clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

After ‘Grand Theft Auto III,’ Open-World Games Were Never (and Always) the Same

Twenty years ago, ‘Grand Theft Auto III’ set a new standard for open-world video games. The titles it inspired have grown bigger and busier, but it takes more than massive maps to give gamers the freedom they felt on their first trip to 3-D Liberty City.

Jonathan Bartlett

On October 22, 2001, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto III, a game that transported the publisher’s trademark criminal mayhem to an unimaginably immersive 3-D Liberty City. GTA III became a bestselling sensation that defined the open-world genre, spawning several sequels, inspiring countless imitators, and causing a cultural uproar. Twenty years later, we’re taking a look at its legacy while we wait for the upcoming GTA trilogy remaster, prepare to purchase yet another version of GTA V, and read rumors about the still-unannounced GTA VI. Welcome to GTA Day.

A smattering of memories from 2001, the year I turned 13: the death of my paternal grandmother, following several years of declining health; the Italian exchange student who emailed me a computer virus, following several weeks of uneasy cohabitation at my parents’ apartment; the high-level online Pokémon tournament I was forced to quit because of my duties hosting that exchange student; 9/11, of course. Not a whole lot more than that, I’m afraid. Time passes, memory fades, the accumulative effects of alcohol, marijuana, and Twitter conspire to pull a fast one on your brain, and so on, and so forth—the stuff great novels, and occasionally great movies, are made of.

Thus it’s with some mild surprise that within two seconds of thinking about it I located a firm memory of the first time I played Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto III, a game that rewired my—and possibly your—conception of what video games could look and play like, which is perhaps why I shouldn’t be so surprised to remember the moment even though I haven’t thought about it in 20 years. My buddy Steve and I have walked over to our buddy Tully’s house, where we’re going to sit with our buddy Tully’s older brother Ian in their parents’ living room, congregated around their boulder-sized television. My buddy Tully’s older brother Ian is hanging out with his own buddies, and while no one here is outwardly contemptuous, the kid brother’s snot-nosed friends merit no attention as history unfurls before us.

Not to make it sound like the moon landing. But kids today—to date myself by earnestly writing “kids today”—can’t exactly know what it was like to boot up a PlayStation 2 and drop into a three-dimensional world that looked just like ours, populated with skyscrapers and taxi cabs and passersby ambling down the street. Only none of this was window dressing, or walled off by the same invisible barriers preventing true movement in most video games we’d played—you could go here, you could go there, you could hop into a car and drive off the street onto the sidewalks, before launching yourself off a ramp and hurtling through the air and crashing into another car. You could play through the main story, about a lifelong criminal eking his way up the hierarchy of organized crime, or you could just roam for hours, unpacking every tucked-away secret inside this surprisingly detailed city. You could steal a police car and lead the cops on a wild and violent chase through that city, escalating the chaos until the military showed up with tanks and most likely put your joyriding crime spree to an end. Unless you stole the tank, too.

As a tween, all of this felt like the most unbelievable, incredible thing—an event worth crowding around the TV at my friend’s for, and hoping his brother would let me hold the controller for just a few minutes. But I am aware of the way that everything is magnified at that age, when your accumulated life experiences fit into a brochure. To confirm that my memories weren’t just accelerated nostalgia for an era when my concerns started and ended with “can I finish homework in time to play video games,” I dialed up video game developer Chris Stockman—best known as the design director on the original Saints Row—and asked him how he recalled GTA III’s release.

Stockman, who was in his 20s in 2001, had no great love for the first two Grand Theft Auto games—“terrible,” he called them. But he did buy everything new, and so he picked up GTA III at launch despite some hesitation. “I remember firing it up at home, and I was just stunned,” he said. At the time, he was working at Ritual Entertainment, a small video game company based in Dallas that was responsible for shooters like SiN and Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K. 2. “I came into work the next day, and I told my company that this was a game-changer. ... It unshackled games, at least from a 3-D perspective.”

