How DMA Design Became the Rockstar GTA Legends

Category: HOW TO 8

DMA Design

This story begins all the way back in 1983 when the soon-to-be DMA design members would regularly meet at the Kingsway Technical College’s Amateur Computer Club on a Thursday evening. Dave Jones, the oldest member of the group, would arrive each week with his friend Russell Kay. Two members who joined the club around this time, Mike Dailly and Steve Hammond, forged a solid friendship with Jones and Kay, and together the group of four would regularly visit arcades together and discuss setting up their own software house.

DMA Design

When they did finally start their software company, they called it “DMA Design”. Different members of the team give conflicting stories of what “DMA” actually means – some say they named it after “Direct Memory Access”, from a page in the Amiga 1000 manual. Others say that “DMA” actually stands for “Doesn’t Mean Anything”. I I like the latter version myself, but it would be nice to know the true story one day!

Fast Forward

Fast forward to 1990 – seven years after the crew had first begun to form at that Dundee computer club. They had already had several releases on the Spectrum and C64 – these games were paying the bills, but they weren’t earning the company any serious money. 

Psygnosis enters the picture

Prior to 1990, finding a publisher was a challenge each time the team completed a game. When Dave Jones created a technically impressive side-scrolling shoot-em-up codenamed “CopperCon-1” based on the arcade hit Salamander, he approached a previous contact – Hewson Consultants. 

Hewson wanted to release the game as an Amiga version of “Zynaps”, a similar title they had previously published for the C64 and ZX Spectrum. Dave wasn’t happy with this – he felt that would limit sales of the new game. This led Dave to seek an alternative publisher, and he soon managed to negotiate a deal with Liverpool-based Psygnosis.


On the 14th of February 1991, Lemmings was released to widespread critical acclaim. This was the first smash hit for DMA – Menace sold 20,000 copies in total. Blood Money managed 40,000 during its lifetime. The Amiga version of Lemmings, on the other hand, sold 55,000 copies on the first day alone. It’s estimated that across all platforms, Lemmings sold in the region of 15 million copies – a smash hit by any metric, especially back in the 1990s.

Grand Theft Auto

Dave Jones wasn’t keen on creating a racing game, but Mike Dailly continued secretly working on “Race’n’Chase” throughout 1995. He knew the game had to offer something different to a typical racer if it was going to be released on the multitude of platforms he was hoping for – DOS, Win95, PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. Notice that the Amiga is not on the list – sadly, the Amiga platform was dying by 1995, and few publishers would dare risk releasing a game on the format as piracy was rampant anyway, meaning sales were always low.

The original “Race’n’Chase” featured the familiar top-down perspective we are all used to from the original GTA game and being able to drive around the city in this way to complete objectives was enough to sell the concept to Dave Jones, who assigned Mike a team of developers and a year to get the title finished.

The game evolved during this time – Mike wanted the environment to be as large and open as memory would allow, and a similar system to Elite was used to assign the player new objectives in real-time. Adding the ability to steal other cars led to the overall feeling that you were playing as the bad guy and gaining points for running over people seemed like a fun thing to add to the game. Running over whole lines of Hare Krishna would net you a ton of extra points – “Why not?”, Mike thought.

Release Day

Grand Theft Auto finally got a release in October 1997 and was published by BMG Interactive. BMG hired Max Clifford Associates – a PR company – to help with marketing the game and wow did they do a good job. Clifford did his best to create a similar uproar around the game as there had been around Mortal Kombat a few years earlier. As soon as Max began his campaign, sales began to skyrocket. 

Unfortunately, the Saturn and N64 never got their releases of the game – the first GTA appeared on PC and PlayStation only, which was yet another massive boost for Sony’s console, which was already dominating the market by now. The game sold a million copies all told – not quite up to the standard of lemmings, but certainly, enough to make a sequel viable.

Turbulent times

The next few years weren’t great for DMA. The company was bought out by British publisher Gremlin Interactive not long after the release of the original GTA, and things quickly turned sour between the two companies. A couple of decent games were released during this time, but what everyone wanted to know was – where is GTA2?!

In 1999, Gremlin were bought out themselves by French gaming giant Infogrames, but when they discovered that BMG Interactive still had a contract with DMA which compelled them to write games for the company, they quickly sold off DMA and its team to Take-Two Interactive, the parent company of BMG. 

Everything Comes Together

With BMG effectively back in control of a much slimmer version of DMA design – original members Russell and Mike had left by this point, disillusioned with the Gremlin years – they could finally get working on those much-wanted Grant Theft Auto sequels.

It was around this time that BMG named the new DMA studio “Rockstar North”, the name we are all familiar with today. Grand Theft Auto: London 1961 was quickly polished off and released, effectively just a mission pack for the original game. Grand Theft Auto 2 arrived shortly after this, to mixed reviews from critics – it was first released for PC and PlayStation in October 1999 and arrived on Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast and Gameboy color a few months later.

While GTA2 introduced numerous improvements over its predecessor, it still used the top-down view. You could now save your progress during a level by visiting the church you start at, although this does cost valuable points, which are needed to progress. The game revolves around completing objectives for one of three different crime syndicates – successfully complete a job, and you will gain respect from the syndicate who hired you. You’ll need to pick your side wisely though, as the syndicates are at war with each other, and the greater your level of respect with one syndicate, the more hostile the others are likely to be to you. The game environment is much more interactive than the original game, and the addition of a health meter and garages that will modify your vehicle with special upgrades greatly enhance the experience. 

