Grand Theft Auto Series - A Retrospective

Grand Theft Auto Series Retrospective Title"How can you possible review GTA?" Is probably the first question that occurs to people, and the second is "Why would you possibly review GTA?"

I don't think there's any point in discussing whether this game (series) is successful (it is), whether it's what people want (obviously, they do want it), or making any attempt to "bring it to people's notice", because now, everyone, absolutely everyone knows what GTA is. Most console gamers have probably played a GTA game, and some may even have finished one.

I look at the gap between what people perceive GTA to be, and what it actually is. The gap tells us something about the phenomena of successful games; not just the game of GTA, but the way it has evolved, the machine that made it a massive success, and also how these events relate to game-development and game-design.

So what's the point?

Historically, GTA 1 and 2 were quite successful games, but they were never earth-shaking, market-defining mega-hits. The GTA phenomena didn't really begin until GTA 3. After that Rockstar produced a succession of GTA products on various platforms. Lesser releases such as Liberty City Stories were sufficiently faithful not to upset the fan-base, while each major release added new bells and whistles, and new settings. Looking back I can't remember anything at all about GTA 1 or 2, and not much of GTA 3: it's already faded into the landscape of memory and only a few particular moments from those earlier games stand out. Until I started writing this I had completely forgotten how GTA used to cheer your murder of pedestrians. Many things have changed between GTA 3 and 4, and having been through the gradual evolution, it's hard to spot remember how different it used to be.

GTA wasn't always the phenomena it is now. It wasn't always the dominant game, or the literal definition of a genre. In the space of computer gaming we take it for granted as a massive, solid edifice: a huge rock in the river of the gaming consciousness. It's easy to forget that with GTA 1 and 2, there was considerable competition in what was a much broader space, and DMA Design were hardly in the strongest position. Carmageddon, Driver, Twisted Metal, and various lame stock-car battle games were all getting a lot of attention. There was also some powerful vapour-ware in play, such as Sony's The Getaway - though this ultimately turned out to be an expensive lemon of a project. GTA clung to a 'dated' top-down approach, and games like Driver were doing a much better job of offering a crime-driving simulation.

It's difficult to say at what point that somebody at Rockstar grasped the potential of the GTA franchise. The idea was latent within the original title. In a literal way, at the beginning, it offered exactly the same things as we have now: a career of crime based on an expansive setting where free-form mayhem was allowed in combination with structured missions that still allowed the player some choices. However, there are many differences between the old games and the new. The original format featured multiple cities, multiple character choices, end of mission boss battles. GTA 2 began to introduce the idea of an environment filled with people who seemed to be going somewhere, doing something, rather than something that felt like a tailored game-level. It's a lot easier to see the influence of gaming convention on the first product, and also the need to tick-off back of box 'unique selling points'.

Almost everything about the technology and look of the original title suggests that it was originally planned to be portable to the SNES and Megadrive - though it was developed and released first on PC - and was only transitioned to the newer Playstation hardware when it became apparent how the market was moving into a new console generation. This left GTA looking like it was a long way behind the curve, when other companies were producing genuine 3D race-and-chase crash-em-ups with much better visuals.

Some influential person or group inside DMA must have understood the importance of game-play over visuals, and their influence ensured that they were able to grasp what made their title distinctive and interesting to players, and cut the rest. Remarkably, they were listened too, and the concept finally reached players in an accessible form. The GTA London games and then GTA 2 allowed them an incremental path of development towards a game that was atmospherically very different from their original product, and by the release of GTA 2 (arguably the fourth GTA game), their direction was clear. It bears noting that GTA was not the only title that DMA/Rockstar were developing that emphasised a combination of vehicle and third-person-character play: Body Harvest developed the idea further, and some concepts were also refined in Wild Metal Country.

By the time they started work on GTA 3 (arguably their seventh iteration on the concept), the emphasis on a virtual playground for criminal mayhem had increased, staged boss-battles, multiple playable characters and other fluff were all long gone. Some relics of the older game remained, such as the way the game encouraged you to hit pedestrians. This was humour straight from the stand-up-routines of the period, and it's appropriate that as it has lost currency it's faded from the game.

While some journalists are now calling GTA 3 revolutionary, claiming that it totally changed the gaming landscape, the similarities between it and the rest of the series, the number of other games in the crash-em-up space, and the existence of various other kinds of free form sandbox game reveals this is little more than playing safe with hype that disguises an inability to understand why GTA 3 made such a significant impact. Such a claim wilfully ignores several titles available on the Amiga and ST that aspired to similar goals, albeit with significantly more primitive graphics. Ultimately, how anyone can claim a game that took seven iterations and nearly as many year to arrive as a 'revolution', betrays the central problem for developers with how the media influences the perception of games. GTA had been a 'work in progress' for years, it did not appear from nowhere, though it was a significant advance over its predecessors, this was mainly a matter of changing scale rather than a conceptual change or 'revolution'.