Douglass Perry, who was the editor-in-chief of IGN’s PlayStation websites at the time, agrees—to an extent. Like me, Perry was wary of misrepresenting the truth just to make a point. “I do not want to look back on this and think sentimentally about it, or exaggerate it in any way,” he said over Zoom. He said there was no way of anticipating the impact GTA III would have, not in a year filled with watershed games—Metal Gear Solid 2, Halo, and Super Smash Bros. Melee, just to name a few. But from the first time he played GTA III, during a press trip in the months before the game’s release, there was no doubt about its quality. “There hadn’t really been a game as big, and as filled with cool stuff to do. ... There were so many well-thought-out details that it just kept opening up my idea of what a game actually was.” He gave it a 9.6 out of 10 in his firmly effusive review, concluding, “the game is absolutely, insanely good, and is truly one of the best titles of the year, on PlayStation 2, or on any system.”

Millions of other gamers agreed. GTA III became the highest-selling game of 2001 and the second-highest-selling game of 2002—just behind Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a sequel that transposed all of this crime gameplay into the neon 1980s. An iconic franchise was cemented into mainstream culture. By some metrics, Grand Theft Auto is now the sixth-best-selling video game franchise of all time; an original installment hasn’t come out since 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V, but hundreds of thousands of players worldwide still flood into that game’s online component, which generated nearly a billion dollars in revenue last year.

The games are synonymous with lots of things—violence-driven gameplay; an outré sense of humor that often shades into misogyny or homophobia; quality, given the franchise’s consistency over the past 20 years; the culture of crunch, given the thousands of hours required to make a game this deep; agony, given the wait for Grand Theft Auto VI—but its biggest legacy is this sense of freedom that Stockman and Perry and myself and many more remember from their first encounter with this pivotal installment. GTA III wasn’t the first open-world game—a sandbox environment in which you, the player, wander around a gigantic map exploring and completing tasks—but it was by far the most expansive and fully recognized up until that point. The open-world game is now the standard format of numerous franchises, such as Spider-Man, God of War, Assassin’s Creed, The Legend of Zelda, Rockstar’s own Red Dead Redemption, and many more, and Grand Theft Auto III was the inflection point. Its success would shape not just the genre over the next 20 years, but with it, the entire video game industry.

In the interest of research, I downloaded Grand Theft Auto III on my PlayStation 5 and played it seriously for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Though I did give it a short go in 2012 when I discovered the game had been ported to iOS, only to be stymied upon discovering that it’s basically totally fucking unplayable with touch controls.) The first thing that surprised me was how stripped down the game feels. The map is much smaller, especially since you start out with access to just one of Liberty City’s islands. There’s no dedicated minimap beyond the small, circular HUD in the corner, inspiring confusion across the internet as modern-day players realize they have to memorize where everything is. There aren’t many cars or people, relatively speaking—sometimes you’ll walk for what feels like hours, trying to find something to steal.

The list goes on. There are few of the fully fledged minigames like the darts, pool, tennis, or golf options that would dot subsequent GTA offerings. You can’t swing the camera around when you’re in motion, which makes aiming a nightmare. You can’t buy houses. You can’t buy anything besides guns, really—not even your protagonist’s outfit. Your protagonist’s name, by the way, is never mentioned, and he never talks. (His name would be revealed as Claude in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.)

At the time, when GTA III was the first of its kind, none of this mattered. Previous games had featured open maps driven by exploration (The Legend of Zelda), and some games had incorporated this dynamic into 3-D gameplay (uh, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time), and some games even did all of that in a modern-day city (Shenmue). But GTA III’s innovation was to build its game around a transgressive identity—the criminal—and let you loose. There were no real directives about what to do—some icons on the map indicated missions, but no artificial timer or series of in-game prompts nudged you to attempt progress. Many of the game’s secrets, like the ramps allowing you to attempt physics-defying jumps with your car, or the secret packages tucked down alleys and behind warehouses and on top of buildings, could be discovered only by roaming. And because Claude is such an anonymous cipher, you could play however you wanted—as a by-the-books hitman, an ace driver, a sociopathic murderer—without feeling any disconnect between the story and gameplay. (A contrast with some of the later editions, where an attempt to graft a basic sense of morality onto the protagonists clashed with the ability to equip a flamethrower and melt scores of citizens down to the bone.)

