The tech that built an empire: how Rockstar created the world of GTA 5

16th Sep 2013 | 12:23

The tech that built an empire: how Rockstar created the world of GTA 5

And what's hidden away in the Blaine County mountains?

It's GTA on another level

If architects are the unsung heroes of the modern world, spare an extra special thought for Aaron Garbut. Since Grand Theft Auto 3, Rockstar North's art director has been creating virtual playgrounds that aren't just ambitious, but often resonate as much as their real-world inspirations.

Now hoards of gamers are about to descend on the latest fruit of Rockstar's labours, Grand Theft Auto 5, and are set to experience an open world environment that's more daring than anything the series has attempted before.

"I've always been proud of the worlds we've built, but this one really is on another level all together," Garbut tells us. "I think the immersive thing is that, as large and detailed as it is, it always has more to give.

"There's always new things to see, and layers of detail on the ambient life that really makes it feel like there's stuff going on without you. It's a world with which you interact and exist, it doesn't feel like a facade that's created around you."


And don't we just know it. Having dipped our toes into the San Andreas waters ourselves we're ready to take the plunge. This is a very different place to the one we visited with CJ back in 2004. It's richer, more vibrant, and in many ways never-ending.

From facing off sharks on the ocean floor to taking in the view from the peak of Mount Chiliad, Rockstar wants us to not only experience San Andreas this time, but breathe it.

"All the little lights you see in the far distance are real, you can drive towards them and find the bulb that casts the light"

But despite a lot of speculation that the game would arrive for the dawn of the PS4 and Xbox One, GTA 5's release on the current generation left the question of how much Rockstar could possibly wring out of the existing systems. Would there be anything left after GTA 4, Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3?

"Technologically the biggest achievement has been squeezing this all into the console's memory and making it run as smoothly as it does," says Garbut.

"I think it's pretty staggering that you can be in a jet flying fast and high above the clouds, looking past the mountains to the city below you and then hit eject and parachute out over the map, seeing the world sprawled out beneath you and knowing the level of detail that exists across everything you can see."

Engines for engines

GTA hasn't just got bigger either - it's evolved in almost every other aspect too. "Everything is so much further on than it used to be," Garbut tells us. Grand Theft Auto 4 may have been the first of the series to take RAGE (Rockstar Advanced Game Engine) for a spin, but it was also in its infancy.

Over the past five years the entire engine and its mechanics have been fine-tuned to point that it's "effectively become the new RAGE," according to Garbut.


"Originally RAGE was a set of components - a basic rendering engine, a physics engine and the like. It was never a game engine. When we started Grand Theft Auto 4, RAGE was a toolset that gave us the basics for a rendering engine and a physics engine that we were able to build on."

"Over the past five years through 5's development, they have evolved, standardised and generalised the GTA engine," he says.

"Now, since Max Payne 3, we have a standardised full game engine across all titles at Rockstar. This is amazing since it gives all our games the same building blocks to pick and choose from, and it means all our artists are familiar with the same toolset.

"It's so much more than what RAGE originally was or what Renderware was for us in the past. This is effectively a finished game that we then build on and steer towards each title's needs."


"We can stream far more and compress far more into memory, meaning orders of magnitude more detail than we had in 4," adds Garbut. "The graphics engine has been overhauled, which gives us much better rendering of characters, vehicles and the world as a whole."


"The thing I want people to see most is the scale, to fly over the city in a jet, to look over the countryside from the top of a mountain as the sun goes down."

Considering the sheer size of the map, the level of detail that RAGE affords in GTA 5 is hugely impressive. While not a whole generation away from number 4, time has taught the technology how to squeeze every last drop from the current gen.

"The water has moved forward massively, and we have a far more accurate lighting model and generally a far better lighting system, both in terms of quality and quantity," says Garbut. "We render more lights and we render them much, much further."

"Our weather systems are far in advance of what we've had in the past, building on the cloud systems and rain systems from Red Dead Redemption. If you look at a night based screenshot, all the little lights you see in the far distance are real, you can drive towards them and find the bulb that casts the light.

"The animation system is amazing. It's able to blend in so many actions incredibly smoothly to give us a really rich movement across all characters. It also utilises the streaming improvements to give us huge amounts of variety and specific actions, allowing us to seamlessly blend in and out of cutscenes. They stop being interruptions to play, so you feel much more connected to the story."


A perfect example is in one of the game's earlier missions, Three's Company, a cinematic heist that requires players to switch between Michael, Franklin and Trevor.

The three-way dynamic is one important way GTA V has evolved from its predecessors, while packing the game with more heist missions was response to gamers' love for GTA 4's Three Leaf Clover. Go back and play that mission now and there's an odd sense of foreshadowing.

Cityscaping and Grand Theft Auto Online.

Before Grand Theft Auto 5's first teaser trailer hit in November 2011, gamers were busy speculating about where 5 might be headed. San Andreas was the bookies' favourite, but some felt a return to Vice City was on the cards. Others thought we might even see Rockstar reclaim the streets of London.

However it doesn't take a lot of roaming around GTA 5's map to see why it was important to revisit Vinewood. San Andreas had plenty more to give, and Rockstar had plenty more love to give it. But when faced with putting down the first brick, where do you choose to begin?

