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Penn: First  Grand Theft Auto  Was 'Almost Canned'
Penn: First Grand Theft Auto Was 'Almost Canned'
January 31, 2011 | By Staff

January 31, 2011 | By Staff
More: Console/PC

The Grand Theft Auto franchise is one of the commercial pillars of the video game industry, with the last entry, 2008's Grand Theft Auto IV, selling over 17 million units to date.

But the storied franchise was almost nipped in the bud, according to Gary Penn, who worked on DMA Design's original GTA, which released in the late 1990s.

"[The original GTA] was a real mess for years, it never moved on, it never went anywhere," Penn told Tristan Donovan in an interview featured on Gamasutra. This is the first time the conversation has been printed in full online, and is from Donovan's book Replay: The History of Video Games.

"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."

There were specific issues with the game, said Penn, who currently leads development at Scottish independent studio Denki.

"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," he added. "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," he explained, a game-breaking issue for a game based mainly around driving. "...The core of playing was fundamentally broken," he said.

But a serendipitous moment in the development of the game turned things around for the team, said Penn. "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," said Penn.

The full interview with Penn, who also explains his jump from game journalism in the 1980s to development, is available now on Gamasutra.

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John Woznack
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Having worked on some games myself, I can say that nearly every wildly cool feature or game play element that I've seen go into those games usually happened due to some unexpected "emergent behavior" (bug) in the code. And many times these events became the inspiration for the game designers or the team to take the game into a completely new, usually better, direction. To me, that's the real magic in video game development.

Carlos Obregon
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I somewhere read that combos in Street Fighter II came from an "emergent behavior"

It's truly magical when you are developing a game and you found something that you haven't thought before becoming a great future.

I also love when you explain something to someone, they misunderstand you and when then try to explain what they understood you think "Wow, that would be cool"

Luis Guimaraes
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I don't know about Street Fighter, but from Devil May Cry, that the air combos came from a bug in which Dante would stop while attacking in a jump, when making a combo, and wouldn't fall, hitting enemies in the air.

Chris Remo
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"Oh my God, the police are psycho."

Man that is a wonderful quote. It really imparts a strong sense of what it must have felt like to be in the office that day to experience the dawning realization that this weird technical side effect was actually a crucial puzzle piece in what became the game's identity.

I remember playing the original GTA when it came out, and that general sense of trying to keep a handle on a sense of chaos was one of the most compelling things about it (this was intensified by the very constrained amount of top-down vision). Obviously the game was about creating mayhem as a player, but you couldn't just go nuts all the time, because the police themselves weren't going to restrain themselves. You had to focus.

Rey Samonte
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I'm not sure how much of this is true, at the time, I was currently working at Barbour Langley Productions, the studio that produced the tv show COPS. I was currently in charge of updating their COPS website and my boss told me that he had a copy of this game GTA that he wanted us to check out on our free time. From what he told me, I believe the developer at that time was looking for some sort of promotional tie in with the show. The only reason I was told why COPS didn't endorse the game was because the game primarily favored the bad guys rather than the cops.

Again, I don't remember much of that but I wonder if BL regrets that decision?