David Jones: The Scot behind the most lucrative game of all time

David Jones
David Jones was submerged in a hormonal maelstrom while making GTA

“From Macbeth and Treasure Island, to Harry Potter and Braveheart”, Scots have plenty of cultural exports to boast of, says The Daily Record. But this week saw the return of arguably “the most influential, imaginative and lucrative of all”. The launch of Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V), a video game that cost £170m to make and is expected to take £1bn within a year, was the event of 2013 for fans worldwide.

True to form, its launch was not without incident, says The Times. With midnight queues snaking round city centres, there were several reports of muggings. Like its predecessors, GTA V transports players to a fictional American city, pulsating with street life. This time it’s Los Santos, an “obsessively detailed, richly satirical spin on modern-day Los Angeles”. There are the usual lashings of sex and violence and some dreamy special effects. Described by its developers at Rockstar North as “the endpoint of the American dream”, it’s hard to believe it all began in Dundee.

The story goes back to the dawn of gaming in 1988, when young developer David Jones dreamed of making an arcade-style game for computers. The result was Menace – “an inside joke for Dundonians” as Dennis the Menace was invented by a local cartoonist, says The Daily Record.

It sold 15,000 (impressive for an independent game), earning Jones enough to buy a Vauxhall Astra. His next game, Blood Money, put his firm, DMA Design, on the map. But it was the release of Lemmings (which saw the player navigate a tribe of the critters past a variety of lethal obstacles) that changed everything.

“Instead of killing the guys, like in most games, Jones had a better idea – save them from their doom.” The idea and execution so seduced gamers that one critic compared its impact on the industry to that of Henry Ford on cars. At 25, Jones became “one of the wealthiest and most famous game designers in the world”.

The 1997 release of Grand Theft Auto was a sensation, says Wired – helped by some “unorthodox publicity”. Jones and his colleagues hired the tabloid spin-doctor Max Clifford, who advised them to “embrace GTA’s criminality in all its glory”, starting by hijacking the House of Lords. As Jones later related: “He said, ‘I’ll feed these stories into the ear of a lord somewhere – that there’s this game developed in Scotland that is utterly despicable – and then, at the end of three months, you’ll be in prime time.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah right.’ But everything he said came true.”

The latest release sold 125 million copies even ahead of this week’s launch, says Whatculture.com. Jones, who once indicated he’d be perfectly happy with a Ferrari and “a nice house in Fife”, won’t take the full benefit: he sold the franchise to Rockstar in 2002 for an undisclosed sum. A later company, Realtime Worlds, went into administration in 2010. A bad call, perhaps. But he has the satisfaction of knowing he started a revolution.

How the video game finally came of age

When the original GTA was released in 1997, “I was submerged in a hormonal maelstrom”, says John McDermott on FT.com. Two things made it better than other games. First, the sex and violence – “perfect for a 14-year-old with time on his hands”. Secondly, the freedom. “One could deviate from the game’s narrative, like a warped version of the children’s books which allow the reader to choose the plot.” Five years ago, when GTA IV launched, the FT’s culture critic favourably compared its “narrative complexity… nuance and wit” to dramas such as The Sopranos. The latest version “goes even further”.

Controversy and GTA have always gone together, says Shaun Monroe on Whatculture.com, with critics blaming the game for much real-life violence. One US plaintiff, Jack Thompson, who once referred to GTA as a “cop-killing simulator”, has filed a litany of lawsuits on behalf of families who lost loved ones “because of the game”. Lawsuits against Rockstar now total over $1bn, yet “they never seem to come to anything”.

Similar “hysteria… followed the films of Quentin Tarantino and the music of the Rolling Stones,” says Joe Utichi in The Sunday Times. But we should celebrate Rockstar Games – now run by British brothers Sam and Dan Houser and still based in Edinburgh – for what it is: a “homegrown success story… the Aston Martin of games developers”. This could be its most significant launch ever: “when video games come of age as a narrative art form”.

Bring it on, says Helen Lewis in the FT. Although the video games industry is set to generate $66bn worldwide this year, gaming is still treated as a “geek” pursuit. Yet with 30 now the average age of a gamer, and a near-even gender split, “video games are likely to be the dominant cultural medium of the next decade”. Many bemoan the end of mass TV viewing, but “this is the era of mass-playing instead”. Some are bigging up GTA V as the biggest entertainment release ever. They might be right.

Merryn

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