Perry, who had a front-row seat to what the industry was doing at the time, affirmed all this. “It was very violent, but it was also really open; you had the choices to do things that you could do in other games, but not with the huge geography and the amount of side stories and the random things you can do,” he said. “There was so much to explore that when you did the exploring, it was worth it. … The idea that you’re free to do any of those things meant that you could create a certain amount of chaos in the city without ever having to follow the story line. That freedom of being able to do whatever you want to do was really fully realized, unlike any game before.”

This freedom was epitomized through the game’s embrace of an industry term called “emergent gameplay,” wherein the player is allowed to solve a situation through several means. During one mission where he was supposed to pursue someone in a high-speed chase, Stockman recounted, he parked a row of cars on the street beforehand, in order to block his quarry’s path. “I bet the designers had no idea that people were going to do that, because they really wanted you to chase the car down,” he said. “But I found a way to sort of break the game, and to me, it wasn’t even breaking the game. It was just trying to find a more efficient way of killing this bad guy.” This sense of experimentation animated the impetus to mess around and see what you could accomplish with the provided tools.

DMA Design, the game’s developer, had mapped out a blueprint for what to do by way of the franchise’s earlier success. The first two Grand Theft Auto games were built around a similar formula: You, a criminal, traverse a fictional city and complete missions to climb the hierarchy within several interconnecting gangs. The sense of humor is louche; the violence is extravagant; the emphasis on the “grand theft auto” element is paramount. Those games were shot from an overhead perspective, owing to the technical limitations of the first PlayStation, but despite middling reviews they were embraced by players, with Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto 2 selling about 5 million copies combined around the world.

The leap forward that GTA III took was just a natural evolution of the franchise’s formula. “With the power and technology of PlayStation 2, we were able to bring the former 2-D, top-down world into full 3-D,” DMA lead producer Leslie Benzies told Perry in 2001. This technology allowed the world of Liberty City to continuously stream without interruption; while entering a building or starting a mission would lead to a loading screen, you could drive around the city with no break in the action. It also allowed for the incorporation of a 24-hour schedule, with the weather and sunlight changing depending on the time of day. Combined with an array of radio stations loaded with recognizable music, alongside some faux shock jocks, the player could have a truly unique experience—a moment when only they were driving around to a particular song, at a particular time of day, watching some drama unfold.

Patrice Désilets, the creator of Assassin’s Creed, brought up one such situation. Early on, a mission asks you to pick up the paramour of a mob boss and drive her around. “I was in a limousine, and there was opera on the radio, and it was raining at night,” he said. “Maybe other people in the world were experiencing that, but because of when I picked the limousine—that’s me.” With such a range of dynamic scenarios, the game’s violence didn’t need to take center stage. Désilets, for example, said he was more preoccupied with finding the best place to watch the sun rise. With some regret, he noted he was never able to put that into Assassin’s Creed.

Influence is difficult to quantify. It isn’t as though Grand Theft Auto III flipped a switch in every single studio and developer brain across the country, leading them to uniformly conclude, “Yes, yes, we must make a game that is just like this.” While there was a surge of open-world, crime-based games that came out in the following years—Mafia, True Crime: Streets of LA, The Getaway—these games were still just a sliver of the wider landscape. More accurately, GTA III raised the bar: Now, any crime-based game that didn’t offer total mobility, committed voice acting, a gigantic city, addictive gameplay, and a compelling narrative would feel hopelessly inadequate.

