Beautiful Chaos: The Grand Theft Autobiography – Gamerhub Exclusive

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After 25 years of media silence, Stewart Waterson is finally ready to reveal what happened behind-the-scenes of the original GTA in his own personal Grand Theft Autobiography.

Over the next few months we will be sharing previously unheard anecdotes, secrets, and images. With topics ranging from map design to mobsters & movie stars, a new article will be released every two weeks.

Welcome to the first article of the series, as Stewart explores his entry into the games industry, joining the GTA team, and successfully co-conspiring to sneak in some franchise-defining mayhem.

It’s been 25 years, and I don’t think the story’s been told yet.” – Stewart Waterson

“I wasn’t a heavy gamer at all. It was my friends that were the gamers. I very luckily fell into designing games. Working on games wasn’t something that I thought I could do, or even knew I wanted to.

“A couple of friends asked me to help them with some work for an art exhibition, located in a small gallery above a pub in Edinburgh. I hustled and managed to pull some work together in time. The Art Director from DMA Design (currently Rockstar North Limited), David ‘Oz’ Osborne, happened to be there and saw my work. He asked if the guy who did ‘all the weird shit’ would come over for an interview. I jumped at the chance, and became employee number 30 at DMA Design by the end of 1993.”

DMA Office Circa 1995
Image credit: Steve Hammond

DMA Design

Back then DMA Design had already released a few games and had a very strong gaming culture. If people weren’t making games then they were playing them, talking about them, or reading reviews in magazines about upcoming titles or new trends.

I’d left school a few years previously with a C in Art and zero computer knowledge, so they put me in front of an Amiga (an early PC) with an art package called D Paint. A few colleagues ran me through the basics by showing me their work, games of note, tips, tricks, and ideas on reference materials. That was the training.

Learning On The Job

To be honest, it had a real sense of if you could impress these guys you were doing something right. I had to learn from how to switch on the blinking machine to tackling each new skill package-by-package. Whether it was 2D graphics, animating objects, creating characters, building levels, testing the game, everything was learnt by jumping in and doing it.

There was no formal training at all, apart from the software tutorials that were packaged with each new piece of software you had to learn. You could ask for help, but the development teams… How do I say this diplomatically? It was everybody grabbing what they could for notoriety, respect, and excellence. It was a very very fast river, and it was sink or swim. 

Lemmings 3
Image Credit: Sony

The first game I worked on was Lemmings 3. I had to learn all aspects of my role as a 2D artist & animator (and key elements of game design) on the production floor. It took about a year to finish that game, working by trial-and-error on one of early gaming’s most established franchises. That experience taught me a lot about how games were constructed.

Race ‘n’ Chase

After Lemmings 3, the next project to start was a racing game called Race’n’Chase. I joined the team raring to go with some key knowledge on the ‘do’s & don’ts’, all learned the hard way. But more importantly, I now knew how to put together the type of shit I wanted to play.

Grand Theft Autobiography: Street furniture
Image credit: Stewart Waterson

I was the first artist on the project, in charge of designing, modelling and rendering the 3D vehicles, as well as the 3D animation of characters and pedestrians. I was involved in a number of key game design features, which the game was built on and still feature to this day.

Race’n’Chase was never meant to be a game about criminality. It was a driving game with various game modes like race, cops and robbers, and demolition derby.

Myself and Ian Johnson, a new coder on the team and my flatmate at the time, fixated on the idea of the character being a getaway driver. It was then that the concept of criminality as a game mechanic really struck me.

Grand Theft Autobiography: Concept work
Image credit: Stewart Waterson

Work In Progress

I have a rough sketch that I devised for the game back in 1995 (above left). It’s a drawing of a PC with a DMA cup and mouse mat beside it, with ‘Race’n’Chase’ on the screen and the strapline “You can’t drive with handcuffs on”. In the corner it has the music genre ideas for it, which is ‘Joy Rider – Techno, Big Beat & 70’s Funk’, and other radio stations.

Whilst working myself and the other artist would listen to a huge amount of Hip Hop and Gangsta Rap like Wu-Tang Clan, Ice-T and Public Enemy. The team would swap CDs and be listening to things like Leftfield, The Chemical Brothers, and Underworld. We didn’t realise it at the time, but we were influencing and building the foundations for GTA’s radio stations one tune at a time. 

Grand Theft Autobiography: Moodboard
Image credit: Stewart Waterson

Change Of Direction

My focus was: “Fuck. I’ve got a chance to make a game here that is actually what I want to play, what I want to make, and what I knew my friends wanted to play as well.”

We’d all previously worked together on another game and had the same project lead, Keith Hamilton, who saw me as a bit of a wild card. Myself, and a fair few others on the team, had jumped on the idea of criminality and there was a design team, run by Dave Jones, that would pitch suggestions and influences… which were largely ignored or challenged.

‘Wouldn’t it be good if you could play as a cop?’

‘No.’

‘Wouldn’t it be good if you didn’t just play as a baddie?’

 ‘No’ 

‘Undercover c–?’

‘Nope.’

A lot of ‘nos’, and a lot of ‘we know better’.

But did they really?

Grand Theft Autobiography – Read On…

To read the rest of the first installment of Stewart’s Grand Theft Autobiography, visit Gamerhub.co.uk.

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