The Replay Interviews: Gary Penn

By Tristan Donovan

[In the writing of his history of the video game industry, Replay, author Tristan Donovan conducted a series of important interviews which were only briefly excerpted in the text. Gamasutra is happy to here present the full text of his interview with Grand Theft Auto developer Gary Penn.]

Gary Penn's professional involvement in the games began in 1985 when he became a journalist on the anarchic games magazine Zzap!64 reporting on the weird and wonderful output of the UK's early games industry.

Since then he has made to leap from journalist to developer, working on titles such as Frontier: Elite II and the first three Grand Theft Autos, and currently leading development at Scottish independent studio Denki.

This interview is the latest in a series of interviews conducted for Tristan Donovan's recent book Replay: The History of Video Games and being published in full for the first time by Gamasutra.

In it, Penn concentrates on the earlier part of his career, talking about the early days of the British games business, and sharing his thoughts on the rise of the indie scene and recalls the troubled birth of Grand Theft Auto.

You started out as a journalist working for magazine Zzap!64 during the early days of the games industry in the UK. What was it like working as a journalist at that time?

Gary Penn: A great feeling. The whole vibe was -- I wouldn't say 'Wild West' -- but there was definitely a sort of sense of it being the beginning of something big. It's easier to say that with hindsight but it was a really good sort of community. Everybody seemed to know everybody else, what they were up to. There were a lot of friends made. It was a fantastic time.

You had this sense that anyone could do anything and curiously I think it's like that now, but now it's better than then because you've got opportunities that are so much greater than they ever were. But it's quite weird -- last year [2008] I just had a very similar feeling to back then.

Due to the rise of digital distribution?

GP: Yes, primarily. You've got all these different platforms to develop for now. Whether you consider Flash a platform or Java a platform. There are many other tools -- the amount of middleware, development packages, freeware libraries.

The scope for being able to make something and not just games. If you want to make a film now, you can buy a digital camera for like £30, so if you're a kid who's fired up as I used to be, the potential to make stuff is just fantastic on any level. I've never seen anything like it -- it's the best time ever.

You've got the similar kind of vibe that we had back in the mid-'80s, but with much more opportunities than ever before. There's more chance to, not just make stuff, but to be heard. The thing about the time and the feeling that is similar to now is that it felt like one person could make a difference. It felt like anyone could do anything, but the general gist was everyone was kind of making it up as they went along. There was certainly a sort of punk ethos underpinning it.

It was also quite entrepreneurial. It was almost a punk do-it-yourself thing but also a sort of Thatcherite thing.

GP: Yes, I never really grasped it. I was a bit stupid -- not stupid, but my energy was very different -- it's never been one of commercial interest, it's always been just the doing, the making.

Looking back and I didn't see it myself at the time as a kid playing games in the '80s, but the games coming out of the UK in the 1980s were bizarre. Very surreal compared to anywhere else in the world, apart from maybe Japan.

GP: Yes we were definitely. The UK was very much at the forefront of this. You'd have games about cleaning teeth. One that's just sprung to mind, which was quite bizarre, was Dancing Monster on the Commodore 64. You shot a monster who fell to pieces to reveal a princess underneath. It was just the stupidest ideas, really good fun. People were making all sorts of weird shit because they could afford to take these risks.

The barriers to entry was really low, anyone could afford to buy. They didn't have to go through the sort of hoops that you had to go through with console publishing, where the barrier to entry is quite high. Literally anyone in his bedroom who had half a brain and some passion could make something and get it in the hands of people. More long winded than it is now, when you can just upload it, but it was a sort of low-tech version of that back then.

Given some of the games, you kind of think "well maybe drugs are involved there."

GP: Well yes, drugs were around. There was mainly a lot of drinking, but yes there were definitely circles of drugs but it wasn't as prevalent and as glamorous as maybe the music industry or the film industry might portray it. And I think that didn't actually have that much of an influence. It was just people trying out stuff.

Certainly there was a point where innovation started to dry up and that's where the industry felt like it was growing up. The companies start growing up because there's so much more money involved and they just have to -- business becomes much more prevalent.

It just felt like the life got sucked out of the industry. You were talking about teams all of a sudden and it wasn't just one guy or even one coder or one artist. It was suddenly teams and these teams cost money. The whole thing just escalated and it felt like it was at the expense of originality. I don't know if that's actually the case, I've never looked back to see, but it felt like it.

