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

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."


Building a city starts with the roads, then the blocks are filled in

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."


Google maps has helped enormously with the job of replicating cities

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.


GTA Online offers persistent, evolving play

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."


With so much hidden in GTA 5, it's possible that some things will never be found

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.


It's the contrasts that Garbut likes best, from showbiz luxe to downright squalor

"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.

Hugh Langley

Hugh Langley is the ex-News Editor of TechRadar. He had written for many magazines and websites including Business Insider, The Telegraph, IGN, Gizmodo, Entrepreneur Magazine, WIRED (UK), TrustedReviews, Business Insider Australia, Business Insider India, Business Insider Singapore, Wareable, The Ambient and more.

Hugh is now a correspondent at Business Insider covering Google and Alphabet, and has the unfortunate distinction of accidentally linking the TechRadar homepage to a rival publication.