A New Beginning – Grand Theft Auto 3

Released in 2001, Grand Theft Auto 3 is the first title in the series to go fully 3D and takes place in “Liberty City”, which is clearly based on New York. GTA3 Is the game that Mike Dailly had always wanted to create, but sadly he was long gone by the time of this release.

GTA3 is when the series really took off. The DMA team added a strong story mode based on the player seeking revenge on previous associates after escaping prison. The 3D viewpoint really upped the ante as far as the gameplay was concerned – all the features from the previous games were still there, along with plenty more.

Although GTA received widespread critical acclaim, as you might expect, this did nothing to hurt the game’s reputation – GTA3 became the best-selling video game of 2001, selling nearly 15 million copies. The game is considered a landmark in the development of the “open-world” genre and is the template from which all future GTA games were designed.

Capitalizing on the game’s success

The GTA3 engine was soon used to create Grant Theft Auto: Vice City, which made large graphical improvements in line with the increased power available from the consoles and PCs at the time. The PS2 received the game first, in October 2002, with the PC version not being released until May 2003. The Xbox port arrived even later, October 2003. This suggests an exclusivity deal had been made with Sony – why else would the Xbox version arrive exactly a year later?

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was praised for its strong story and featured a fantastic voice cast with the player’s character voiced by Ray Liotta of Goodfellas fame, along with William Fichtner, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds, Danny Dyer, and several other big names. It was clear now that GTA was going to be huge and became the best-selling video game of 2002 selling over 17.5 million copies.

San Andreas

Released in 2004 and selling a staggering 27.5 million copies (over 17 million on PS2 alone), the GTA3 engine was pushed to its limits with the creation of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Although it used the same graphics as Vice City, the game expanded the map to cover three cities instead of just one and allowed players to completely change their character during the game for the first time. San Andreas brought many new features which would become standard in later GTA games such as RPG-style mechanics, an absolute bucketload of side quests, activities, and mini-games, and even gambling games. Those with a love for real-life slots and casino bonuses are well catered for here!

San Andreas saw a release of a multitude of platforms including the PS2 and PS3, Xbox and Xbox 360, as well as PC, Mac, and mobile ports for both iOS and Android., Some have gone as far as to say that San Andreas is the best video game ever made – the story is exceptionally strong, the hugely expanded environment provides hours of entertainment for players to simply explore if they wish, although they will need to follow the main story to unlock all areas of the map. 

The voice cast is once again frankly unbelievable, with many of the previous actors returning and the addition of names such as Ice-T, Samuel L Jackson, Faizon Love, and Yo-Yo, to name just a few. 

Taking it Further: Grand Theft Auto 4

Of course, another full sequel was inevitable given the success of the previous games, and the fourth installment was released worldwide on both PlayStation3 and Xbox360 on 29th April 2008. This time around, the protagonist is Niko Bellic, the first time a foreign national has played the main role in a GTA game. Niko is extremely skeptical of the United States, allowing the game to explore many more concepts and ideas in its storyline than in previous installments.

A new engine was built for GTA4, which Rockstar calls “Rockstar Advanced Game Engine”, and there is no doubt that the graphics have been improved dramatically since San Andreas. The open-world concept was taken further in GTA4 than ever before – you can literally spend hours just exploring the city if that’s what you fancy doing, rather than completing the missions. And you never know what you might find, too! 

GTA4 added multi-player for the first time, allowing 32 players to join a single game either co-operatively or competitively. Each player decides which game mode they wish to play, which can include deathmatches and even street races. A “Free Play” mode is also included, allowing players to explore the entirety of Liberty City with no goal, and no missions to complete.

2008 was a strange year for gaming, and GTA4 failed to claim the top spot in terms of sales, inched out by Wii Fit and Mario Kart Wii. At that time the game had only sold around 8 million copies – it’s currently on around 25 million, making Grand Theft Auto IV one of the best-selling video games of all time.

Grand Theft Auto 5

As of this moment, this is the last GTA game we have seen from Rockstar – it took them five years to create this game, which is a long, hard, slog, and who could blame them for wanting to do something different for a while? And let’s be honest, the Red Dead Redemption games are great too, even if they are just basically GTA set in the old West!

As for GTA5, as you would expect, the graphics are now unbelievably good – the power of the latest consoles make the game simply breathtaking to play or even watch. You now get a choice of three playable characters, each with different story arcs, significantly adding to the game’s longevity. The game takes place back in “San Andreas”, which fans will know is based on the state of California. 

GTA5 added a real online multiplayer mode, replacing the rather limited 32 player multiplayer featured in GTA4. Having been released in 2013, you would think GTA5 would be long forgotten by now – absolutely not. The game is still selling, and is currently up to 150 million copies, placing it in the top five video games of all time. 

More importantly for Rockstar, the online game, where players need to purchase Shark credit cards to purchase items and make transactions, generated over $1 billion USD in 2020 alone.

During 2020, Rockstar made a deal with Epic games which allowed people to download GTA5 for free. Millions of people took up this offer, and while Rockstar may not have benefitted financially from this directly, you can bet that new player base is spending some money on the microtransactions which are near enough essential to the online game.

The Future

We know Grand Theft Auto 6 is coming, as Rockstar made a statement in 2020 saying that the game was in development, but nothing has been shown of it yet. Every game since GTA3 has pushed the boundaries of open-world gameplay so much, this is the title that other studios seek to emulate, and you can bet that when it arrives, GTA6 will smash records, feature an amazing story, voice cast, and with the PS5 and XBOX now released… the visuals will be simple breathtaking. Maybe they will even include a VR mode! Now that would be amazing. Hopefully, GTA6 isn’t years away and Rockstar are planning to make a big reveal sometime soon. We can but hope? 

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