On October 22, 2001, everything we ever thought we understood about videogames changed. Gamers were looking ahead to the oncoming arrival of the next generation of consoles. Nintendo was one month away from the North American release of the GameCube, an adorable candy-colored travesty that would usher in a half-decade in the cultural wilderness. Microsoft — still the Evil Empire in those simpler, bygone days — was going to release its own system the same week: A brutal tank-like abomination called the Xbox, which came equipped with a controller that looked like a blunt instrument used by cavemen to crush mammoth skulls.

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Sony had already released its own next-generation console one year earlier. The device was called the PlayStation 2. It would become the best-selling videogame console in history. It would initiate a massive shift in how the culture thought about videogames, and how videogame players thought about themselves. And if you want to pinpoint a specific moment when the industry began that massive shift, you could do worse than pointing to October 22, 2001, when Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto III into stores.

GTA III was a showcase for the powerhouse PS2. Earlier games in the series were fun, prankishly rude ditties; you played a criminal, and observed the gridlike world from an omniscient, top-down perspective. GTA III created an entire three-dimensional world, setting you at ground level in a city that could be freely explored. It wasn’t the first game to combine different genres into one, but the component parts of GTA III‘s gameplay were well integrated: it was a driving game, a third-person shooter, an RPG-inflected adventure, a crime thriller. The Casual Gamer — a primordial notion, five years pre-Wii — probably thought that GTA IIIwas less a single videogame than an entire entertainment system unto itself.

GTA III kickstarted whole host of changes in the videogame industry. Along with Halo: Combat Evolved, released in November 2001 as an Xbox launch title, it’s a central to the paradigm shift in the early ’00s that transformed videogames either into “a legitimately cool and important cultural force” or “that annoyingly fashionable Hot New Thing that meant Lindsay Lohan attended the launch party of Saints Row The Third” — depending on your perspective. (I’ll never forget watching The O.C. and noticing that Seth Cohen had a Rockstar Games poster up in his bedroom.)

But the most impressive thing about the decade since GTA III was released is the amazing run it kickstarted at Rockstar Games. The developer has continually evolved the GTA IIIsystem in madcap new directions. GTA: Vice City practically created the neverending ’80s revival. GTA: San Andreas expanded the open-world experience to a fanatical extent, rebuilding a bizarro-California with Fake Las Vegas thrown in for kicks. (If it’s possible for one of the best-selling games ever to be considered underrated, then I’d say San Andreas counts: The game’s gonzo cocktail of gangster street grit and jetpack absurdity makes it one of videogamery’s great weird entertainments.)

But the GTA series was never just about technological leaps. GTA IV brought branching narratives to the franchise, and also starred its most endearing protagonist: Eastern European immigrant Niko Bellic. And last year’s Red Dead Redemption suggested an entirely new stage in the Rockstar open-world experiment. It was set in a sparse, almost meditative landscape, where GTA always preferred urban environments; it was elegiac, even ruminative, a far cry from the glitzy snark of Vice City; and it featured one of the great endingsin videogame narrative history.

Dan Houser  – Vice President of Creative at Rockstar Games — has taken central roles in the development of all the games in the GTA series since GTA III, along with his brother, Sam. (Dan is actually credited as a writer or co-writer on every GTA game since II, as well as Red Dead and the prep-school curio Bully.) However, in conversation, Houser is quick to describe all the games as a team effort. “I think one of the reasons, hopefully, that Grand Theft Auto is still innovative and interesting,” he tells EW, “is that it’s it’s still got the same executive producer, producer, writer, art director, lead programmer, audio guys, and a bunch of other guys that have been on it since III, and then a bunch more that came on for Vice. We’ve always worked well together.”

Houser sat down with EW recently to talk about the creation of GTA 3, and the conversation quickly spiraled into a freewheeling discussion about the nature of world-building, the growing possibilities of open-world storytelling in the last decade, the development of the series from GTA III onwards, and the potential next stage of videogame evolution.