History of the Grand Theft Auto Series

edited January 3 in Gaming

Grand Theft Auto, or GTA, is an action-adventure game series created by David Jones and Mike Dailly, developed by Rockstar North (formerly DMA Design), and published by Rockstar North’s parent company, Rockstar Games. The first game in the series was released in 1997, and 15 additional games have since been released. Since its inception, the series has had an indelible impact on the video game industry and on pop culture at large. In this article, we dive into the riveting history and evolution of this blockbuster franchise.

The GTA series

The phrase “Grand Theft Auto” references the US legal term for stealing a car, and true to its name, GTA is largely about stealing vehicles, although it’s also much more than that. GTA features an open-world map where players complete quests in any order to earn in-game money and progress the overarching storyline. Gameplay is in the third person and primarily involves driving around and shooting up enemies in various city districts. The game also features elements from 16-bit-era beat ‘em ups.

GTA belongs to and to some extent defined the genre of free-roaming video games called sandbox games, which are games that grant a large amount of freedom to players in deciding what to do and how to do it through multiple methods of transport and weapons. Unlike most traditional action games, which are structured as a single-track series of levels with linear gameplay, in GTA, players choose the missions they want to undertake, and player decisions affect relationships with nonplayable characters. Of course, player decisions do come with limits—individual missions follow a linear, overarching plot, and some city areas must be unlocked over the course of the game.

GTA’s appeal is that it gives players entire cities to act disgracefully in, cities that feel real and alive. GTA games revel in detail: pedestrians wander the streets, cars obediently halt at traffic lights, and ambulances and fire engines suitably respond to death and fiery destruction. To play this game with any success, you need to learn the layout of each city to avoid the police and you need to perfect your driving style on the wide freeways and narrow side streets. Although gameplay in the first few games was actually relatively repetitive, it never felt that way—the quests were all so irresistibly immoral, allowing players to live a cartoon life of crime complete with Bullitt-style car chases and Heat-style shootouts.

Impact on the gaming industry

The GTA series has been hugely popular. The first few GTA games were already breaking sales records in a major way, but the fourth mainline entry, Vice City, took the series’ popularity to a whole new level, becoming the fastest-selling PlayStation 2 title ever, until its record was eclipsed two years later by the series’ own next installment, San Andreas. Four million Americans preordered Vice City in 2002, and a million more bought it upon its release in its first weekend. According to a recent report by Statista, GTA has collectively sold more than 405 million copies of its titles.

The series also holds several world gaming records, including Most Guest Stars in a Video Game Series, Largest Voice Cast in a Video Game, Largest In-Game Soundtrack, and Most Successful Entertainment Launch of All Time, and it ranks among the top five best-selling video game franchises of all time.

So GTA is big, but it’s about more than just units shifted, cash generated, and awards won. Indeed, Vice City’s 2002 release prompted TIME magazine to say that it “will force us to realize that video games aren’t toys anymore; they’re sophisticated, thought-provoking entertainment for grownups. At their best, they’re art.” Throughout its history, GTA has always courted controversy—mainly due to the mature content of the games, with all but one being rated the local equivalent of Mature/Adult/R; however, despite all the controversy, or perhaps in part thanks to it, the series has also brought video gaming into the spotlight as an accepted form of adult entertainment.

Origins and early development

GTA began from humble origins at Scottish developer DMA Design, which was founded by four video game designers: Mike Dailly, David Jones, Russell Kay, and Steve Hammond. The game was initially conceived as a cops-and-robbers game called Race’n’Chase. However, it evolved into GTA and was then released for PC in 1997. 

Games in the GTA series

Excluding rereleases and remasters, 16 games in total have been developed for the series, and another is currently in development. Each game in the series belongs to one of three distinct parallel universes, each of which is designed to be completely separate from the others and devoid of overlap between characters or storylines. Some things do exist in multiple universes, such as company brands, vehicles, place names, weapons, and certain in-series personalities, but mostly these are three independent universes:

2D Universe. This universe follows the independent storylines of DMA Design’s original top-down titles, following the stories of various criminal organizations surrounding the silent male and female protagonists doing freelance work for each group. The 2D Universe consists of: 

  • Grand Theft Auto 
  • Grand Theft Auto: London 1969 
  • Grand Theft Auto: London 1961 
  • Grand Theft Auto

3D Universe. This universe started in 2001 with the release of Grand Theft Auto III, a reboot of the series, introducing full 3D graphics during gameplay using the RenderWare engine. The universe’s other games are prequels of the canon established in Grand Theft Auto III, loosely connected to the game’s events. The canon of this universe consists of: 

  • Grand Theft Auto III 
  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City 
  • Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas 
  • Grand Theft Auto Advance 
  • Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories 
  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories

HD Universe. This universe is the most recent in the series, and the games in this universe have the best visual quality and the biggest and most detailed maps. The timeline of events and the settings vary greatly from those established in the 3D universe. The HD universe consists of: 