In many cases, though, GTA III did serve as an explicit influence. Assassin’s Creed initially began as an installment of the Prince of Persia franchise, following Désilets’s stewardship of 2003’s series-reviving Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. “GTA III came out not long before, and I said it would be nice if the main character was the car,” he said. “This time, it would be a third-person character that you could go anywhere with, and use all these acrobatic powers in order to move.” The development team revived a cut bit of material from The Sands of Time—a village at the bottom of the palace where the story takes place—and expanded it into a city where the character could move around. It kept expanding, and eventually the game split off from Prince of Persia to become its own franchise.

Chris Stockman was similarly direct about GTA III’s influence on Saints Row, probably the best and most successful of all the GTA successors. Stockman was hired at Volition when Saints Row—originally called Bling Bling—was already in development, albeit in a muddled state resembling more of a third-person shooter than an open-world game. “I came on board, and I said, ‘We’re going after GTA,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t care if we’re labeled a clone.’ We were going to be on the Xbox 360. ... There was all this stuff we were doing that was brand new, and I was like, people are going to love that. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so why reinvent the wheel?” Aided by next-gen technology and a riotously stupid sense of humor, Saints Row was an immediate hit that spawned multiple sequels (and a forthcoming reboot).

Even licensed games could lift from Grand Theft Auto to give their properties a boost. The official tie-in game for the 2004 movie Spider-Man 2 was set in an open-world city environment, allowing you to swing anywhere as Spider-Man—a novelty of superhero wish fulfillment that sold millions of copies and generated massive critical acclaim. The Tony Hawk franchise formally adopted an open-world setting for 2005’s American Wasteland; 2005’s The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction placed the Hulk in a city and let him wreak havoc; 2006’s The Godfather had you play as a fictional Corleone foot soldier, tasked with maintaining the family’s territory across a smudged version of New York City. Even 2003’s The Simpsons: Hit & Run was a shameless GTA III clone, repurposing GTA’s gameplay to create a shockingly engaging version of Springfield that’s still appreciated today as a cult classic.

Radical Entertainment’s 2006 release Scarface: The World Is Yours was one of these licensed successes, set in an alternate timeline where Tony Montana doesn’t die in a fiery shootout and must rebuild his Miami criminal empire one mission at a time. Pete Wanat, the game’s executive producer, said the decision to place the game in an open-world setting was simply common sense: If you’re going to take over a world, it has to feel like a world. Still, it was clear whose lead Radical, not to mention the entire industry, was following. “The notion that we were going to make a better open-world game than GTA was like, ‘Nah,’” he said. Most crucially, he said that GTA invented the language for how these games should handle. That’s why the triangle button (on the PlayStation controller) almost always correlates to “drive this vehicle,” whether it’s a car or a horse, no matter what game you’re playing.

As Wanat pointed out, the open world was a natural fit for many of these game’s premises—who wouldn’t want to swing around a city as Spider-Man? But there was another, more practical calculus at play. As the console wars settled into a three-way race with the introduction of the Xbox in 2001, the fight to catch gamers’ attention—and generate massive profits in the process—escalated dramatically. Within a year of release, GTA III sold 6 million copies and earned more than $250 million in revenue—a financial success that publishers across the industry grew eager to emulate.

Games set in these larger worlds could pack in an impressive amount of gameplay, stretching play time toward the dozens and even hundreds of hours as players sought to complete side missions, find all the collectibles, and explore every nook and cranny of an immaculately realized fictional world. The logic at bigger companies went something like this: Longer games with lots of content are more likely to sell, because gamers were looking to get value for their buck. Therefore, these sandbox games were worth prioritizing over more modest projects. (This financial calculus has continued to ascend to the present day, as developers increasingly shift toward a “games as a service” model built around endless online play and microtransactions.)

“THQ was hell-bent on proving themselves at that time,” Stockman confirmed. At first, he said, the company didn’t even want Saints Row to have a story: “There was a big part of leadership that just wanted a loose collection of things that you do, and you take over the city somehow. How do you do that? No one knows!” Even Rockstar fell prey to the sprawl, with 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas boasting a map that clocked in at nearly five times bigger than Grand Theft Auto III, and roughly doubled play time.

