From bank heists and skydiving through to stock trading and yoga, the sprawling world of Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) is set to redefine the parameters of video gaming on its release next week.
Scattered with flashes of ribald Caledonian humour and in-jokes, the title is the brainchild of Rockstar North, a studio based in Edinburgh’s Greenside Row.
Five years in the making, the game’s development and marketing budget of £170 million is the equivalent of a blockbuster film. Such is the success of the series, industry experts believe its latest incarnation will rewrite the record books, shifting 25 million copies in the first year alone, achieving sales of £1bn.
Confidence in the release is such that shares in Take-Two Interactive, Rockstar’s parent firm, have nearly doubled in value in the past year.
The new game revolves around a satirical recreation of southern California. With players able to switch between three protagonists, the 49-square-mile world boasts a welter of activities, such as scuba diving with sharks and hijacking trains.
For those who have watched the franchise grow from its humble roots in an office in Dundee’s Perth Road – the first base for Rockstar’s predecessor, DMA Design – to arguably the largest entertainment product in the world, there is little doubt the new release will be a huge hit.
“By any sort of commercial scale, Grand Theft Auto is easily Scotland’s largest cultural export ever. The series has sold something like 135 million copies so far,” said Brian Baglow, who worked as a writer on the first GTA game and now runs the Scottish Games Network, an umbrella body for the nation’s games sector. “It’s coming up to 17 years since GTA began and it’s become something I don’t think anyone involved with the original game would have expected.
“The series has come on not just in leaps and bounds, but in long jumps since then. It’s become far more than the sum of its parts, it’s a fully global phenomenon. This is the fifth major release, and the nice thing is that all of them have been made here in Scotland.”
David Kushner, the author of Jacked: The Outlaw Story Of Grand Theft Auto, agreed: “I wouldn’t be surprised if it sets records. GTA IV ended up in Guinness World Records so I would certainly anticipate the new game will do just as well.”
In order to realise their most ambitious game yet, Rockstar North’s 300-strong staff analysed census data, vehicle sales records and hundreds of thousands of photographs to depict Los Angeles and its environs.
Aaron Garbut, a University of Dundee graduate who is the series art director, made several visits to California, consulting off-duty police officers and architectural historians to create a bustling alternate reality.
He said: “I think, most of all, what we’ve done is create a world that you can lose yourself in. A place that’s interesting and fun to live in. 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.”
Rockstar North is likely to face criticism in some quarters following GTA V’s release on 17 September, given that players are able to visit strip clubs and use marijuana, while real-life gang members are among the voice cast.
Such controversy, Baglow believes, overlooks the fact that GTA has become a cornerstone of modern entertainment.
“For many people in power globally, GTA is just a great big red flashing light because it’s perceived as something bad and violent, defined by tabloid hysteria,” he said. “But if the series was just about gratuitous violence, it would not have achieved the sales and success it has.
“It is a massive cultural and creative success. It’s arguably bigger than the next Star Wars film, and the games industry has been behind GTA from the get-go. I’d really like to see the UK government acknowledge the fact one of the biggest entertainment franchises in the world was made here.”
Although it is a homage to an idealised America, the Scottish roots of GTA V will be evident. An in-game stock exchange goes by the name of Bawsaq, for example, while one of the vast bridges in the game’s world is a replica of the Forth Road Bridge.
Baglow said: “We can sometimes have a schizophrenic idea about culture in Scotland. There’s an idea that because GTA is set in contemporary America, it has nothing to do with this country. On the other hand, we are critical of things dripping with tartan, shortbread and wee Scottie dogs.
“This isn’t something exclusive to video games, it’s the entire cultural sector. Until we feel confident enough to go out and achieve a big product which happens to have been made in Scotland, but isn’t necessarily Scottish, I think we will keep running into problems.”