Grand Theft Auto III | Game Changers

Let's take a trip back in time to Grand Theft Auto III in our Game Changers series.

Published: October 22, 2016 1:00 PM /



The Grand Theft Auto series is one of the best game franchises out there today. The crime-filled action and drama is a billion-dollar franchise, with the highly successful Grand Theft Auto V reaching over 65 million copies sold as of Spring 2016. What sells Grand Theft Auto is several things, from solid gameplay design to addicting, Rockstar-style multiplayer, and a tongue-in-cheek story. These make up the GTA experience, but one aspect of the series design is the open-world sandbox players participate in. As today celebrates 15 years since its release, we're taking a look back at the legacy of Grand Theft Auto III.

Grand Theft Auto and the open-world almost go hand in hand, but in many ways, it would take the third game in the series, Grand Theft Auto III by DMA Design (now called Rockstar North) to change the rules of open-world gaming. GTA III is now 15 years old, but it is still considered by critics as a landmark title in gaming history; part of the reason for this is the open world that was fully delivered.

Open-world gaming gets a bad rap due to overexposure today, but it’s important to remember that back in 2001, it was a new concept. Most open-world titles were on PC only by the turn of the century, and the few examples on consoles were landmark titles but not major successes. Shenmue, for example, was the first open-world game on a console to feature an urbanized setting but was not a successful game financially when it was released in the U.S. in 2000.

Other open-world titles owed a lot to Nintendo for Super Mario 64, the first fully 3-D platformer game, but it was an innovation that was mired with limitations; full 3-D movement in simple, small-scale worlds was the norm for most games in the N64 library, and while some mimicked open world gameplay, they were far from an open world environment.

It is important to note that the first few games in the GTA series on the Sony Playstation and the PC were also successes but minor hits comparatively. It was GTA III that took the series to a new level, first providing an open world through new technology, the RenderWare engine. Developed by Criterion Software Limited, RenderWare was a proprietary game license that uses a 3D API and graphics rendering engine. 

The RenderWare engine is quite important because it provides a secondary choice for game development for the PlayStation 2. The PS2 was notoriously difficult to develop in the early life of the console, with most developers using a Sony-made DirectX engine for game development. By 2001, RenderWare became more popular, primarily due to its utilization for cross-platform development. Today, RenderWare is owned by Electronic Arts and is not used as a game engine, but in 2001, it was an important piece of the puzzle in creating one of the largest open worlds of the time, Liberty City.

Liberty City is technically not an open world, at least, not at first. One of the design choices was to create three environments that are slowly unlocked over time, a design trait that the GTA series continues to this day. Liberty City, while loosely based on New York, was also an amalgam of other big cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago. Per GTA writer Dan Houser, the goal was to create a hybrid of a generic American city, where the player can start out poor but work their way up the ladder. Houser also cited a lot of influences in the feel of open-world design from the movies Heat and Goodfellas, as well as the Legend of Zelda series, in creating a rich world for players to interact with.

It was the perfect storm for Rockstar Games in early 2000. Technology had finally caught up; the use of DVDs over CD-ROM provided more storage space for animations, sound, and music. Lilian Benzies, the producer of GTA III, noted in an interview with IGN that the open world needed to be believable for the game to succeed:

The underlying principle for us when creating the game's concept was for us to create a city and breathe as much life into it as possible. Give it an underworld, complete with turf wars, fights and so on. Populate it with everyone from muggers to respectable businessmen. Fill it with a load of cars and then let the player loose in the underworld. They can do whatever they want in it.

This design mandate was the driving force behind a lot of the changes to the GTA franchise, from mission structure to story development. Grand Theft Auto II had a mission structure, but it was very loose and impersonal. Grand Theft Auto III made it more interactive, working with voiced characters who give the mute player Claude missions of varying difficulty. The mission structure was also another change for the GTA games, as it provided a mission “tutorial” for the game's numerous gameplay elements. This was also on purpose, as Houser stated “We use the story to expose the mechanics, and we use the mechanics to tell the story.”

Developing the game was even more of a challenge. This was partially due to technical limitations; despite the power of the PS2 hardware and the RenderWare engine, the game is still graphically shackled. This technical limitation put severe limits on the motion capture Rockstar wanted to use for the game. Some animations were simply impossible to put in, such as characters moving in cars, getting in and out of cars fluidly, or even character movements through cinematics. Instead, new camera angles were used in cutscenes to invoke more emotion in the performances, instead of locking down the camera fully.

It was still a challenge to fit all of GTA III onto a 32-megabyte disk, but it was one that was doable in the end without sacrificing Rockstar’s main design mandate. At the time of its release, GTA III was the largest open-world game ever on a console. Rockstar had some experience in open-world gaming with the minor success of Body Harvest for the Nintendo 64 in 1998. Body Harvest is not a fully open world, but it was an important step in helping to generate a large-scale, fully 3-D environment.

Grand Theft Auto III topped them all, however, due to the sheer size of activities present in the game, from driving to killing sprees, escort missions, and chop shop stops. Even simple additions, such as drive-by shootings and using taxi cabs, enhanced the facsimile of a living, breathing world.

This proved very popular in 2001, with the game receiving critical acclaim and sales exceeding 17 million copies sold, making it one of video games' best sellers at the time. This high production standard would continue for the next few games in the series, leading to more quality-of-life improvements with GTA: Vice City and San Andreas.

The legacy of Grand Theft Auto III can be seen in the subsequent releases by Rockstar. The jump to Grand Theft Auto IV, for example, included elements planned for GTA III that were impossible due to tech limitations, such as online multiplayer, more in-depth cut-scenes, and motion capture for the game. What it retained, however, was the character of GTA III, the mission structure, the open-world gameplay, and the addition of new activities to help simulate life in a virtual world. GTA III started these trends and continues to be a long-standing example of excellent world design by Rockstar Games.

This post was originally published in 2016 as a part of our Game Changers series. It's been republished to have better formatting.

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| Staff Writer

A longtime player of games, creator of worlds, and teacher of minds. Robert has worked many positions over the years, from college professor to education… More about Robert