Video games aren’t cheap or easy to develop, and open-world games in particular are incredibly difficult to make well, considering the amount of content and graphical detail they contain. The demand for these more and more oversized games fundamentally altered the development cycle. GTA III was made by two dozen people; more than 1,000 worked on GTA V. Patrice Désilets saw his team expand from around 200 people on the first Assassin’s Creed to more than 800 by the time of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, the third and final installment he’d work on. “It was on Assassin’s Creed 2 that we decided to do a monster game,” he said, a direction the franchise would permanently steer toward. “After I’d cut a third of the game because it was too big, I remember receiving the call that said ‘No, no, no.’ And then we put more stuff in.”

By that point, the team was spread across the world, leading to what was essentially a 24/7 development cycle across multiple time zones. With middle management fastidiously tracking progress, and new, unfamiliar staff seemingly added to the team every time he turned around, the creative process swelled beyond recognition. “As a creative director, suddenly there’s a lot of parts, and it has to make sense,” he said. “And so you would say, ‘Well, you know, fuck it, I don’t care anymore.’” Brotherhood sold fantastically and received rave reviews, but from one vantage point there was almost too much content—“nearly bloated with fun things to do,” Kotaku wrote in its positive review. Désilets left Ubisoft shortly thereafter, and after a brief, tumultuous reunion with his former employer, ended up launching Panache, his own studio.

From the player’s standpoint, the frisson from that first encounter with an open-world game diminished with each subsequent offering. Suddenly, it just became standard to find yourself in a giant world with tons of stuff to do. (The phrase “Ubisoft game” has even become a shorthand for this experience.) “It’s not about accepting and going through the challenges put [in] by level designers; there’s a sense of, ‘Oh, I’m the actor,’” Désilets said. “Once you’ve experienced that, it’s tough to go back.” This is a subjective evaluation—Stockman and Perry stressed they still loved the open-world genre even as they pointed out its flaws, citing last year’s Ghost of Tsushima as a high mark—but with these games running longer and longer, finishing them morphed into a full-time commitment. In-game maps grew heavy with icons and checklists of tasks to complete, and while that might not be a problem for every player, it sure was tougher for the developers, many of whom now outsource some of the less glamorous world-creation work to AI or outside companies.

The struggle to build on previous success was epitomized by the disastrous launch of 2020’s Cyberpunk 2077, the most hyped video game in some time. CD Projekt Red, Cyberpunk’s developer, had struck massive gold with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a fantasy RPG packed with hundreds of quests to complete. Like Grand Theft Auto III, The Witcher 3 didn’t necessarily invent anything: It just did everything bigger and better, with more detail. Cyberpunk was sold as being even bigger and better and more detailed, but with the team unable to hit quality-control benchmarks even after months of delay, it shipped with hundreds of glitches and became an instant meme for its myriad faults. CD Projekt Red’s stock cratered, and though the game has subsequently been patched to some level of playability, it will never be able to satisfy those initial promises.

In September, a new development studio called Nesting Games announced its formation with a somewhat feisty mission statement. “We want to go back to creating RPGs that are focused on immersion, great characters, powerful storytelling, and strong gameplay,” chief creative officer Jordane Thiboust said in a press release. “We are moving away from the ‘massive open world’ model, full of icons to clean up, and returning to experiences that are content-driven and ultimately respect the player’s time.”

What made this statement notable was Thiboust’s bona fides: He was lead game designer on Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, as well as the associate game director on Immortals Fenyx Rising (though he left halfway through production). His six years at Ubisoft gave him firsthand knowledge of the way big-budget games are conceived at the corporate level, and the experience left him wanting more—or, actually, less. Like Désilets, he pointed out how the massive development teams on Assassin’s Creed increasingly left him and his peers with a feeling of alienation. “At some point, ownership among the team is diluted; people start losing focus, start losing motivation, and that’s pretty sad,” he said. “That’s why people are joining us at Nesting—they want to go back to having an impact on the game they produced, instead of feeling like a cog in the machine that’s so big no one can see it completely.”