  • Grand Theft Auto IV 
  • The Lost and Damned 
  • The Ballad of Gay Tony 
  • Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars 
  • Grand Theft Auto V 
  • Grand Theft Auto Online 
  • Grand Theft Auto VI (in development)

Timeline of the GTA games 

Grand Theft Auto 1

  • Released: 21 October 1997 
  • Protagonist: Player’s choice 
  • Location: Liberty City, Vice City, San Andreas 
  • Universe: 2D Universe

Grand Theft Auto 1 is the first game in the GTA series. The game is set in 1997 in three American cities: Liberty City (including its neighboring state of New Guernsey as part of the same map), San Andreas, and Vice City. The player chooses the role of one of a group of eight silent criminals, four men and four women, looking to work their way up the career ladder of the cities’ organized crime.

Grand Theft Auto: London 1969

  • Released: April 29, 1999 
  • Protagonist: Player’s choice 
  • Location: London 
  • Universe: 2D Universe

The second installment in the series, Grand Theft Auto: London 1969 was released in the form of an extra mission pack to the original GTA game. It offers 32 brand new missions and 30 new vehicles from the 1960s. The game is very similar to the original GTA because it uses the same game engine and is presented in the same format of missions, sections, and cutscenes.

Grand Theft Auto: London 1961

  • Released: July 1, 1999 
  • Protagonist: Player’s choice 
  • Location: London 
  • Universe: 2D Universe

Grand Theft Auto: London 1961 takes place in London, United Kingdom in 1961—8 years before the events of GTA: London 1969, acting as a prequel to that game’s events. The mission pack includes new missions, 22 new vehicles, one new cutscene, and a new multiplayer “Deathmatch” map based upon the UK city of Manchester.

Grand Theft Auto 2

  • Released: October 22, 1999 
  • Protagonist: Claude Speed 
  • Location: Anywhere city 
  • Universe: 2D Universe

Grand Theft Auto 2 is the second major installment in the GTA series and the fourth game overall. It takes place in a large metropolis only vaguely referred to as Anywhere City. The city is heavily stylized in a retrofuturistic design. 

Grand Theft Auto: III

  • Released: October 22, 2001 
  • Protagonist: Claude 
  • Location: Liberty City 
  • Universe: 3D Universe

Set in the fictional Liberty City in 2001, Grand Theft Auto III introduces a new narrative separate from that of its predecessors, beginning the 3D Universe. Its story follows the adventures of Claude, a silent criminal who has been betrayed by his girlfriend Catalina during a bank heist. Note that this character shares the same first name as the protagonist in GTA 2 but is in fact a different character altogether. Claude begins to work for different factions in the crime-riddled Liberty City, including the Mafia, Yakuza, and various corrupted figures. 

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

  • Released: October 29, 2002 
  • Protagonist: Tommy Vercetti 
  • Location: Vice City 
  • Universe: 3D Universe

Set in Vice City, Florida, in 1986, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City concerns the exploits of protagonist Tommy Vercetti as he rises to become Vice City’s major criminal power. As with all games in the series, GTA: Vice City’s look, particularly the clothing and vehicles, reflect the setting of its time period. Several themes were borrowed from the films Scarface (1983) and Carlito’s Way (1993), the latter for its characterization and portrayal of nuanced criminals.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

  • Released: October 26, 2004 
  • Protagonist: Carl Johnson 
  • Location: San Andreas 
  • Universe: 3D Universe

The seventh title in the GTA series and the third game in the 3D Universe, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the sequel to GTA: Vice City and the prequel to GTA: Liberty City Stories and GTA 3. By far the largest and most complex playing field of any of the games in the 3D Universe, San Andreas consists of three fully-realized cities: Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas, and includes vast expanses of countryside, forests, a desert, and even a mountain and many hills. The game is centered around the return of Carl Johnson (also known as CJ) to his gang (the Grove Street Families) and their subsequent return to power.

Grand Theft Auto: Advance

  • Released: October 26, 2004 
  • Protagonist: Mike 
  • Location: Liberty City 
  • Universe: 3D Universe

Played from a top-down perspective, similar to the series’ 2D Universe games, Grand Theft Auto: Advance also borrows several aspects from the more recent 3D Universe games, including vehicle-based side missions (such as vigilante), a heads up display, and new weapons. Originally meant to be a Game Boy Advance port of GTA 3, GTA Advance serves as a prequel to the events of GTA 3, taking place one year prior.

Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories

  • Released: October 25, 2005 
  • Protagonist: Toni Cipriani 
  • Location: Liberty City 
  • Universe: 3D Universe

The first GTA game released for the PlayStation Portable, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is set in Liberty City in 1998. The game is a prequel to the events of GTA Advance and GTA 3 and is the chronological sequel to GTA: San Andreas. A unique aspect of the game is that its setting, Liberty City, is not only the same as in the earlier GTA 3, but the general layout of the city has remained virtually unchanged (except for some key differences due to Liberty City Stories taking place three years earlier than GTA 3). 

