The year is 2002, England are failing in another World Cup, Pierce Brosnan was hanging up his James Bond tux and Gareth Gates was stammering his way to pop stardom. Thankfully, one of the more pleasing events of the year was seeing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City released for the PlayStation 2 and almost instantly become one of the biggest games of the year.
Swapping the gritty realms of a New York-inspired Liberty City for a world where rolling up your suit sleeves and blasting REO Speedwagon out of the car stereo was acceptable, GTA: Vice City is now being given a new lease of life on Android and iOS to mark the 10th anniversary of the game’s launch on the Sony console.
Aaron Garbut, Art Director at Rockstar North, is a man who was central to creating the open world environment for Vice City and GTA V which is set to be released in Spring 2013.
Taking time out of his busy schedule working on the latest GTA instalment, Garbut spoke to T3 about making GTA: Vice City from the designing to research process and bringing the game to a brand new audience.
First, please describe what your role has been at Rockstar North – on Vice City itself – and if that has changed in any dramatic way going forwards?
I’m the Art Director at Rockstar North. I oversee the visual look of the games we make and manage the art department here along with the actual art production on our projects. I started on Grand Theft Auto with Leslie Benzies, moving to a new studio in Edinburgh from DMA design in Dundee, and the two of us created the initial prototype of Grand Theft Auto III. A few more guys moved onto the project and we grew the studio and the team up from just a few of us to the 300+ it is now.
It’s the scale and scope of my job that have changed the most. Vice City and GTA III were built with a small tight art team, these days hundreds of artists are involved and the detail, complexity and scale is worlds apart.
Vice City launched in 2002 on PS2 to incredible critical and commercial acclaim. What do you think it was that made it so popular with people and resonate so widely compared to everything else out at the time?
Long enough had passed by the time we launched that people had stopped hating the ’80s and were ready to love it again: the style, the attitude and especially the music. Mostly though, I think it was popular because it was filled with energy and possibilities. Like every Grand Theft Auto since, we gave the player a time, a place and a story to exist within and a lot of things to do and see. We were doing something pretty different - it took the open world template from III and expanded on it; it was brasher; the characters were more engaging and we pushed as many toys into the world as we could. I think it was simply fresh and fun. We were energized by GTA III’s success, it gave us confidence but it also set a high bar that we felt we needed to surpass. That’s something that’s constantly driven us since, we’re always very conscious of pushing forward and delivering something that exceeds not just what people expect but what any right-minded game developer would be trying to deliver…
What were the biggest changes you wanted to make with Vice City after working on GTA III?
For me, the exciting thing was the contrast of sun and beaches with the concrete inner city we’d just finished on III. I still remember how happy it made me when I put the first palm trees around the map. We’d seen how people had somehow managed to fly the wingless plane we’d put in III and we were really keen to add flight to the game. That was challenging, building a world that was entirely solid and could be seen from any angle. It was worth it though, it gave us so many new experiences. Looking back, I think Vice City was when the story really started to grow into a much bigger part of the experience.
What was it about the 1980’s that you guys felt would be the perfect era to set the game?
I grew up in the ’80s - so did everyone involved in making the game. Working on the project was like revisiting your formative years for us. The ’80s had such a strong look and feel. Some decades float past and they don’t really have too much to say for themselves. Love it or hate it, that wasn’t the ’80s. Everything was immediately identifiable. It made our job easier, it tied everything together for us.
Did you think at any time that the dramatic change in location could be a risk and that GTA fans wouldn’t like it?
First and foremost, we’ve always created games that we want to play ourselves. We were totally into the location and the vibe of the game we were making, and I think we liked it so much we just assumed that other people would like it too.