Oh, it's all licenses and, you know, it's the same old arguments that I see repeat themselves every five years or so. Even recently with people bemoaning licensed games and I'm thinking "Christ, this is so familiar, this is this shit so often." Someone sent me an old editorial I'd written in Zzap! I think it was from '87 or '86 even. And that's me as a 19-year-old bemoaning the unoriginality. I didn't remember it and it was just quite an unpleasant experience to know that these things don't actually change.


Did games from the U.S. seem very different at the time?

GP: Yes, you did get quite a strong cultural sense. It kind of got homogenized and it's inevitable. I'm not decrying this, I don't think it's a bad thing. There is a homogenism that has occurred as things become more global and that I think in many respects is a very good thing.

One thing that is missing that is coming back now is that there was this real dead period where the individuality was missing. The stuff from America wasn't necessarily slick. It was usually bloatier, because they would rely more on disk drives out there.

The perception was that they were lazier about the way they handled this stuff. I don't know if this is true. Whereas we had cassette tapes and had to keep loading down and had to be much more efficient with the way we wrote things and did things.

But the Americans were ahead of the curve in that they had these teams. It felt like the Americans are coming and they're bringing this bulk, this fatness, this bloated wisdom and it was spoiling things. Again I'm not sure if this is really the case, it's just how it felt at the epicenter.

It didn't really matter -- we just wanted to play games all the time and you didn't really care who made it, where it came from, what it was about, what it looked like as long as it played. And to be honest, sometimes even if it didn't play that well, as long as it was different and interesting in some way that's all that matter. From a personal standpoint it was kind of enriching to have something different into your life, particularly when something that you grow up with that was culturally a very different parallel to what was going on.

So maybe my parents grew up with music becoming much more the dominant prevalent media with the rock 'n' roll period and to a lesser extent punk at the very tail end of that. My medium would have been video games, very much from the early '70s. So yes, you have that hunger; it's so fresh.

So how did you make the leap from journalist to game designer?

GP: I used to make games when I was younger. I used to code, mainly BASIC, but supplement it with machine code. I've always made stuff. I like making stuff and, as I say I like making stuff with people, that's great fun. So it didn't feel weird to me. To me the medium was the thing that was interesting. What you did with it -- giving, taking or commenting -- were really almost irrelevant.

If I hadn't have got into journalism, I suspect I would have started my own games company, so god knows where that would have gone. I was a freelance producer for Konami for about a year or so I think. The main two I did were Batman -- one of the Batman licenses, I forget which one it was. And the other one was with David Braben on Frontier. In '94/'95 I joined BMG Interactive as a producer.

After that you ended up at DMA Design working on Race 'n' Chase, the early version of what would become Grand Theft Auto. Am I right to think that originally you played the cop?

GP: As I recall, it was either/or. It was basically cops and robbers. It didn't really have much -- it had an odd structure at the time and it was very much a traditional mission-based thing. You chose your missions and it was quite linear in the way it worked.

But I'd been working on Frontier, which is very different and there were definitely other people on the team who had things like Syndicate, Mercenary and Elite very much in their minds as well. That combination definitely led to the more open plan structure there is now.

The game as it stands now is basically Elite in a city, but without quite the same sense of taking on the jobs. You take on the jobs in a slightly different way, but incredibly similar structurally. It's just a much more acceptable real world setting. The game was cops and robbers and then that evolved fairly quickly -- nobody wants to be the cop, it's more fun to be bad.

And then that evolved into Grand Theft Auto and it was a real mess for years, it never moved on, it never went anywhere. It never really felt like it was going anywhere. It was almost canned. The publisher, BMG Interactive, wanted to can it, as it didn't seem to be going anywhere.

What was so wrong with it?

GP: There are probably two key things it fell down on. Two critical things. One of them is stability, which is a really boring one but it crashed all the fucking time. So even if you did get something in the game, you couldn't really test it. The designers couldn't test stuff out or try things out, it just kept crashing as simple as that. That was a boring one, but that was pivotal -- so that was the first step to get that knocked out.

Now the other thing that was a problem was the handling -- the car handling was appalling. There was a point in it where you used to have a button for opening the doors and it was just rubbish. I can't remember if this is true because we used to joke about it that you even had to start the engine. It was awful, it was too sim-y.

And there was a whole living city thing that crept into it. That kind of inspires people to be more realistic and simulate more often. That steers you in a certain direction.

But there were people on the team constantly trying to get that fixed. So the core of playing was fundamentally broke. There were steps being taken to fix that, but it wasn't really gelling together. The police behaved really badly, the way they originally worked was just rubbish.

Then one day, I think it was a bug, the police suddenly became mental and aggressive. It was because they were trying to drive through you. Their route finding was screwed I think and that was an awesome moment because suddenly the real drama where, "Oh my God, the police are psycho -- they're trying to ram me off the road."