"We always start with the roads then we build out the city, then the terrain, then the ocean floor," Garbut tells us. "We get the roads in first so we get an idea of the districts and how they flow together and get a feel for how the scale feels as you drive around the world. Then a small team blocks in each area - this is our pre-production - and it took the best part of nine months this time."


But while the Grand Theft Auto series has prided itself in replicating famous landmarks, it's also had to grapple with a reality that a lot of people don't often consider: cities are actually kind of boring.

Full of repetition and areas of sprawling, concrete nothingness, it's fair to say that only a small part of any urban metropolis is actually worth recreating. So how does the team make sure GTA's take on Los Angeles is better than the real thing?

"I think everything in 4 has been found, I'm not sure if the same thing will happen for 5"

"Firstly we are distilling massive areas down so we remove repetition," says Garbut. "We obsess over each district and look at what looks good, what looks fun, what could provide good dramatic backdrops to action or cutscenes.

"Our goal is to take a city and pick out the key bits that define it, whether that's a key building, a street or a district. That gives us the flavour of the city and helps us to capture the feel.

"Then we try to make sure that everything we add flows together well and feels natural. While we are doing that we just make sure what we're adding works to build sightlines and skylines in a more sculptural sense. Creating interesting shapes and framing views.

"Then finally from a playability viewpoint we want to make sure it feels good to drive through, to climb over, and then we can play about with the details."

Letting it grow

Struggling to visualise the size of GTA 5's map? Think Red Dead Redemption, GTA 4 and GTA: San Andreas combined, according to earlier reports. For once, Rockstar hasn't made use of the cutting board.

"Normally we chop things down," says Garbut. "On GTA 4 we cut four or five blocks north to south from all the islands about 60% of the way into production to cut areas that weren't working and save time. On 5 we didn't chop. Everything worked, it flowed really well and instead we just let the areas evolve through continuous iteration."


When it comes to replicating Grand Theft Auto's locations, much of the work comes from teams being sent out on the ground. But Garbut admits that they have a few tools to make matters easier. "Google maps and the like have helped immensely," he says.

"It's always better to see things for yourself, but tools like this can and do make a massive difference. Google Maps is an amazing tool to act as a reminder, or to help become familiar with an area if you've never been there. When you combine this with the countless thousands of reference images and videos, we have a lot of information to get to grips with an area."

Which brings us to Rockstar's ace up the sleeve, Grand Theft Auto Online. It may be based on the new San Andreas map, but Grand Theft Auto Online is its own living, breathing entity.

"It's also the contrasts that I like, the switch from our version of Sunset or Beverly hills to the scariest, most run-down backwater in the desert"

Gamers have been hankering for a full GTA MMO since the early days of the series, with various modded versions popping up online. 16 players might not make Grand Theft Auto Online an MMO in the "massive" sense, but its persistent, evolving structure promises to offer something vastly different to anything we saw on 4.

Even better, it's here to stay. Grand Theft Auto Online will continue to grow into the future, past 5 and whatever comes next. Rockstar has even hinted that we could see some familiar old territories pop up here one day. Fancy hopping on a flight from Los Santos International and jetting over for some 80s-esque Vice City action? It might just be possible.


The fact Rockstar hasn't mentioned anything about possible PS4 or Xbox One versions of the game has left a lot of space for speculation. Rockstar is keeping tight-lipped on what comes next, but an Xbox One and PS4 version would certainly make sense in the near future.


But conspiracy theories are part of the Grand Theft Auto experience. The titles have always been loaded with Easter eggs, but San Andreas went one step further (at least according to the fans) with reported sightings of UFOs, Bigfoot, and even Leatherface himself. So has Rockstar loaded GTA 5 with more mythical goodies?

"There's stuff that's so obscure that most people will never see it," admits Garbut. "I love the connection that social media has given us to the people that play our games. We can see what they like and what is interesting them as it happens, and this really has helped push more of these things into the game. I think everything in IV has been found, I'm not sure if the same thing will happen for 5."


Finally, we have to ask Garbut to name the one spot he can't wait for fans to experience for the first time. No easy task, it turns out.

"I have a lot of favourite locations. It depends on my mood. For me that's what works so well about the game in general, that it's whatever you want it to be. That there's so much to it that it will work whatever mood you're in.

"It's also the contrasts that I like, the switch from our version of Sunset or Beverly hills to the scariest, most run-down backwater in the desert. From the inside of a high-end office block to a chicken processing plant.


"The thing I want people to see most is the scale, to fly over the city in a jet, to look over the countryside from the top of a mountain as the sun goes down. Or to drive out of Los Santos towards our version of Malibu, head out onto a pier and dive in and get a sense for how much there is under the water too. I love that's it's not just a passive backdrop, that there's stuff to see and do and take part in everywhere."

As we encounter wild animals of Blaine County's RDR-like desert, feel thankful for the Max Payne 3-style cover system in the heat of a getaway, or take a moment to appreciate the improved facial animations that (though not using MotionScan) clearly owe themselves to the detail of LA Noire, it really feels like this is the game that everything has been leading up to.

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