Explanations apart, GTA 3 sold tremendously well, and probably sold a lot of Playstation 2 consoles into the bargain. How did this happen?

Rockstar combined a number of significant ingredients to produce a hit:

  • A controversial game that was the first to be highlighted for both sex and extreme violence in the media, on that console generation.
  • Skilful marketing and manipulation of the gaming media to promote the game on the back of its violent and controversial content.
  • Creation of an advantageous media myth that was as powerful as the reality of the game itself (if not more so).
  • Timing that hit the rising curve of the PS2 sales explosion.
  • Luck that no other major release or comparable title was competing directly against it during its PS2 exclusive phase.
  • A sandbox for gratuitous mayhem that wedded fantastical actions to a realistic setting.
  • A comparative level of freedom that permitted the player to experience substantial amounts of game content without having to bother with linear game progression.
  • An opt-in system of linear game progression, integrated with some minor freedom in choice of mission order.
  • Leverage of the DVD delivery medium to enable a very large amount of unique game content.
  • Integration of a substantial amount of high-quality licensed material.
  • Original writing that maintained and developed the theme of black humour that had come to the fore in GTA 2, which cloaked the gratuitous sex and violence and made it acceptable to mainstream gamers as 'fun'.
  • Freedom of choice between play modes that enable the player to indulge in a driving game, crash-em-up, third-person-shooter or melee combat.
  • A very simple score/growth system, able to function independent of the progression system, yet linked to it, based on cash accumulation.
  • A highly refined iteration of a game-play system that had been in evolution for years up to that point.

For a player, the selling points of GTA were clear: the race and chase against the police worked incredibly well, you could shoot the face off anyone who annoyed you, and the soundtrack was tolerable to listen to musically and often very funny. While the soundtrack did begin to wear thin after a while, for a potential purchaser, this was not an issue.

The game also continued to reveal depth and emergent gameplay with ongoing investigation. As your wanted level climbs, the forces against you increase in ferocity, but your opportunities to use their own strengths against them also increase. No other game delivered the out-of-control mayhem that was GTA 3: gunfire, cars exploding, people running in panic, insane chases, stealing tanks, and the game continually piling on the pace, keepings things moving faster and faster.

Despite the quality of experience that Rockstar had developed and gradually honed to a razor edge over at least three titles - arguably seven titles - people always talk about the freedom of GTA 3 as if it was the be-all-and-end-all, and as if it was invented in that game. Quite simply, GTA 3 crossed an awareness threshold that took it into the popular consciousness.

It was all but impossible for GTA 1 to make the impact that GTA 3 did. The growth of the gaming market and the changes in the structure of the gaming media (the shift from a few journalists writing printed copy to the massed babble of the internet) made this possible. Prior to the arrival of Doom 2, there were no 'mega games' that dominated the journalistic space regardless of sales. Even products like Myst, which sold an insane number of copies, (far more than Doom I believe) were not elevated to a god-like importance. The massive penetration of the PS2 and the internet were both necessary to make the GTA phenomena possible. GTA 3 was no revolution, it was pure evolution, but the gaming media did have a revolution, and GTA 3 arrived just in time to benefit from a scene that celebrates itself.

Freedom?

Examined from one perspective, GTA offers no more freedom, maybe less, than the typical Japanese RPG. In one game, you wander about a setting that gradually expands in scope as you unlock areas by playing the story-progression-game, beating people up and taking their stuff for your own, and in the other, you also get to drive a car.

In terms of 'things you can do', Tomb Raider II offered jeeps, boats, shooting people in the face and a considerably more sophisticated movement system four years earlier. Note that the entire first Tomb Raider series had run its course prior to the release of GTA 3 on PS2 and that even the delayed Angle of Dreadfulness reached market around the same time as the Xbox release and the Vice City bundle. The early Elder Scrolls titles pre-dated GTA by years and all espoused free-form gaming in a single large environment, and it would not be a challenge to find more examples of how many people were developing these ideas (and still are).

The mission system of GTA is extremely linear. Though you have some freedom over which branch to advance at certain times, it's extremely limited. The story progression missions occur in a fixed order and with utterly predictable consequences. Most JRPGs offer the same or better, often having genuine plot branches and variations in addition to a huge variety of side-quests. Even GTA 4 only offers very minor plot-branches and in a token form. It has to be questioned how many players bothered with more than a trivial amount of the story progression from GTA 2 onwards.

