Colin MacDonald on Grand Theft Auto’s genesis and Realtime Worlds’ rise and fall

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Development veteran Colin MacDonald cut his teeth in the game industry at DMA Design on the Grand Theft Auto series, later moving on to become boss of Crackdown and APB studio Realtime Worlds. Now commissioning editor for games at Channel 4, we caught up with MacDonald at the recent Future Proof Summit in Liverpool to explore the highs and lows of a career creating open world games.

You joined DMA late in the studio’s day – what was the feeling around the studio at that time?

Colin McDonald: I joined in late 1997, right after the Gremlin buyout. So at that point, things weren’t that rocky, it was kind of a transition to the new, safer environment of Gremlin. In terms of stability, we weren’t going to go bust, there wasn’t any politics, the only issue was that Gremlin didn’t really see Grand Theft Auto as the sort of title they wanted to put in their stable, they had Disney-esque ambitions. GTA didn’t fit into their plans.

Was GTA, as is often rumoured, a back-burner project as DMA knuckled down on Body Harvest?

I don’t think it was a back-burner project, GTA was done as one of several projects that were kicked off around the same time, as part of a bigger deal. I think it was always intended to have equal status, as it went through development, though, Body Harvest was always the one that shone the earliest. GTA was the one we all had doubts about until it actually came out.

Why were the doubts? Was it to do with the adult content?

The 2D thing was a bit of an issue and it was also a bit late in the day until it got fun. The first year or so of its development, it just wasn’t much fun. With something like Body Harvest there was more stability as with Space Station Silicon Valley. GTA was a late developer [in terms of seeing the fun].

Why did did you persist with it if it wasn’t much fun?

It was before my time, but that’s the benefit of a visionary like Dave Jones. You need someone who’s got the vision to see through the peaks and troughs of development. You’ve always got those and without someone who’s got the vision, the inclination can be just to axe something. It’s important to get through the troughs as the peaks may be higher than the last. You need that visionary, whoever it is – the publisher, the head of the team – to say let’s stay the course, ride this out, let’s stick with it.

With Body Harvest and GTA in the same stable, I can’t help envision the two merging into a 3D GTA sooner… were you aware of any plans for the two to crossover into one project?

They were both their own games, their own entities at that point, but yeah I can absolutely see where it might have gone. But who knows.

Before moving on to Realtime Worlds you were at a studio called Rage – why leave DMA?

So that was Dave Jones, he wanted to go on and do something else, he took half a dozen of us with him. The Rage studio was the beginnings of a big ambitious project that carried on through Realtime Worlds [Project My World] and still exists as EGO, with Dundee doing it.

Rage was sort of an all-DMA half-way house before Realtime Worlds, then?

Yeah so the change from Rage to Realtime Worlds was basically the name on the door. It was February 2001 I think – same studio, same people.

You stayed around the same colleagues across the three studios, is the sort of community you found and established by sticking together crucial to a successful working atmosphere?

I think it depends on the team. Realtime Worlds grew to a big studio and it got tricky after we were past 100 people. It’s funny, I went through stages at Realtime Worlds. Initially it was a small team and you’d know everyone. There’d be company events and everyone’s partners would come and you’d know everyone – partners and kids, you’d know their names. And it was interesting, once you got past about 75 people or something, there was too many kids, so I started to realise ok, how can I remember everyone’s kids’ names? Ok, I’ll just remember the partners. After you got past 150 people you started thinking shit, there’s too many partners now.

I’ve got 150 staff, 150 partners – I won’t remember all the partners’ names now so focus on the staff. And then once you get past 200 you hit a horrible point one day where you’re walking down a corridor of your studio and you’re like “I don’t know if he works for us”. That was one of the most horrific points, that realisation that there’s someone at your studio that you don’t know if he’s supposed to be there or not. That’s horrible.

I imagine you lose the trickle-down of the company’s message and ambition when you grow to that size.

I think we managed to keep that really tight community up until about 100 people and I think that’s to do with the scale of the vision and games we were making. I’ve seen studios lose that sense of community at 50, I’ve seen others go well into the hundreds, I think it depends on the individual studio. More than anything else it’s the realisation that you have to work hard at maintaining that. Communication doesn’t just happen by itself, you have to make sure the right structures are in place but also that the right barriers are out the way. You need people to talk, to encourage them, go for a coffee or a beer or whatever, make sure there’s no politics for someone to be able to get a pay-rise if someone stabs someone else in the back – that’s just bollocks inside of one company, surely you should all be pulling in the same direction.

It takes effort to stop that happening because it does naturally happen. You’ve got 100 people potentially all with different agendas so you’ve got to focus attention on aligning all of that.

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