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What Grand Theft Auto Really Looks Like Without Special Effects

Rockstar Games is well known for its big budget blockbuster releases. The developer's games have gradually grown from overhead 2D cityscapes to realistic 3D vistas, and because these games are so wide in scope, a ton of work goes into them behind the scenes. 

Not only has the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise undergone quite a transformation over the years, but each individual game has changed drastically during development. Character models, locales, and other assets have the potential to look vastly different from beta to final release. Sometimes a game doesn't look remotely like the finished product. Early on, a "GTA" protagonist might appear as a wire frame model (or goofy of voice actors in motion capture suits). It's also not uncommon to see early footage of a game's development that contains assets from the previous entry.

In general, it can be more than a bit shocking to witness a game's design phase up close. The "Grand Theft Auto" series is one of the best examples of this phenomenon, as a ton of effort is put into every little aspect of the open world franchise. Over the years, various documents, beta footage, and behind the scenes videos have given fans a look at what "Grand Theft Auto" looks like without all the extra polish and effects.

Finding the right voices

For a series that puts the spotlight on hilarious dialogue and quirky voice performances, it's hard to believe "GTA 3" didn't even have a speaking main character. Gradually, however, Rockstar opted to go after more high profile performers to portray its characters.

These are the people behind the animated figures seen in-game, though they don't always resembled their gaming personas. While many games (and films) often place actors in motion capture suits to simultaneously obtain voice work and character movement — like Naughty Dog does with "The Last of Us" — earlier "Grand Theft Auto" games mainly acquired the actors for their voices, rather than the whole package.

"Vice City" featured a star-studded cast that included the likes of Ray Liotta, Dennis Hopper, and Burt Reynolds. Many of these performers can be seen recording their lines in behind the scenes footage. Although someone else would later provide the animation for these characters, it's interesting to see how much of the physical performance already came through some of the actors.

For "Grand Theft Auto 4," Rockstar offered Russian actor Vladimir Mashkov the lead role of Niko Bellic. Ultimately, though he rejected the company's offer, Mashkov ended up being a part of the game in a different way. Mashkov later explained the situation during an interview, saying that although he didn't voice the character, Rockstar did use his likeness from the film "Behind Enemy Lines." Rockstar would later change its approach in handling character modeling and voice work.

Motion capture has changed

Newer advancements in technology have changed the animation and design process for developers and performers alike.

In earlier Rockstar games, the celebrities providing voice work did not do their own motion capture. This is best illustrated in the behind the scenes footage of "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," which depicts the motion capture process in great detail and shows the actors who created the body language and movement seen in the game.

Later on in the same footage, a time-lapse of Tommy Vercetti's character model creation shown. The animators started with the motion capture animation, then went on to a wire frame animation before finally detailing the finishing touches. This is dissimilar from later games like "Red Dead Redemption 2," which used motion capture to gather animations for facial features on top of bodily movement. Rockstar's earlier projects involved hiring A-list celebrities for voice work, but the company has since brought in talent that can contribute towards both jobs.

For "Grand Theft Auto 5," things changed extensively. The 2013 game took things up a notch, featuring three playable protagonist, all of whom were portrayed by the voice cast. In an interview with GRANDOS, Steven Ogg elaborated on his work history on the game and how involved the mo-cap process could be, saying, "Even when you're talking we would be suited up."

Character design hasn't always been a smooth process

Games undergo a number of alterations during development; nothing is more exemplary of this fact than changing character designs. From concept art to animated models, initial concepts of playable characters occasionally have little in common with what was eventually finalized.

Niko is probably the Rockstar character that had the most complicated creation. While the character's design began with Vladimir Mashkov's likeness, Rockstar experimented with a number of different styles for the character, going through a number of facial features and haircuts before settling on the final look (as can be seen in early concept art for "GTA 4"). As noted by YouTube channel GTA Series Videos, Niko was also originally "younger and had slightly longer hair in the beginning" of development. 

Not only that, but hairstyles nearly had a bigger role in the game. Hair was going to be fully customizable in "Grand Theft Auto 4." Even now, barbershops are scattered around Liberty City and there are some images of unfinished barber interiors that can't be accessed in the final game.

Nowadays, video game teams have the ability to essentially copy and paste an actor's appearance onto a character to streamline the design phase. Niko is an example of Rockstar constantly retooling a design based on an actor, all in the name of creating the perfect main character.

Scoping out locations

Besides unforgettable characters, "Grand Theft Auto" is famous for rich open worlds. These environments are painstakingly crafted to emulate a living, breathing world. But before the labor of design and animation can begin, the devs have to do a good bit of legwork. 

Almost every Rockstar game takes place in a unique locale. Whether it be Los Santos or San Andreas, "Grand Theft Auto" have fully realized areas. Even when returning to well-trodden territory, like Liberty City in "Grand Theft Auto 4," Rockstar will overhauls its maps by packing in even more detail and realism.

Much of this is possible thanks to extensive research and location scouting. As noted by Wccftech, Rockstar clearly put in a great deal of effort to make its game environments resemble the real world, just with some creative embellishments. Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser broke down the creation of "GTA" maps in an interview with The Guardian, during which he explained that his team has to "make areas that look believable but work well for gameplay."

He expanded on his comments when talking about how areas need to be planned meticulously, yet still feel spontaneous. This, Houser claims, is how the team "captures the essence of what's really there in a city." It may surprise fans to see just how close to the real world Los Santos appears, all thanks to the layers of immersion added by the programmers.