Clearly, the freedom of GTA is not simply a matter of things you can do with respect to the story, or a pick-your-mission option. Most profoundly it is the ability to abstain completely from story and progression and yet still have near instant access to the game's most exciting features, providing your skill allows it.

Perhaps it is the direct connection between skill and what you are able to achieve in GTA that gives players the sense of freedom that they clearly felt was missing from other games. Furthermore these achievements are all player-generated and player-evaluated. In the vast majority of games, you don't get to play with the best toys until you have invested hours of time to overcome obstacles composed primarily of grind. That is to say, time-consuming low-quality game-play introduced as a cheap content extender, so that the game can meet the 'hours of play' target mistakenly set by the publisher, often as a result of marketing requirements produced by people who don't even like games and certainly don't understand them.

Arguably, it is the failure to replicate this nuanced quality of freedom that has prevented the GTA 'clones' such as Saints Row from posing any serious competition, despite the inclusion of numerous innovations and improvements in other areas. Saints Row concerned itself with fixing issues that people felt were present in the antiquated mission system of GTA, and adding more ways to advance and fulfil growth-need - at the expense of quality in the area that made GTA to strong. As only hardcore gamers persist with the story-mode of these games, Saints Row wasted its effort on features that weren't genuinely mass-market. SR also suffers from clunky writing, with awkward painful humour that falls flat most of the time, and a rather cliched view of gang-culture that draws its ideas second-hand from TV and movies. Despite this, SR is largely well received and has sold a solid number of copies, but it remains of scant interest to the gaming press.

A crucial part of true freedom is that the player isn't significantly punished when they fail at something. If you haven't bothered to accumulate a vast armoury and masses of cash, then you really have nothing to lose. The game reserves its punishments for people trying to complete the story missions. Once you tired of the tedious, buggy, often tediously harsh missions there was still a huge amount to do, where the player could create their own goals and games and genuinely play without some nagging need to complete pre-defined, and often inconvenient achievements.

It's OK because it's funny

GTA literally gets away with murder because the quality of humour is very high. The jokes often work, and there is a moral sense that informs much of the commentary that rarely descends into preaching. While the game superficially offers material rewards, the underlying theme is that such things do more to corrupt than satisfy, and that the pursuit of them, along with the pursuit of revenge, brings only misery. While this sometimes makes the story predictable, the story is always the unwanted red-headed-stepchild of the GTA design.

For GTA the humour is often used as a get out of jail free card, because otherwise many people would struggle to justify to themselves that stabbing some passers by, crushing a street full of pedestrians under the wheels of a stolen cop-car, and then machine gunning a dozen SWAT team members is the ideal way to relax after acting as taxi-driver for prostitutes and assassin for brutal mobsters. At other times it feels as if they use the approach of mocking everything in the hope that people will pay attention to the game because it touched on their favourite topic, be it Linux, mobile phone ring-tones or internet dating. It gives them a way to entice almost any journalist to write an article mentioning GTA.

Whether or not people would have still enjoyed the game without the humour is moot, but the humour is clearly an 'enabler' that lets people indulge in what is literally a non-stop rampage of brutal horror. If GTA was just a little more realistic, a typical play session would leave anyone but a jaded psychopath feeling sickened and violated. It would not be long before censors and outraged parents shut the game down. The humour shield has been used by violent games for a while (at least since GTA 1), and though it seems like an obvious tactic now, it was probably much less obvious to US developers, and thus they did not develop a US-originated GTA product. (One might say that the American equivalent was the Duke Nukem series, but that was far less realistic). Manhunt makes a good example of what might have happened to GTA without its humour shield: release delayed for months, cuts, changes, dubious reviews and harsh criticisms from the press.

A couple of years before the appearance of GTA, I was working at ... a certain games company ... who at the time were largely committed to the production of driving games. When I mooted the idea of a car game where you stole cars, went joyriding, knocked down pedestrians and then ran from the police, everyone thought it was hilarious, and a game we could all imagine playing... We all agreed that of course it was impossible to make such a game because no console manufacturer would never authorise such a product, and furthermore, the Americans would take it seriously and either sue us into oblivion or blanket ban it. The idea never received genuine consideration, though I drew up a proposal document. I imagine similar conversations took place in many other UK development houses. It was an idea likely to occur to anyone that had lived in a city like Manchester or Glasgow. The surprise is that ultimately the US took to GTA 3 with enormous enthusiasm and appreciated that it was funny. Nobody was surprised when Rockstar were sued.

