Where do you start when it comes to making a game the scale of GTA V? With a map. Not a design document, or a ‘product road map’ but a literal map.
And Aaron Garbut, art director at Rockstar North, is the man who plots the course.
Garbut is one of the four who devise the basis of each GTA, and a long-time colleague of Rockstar North president Leslie Benzies.
“Back at DMA Design Aaron was sat on the other side of a bank of filing cabinets – he was fenced off from us. But one day I caught a glimpse of his screen and he was typing in these texture coordinates. It was unusual to see an artist with his style that had a full understanding of the technical side of the game too. So we kind of stole him on to our project, which was Silicon Valley for the N64.”
Space Station Silicon Valley included some of the hallmarks, like switching between vehicles in a 3D world, that would appear in the team’s next project – GTA III, which they naturally flocked towards, gazumping the 2D GTA team, given their technical and 3D art prowess.
Back then, Garbut was one of six artists working on the PS2 title. Today, he oversees over 150 at Rockstar North doing art for the game – and more around the world.
When making GTA, it is Garbut’s pre-production that sets the tone. And it starts small.
“We do a lot of Googling and StreetView scoping,” he says. “And some of us – Sam, Dan, Les and I – tend to meet up in the places we are being inspired by and drive around those places and have random chats.
“After that we have six to eight people on the design for around nine months to a year. At that point we have a pretty solid blocked in map. We treat the cities like a sculpture and make sure that perspectives down streets look right. And we also make sure that it has the areas we need – both in terms of missions and as a city.
“After that we build up the team, and will take more people over to places like LA.”
Back in the PS2 days, the whole studio would decamp to the destination, but the sheer scale of projects these days means the pilgrimage is done by more senior staff. But it’s still a big chunk of them.
“We also have a research team in New York now.?They were really good with GTA IV, and on V they have liaised with film crews to scout locations,” explains Garbut. “We would take each individual city block and set down a very detailed guide to what it would look like, set StreetView coordinates, and then the location scouts would take photos of the specific places.”
We end up spending four years in this virtual place. We drive around it more than the places we actually live.
– Aaron Garbut, art director at Rockstar North
He admits the process might seem a bit back to front to some: “We design a world that we think is fun and just try to include as many interesting locations as possible. So we come up with ideas that we think will work well for the missions that will be created later.”
“We go through lots and lots of iteration. We get a map and get to a point where you can drive around. Then the level designers get in there and that adds more voices to the mix in terms of what is working and what isn’t.
“We end up spending up to four years in this virtual place, we drive around it more than the places we actually live so we really know what is right and what isn’t, what’s out of place and is perfect.”
One of the tricks this method has taught the team is the ability to change tone quickly through a city, encapsulating neighbourhoods and switching territory atmospheres within the space of a few city blocks – things that in real-life “take place across a stretch of ten miles”.
The design of the map dictates missions, and Garbut and co-devise places that feel right for the gameplay – “and we encourage mission designers to take advantage of that – but we’ll move things around if the story or missions demand changes”.
The environment is constantly being refined up to deadline – when Develop visits in August, Garbut says ‘It’s still happening’, although most tweaks are more subtle at this point.
WORK OF ART
That’s a short history of what is a vast, layered process in building GTA’s world.
Garbut has also had to get a handle – like Benzies, Semple, Hooker and Fowler have – on how the franchise has grown, and taken its workforce into the thousands, and demanded gigabytes of art assets.
“The thing with a game like this, moreso than GTA IV, is that the scale of the thing is so big that we have many layers of stuff to look through – missions, cut scene locations, random characters, the character switching transitions and so on and so on. We have made sure to get every area of the world up to a certain quality level. We’ve hit a higher plateau across everything than ever before with GTA V.”
Garbut is keenly aware that this also has the potential to demoralise artists, who might fear being trapped in a factory line. “You used to have so much control, and you got to own something – so we’ve tried to keep that in some way.”
On GTA IV it seemed the solution was to divvy city sections between artists. “We kept the same principle of giving someone an area of the map to have ownership over. There’s a lot of positives to that process – people are accountable and they have real input. But we also found that there is a lot of variety, because artists have strengths and weaknesses.
“On GTA V we broke that process up a bit, and moved artists around so they had a chance to contribute in different ways. It’s given us a real consistency of quality, rather than pockets of excellence.”
This more finely spread collaboration also helps when the team is 150 strong, otherwise the management overhead is too much.
The added layer of GTA Online is also, Garbut jokes, a ‘cushion for your crushed dreams’ if you’re an artist: “Because if a section you built isn’t used in the main story, don’t worry. Someone else, a player, will make that a location for an iconic GTA shoot out.”
Ultimately, whether in a small team or a big one, Garbut has tried to create an environment that empowered staff in some way: “Every part of the game is up for grabs – nothing is locked down. We don’t get too hung up on what we’ve decided – if something has to change, we change it.”
Garbut hasn’t worked at another studio, so can’t comment on what he and his colleagues have cultivated might compare to elsewhere.
But as our day at the studio wraps up, it’s clear to us he’s a great example of the lasting connections amongst the staff, a collection of people who know how lucky they are, and don’t want to question the wonderful nature of their situation, they just want to work hard at maintaining it.
The game is a product of so many people we don’t always feel comfortable being out front, saying words on each other’s behalf.
– Aaron Garbut, art director at Rockstar North
What does he make of Rockstar’s ‘mystique’?
“The thing we have talked about in the past is that the game is a product of so many people, we don’t always feel comfortable being out front, saying the words on each person’s behalf.
“Even this conversation is strange because even though I have worked on all the GTA games there are lots of people here at the studio that have done a lot of work on it too. So it’s difficult to put a figurehead on that,” he adds
“Really, we just focus on the game. As soon as we finish this, we start thinking about the next one – we just want to make games.
“And the games say more about us than any of us could.”
This is the fourth and final instalment (You can view parts one, two and three here) of a four-part look inside Rockstar North, which was originally published in the October issue of Develop, out now with subscribers. You can purchase the issue to view through your browser or on iPad right now.