Designing levels

Missions can be much more than just fun romps in "GTA" titles. These integral story beats can take place in outdoor cityscapes or in special interior levels tailor-made for specific story missions. And a lot of work goes into making sure that each level suits its mission.

Miriam Bellard, director for visual development at Rockstar North, conducted a presentation in 2019 that went in-depth on environment and level design. According to Bellard, despite the fact that the player controls camera movement, Rockstar still aims to "make cinematic experiences." 

Early phases of production involve the use of 2D sketch models to help lay out an environment before 3D animation. While showing off one of these sketches, Bellard explained that the models give the whole team a preview at what art direction and gameplay mechanics will look like as the project progresses. 

Placing both the 2D early model and the 3D finished product side-by-side, Bellard demonstrated the obvious differences between the two images. Once the game's lighting team comes in and does its job, it can drastically alter the composition of the image, regardless of how similar the structure is in the original model.

Lastly, the presentation used a photo of an alleyway to offer insight into how the developers have researched player habits. The alleyway extends away from the camera and has a right turn. Bellard claims that "if this is a video game, I'm going up the alleyway to the side." Breakdowns like these help developers decide how to map out locations with player movement and progression in mind. All of these factors come together to create the memorable environments in "Grand Theft Auto."

From 2D to 3D

Because of advancements in technology and glaring limitations of the overhead 2D space, "GTA" made the obvious jump to 3D environments with "Grand Theft Auto 3." Despite a much different style and feel from the first two games, the early beta of "Grand Theft Auto 3" shares surprising similarities with the 2D titles.

Rockstar jumped on new consoles to help drive its reimagining of the series. As it turns out, "GTA 3" was originally conceived for the Sega Dreamcast, but Rockstar decided to shift to the PlayStation 2 when it was decided the Dreamcast "did not have the processing power" (via GTA Series Videos). Notably, Microsoft passed on releasing "GTA 3" as a timed exclusive for the Xbox, a decision it would later regret.

Once the home platform was finalized, Rockstar moved forward with its plans for a 3D "GTA" game. The alpha build of the game is nearly unrecognizable in some aspects. It was altogether much brighter and has a higher contrast, and the lack of weather effects really sticks out; fog, clouds, and overcast conditions are nonexistent. The colors of cars pop out considerably more than in the final release, more closely resembling the vehicles from the first two "Grand Theft Auto" games, in which cars aren't as muted and are relatively easy to spot. 

In general, "GTA 3" borrowed many concepts from its 2D contemporaries early on, only to set itself apart during the later stages of development.

GTA 5: Before and after

"Grand Theft Auto 3" isn't the only title to have large differences between its alpha and final versions, as "GTA 5" went through numerous variations. However, the 2013 hit nearly borrowed a whole lot more from its predecessor, "Grand Theft Auto 4."

A senior environment artist shared images of preliminary work on "Grand Theft Auto 5," which YouTuber Nought has gone over in detail.  Seeing these images back to back, fans get an idea of how much environments and menu elements changed as development progressed and more polish was applied. The best example of might be the changes to the user interface. Rather than the final "GTA 5" mini map, the first iterations of the game's build contained the radar system seen in "GTA 4."

Much like the character animations seen earlier, wire frame outlines are slowly filled in to become recognizable Los Santos locales. Before anyone can set foot into a clothing store, the animators have to fill in the skeletons of these virtual buildings.

Unlike previous games in the series, the development of "GTA 5" was recorded in great detail, to the point where fans can really see what occurred between early concepts and the final version.

Developer tools reveal more of the process

"Grand Theft Auto 3" came out in 2001, and yet fans are still going through the game's code. A whole slew of developer tools, which were used by the creators to locate and fix bugs or glitches, are still present in the game and can be accessed with a bit of know-how. In a series of videos, YouTuber Vadim M has applied these tools to show a bit more of the design process.

One mode the developers used allowed for specific character models, vehicles, and other assets to be viewed and tweaked individually. This allows for a closeup view of every object in the game, as well as certain animations. Vadim mentioned that some leftover items in the code implies "this [tool] definitely had more options in the past," but many of them were cut. Still, the video shows that even the most basic items in the game were subject to changes in color and physics before the final usable version was created.

Another intriguing part of the work that went into "GTA 3" is the implementation of pedestrian AI. NPCs had to be given a great deal of direction before being let loose, and so Rockstar used a feature that displayed every NPC's personality, route, and behavior about their heads. As explained by Vadim M, any potential problems in the AI could be easily fixed by modifying the individual NPC directly through this debug menu.

Unfinished missions

A huge amount of content has been cut from the "GTA" series. "San Andreas" might be the biggest offender when it comes to missions that never made it past the finish line. Some are nearly complete and buried in the game's code, but don't have the post-production effects seen in completed missions.

For the most part, these missions are entirely playable and could have been spliced into the game; that's how much work was done on them. GTA Series Videos breaks down these missions, explaining, "All of the audio sequences, texts, icons, and models used for these missions are still in the game code, the only missing elements are the introduction cutscene animations." 

Fortunately, a lot of the work that went into this content eventually saw the light of day in "GTA 5," with elements of the "Roadside Assistance" mission from "San Andreas" being implemented in Franklin's missions.

A clear amount of effort has gone into the "Grand Theft Auto" series that is nearly unmatched by any other publisher or developer. And when "GTA" is stripped of its polish, all that's left to see is the obvious passion and hard work that was infused in these legendary titles.