In retrospect it seems possible to claim that GTA's success was not directly because of its humour, but was simply enabled because of it. People weren't buying comedy as the primary commodity, they were buying action, the ability to set their own goals, and a game where skill was its own reward.

Much of what remains is rubbish

The subtext to this should probably read "you don't have to get everything right, just the things that matter".

In GTA 3, there were many tedious, badly implemented features, and in the GTA 4 era, there still are. GTA 4 has introduced a whole new tranche of tiresome, grinding, time-sink activities that interrupt the game, and which would seem more at home in a JRPG than in previous GTA games. Mission progression is still very linear, and story progression completely so. Intrusive FMVs abound, yet audio controls are inadequate to make sure you can always hear crucial dialogue without suffering from unpleasantly loud sound effects. Your closest thing to control over how you respond to character dialogue is the ability, in some rare cases, to walk away rather than shoot someone. It certainly never feels as if you are actually interacting with the story.

Even in GTA 4, with the game installed to PS3 hard-drive, load times are still onerously long. Fortunately, loading is much less frequent than it was in the PS2 version of GTA 3, which stopped to load for ages every time you went near a bridge, or a mission, or a car race, or just because it was a day with a 'Y' in it. GTA 4 streams seamlessly as long as you don't need to load a saved game, but there are still bugs: run through a door from your apartment lobby out onto the street; everything is bright and normal, then a second later it all goes black and starts fading back in. Often after loading the world is full of flicking white stuff that takes several seconds to clear up, and when the weather changes you can sometimes see new light-maps popping in all over the place.

Car control was historically very suspect, and every vehicle handled a lot like a very long heavy boat, with heaviness varying from merely ponderous to extremely so. This is one area that has improved enormously in GTA 4, but there are still times when cars do really strange things. Gun combat continues to be fairly mediocre, with an auto-target mechanism that not only appears to be deliberately broken to force you to manual target - you will shoot at cover rather than the exposed part of an enemy by default - but on the PS3 it's also bugged so that it will often spin you around to face away from enemies and not target anything at all, usually causing your immediate death. The 'in-cover' mode causes as many problems as it fixes, moving your aim-point about annoyingly, sticking so that it's hard to get out of in-cover mode, or putting the camera somewhere supremely useless.

The game cameras continue to be unsatisfactory overall. There's still no suitable camera for third-person driving that is set sufficiently high enough to see properly where your vehicle is headed. Numerous utterly useless and annoying cameras, that you would never want to use for anything, continue to get in the way when you're trying to swap between first and third-person. Why all the 'retard' cameras exist is a mystery, as is the need to dedicate a precious button to 'cinematic camera', that looks up your wheel arch ... of all the idiotic things.

The GTA control mechanism remains inconsistent and messy, with buttons changing behaviour significantly between various modes, and with poor indication as to what mode you are currently in. In quite a few cases, the button to perform an action (or rather to perform very similar actions) jumps about the control pad as if it's trying to hide from you. Despite what is probably hundreds of hours of GTA play, I still can't use grenades without blowing myself up almost 50% of the time. This is made worse by the arbitrary way your character behaves differently in three different grenade modes (in a car, in cover, and standing normally). When you pick up a new weapon (first the sniper rifle, then the rocket-launcher) you are often surprised that it has its own uniquely annoying control mechanism and quirks that runs counter to other buttons in the game.

Melee combat is literally hit-and-miss, and given that pistol ammo is useless in 'real' missions, you end up shooting characters that you might otherwise have punched into a stupor just to use it up. Health lost to punches should probably recover after a short time, but it doesn't, so it's just a pointless risk to your precious health bar to engage in hand-to-hand combat when you inevitably have a gun that settles things much more reliably. Of course, sometimes missions force you to melee, and when they do, you will probably just have to luck it out.

Resident Evil 4 does a better job of weapon aiming and melee, despite having a melee control system that is simplistic and annoying, it's still better than GTA. Similarly, the camera control in RE4 is awful, but still better than GTA. Even with a 'look around' control stick, GTA still manages to annoy you with the camera.

The game's graphics have always tended towards the uninspiring, sacrificing details for breadth. Frame-rates on the PS2, particularly for the original GTA 3 were extremely variable and often very poor. None of the PS2 games ever ran at a good frame rate. The save system was slow, awkward and sometimes buggy - a long running GTA problem. Even now there are complaints about saving GTA 4 on the 360 (though the PS3 seems reliable). While the game clearly employs level-of-detail techniques to handle the landscapes, it lacks high-detail models for close up, and once you're running past people on foot, they still look pretty dodgy. Animation varies from not very good to awful, either badly captured, or suffering from compression artefacts so that they look very old-school compared to titles like Assassin's Creed.

