they're still doing that.”

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