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories

  • Released: October 31, 2006 
  • Protagonist: Victor Vance 
  • Location: Vice City 
  • Universe: 3D Universe

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories is the sixth and final game (but first chronologically) in the 3D Universe of the GTA series. Originally released as an exclusive game for the PlayStation Portable, it was later released on the PlayStation 2 because of its success. The game marks the series’ return to Vice City and takes place in 1984, roughly two years before the events of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Grand Theft Auto IV

  • Released: April 29, 2008 
  • Protagonist: Niko Bellic 
  • Location: Liberty City 
  • Universe: HD Universe

Grand Theft Auto IV marked the introduction of the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE) to the series. The RAGE platform elevated gameplay to new heights of realism and rendered the urban setting in more detail than GTA 3. Players once again return to the setting of Liberty City as the immigrant with big dreams—this time as Niko Bellic. Players can use a variety of melee weapons. GTA IV also contains a first person POV mode, a first in the series, and can even use this mode while driving vehicles. The game also contains a multiplayer mode for up to 32 players. 

Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned

  • Released: February 17, 2009 
  • Protagonist: Johnny Klebitz 
  • Location: Liberty City 
  • Universe: HD Universe

Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned is the first of two episodes of downloadable content for GTA IV on the PlayStation 3, PC, and Xbox 360. This episode features a new storyline, with a new protagonist—Johnny Klebitz of The Lost Outlaw Motorcycle Club.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

  • Released: March 17, 2009 
  • Protagonist: Huang Lee 
  • Location: Liberty City 
  • Universe: HD Universe

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was developed specifically for the Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable, and for iOS and Android devices. The game is played from an isometric 3D perspective, with a rotatable aerial camera that allows the player to dynamically change angles during action sequences. It features all four boroughs of Liberty City (Algonquin, Bohan, Broker, and Dukes), faithfully adapted for its timeline of events and for the Nintendo DS hardware.

Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony

  • Released: October 29, 2009 
  • Protagonist: Luis Lopez 
  • Location: Liberty City 
  • Universe: HD Universe

The Ballad of Gay Tony is the second of the two episodes of downloadable content for GTA IV. It features Luis Fernando Lopez, a part-time hoodlum and full-time assistant to legendary nightclub impresario Tony Prince. The storyline intertwines with the original game and first episode, and the game features new mechanics, vehicles, weapons, side missions, collectibles, and achievements/trophies.

Grand Theft Auto V

  • Released: September 17, 2013 
  • Protagonist: Michael De Santa, Franklin Clinton, Trevor Phillips 
  • Location: Los Santos 
  • Universe: HD Universe

As one of the most eagerly-awaited video game titles to be released in 2013, Grand Theft Auto V was widely anticipated prior to its release and then received universal acclaim once launched, holding scores of 96 and higher on both MetaCritic and GameRankings. As of November 2023, GTA V is currently the second best selling game of all time, with more than 190 million copies sold. The game takes place in the year 2013 in the southern part of the state of San Andreas, more precisely in the city of Los Santos and rural areas of Blaine County, and tells the stories of three protagonists: Michael De Santa, Franklin Clinton, and Trevor Philips—three uniquely different criminals—as they commit daring and profitable heists across the sprawling city of Los Santos. It takes place about five years after the events of GTA IV, and it features a multiplayer mode where players can drop in and complete tasks with friends.

Grand Theft Auto: Online

  • Released: October 1, 2013 
  • Protagonist: Players choice 
  • Location: Los Santos 
  • Universe: HD Universe

Grand Theft Auto Online is the series’ dedicated multiplayer title, set in a continually evolving world designed to grow in size and ambition over time. The game is set in Southern San Andreas in the United States and the island of Cayo Perico in the Caribbean region of Colombia. Although the game was initially set a few months prior to the events of GTA V in 2013, the narratives of more recent updates, starting with 2017’s Gunrunning update, take place in their respective years of release.

Grand Theft Auto 6

The first official announcement from Rockstar Games confirming the development of the next GTA title came in February 2022, and on December 4, 2023, the first trailer for the title was officially released. GTA 6 is scheduled for launch in 2025. The game’s synopsis is currently unknown, but the story is expected to follow criminal duo Lucia and her male accomplice, whose name has yet to be revealed. 

The game will take place in several counties in the State of Leonida, including Vice-Dale County (home to the neon-soaked streets of Vice City). To date, three counties have been identified by name via trailers and promotional material; however, the entire playable area of Leonida has yet to be officially revealed. 

Ashley is a technology writer who is interested in computers and software development. He is also a fintech researcher and is fascinated with emerging trends in DeFi, blockchain, and bitcoin. He has been writing, editing, and creating content for the ESL industry in Asia for eight years, with a special focus on interactive, digital learning.


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