An ex-Rockstar Games director has revealed some GTA San Andreas development secrets. These include early decisions made on the map and how their own confidence became an issue.
The former technical director at Rockstar North, Obbe Vermeij, started a blog this month titled, “inside rockstar north”. He is sharing memories and reasons behind some of the ways Rockstar made their classic games.
During his spell at the Scottish studio from 1995 to 2009, Obbe worked on several big titles at Rockstar. GTA III, Vice City, San Andreas, and GTA VI are just a few of the games he has been credited for.
His latest blog entry is titled Development of San Andreas (2003-2004) and as you’d expect, SA is the focus of it.
Getting started on San Andreas
Vice City was a mad dash to get done in time. Everybody was worn down and it was clear another one year game was not an option.Obbe Vermeij
As we’ve covered here, GTA Vice City took its toll on the developers. Vermeij described development on the game set in Miami as “more stressful than GTA III.”
With Vice City taking only 12 months to make, that reduced the amount of iteration that was done compared to GTA III. A longer development period was granted for San Andreas to make sure innovation could be achieved. The team at Rockstar North felt a sense of belief and ability to raise the bar of open world games thanks to the extended development time.
The map nightmare
We also have got some insight into how Rockstar North worked. The major decisions on a game were made by just 5 people. According to Obbe, he still has nightmares about a meeting that took place at Rockstar North regarding San Andreas. He explains that 3 members of the team “wanted the cities to be on different maps.”
The reason behind that line of thinking is that it would save on resources. All of the assets that weren’t in one city didn’t have to be stored when the player moved to the next. This is exactly what the very first GTA game did, 3 cities on 3 maps. Obbe did not want to go down this route. He wanted players to drive from each city seamlessly. The 5th member of the decision making team was not present on this fateful day and the others were unconvinced.
It was super frustrating as it seemed we were about to make a massive mistake.Obbe Vermeij
Change in direction
Another meeting took place just the next day and the 5th person returned who agreed with Obbe. That person appears to be Leslie Benzies. Obbe says “Leslie Benzies had a strong opinion on something, that would be just what we did. He seemed to have the best judgement” During this meeting, he got the team to agree that the cities should be on the same map and “Disaster averted”.
Vermeij notes he isn’t always right. In fact he says “I am often spectacularly wrong. For a while I wanted gta3 to be topdown. I implemented the topdown camera and argued for it to be the default.” Imagine the world if that is what released!
Much like Vice City from GTA III, this new GTA game would use Vice City as a base. The main difference would be more innovation.
Many things were improved but no structural improvements were needed.Obbe Vermeij
Rockstar Games flew out the team on another trip to capture the Golden State. This involved driving from Las Vegas to LA up to San Francisco. The artists made sure to take as many reference photos as possible.
This expansive map was a difficult task. “The 3 cities with the country side in between, almost killed the map artists. gtaIII and Vice had maps of 4x4km and even then there was loads of water. The SA map was 6×6 and densely packed.” says the former technical director.
The devil is in the detail
The RPG elements caused real problems.Obbe Vermeij
Fans are still fond of GTA San Andreas’ inclusion of mechanics such as CJ gaining weight as you ate. However, this was just one of many problems occurring. Due to the change in weight, CJ would be unable to sprint or climb particular walls leading to soft locks in missions.
When the player got hungry, his stomach would rumble. Players started going onto Mount Chiliad to look for big foot (one particularly persistent rumour). Many players thought they could hear big foot not realizing it was their rumbling stomach.Obbe Vermeij
Details were still being strived for. Rockstar New York would continue research by studying gangs in LA. Minor characteristics such as different gangs having different walk animations were insistent upon.
“So why did we include so many features?” Obbe asks as he vividly remembers the meeting that added stealth to San Andreas. It was another feature that was not necessary nor was anyone actually passionate about. Yet yet they pulled it off. The desire to push entertainment forward came at a cost, they were constantly making production more difficult for everyone involved.
Feature creep is a major issue of games development. Implementing more features creates more bugs. To help alleviate the issues, more developers were hired and the Manhunt team got involved once they finished that game. GTA San Andreas concluded with 80 team members not counting the QA team nor New York’s QA and production staff.
Over the line
Despite all of the extra hands, demanding crunch was put on the teams at Rockstar. It got so bad Rockstar hired a chef to cook for those who stayed well past home time.
Even though nothing can truly reclaim time lost at work, Obbe fondly remembers visiting a large game store for the midnight release:
I didn’t expect it to be too busy but there was a line of 50 meters or so. I bumped into 2 artists from the office doing the same thing. We were standing there looking at all these people being so excited. People got their game and hurried straight home to play the game we’d made, all through the night. It was magical.
That’s the thing about making games. You’re just working away in an office and it’s hard to gage the excitement of players out there. Especially before the internet, you just didn’t have that feedback.Obbe Vermeij
Obbe Vermeij’s blog is rich in new inside information; it is a treat and worth a read on other games from Rockstar.