You can agree, disagree, or add another two dozen points to my list of dodgy bits in GTA 4, but the fact remains that I wasn't happy, any other people won't be either. Despite this, I still play the game, these things are ultimately peripheral to the final experience.

Absent Freedoms

Once you enter into the GTA story and take on a mission, freedoms disappear so fast you'd think the Bush administration had just rigged the election. Some of the restrictions are small and petty, others more profound. Sometimes you are constrained to grind away at tiresome tasks to earn and maintain the use of certain abilities that you derive from your associates.

Buying ammunition is particularly strange. For example, they only sell one kind of shotgun shell in the gun shop and you must have the exact matching shotgun - nope, your existing shotgun just won't do... For most weapons there are two kinds and you can carry one or the other. Cops and criminals tend to use the opposing weapon, so if you have a weapon that allows you to collect dropped ammo from one group, you can't collect from the other. In a country where Wal*Mart sells bullets, you'd think getting hold of ammunition would be less of a chore. You'd think that buying firearms in a gun-crazy Liberty City would be easy, but instead the gun shops are rarer than clothes shops (which are full of dull outfits that all look like a suit or a scruffy fat anorak).

Speaking of clothes shops, you are continually obliged to interface with a craptastic wardrobe mechanic to meet the girlfriend characters' obsessive desire for you to be in different clothes all the time. This also involves an almost as tiresome shopping interface. The worst part is that so many outfits look so much alike that you can't tell which is which. Ironically, the girlfriend characters always seem to wear the exact same clothes every time.

The girlfriends are just one variety of the GTA 4 bugbear of time-wasting 'friends' that continually nag to be ferried about. Some of these characters are consistently funny, while others are just boring, or unrelentingly vile, and only occasionally funny. Brucie's deranged twaddle is fairly amusing, while Carmen's bizarre need to refer to herself in the third person and unrealistic reality-tv-generation ambitions are just sad.

The advantages two of the girlfriends bestow are potentially important in terms of the time they could save you in not repeating a failed mission. However, they require so much maintenance that it's doubtful that they offer a worthwhile return. Once you've heard all their dialogue variations they become very tiresome. As for your so called friends, Roman's free taxi ride power is particularly worthless. Maintaining friend happiness can become irksome, as the further you get into the game, the more idiots you have calling you up. Often they all call up at once, then give you grief because you can only play nursemaid to one at a time and can't fulfil their irrational demands. The game also deliberately drops them onto the map miles away from you so that it's easy to miss your appointments and lose kudos. This becomes a major pain once you are over in Alderney on missions a lot. It's quite simply impossible to get from Alderney to Brucie's lockup in time, and hopeless if the roads are wet.

While it's probably advantageous to quick completion of the game to ignore any friend requests, it feels bad to spent an age earning the trust of a character and then once they have no more missions to give you, tell them to get stuffed. In this case as you buy into the story it begins to constrain you to do boring things.

The supposedly serious story cut scenes, particularly the ones for the core plot, tend to be plodding affairs that lack much of a point. The bad animation technology makes this worse because the characters' 'acting' is way off target and feels like something from a Jerry Anderson puppet show. Their facial expressions and textures are not the best, and this is an area where they should have looked at what others have to offer. Heavenly Sword is a world away from these dated-looking shaky efforts, and we all know Rockstar have the cash and the time to do it better. In much of GTA 4, features seem not to have progressed, or have moved backwards from San Andreas, and cut-scene animations haven't improved since GTA 3. Much of what has been lost since San Andreas is a welcome streamlining of what was turning into a sort of criminal version of The Sims, but there's a lack of new features to replace them. The lack of new features that work well is even greater.

GTA feels very seedy when they are playing it straight, and it becomes frustrating that you can't talk back to the various thugs, druggies and neurotics that you have to deal with, and tell them just how full of s**t they are. Similarly, all game progress consists of murder, mostly shootings, occasionally some other brutality. There's no sense of freedom here, and scant satisfaction in it either - particularly as it's always obvious that each shooting will lead to more grief for your character down the line. You can be reasonably confident that any character who isn't a total jackass is doomed to be shot by your enemies, that you'll take revenge, and it will make things worse not better. What's frustrating is that the people you shoot are almost always hateful from the word go, and there is never a time you don't want to shoot them, you're just prevented from doing so. Instead you have to do missions for these cretins because they are blocking the story progression.

