Few video games rise above the insular community of gamers and make their way into the public consciousness. Most people who have never played a game know who Mario is or have heard of Call of Duty. One series, in particular, has made itself known globally through its often-controversial reputation — Grand Theft Auto.
The most recent title in the franchise is the highest-selling piece of entertainment ever created, but when the series started 25 years ago, it was a completely different beast.
In 1995 the British developers at DMA Design had an idea for a game they would call Race’n’Chase. It would be a crime simulator that lets the player steal cars, run over pedestrians, and do jobs for local crime syndicates. It would offer six levels across three fictionalized versions of real-life cities in the United States. They would be Liberty City, San Andreas, and Vice City.
Over the protracted four-year development, the project received a new name — Grand Theft Auto. DMA Design would become Rockstar North.
Released on October 21st in the UK for PC, Grand Theft Auto was ported to PlayStation two months later, and to the GameBoy Color two years later. While the general pitch for the game of causing vehicular-based havoc holds true for the original Grand Theft Auto and later releases in the franchise, the original title is a completely different beast.
Ever since Grand Theft Auto III the series has become more than just a crime simulator. It has opened the way to more general simulation, allowing players to buy houses, build roleplay communities, or just relax with a game of tennis. The original Grand Theft Auto is a far simpler experience that is barely recognizable as the father of the series.
Instead of the third-person over-the-shoulder perspective of the modern games, the original title had a top-down perspective over the streets of the city as you crashed into people and other cars. The game feels more arcade than anything, with no story the player just spends time racking up money by taking jobs at pay phones. Grand Theft Auto 1 would become a hit, in part because of a genius market plan.
In preparation for Grand Theft Auto’s release, publisher Take-Two Interactive hired publicist Max Clifford to run a marketing campaign for the game. The plan was to capitalize on the violent subject matter of the game and purposefully generate controversy surrounding Grand Theft Auto’s release.
In a 2012 feature in The Sunday Times, franchise creators David Jones and Mike Dailly attributed the success of Grand Theft Auto to Clifford’s marketing. “Max Clifford made it all happen,” Dailly shared in the article, “He designed all the outcry, which pretty much-guaranteed MPs [media publications] would get involved… He’d do anything to keep the profile high.”
Any press is good press, and Grand Theft Auto got plenty of press.
By the time the game was released, it didn’t matter how much controversy there was around the game and how many politicians criticized its violent subject matter, the game sold. Who could resist the desire to play the game everyone was telling you not to play?
While this marketing campaign solidified Grand Theft Auto’s success, it also left a lasting mark on the series’ public perception and the perception of video games as a form of entertainment. Grand Theft Auto is still synonymous with violent video games and the perceived dangers they bring. Since the original game’s release, later entries in the series have been the subject of conversation from the likes of Hillary Clinton and the United States Supreme Court.
25 years later it is safe to say that Clifford’s marketing campaign worked better than anybody could have expected, with Rockstar hard at work on the next entry. Even with its perpetual controversial reputation, Grand Theft Auto is alive and well.