Grand Theft Space transports players from GTA 5's urban sprawl to the cosmos above. At present, it boasts a functioning space shuttle, 11 planets, three moons and scant alien life. It's modest—but should it realise its potential, this work-in-progress open-source project could become the fully-customisable space sandbox we've always wanted.
"When I first started making the mod I wanted it to be: You go to the moon, you fight some aliens, you come back to Earth," the mod's creator Soloman Northrop tells me. "But then we came up with the idea to make it an API, whereby anyone can add anything they want and change every single thing without touching code. I played around with the code and eventually came up with the structure, and we made it work."
First announced in January, Grand Theft Space was formally revealed in July alongside an impressive Rockstar Editor cinematic. It launched its first in-development version 1.0 earlier this month, and, within just one week, was downloaded over 15,000 times.
Overnight, hours of poring over pictures and data from the NASA website—not to mention a fair whack of artistic license gleaned from science-fiction—had paid off. With an interested playerbase, growth was something Northrop and his team could now pursue.
As a hobbyist group made up of students and graduates, Northrop and his peers aren't building a GTA-driven No Man's Sky or Star Citizen, but are instead championing a platform for players to experiment with their own scripts, missions and scenarios. A heartening chunk of the mod's newly-launched Discord channel appreciate its potential, against the tide of irrational demands for seamless space landings and thriving intergalactic colonies from the outset.
The former attitude underscores Northrop and his team's raison d'etre: Grand Theft Space is a work-in-progress in the truest sense—one that will live or die by how much or how little its community supports it.
"It would require a lot of developers to chip in, but if we had a community, a place where the Grand Theft Space community could go to talk about ideas and stuff, it could very well end up like Kerbal Space Program," says Northrop. "If we do it well enough, that is, if we figure out a system that's similar to KSP, where you can orbit and do all that stuff, then people would love it. That's what people want: They want to play GTA and play a game that they can't afford—really, that's what mods are."
So why hasn't anyone tried this before? Grand Theft Auto 5 is one of the most modded PC games around and while a multitude of both realistic and sci-fi-inspired space mods already exist, no one has successfully recreated the final frontier with such wide-reaching scope.
"I was asking myself that," admits Northrop. "Most people try to do it conventionally, without making a bug into a feature. So, people might have been like: Oh, I can't change the skybox or, oh, I can't remove the map so there's no way to make space. What I did was went into 3DS Max and I created a big sphere, inverted it and attached it to the player. It looked exactly like I was in space.
"I thought: Maybe I can actually expand on this. Eventually that's pretty much what happened. I'm guessing that's the reason why no one has attempted it so far, that they've wanted to do it conventionally. At some point that will be possible and we'll update the mod when that's possible."
Northrop suggests he'd eventually like to see other players adding more galaxies, or the ability to leave the current arena to further flung solar systems. He'd also like to see a survival script implemented that would force players to track their hunger levels, food supplies and fuel management while on out on expeditions.
Nicholas Kjellman, the mod's map and web developer, agrees that a survival script would be a welcomed addition to Grand Theft Space, but that he's also keen to see real life discoveries applied to the mod, similar to how EVE Online blends reality with its fiction. Mod packs in line with famous franchises is something else Kjellman pines for.
"Since it's an add-on, the survival could be implemented to the regular game too," he says. "I'd also like to see people working on things that overlap the game with reality. If you tune into science news, you constantly hear things about scientists finding Earth 2.0—if that could then pop up in the mod that'd be great. Or even nearby star systems like alpha centauri, it'd be cool to add in that. I'd also like to see Jupiter or Saturn's many moons too. Mod packs themed after certain franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, that'd be really cool."
Vehicle developer Lukas Sack, aka Skyline, suggests the introduction of a mod shop would allow players to customise their own spaceships, which would in turn encourage the GTS team to produce more models. At this stage, the possibilities far outweigh what Grand Theft Space is capable of, but it's nevertheless hard not to feel inspired by Northrop and his colleague's eagerness.
In the immediate future, the team plans to add and alter a number of models, paying particular attention to planet surfaces. Terrain variation is top of this list, so as to add character to foreign planets.
"Eventually, we want a base game. Like GTA 5, you can play it forever, you can mod on top of it—we want a base game that you can just literally spend your entire time in GTA in space and just do whatever you want," says Northrop. "It's sort of like that right now but it's too buggy and we need to just add more stuff so that they don't lose interest too quickly."
One particular feature that is repeatedly requested is seamless transitioning when entering and exiting planets. Kjellman loves the enthusiasm the mod's community brings to the project, however is equally keen to highlight the limitations of working within such a small, hobbyist team.
"People want to ask us for the seamless transitions but it's not possible for us to edit a mesh at runtime, just like Kerbal Space does (when you enter a planet it actually unwraps the sphere so that it's not loading the entire planet at the same time)," Kjellman says. "We can't do that in GTA so we have to consider different workarounds in order to get it working. It's really difficult to do and people post blanket statements like: why didn't you do this or that. It's like, we're trying our best, we don't really know how to do all of this stuff. There's only eight of us."
But crafting something with lasting appeal like Kerbal Space Program, like Garry's Mod, like Multi Theft Auto is well within their sights. I ask Northrop if he thinks players will still be playing Grand Theft Space in years to come, should it take off as planned.
"If people do expand it, if we figure out a way to increase the render distance too—that's the only thing that's holding us back right now—there's no reason people won't be playing Grand Theft Space several years from now. If we actually figure that out then the possibilities are endless. Completely endless."