Mission mechanics still retain some of the old GTA 1 highly constrained game design principle. Missions are strictly pass or fail, and they are sometimes deliberately configured to make you fail at the very end in an annoying way that leaves you feeling that you were cheated on a technicality. An example in GTA 4 being the exploding barrel traps that are put in your way after rescuing Roman from the Russians in the warehouse. You have completed a long fire-fight successfully, rescued your cousin, and then obliged to drive an SUV through a field of barrels. It quickly becomes apparent that you can just drive through the barrels, but after piling through a dozen of them, the very last barrel that you drive over unexpectedly explodes, killing Roman (though not you for some reason) and failing the mission. "Nice work game designer guy! You really understand fun and freedom." I pick on one issue in GTA 4, but the preceding game iterations are overall much worse, and are positively riddled with this intentionally punitive nonsense.

The absurdity of the absolute pass/fail mechanic is most obvious when you have to kill all of a certain gang, or all of some villain's cronies. If one escapes it's a total failure. Why can't you just shoot him later? Does one minor thug even matter? A bad guy gets too far away from you, and it's mission fail time. Why impose this magic distance limit? It's not realistic or fun. Far too often somebody drives in front of you during a chase, half a dozen cars run into the back of you and by the time you've extricated yourself from the cluster of cars jamming you in, your target is "getting away" and one more unlucky choice of route will fail you the mission.

In GTA 4 we might have hoped for some evolution and development of the mission system. Perhaps a sliding scale of mission success for the majority of missions, with only the most obnoxious requiring absolute pass/fail switches. Escaped enemies could be used to auto-generate follow-up vigilante missions along simple lines, much like the "shoot this bunch of guys" missions that abound at the start of GTA 3. One begins to suspect that the mission building team at Rockstar are at the bottom of the studio hierarchy, receiving the least access to development resource, and nobody good wants to be on that team.

They have made some minor efforts to implement Saints Row style retries, but it is seriously flawed to the point of uselessness. When you fail a mission, you are usually punished through loss of cash, or weapons, or both, and then have to spend so much time getting to the weapon shop to buy new armour that you are far better off just reloading and restarting that way. There is one occasion where it's very advantageous to fail the mission repeatedly and get max sniper-rifle ammo for free, which is equally broken design.

Sure, lots of other games have these rigid limitations, but GTA is supposed to be better somehow. As they go to such trouble to script events where guys you don't kill immediately come back to haunt you, why don't they let this emerge naturally from missions too? Why not let the player chance across bad guys he missed from before while up to something else? Or have them show up while you're on a date? Why force rigid scripted events on the player in one part of the game, then offer complete freedom in another? GTA is headed in this direction, but a lot of work remains to be done, and with modern console hardware it's hard to make an excuse for not doing it.

GTA feels like two different games bolted together, and one of them is a particularly badly scripted RPG, riddled with pathing bugs, guys who get stuck in furniture, essential characters who path themselves off lethal drops and die, plodding dialogue and tedious time-sinks to prevent quick retries. The other game is at the forefront of free form emergent game-play but it's tied to a fossil in a kind of three-legged race.

It's probably safe to say that Rockstar are committed to reducing the reliance on scripting in future GTA games, and it shows that they (like the rest of us) are not always able to deliver what they want, but instead must work towards it, iteration after iteration.

What can we learn?

The Media

Management of the media and media expectations of your game is crucial to sales. This is usually in the hands of the publisher. In the case of a licensed game, there are advantages and draw-backs. It's a lot easier to understand public expectations for a licensed product because the IP is already defined and positioned. Original games have to do all this work themselves, but they do have more freedom.

Despite substantial advertising spend, most publishers do a mediocre job of managing the media. This is a pity, as they would probably find that putting effort into helping journalists (professional or otherwise) write about their products would be a very cost effective way to promote them.

It's unrealistic to expect that the average game can generate the controversy of a GTA, and their are drawbacks to being too controversial. There are probably more opportunities to produce games that are able to generate buzz from supposed positive aspects (Wii-fit for example) than from controversy over sexual or violent content. Nevertheless, games continue to try the controversy card successfully: it's doubtful the denigration of Mass Effect as a pornfest did sales any harm.

There are many ways to generate media attention, and good media management is part of all of them. It's not necessary to produce games that are essentially loaded with questionable content to do so. Some semblance of originality is an advantage here, but a strong licensed product can be just as effective.

When it comes to the media, good game-play is appreciated. A well crafted game, with high-quality development will almost always do well, and is easy to sell to the media who are actively searching for the 'next big thing' to shout about.

The media is a good place to promote the dream or idea of your game, which means that when people come to play it the strength of that fantasy will carry them through the bits where the mechanics get a bit dodgy. If you have a dream to sell then it can help you a lot. Just trying to sell 'game-play' will not cut it. Peter Molyneux is always effective in having an idea for his games that he can sell directly to players - something that they can understand and say "I want to play a game where I can do that."

