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Rockstar Art Director: “I’d Never Want to Rebuild a City,” Thinks it Would be Less Satisfying For Everyone

January 2, 2014 Written by Jason Dunning

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With Grand Theft Auto V winning multiplayer Game of the Year awards (or in our case, a runner-up), Edge chatted with Aaron Garbut, Art Director at Rockstar North, where he looked back on the development of the record-breaking game and how it’s changed since they first started:

It’s hard to remember the original vision now. We always have a very basic idea of what we want to achieve, but from day one it’s evolving and adapting. As a game, the initial vision is always very rough. We decided right at the start we wanted to do three switchable characters, we decided who the main characters were and we decided the general tone for the game. Then we just built and evolved and let the game dictate itself.

[Having] multiple characters was a leap of faith. It was an interesting idea, and it felt like we could do interesting things with it, but it also felt like a change to the core of the game that might backfire. I think it really worked out. It’s so hard during development to get perspective – you get so used to looking for the problems that it becomes almost impossible to step back and see the positives. On this project, despite living in that world for years, playing the missions again and again, it felt fun. It felt great to experience the world, to see it evolve from the basic building blocks to the finished detailed results with all the scenarios and life added. I still think of it like a real place in a lot of ways. That’s an amazing thing – to build what feels like a real place and then for nearly 30 million people to live there.

As a group of people, we’re never short of ideas. There are always things that come up during development that you want to add. Often we do, but the closer you get to release, the less that happens. I don’t feel like the game fell short, but there is undoubtedly a huge volume of plans and ideas that we wanted to do to push it further.

What I love about our GTA Online plans is that the game is no longer static. We can continue to add these things and evolve. That’s even more exciting these days, where through forums, Reddit, etc, we have a real direct connection to the people playing the game. We can respond to what they are into and what they hate more than ever. It’s something that really suits the way we work, the way we’re always trying to adapt the experience and avoid walking blindly down a set path.

One of the biggest elements (if not THE biggest) to any Grand Theft Auto game is the city you’ll be playing around in. To get a little bit more information about how Los Santos was created, Garbut was asked how the design was affected due to it being so closely related to Los Angeles:

We always use the same process: working with real cities, starting on a macro level to define the districts we want to use, and working down. I think the only variation is how many real landmarks we decide to use once we get to the individual building level. I always feel we build our own world – we’re still a long way from being dictated by reality. Instead, we use it as a starting point. We’ll move entire districts about geographically, never mind individual buildings.

I’d never want to rebuild a city. I think that would be a lot less satisfying both for us to build and for the player to play. In a lot of ways, it would be less convincing, too. At least that’s how I rationalize it to myself. Only a relatively small subset of players ever get to know the real LA or New York. Most experience it through film and TV, or through short visits, and that’s a highly edited representation. We do the same: we take the feel of a city, the one we get through visiting and through experiencing it our whole lives through media, and build that. We compress, we edit, we emphasise certain things and we end up with something that in some ways, I think, feels more like the popular perception of the place than the actual city. Only because the popular perception isn’t the real city, if that makes sense.

If Rockstar ever did rebuild a city for a future Grand Theft Auto title, which one would you want it to be? Let us know in the comments below.