That was awesome, so that stayed in. It was tweaked a little bit, but that stayed in because that was great fun. Suddenly the game got more dramatic and it's no longer boring -- the police trying to pull you over. They're after you, they're trying to ram you off the fucking road. Everybody suddenly went, "Hey this is actually pretty cool. There's something in this, this is working." It was less about the mission stuff, which we always thought was another mess, and more about just general play -- just being able to piss around.


Was there a deliberate attempt to be controversial with ideas such as being able to run down whole lines of Hare Krishnas?

GP: Mostly not I think. There's an impishness, a kind of childish quality to everybody working on games - you've got to have a sense of that child within you. It's a gamey thing. Forget, just for a minute, that they are people and forget that they are supposed to be a line of Hare Krishnas. Look at it purely in game terms.

I've got this toy that I'm thrusting down the street. Forget it's even a car. I see a line of something that I can influence in a dramatic way as I run into them and it clearly reacts to the fact that I run into them. I chain them, that's a gamey thing to do. That's really the motivation. It's not, "Hey, it would be really good if you good run down a Krishna."

There is definitely an element of that -- don't get me wrong -- but it's not a pure driven thing. The bulk of it is about the player experience, where you're trying to make these gamey things work.

Certainly a lot of the language was very strong -- we had to tone all that down -- but there's a cheat mode in the first one, if you type your name in as "I am Gary Penn," you get the super swearing version.

But then you had Max Clifford in charge of the PR, stirring up the controversy. Was it a deliberate attempt to get MPs crying out against your game?

GP: I can't remember because the main thing I remember was that we were so desperate to get the game finished and that it was really difficult getting it to work for the PlayStation because it just wasn't viable in that format. We were just so hung up on getting it finished that we didn't really get involved in any of that stuff.

In a few of the interviews during the development of Grand Theft Auto 2 there was talk about trying a 3D version that didn't work. What's the story?

GP: We tried it with the first one actually, but it was definitely beyond the team's capabilities at the time. We tried other 3D elements but the challenge was too high, so there were actually three or four attempts to do a 3D one before Grand Theft Auto III.

It was the core of the Space Station Silicon Valley team who took over GTA III and they were an incredibly capable team. They had just done Silicon Valley in 3D, so they had the attitude and the ability to take the 2D game and put it in 3D.

So yes there were a few attempts to do it before that, but it didn't really work out. It just felt like we'd never be able to make this work. It is incredibly difficult. That's why Grand Theft Auto still has so little competition. It's a really fucking hard game to make. It's a really hard game to make in 2D, it's really, really hard to make in 3D. So that the third one ever came out, it's really impressive. It's a great achievement in that respect.

So you were surprised they managed to do it?

GP: No, I had absolute faith. The core team on that -- they were just such a really capable quartet. Those four guys were just so good. I had absolute faith in them being able to deliver. There was never really any doubt. It was really, I guess, about when.

You know, how long this stuff would take because it's such an involved thing to do and the fact that they did it in the timescale they did -- it's unbelievable. It really is.

What do you think of what the game's become?

GP: Erm, it's got what I like in it. The thing is I never liked the missions in it at all. I never liked them in the first one, the second one, or the third one. I don't like missions. The missions bore the hell out of me. They always feel fake, they always feel long-winded. That's the one thing that's always fallen down for me.

The one thing that never got built up enough was that kind of Elite aspect, where you would take on jobs and the jobs would be more generic than specific missions and through that you would earn cash. When we were doing Grand Theft Auto III at the beginning, the plan was to build an entire city system. A sort of generic city system that we would use for all sorts of different types of things, all sorts of different types of games.

You've basically got a core toy set that compromises of a bunch of boxes for a city, a couple of vehicles, some action figures that can run around and use weapons. That's the core which sounds deliciously simple but is incredibly complex as a result. That's at the heart of Grand Theft Auto.

Grand Theft Auto III was kind of a first step to building the city system. The idea was with the city system you could do all sorts, you could do story driven stuff, you could do less story driven stuff. You could re-use the same city over and over again.

Of course Grand Theft Auto now doesn't need that. They've so successfully mined one aspect of that, there's no need for the rest of that. Nothing is even near them. I mean, it's anything but a lazy game but they don't have the pressure if no one else is doing it anywhere near as well as they're doing it.

My point of view is it's stagnating. That's not, from tens of millions of people's perspective, a problem. But for somebody who's over exposed to playing games, it's not moving fast enough for me. But I'm not the audience, so it's kind of irrelevant.

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