Where were you when Grand Theft Auto III launched in October 2001? I was standing in a GameStop, perusing the new PS2 releases, when it caught my eye. Following a hearty recommendation from the store manager, I bought the game and took it home. The rest is history.
Twenty years later, it’s virtually impossible to overstate the impact of Rockstar Games’ open-world crime saga on the gaming medium. And it all began with GTA III, a bold shift from top-down action to a fully 3D open world epic, interwoven with unprecedented interactivity. I remember being blown away by Liberty City itself: a sprawling cityscape packed with cars, colorful characters, challenging side-missions, and ever-present cops. I’d never seen anything like it.
GTA III’s launch sent ripple effects across the entire gaming industry, captivating players and inspiring game developers to take a different approach to game design. To mark the groundbreaking game’s big 20-year milestone, we reached out to creators from PlayStation Studios and top third-party developers to reflect on GTA III’s megaton launch.
All screenshots in this article from Grand Theft Auto III — Definitive Edition, out November 11.
“GTA III changed my perspective of what makes games fun. Games had always been about making the jumps, killing the enemies, solving the puzzles – doing the tasks the designer laid out for you. GTA III was the first game where you really made your own fun. That led me to reimagine how exploration and open-ended gadget and weapon usage in Ratchet & Clank could allow players to find their own fun and approach the gameplay in their own creative ways.”
– Brian Hastings, Head of Creative Strategy, Insomniac Games
“GTAIII was a game with an astonishing degree of freedom, released at a time when we were struggling to make a single-path game within the capabilities of the PS2. I was impressed by the way the game was made. It embraced the realities that come with an open-world concept instead of restricting gameplay to avoid every potential glitch that might come up. The Japanese version of the game was released by Capcom, and I remember thinking, ‘I’m glad I’m on their side’.”
– Hideaki Itsuno, Director, Capcom
“I grew up playing 2D side scrolling platformers that had a clear path from A to B and could be worked out with a bit of trial and error. The thing that really stood out for me in GTA III was the freedom it gave you to play the way you wanted in a game world that felt believable. Gone were the automatic loading, level-end, and mission-over transitions. You don’t get out of the car… you don’t progress. You seamlessly went from driving, running around the city, and entering buildings to get your next mission objective at the pace that you wanted. In some ways the freedom was overwhelming but the ability to play your way, and in doing so change the tone of the game, was not lost on me. This was likely one of the first major shifts in self-directed play in game design.”
– Tara Saunders, Studio Head, PlayStation London Studio
“I remember entering the Remedy offices early November, 2001. I was excited, a bit anxious. It was my first day of work. The first thing I saw was a group of people around a TV. Some were laughing, others staring, speechless. They were playing GTA III. It was provocative, unexpected, endlessly fun and impossible to let go of. A tectonic shift in gaming that set the stage for my career – influencing my work to this day.”
– Mikael Kasurinen, Control Game Director, Remedy
“GTA III showed me the incredible sense of immersion that comes from being able to act freely and see the world react to your actions—that this unique experience is something only games can deliver. And as the expressive power of games has grown over the years, immersion-focused game design has become the standard for AAA titles. GTA III set that standard, and I’m sure it will continue to influence creators for years to come.”
– Yuya Tokuda, Monster Hunter World Director, Capcom
“I remember finding out about GTA III during our press tour for Syphon Filter 3. There was so much hype surrounding the game that it was impossible for it to live up to, right!? So wrong. I couldn’t believe everything that you could do in that game. Really opened our eyes to what was possible. It is rare when a game comes along that changes your view on an industry. GTA III was that game.”
– Ron Allen, Game Director, Bend Studio
“GTA III blew my mind as it was such a quantum leap in video game design. It set the bar for living open worlds full of procedural systems that worked together to create an emergent playground of endless possibilities.”
– Richard Franke, Lead Designer, Media Molecule
“GTA III really blew open my understanding of what a large team can achieve with a strong technical vision. The highly detailed living open world was a huge leap forwards, lots of hand-crafted content all framed by tech constraints needed to stream invisibly to the player. We also saw how physics tech can drive varied brilliant non-linear missions. Layering on the music, the humour and pure freedom put GTA III among the greatest games of all time.”
– Steve Walker, Technical Director, Firesprite Games
“It wasn’t the sheer scale or the freedom that blew my mind, already had a taste of that with The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall. Instead, I had a group of three friends and we would spend a lot of time together playing games. And when GTA III came out, we would play that all the time. Thing is: we weren’t doing any story missions or side missions. It was days and weeks and months of messing around in the city, telling ourselves stories, reacting to the living world in chaotic ways, and setting challenges to each other. And the most magical part was that every time there was a visitor beyond that core group, they would get involved naturally, not necessarily playing but commenting, asking the player to try things….This experience opened my eyes to the power of emergent gameplay and stories, seeing games maybe for the first time as a really expressive medium beyond one’s character choice in a fighting game or combo lines in a skating game, and that the stories it created were something that could be enjoyed not just by players, but viewers. [It’s] something that became intertwined with the medium with the rise of gameplay streaming, and more specifically the amazing GTA Online scene, with its role-playing streams this time involving more than one simultaneous player.”
– Dinga Bakaba, Game Director, Arkane Lyon
“At the time, I had not yet joined Capcom and was pitching a project to an American publisher.
I wanted to make a game that expanded on the Tenchu sandbox, but GTA III went way beyond that.
I remember thinking ‘how did they make this kind of game on PS2?’ Not only from a gameplay point of view, but also from a technical point of view. In response to the subsequent development of open-world games, I decided to do the exact opposite and make a small, narrow, dense horror game, and Resident Evil 7 was born. In a way, Resident Evil 7 may have been born because of GTA III. Thank you and congratulations on the 20th anniversary of GTA III.”
– Koshi Nakanishi, Director, Capcom
“When I was still young and the concept of an open world was yet to be created, senior developers would often say, ‘If you aim for a game that lets you do anything, you’ll end up with a game that lets you do nothing.’ This was a warning to remind ourselves of the distance between ideal and reality. But when GTA III came out, I remember being shocked by the fact that a game where ‘anything is possible and fun’ had been realized. I don’t need to tell you that it set a new standard for the gaming experience. Another shock I got from GTA was that ‘grand theft auto’ meant ‘car theft’. I’m Japanese, so I thought the name had a more grandiose meaning…”
– Kazuhiro Tsuchiya, Producer, Capcom
Ready to revisit Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas, or explore them for the very first time? Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy — The Definitive Edition launches on PS4 and PS5 November 11. Grand Theft Auto III – The Definitive Edition will be available on PlayStation Now starting December 7.