As Thiboust described it, the wheel is turning throughout the industry: Over the past few years, more and more development studios composed of industry veterans have opened up, citing burnout and the resurgent need to work on games with a narrower focus. The rise of the indie developer is nothing new, but Thiboust’s statement was an explicit shot at the bloat that characterizes even the best open-world games. He and chief operations officer Fred Brassard were tight-lipped about the games Nesting is developing but said that they’ll be single-player RPGs in the mode of something like Deus Ex. “That’s the issue when you make a massive open world—it’s completely unsustainable to have high-quality content,” Thiboust said. “Playing an hour of our games should feel like watching a good episode of your favorite TV show. ... More and more people are looking for something that can be finished.”

Our conversation had me thinking about a potentially naive question: Why aren’t there more different kinds of open-world games? Twenty years out from GTA III, why are most of them still glossy murder simulators? Even a game like Ghost of Tsushima, breathtaking in its visuals and meditative rendering of feudal Japan, is built around killing scores of enemies. The answer largely has to do with the cost and time of developing these games: Given the financial investment, the big studios tend to veer away from experimentation in favor of something familiar and safe, especially as more and more people get involved at the management level. “You want to make sure that it’s vanilla enough so more people can actually get into it,” Désilets said. More often than not, that means killing shit.

The indie studio route offers more conceptual wiggle room. No Man’s Sky, an open-world space simulator where you explore dozens of procedurally generated planets, was built by a six-person team at British developer Hello Games. Though its initial launch inspired derision from gamers who noted its missing features, the game has been steadily patched and upgraded over the last five years to become a bona fide success, prioritizing exploration and discovery over the violence that a bigger studio might have included. Désilets himself led the development of Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, a stunningly ambitious game where you explore the dawn of human evolution by trying to help a pre-human tribe survive a predatory jungle world.

Ancestors, which came out in 2019, is like no other game I’ve ever played. It has all the surface production values of a big-budget, open-world game, but its experimentative gameplay resists categorization and offers few hints about how to master its interlocking systems—“Good luck, we won’t help you much,” a title card reads toward the beginning. Désilets said that the familiarity of most open-world games allows players to “see the Matrix” the moment they start playing, but Ancestors pointedly resists that transparency in an effort to create something new. The goal isn’t even to finish the game, he said—just to play around, and see where your brain goes. Ancestors has been downloaded over a million times since its launch, Désilets said, and he was personally validated by the amount of feedback he received from players about how the game had helped spark thoughts about the origin of our species.

Ancestors is, in most ways, completely different from GTA III. But as I messed around with its controls, attempting to figure out what this or that button would actually do and define the parameters of my exploration in this unfamiliar world, I sensed a kind of spiritual through line between the two games. When DMA and Rockstar developed GTA III more than 20 years ago, they were operating on a leap of faith that gamers would take the time and interest to navigate this colossal, detailed world unlike anything that had existed in the industry.

That gambit paid off, and now here we are. “We wouldn’t be talking about the open-world genre if not for GTA III,” Pete Wanat stressed. “They made the toughest possible genre, and they made it great.” The next paradigm-shifting open-world game may look nothing like it, but it will inspire the same sense of awe and discovery that all of us felt back in 2001. That’s a feeling no amount of time can dull.

Jeremy Gordon is a writer from Chicago who contributes to The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, and The Nation. He lives in Brooklyn.

Button Mash

The ‘Final Fantasy’ Party Draft

Button Mash

‘Final Fantasy’ Preview, ‘Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League,’ and ‘Halo’ Season 2

The Town

Did Disney Get Its Magic Back?

View all stories in Video Games