How Rockstar Contrived Controversy to Sell ‘Grand Theft Auto’

By | 4 years ago 

Here’s an interesting question: When is the first time you heard of Grand Theft Auto? Surely some among the series’s (and so yes, we’re talking about the game, not the literal legal felony) current Grand Theft Auto V-hungry fanbase were active in its genesis; but for an adult-rated franchise that first debuted back in 1997 when Titanic was in theaters, we’re guessing many have also picked it up along the way. Did you happen to discover it on a store shelf, through a friend or by reading up a gaming publication? Or was Grand Theft Auto simply ingrained into your cultural cognizance thanks to ongoing banter about video-game violence, “murder simulators,” and the corruption of America’s youth?

If your answer borders around the latter, that’s exactly the way Rockstar Games North (then known as DMA Design) had it fixed from the start.

According to a new in-depth report published in The Sunday Times, David Jones and Mike Dailly, creators of the original Grand Theft Auto, attribute the initial success of the series to its widespread notoriety – brought on by their hiring of PR superstar Max Clifford and his ability to manufacture controversy.

“Max Clifford made it all happen,” Dailly told the paper. “He designed all the outcry, which pretty much guaranteed MPs [media publications] would get involved… He’d do anything to keep the profile high.”

Grand Theft Auto Controversy

A celebrity of sorts himself in England whose recent clients have included Simon Cowell and David Copperfield, Clifford has long been known to elicit and tweak responses out the media and politicians. Jones describes a similar strategy for Grand Theft Auto, one with Clifford planting stories in popular tabloids and provoking vitriol from public officials. After all, any press is good press, as they say; thanks to Clifford it came free of charge:

“He told us how he would play it, who he would target, what those people targeted would say. Every word he said came true”.

Reading Jones’s and Dailly’s account, it would be easy to envision a scenario where the developers, aware of Clifford’s machinations, embraced the same publicity-pandering model in Grand Theft Auto’s design philosophy. Fortunately, as Jones clarifies, faithfulness to fun always came first:

“We knew why every decision was made, and we were never, ever influenced by ‘let’s do something to create a bit of controversy.'”

“We always did everything from the perspective of what’s going to be the most fun. It just naturally kept pushing us down the darker direction.”

DMA Design would become Rockstar North in 1999, and Max Clifford would eventually part ways with the company and Grand Theft Auto. But then that’s okay; he really isn’t needed now. The zeitgeist Clifford helped create has lived on in every GTA since. Most recently, Grand Theft Auto IV was scorned by everyone from Glenn Beck to Hilary Clinton to Jack Thompson to Mothers Against Drunk Driving when it debuted; it needed to be “modified” before releasing in Australia and New Zealand; and yet to date it’s sold over 22 million copies around the globe. Grand Theft Auto V shouldn’t expect any less opposition thanks to its name recognition alone, but there’s no doubt it will enjoy sales that once again challenge industry records.

Grand Theft Auto 4 Controversy Publicity

We frequently see sentiments – like those expressed in 2011’s violent video game proposal held by the Supreme Court – criticizing the content or impact of video games, possibly for their author’s own publicity. That being said, it’s hard to say publishers aren’t aware the temptations the likes of GTA embody so well: the chance to move your name from the advertising page to the front page, from primetime commercials to primetime programming.

Ranters, how much of Grand Theft Auto’s success do you think can be attributed to its controversies and criticisms. Do certain game publishers contrive public outrage to increase their bottom line?

Follow me on Twitter @Brian_Sipple.

Source: The Sunday Times (credit to GamesIndustry for accessing the story).