The Psycho Cop Bug

How Grand Theft Auto was born out of a bland game with an interesting glitch.

It was a simpler time in gaming.

In a previous article, I examined a delightful little game bug that caused a virtual Gandhi to become a nuclear warmonger. I’ll be discussing another game bug today that had unintended, but equally loved consequences for players.

Grand Theft Auto by Rockstar Games is truly a juggernaut in the gaming world. The franchise is always pushing boundaries, supplying gamers and critics alike with plenty of controversy to talk about. Regardless of your opinion of the game and its sometimes troubling depiction of violence and the role of women in society, it has been the genre-defining example of an open world sandbox where players are given agency to do whatever they want, wherever they want, to whomever they want.

There is always a set of missions that you can play through to advance the main story of the game. Most of the franchise’s charm, however, derives from just messing around with the digital world around you — invariably committing a few crimes, and catching the attention of the in-game police force. This force mercilessly hunts you down until they arrest you, send you to the hospital, or you manage to hide out long enough for them to conveniently forget that they were chasing you with a small army.

Just going out for some casual Sunday driving…

It may come as a surprise to some fans of the series that this core mechanic of running from the cops after committing a crime was not how the developers originally intended the game to behave. In fact, the developers didn’t originally intend to make GTA at all. Originally, the developers wanted to create a racing game which allowed players to either play as a civilian racing in illegal street races, or as a cop trying to stop a group of street racers from reaching the finish line. The working title for this game was aptly called “Race and Chase.”

Original concept art from Race N’ Chase.

Race N’ Chase was, in the words of one of its original developers, “…basically cops and robbers.” It was very mission based and linear — the sandbox elements at the core of the franchise were non-existent in this prototypical form. Race N’ Chase had some problems, but the main issue stemmed from the fact that, at its core, it was just not very fun to play. For a new game in development, this might as well be a death sentence. But then something interesting started to happen…

It was basically cops and robbers.
~ Gary Penn

One day, playtesters of the game noticed that a new bug was introduced. The cops in the game had started to act… strangely. Erratic. You might even say they would act downright psychotic. Instead of following players around trying to get close enough to pull them over, cops stopped playing nice and tried to run players off the road. Cops would gang up on the player, ramming into them at full speed and causing all kinds of chaos. Somehow, the pathfinding algorithm that was supposed to direct the cops toward, but at a distance from, the player was broken and caused the cop to think that its true destination was within the bounds of the player character and not a few inches away from the character. The cops would thus never reach their destination, but would rather continue to try and grasp this unreachable point within the center of the player’s car over and over again. This eventually caused the cop to ram the player over and over again.

Never gonna stop

This was absolutely not intended, but the playtesters were ecstatic. Why? Because this new behavior was fun. The game had become extremely amusing and satisfying since the introduction of this new bug — they had something to run with now. Gary Penn explains how this all unfolded to the development team in an interview with Gamasutra:

That was awesome, so [the cop bug] stayed in. It was tweaked a little bit, but that stayed in because that was great fun. Suddenly the game got more dramatic and it’s no longer boring — the police trying to pull you over. They’re after you, they’re trying to ram you off the [loving] road. Everybody suddenly went, “Hey this is actually pretty cool. There’s something in this, this is working.” It was less about the mission stuff, which we always thought was another mess, and more about just general play — just being able to piss around.
~ Gary Penn, Gamasutra Interview

And the rest, as they say, is history. The game was re-branded as Grand Theft Auto, a franchise that has gone on to release five main titles across several generations of consoles, with plenty of offshoot versions along the way. If it weren’t for these digital cops going a little mental one day after a minor coding mistake, we may have missed out on an entire landscape of interesting and influential sandbox, open-world gaming.

Further Reading