Iteration

When depressed over the latest reskin of LT not being the greatest platform game ever, we can take solace from the fact that GTA was not an unmitigated success the first try, or the second, or even the third. It took years to produce the GTA formula, and a good deal of luck and media management to propel it to massive success.

It is a mistake to believe that a game design or technology can (or should) be perfected on the first try. Most games must encounter real players and the popular consciousness before they can be fully understood by their creators. Designers, artists and programmers need time to step away from their work before they can return to it and see clearly what needs to be improved. Players don't play the game developers tried to make, they play the game that was actually made, and that is often a surprisingly different thing - this must also be understood.

Only by putting out iterative product developments into the marketplace is it possible to produce a great game-design. A studio that goes six years and puts out six iterations of a game will almost certainly be ahead of a studio that takes six years to release one version - both financially and in quantity and quality of product. While one might argue Blizzard is a counter example, they too have relied on iteration and marketplace testing to get where they are. Starcraft did far better than Warcraft I, or II, and it's clearly an iterative development.

Good studios grow interest as they refine an IP. Their sequels outsell their originals. If your sequels are suffering a tail-off in sales (Devil May Cry for example) it's probably a clue that you are heading in the wrong direction. GTA has grown sales on every iteration. Diablo, and (War/Star)craft have grown sales on each iteration.

What is the dream of your game?

This question, originally an awkward translation from Japanese gets to the heart of what makes people play games. While the simple mechanics of gaming is looking at a screen and wiggling your thumbs, or in the case of the Wii, producing the exact magic twitch of the wrist. Nothing about wiggling a couple of little control sticks and sometimes hitting a button is intrinsically fun. The real game is something that happens primarily in the player's head. The player imagines something that is far more than what they are actually doing: the dream of the game.

A lot of writing about game design talks about producing fun, rewarding the player for achievement, and so on. While these interpretations are not without value, they often give the impression that the game or the game-designer can create fun. The player is the one who creates the fun. No game console and software combination can have fun by itself. It is people that experience enjoyment, and they are the sole manufacturers of it. Each player makes their own fun.

GTA shows us that it's quite easy for a player to enjoy themselves if we simply let them do it. The more that we constrain what is an achievement and what is rewarded in a game, the more its appeal is narrowed to the limited number of people that happen to exactly agree with that assessment. This is why I argue that the Xbox Live achievement system is an engine for the destruction of fun. It enables hard-core gamers to bolster their flimsy egos and provides them with ammunition to lambaste the gaming majority as 'noobs' but there is little positive about it. It's a result of misapprehension of the principle of player reward.

One of the least fun things in GTA I can think of is to kill all the pigeons that are hidden around the city. This is quite obviously a lengthy and tedious chore. If I want 100% completion of GTA, I have to do it. In GTA this is an aberration, in most games it is the norm. World of Warcraft and most single-player RPGs, platformers and other story-based games are filled with exactly this sort of repetitive time-sink. Nobody would want to do this sort of thing in real-life (ok I admit train spotters exist). Nevertheless, players accept this sort of crap in games all the time, and even enjoy it.

This is possible because the dream continues despite the monotonous tasks that games frequently consist of, and the dream carries them through. The player's fantasy of what they are doing in the game insulates them from the dreadful mechanics of the whole exercise. They are acting at a completely abstracted level. They really believe (for a short time) that carefully manipulating their position and then hitting a button is combat. They can also believe that performing monotonous tasks until a certain number reaches a certain value, then pushing some buttons is victorious combat, or completion of a quest. Clearly, this requires a stupendous act of self-deception on the part of the player, but that is what they bought the game for.

This is not simply suspension of disbelief, it if something far more potent: the deliberate manufacture of a continuing fantasy. The more the game-designer tries to intrude into this process and control it, the more fragile it becomes. Most game designs are so oblivious of this factor that they completely fail to deliver anything worthy of fantasy. Of the few that do, they often attempt such clumsy manipulations that the fantasy is broken. This is a tragedy: people can believe that some pixellated sprites moving about on a screen can represent an adventure; they can imagine almost anything. It should be so easy just to let this happen.

Think about that phrase: "I want to play a game where I can ", where X might be "steal cars and escape from the police", or "become the crime king of the city", or "save the kingdom from the evil dark lord", or even "be the most popular cheerleader". Nobody is going to ask for a game where "I can control my targets intuitively using the Wii pointer and then use one of several moves to take an entity out of play by pushing a different controller button." Not because that's a bad mechanic, but because most people don't buy games for the mechanic, they buy the objective ... the end, not the means. I don't mean that the mechanics aren't important, but they're usually not what drives purchasing or the urge to play.

