Hot 100 2013: 1 - Rockstar North
The Edinburgh-based games company are the hottest Scots of 2013, thanks to Grand Theft Auto V
The Hot 100 is our list of Scotland’s 100 hottest individuals and groups who’ve made a splash this year, from comic book writers to comedians, artists to actors. If they've contributed to Scotland's cultural landscape in 2013, you'll find them in this list. Below, Henry Northmore uncovers the remarkable success of the Edinburgh-based games developer, responsible for one of the most anticipated video game releases ever: Grand Theft Auto V.
When it comes to video game development, Scotland is a genuine world leader in the field. That success is mainly down to Edinburgh company Rockstar North, which produces the phenomenal Grand Theft Auto series. The fifth instalment, released in September 2013, was the company’s most ambitious to date and went on to become the fastest-selling game of all time.
Rockstar North has its roots in Dundee’s DMA Design (which released the classic Lemmings in 1991 and the very first Grand Theft Auto in 1997). By 2001, following a reshuffle in personnel, the company had moved to Edinburgh for the release of GTA III. This was the game that set the blueprint for what was to come – the first open-world instalment, successfully mashing together elements of driving and shooting games. Rather than enforcing a tightly structured linear plot, it allowed players to choose their own routes through the storyline. The game’s scope was astounding, and it was universally praised by critics as the next step in gaming’s evolution. DMA Design officially became Rockstar North in 2002, going on to release a slew of GTA sequels alongside the notorious Manhunt. The R* logo soon became synonymous with quality.
Vice City (2002), San Andreas (2004) and part IV (2008) in the Grand Theft Auto series continued to push boundaries and break new ground in gaming. Building on what had come before, Rockstar North offered even more complex storytelling, creating rich, fictional worlds populated by believable characters (with voice acting from the likes of Samuel L Jackson, Ray Liotta, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds and more).
The release of GTA V came in 2013, and it was one of the most anticipated sequels in gaming. ‘It’s probably been the longest development time of any of our GTAs – four or five years,’ explained Leslie Benzies, president of Rockstar North, back in August. And that extra time paid off: the game flew off the shelves, taking only 15 days to pass $1 billion in worldwide sales, and reaching that staggering figure faster than any other ‘entertainment product’ in history (by way of comparison, Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time, took 19 days to reach $1 billion).
But this isn’t just about units shifted. GTA V is the pinnacle of gaming. At its core, it’s an action title built around missions, shoot-outs and elaborately constructed heists. That doesn’t do the game justice, though: it’s the sheer scope of what you can do within the game world that sets it apart. It’s also the first GTA where you take control of three main characters – Michael, an ex-bank robber in witness protection; Franklin, a former street gangster turned repo agent; and the volatile Trevor. You can swap between them as you delve into an ever deeper, more nuanced narrative.
‘Certainly the scale and complexity of GTA V is something that I’m not sure a lot of us thought would be possible. To see the leap from GTA IV to GTA V, and to think it’s [running off] the same box, is a high,’ added Benzies. There’s an in-game internet (complete with its own version of Facebook, rebranded as lifeinvader.com, and Twitter, now called bleeter.biz), TV shows you can watch (even flipping between channels), mile after mile of roads to travel and thousands of small touches, quirks and interactions that make every player’s experience unique. ‘These are all things that go through our minds. Do people like that level of realism? Do people want to cook a pizza? Do they want to go shopping and buy the ingredients to eat and be healthy? Not that a pizza’s healthy, but you know what I mean. That’s all there for the future, if people want to do that.’
‘The main thing to remember is that when we’re designing this, we don’t design in a little bubble of orbs and dragons. We all live lives. Normal people doing normal things. So that’s what we base it on.’
And it’s all shot through with a black Scottish humour and the odd subtle Caledonian reference (eagle-eyed gamers will note a district called Hawick, an Elgin Avenue, a poster advertising the ‘Seaton Sands Monster Truck Festival’ and a sly dig at the Edinburgh trams).
It’s an astonishing piece of work, a sprawling electronic playground. Rockstar may have had a few controversies along the way – and there’s no denying GTA is a violent video game – but the company has always marketed its games as adult material with mature themes, and it prefers to let the work do the talking. ‘I think some of the classic misconceptions about the games industry will slowly ebb away,’ said Benzies. ‘It’s a very different business now. It changes very rapidly – it’s just hard to explain that to people. So we tend to spend more time concentrating on making the games – it seems like the best way to express ourselves.’
The series has picked up multiple awards through the years, and this year Rockstar North was presented with a Special Award at the Scottish BAFTAs ‘in recognition of the excellence and international success of Grand Theft Auto V’.
It’s an ever-expanding world, as GTA Online (the multiplayer mode included with GTA V that launched in October) keeps adding new content. Admittedly there were a few initial bugs, but patches and downloadable content mean this digital domain continues to grow, especially with the introduction of new Creator tools that allow gamers the chance to craft their own GTA experience.
‘Well, one thing we’ve toyed with – and we’ve talked about this before, so it isn’t a spoiler – is to grow this world until it’s the world. We’re just going to add on new things to it, new places all the time. We’ve set this up so there are no limitations. The only limitation is the size of the disc and how much memory we’ve got. We could, if we wanted, simulate the entire world, different countries, whatever. Whether we do that or not … ’
(With thanks to Daniel Dawkins and Tim Weaver at computerandvideogames.com)
GTA V (Rockstar North) is available now on PS3 and Xbox 360.