The more evocative the ostensible objective of the game, the more likely it will succeed. This usually implies a fairly simplistic goal that is easily communicated. Some games are, or have been, held back from commercial success simply by a lack of the language to communicate their objective transparently. Once the necessary language and conventions are established, only then can the game approach the mainstream. This often means that genuine innovators are rarely the ones to reap the rewards.

There are always exceptions: most puzzle games are pointless with completely abstracted circular goals. In such games the process takes precedence over the goal. They are pure game-play, devoid of any fantasy. In such a game the mechanics must be very good. The mechanics of games that include story and goals are usually quite inferior cut-down versions of puzzle games, or are simply about aiming quickly and pushing a button when the cursor is in the right place.

All games are formed from different mixes between a pure act of internal fantasy and an abstract mechanical challenge. Both elements are necessary to produce a game, but historically there has been a lot of focus on the mechanical elements that we understand to be game-play, and little attention paid to the emotive goal. The goal is often bound up with story-plot and addressed unconsciously, but story and the fantasy process that forms the game experience are not the same thing. In RPGs they closely coincide, but this has led to confusion in most cases.

The misapprehension of story as goal in some games also leads to the mistaken idea that Japanese gamers like to passively watch a story that is told to them them rather than interacting with the story. These gamers are not passive at all: they are highly critical of the quality of story-telling in a game and they are extend their own fantasy into parts of the game where western gamers may become disinterested. That gamers in different countries want different stories and game goal fantasies to provoke them should not be surprising. It's also true that many goals are universally effective, but stories are always at the mercy of cultural nuance. Any culture can get the idea of romantic tragedy, but Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is one story that is culturally specific and that is continually being reinterpreted to make it more transparent to modern audiences.

The most simplistic goals are thus the ones with the greatest mass appeal, but it can be difficult to bring novelty to them. Again, novelty is a separate issue and extremely clichéd goals can still be presented in novel ways. Hence the Hollywood pitch mechanic: "It's meets ." Where hopefully the combination of two well known things is something novel.

All the things that matter less

GTA delivered so many things that weren't the best, but that didn't matter. They delivered the dream, they delivered novelty and they delivered some good mechanical tests of skill (classical game-play). They used controversy to kick-start their media campaign and they appealed to prurient interests to sell a game goal that applied the lowest common denominator to reach a very wide audience. Amazingly, they did this with a degree of honesty, or genuine enthusiasm for their own product that in the end they just made what felt like fun to them. While at times it's certain they considered what they were doing abstractly, and were conscious of the ramifications, it was not a soulless urge to manufacture a hit that drove them.

When we're worrying about the quality of graphics, or performance, lengthy load times, whether the central character should be a fox or a rabbit, whether combos should be interruptible, or how hard it is to make a level in a sensible amount of time, we sometimes need to step back and re-ask the important questions.

  • Does what we're doing make things more fun or less?
  • Does it enhance the player's fantasy, or does it shatter the player's dream?
  • Does it constrain and limit the player's fantasy, or does it expand its scope to include more goals?
  • Who evaluates success? Does the game force an interpretation of success on the player, or does it allow them some choice in that respect?
  • Is reward directly linked to achievement?
  • Are the rewards directly linked to the player's goals, or are they irrelevant to the game?
  • Another question, which is perhaps more specific is: is feature X mechanically interesting, or does it simply rely on the difficulty of perfect and extended repetition to create the possibility of failure? If the latter, then you are inserting a time-sink/grind mechanic.

    Chimps did a lot better job of asking and answering these questions than LT, and by keeping moving forward in this regard games can get better. Even when time constraints inject unwanted elements into games (or remove desirable ones), it's possible to meet the criteria.

    I know there are still pressures to meet 'hours of play' targets for products here, but those pressure produce only negative outcomes. Genuine game-play is diluted by such pressures, and grind is increased. Players may tolerate grind if other elements are strong, but they never ask for it. Reviewers are often particularly hostile towards grind. Finally, I can't imagine anyone who bought a game full of grind and interpreted it as getting value for money.

    If you don't begin with a dream that somebody really wants to play just from hearing about it, you are probably going to have to produce A-class mechanics that operate 100 percent reliably with well-oiled precision to make up for it.

    If you don't push the player out of the game you don't have to meet such stringent standards of quality for the pure mechanics. Once the player is out of the game, they become hyper-critical of the slightest mechanical or aesthetic glitch. Conversely, a player will forgive the most awful mechanics, crappy graphics and dreadful show-stopping bugs in a game if they really want to play it.