The birth of one of the largest Grand Theft Auto fansites
The GTA Place began its life on November 29th, 2002. At the time, I had absolutely no idea how to create a website. I didn't know how to design, I didn't know any HTML, hadn't even heard of cascading style sheets. It probably comes as no surprise to you that to create The GTA Place, I had to use Microsoft Frontpage.
The site was hosted on some free webspace we had with our ISP at the time, 55MB just for hosting files and HTML pages, nothing else. To promote the site a bit, I headed over to a popular gaming forum where I put a link to my site in my signature. I did end up posting quite a bit, trying my best not to spam it everywhere.
Soon after the Christmas period I started looking at other GTA websites and got some ideas for a better design and layout. I made a simple one which was much easier on the eyes, and had a proper structure, I also wrote a lot more content for the site, in the hope of looking more professional, and to give visitors something useful to read.
It was probably February when whilst browsing other GTA sites, I noticed some had their own forums. After searching for a free forum to use, I cam across ProBoards. I went through the sign up process and The GTA Place had its own forum in a matter of minutes. We got a whopping 12 members.
The Early Days
New layouts... stats leagues... new forums
March 2003, during this month I got in contact with a guy whom I only knew as James. He kindly made The GTA Place a more vibrant layout. I used it for about 3 months before realising it was too bright and didn't suit a site about Grand Theft Auto.
During these three months is when The GTA Place started to become more and more popular. I had started the GTA3 and Vice City Stats Leagues. These were basically a huge page (one for each game) containing a table for each statistic in the game, anyone who submitted their stats to me got added to it, resulting in what was essentially a mini competition to see who was the 'best' GTA player.
During May we started our own forums using phpBB2, they were hosted at Lycos since my current host didn't allow PHP. These did quite well and we eventually gained over 50 members with more than 1500 posts on the forums by August.
It was now June 2003. A month in which The GTA Place took off and firmly established itself. I had made a new blue layout and although it was made for 800x600 (so it stretched on higher resolutions and looked stupid), was a great improvement on the previous one. On June 6th I had bought the domain name (thegtaplace.com) along with some better hosting that allowed PHP scripts to run. The forums were moved to my new host too - everything was now in one place. By now we had a large number of affiliates (88x31 banner exchanges with other GTA websites). We started posting news about Grand Theft Auto, and all of this meant we had a lot more traffic to the website, and the site was starting getting indexed in search engines such as Google. The Internet archiving website Archive.org also began indexing our site at this time.
You can see the layout I made from the first record in Archive.org, dated June 14th.
Visitors were grateful that in the week after this I made some tweaks to the layout making it work on all resolutions, and gave it a better navigation. It was the first fully functional layout - the following link shows the improved design, albeit just before I got a new layout the next day.
There is also an archive of our phpBB forums from July 14th, showing the basic layout, minus any images.
Another later archive shows the forums nearer to the time I closed them, unfortunately this one seems to be text only and has no styling information included so it looks completely bare.
The last record of the stats league pages mentioned earlier can be found at the following links, I decided to stop the league after moving on with the site (described below).
GTA3 PS2 Stats League - from 10th July, 2003.
GTAVC PS2 Stats League - from 3rd August, 2003.
The Growth Spurt
Using a terrible CMS, and subsequently getting hacked
Halfway through September I found The GTA Place becoming too big to keep manually updating each page so often. I look for solutions, and in my search came across PHP Nuke. I didn't know it then, but this was to be my second big mistake, (the first being the decision to use phpBB software for the forums). On September 10th, I had downloaded PHP Nuke 6.8 and installed it on the server. The site was temporarily closed while all this was happening as I had to add all the current content into the database. During this time I spoke online with a Dutch webmaster, Dennis, who ran a site called GTA-Xplorer. Dennis decided to close his site and instead help me with The GTA Place, subsequently he brought all his Vice City downloads to the site. This is the point where The GTA Place became a primary resource for fans to download mods for their game. Another decision Dennis and I made was to use Invision Power Board software for the forums. We installed version 1.2 (the latest version at the time) and redirected my old phpBB forums to the new ones. As a measure of our growing popularity, we were now getting a few hundred unique visitors with around 1,000 page views everyday. In total we had received over 50,000 hits since originally opening 10 months earlier.
September 12th rolled around and I was ready to open the new PHP powered website. Over the next few weeks we saw a good increase in traffic, resulting in 1500-2500 page views a day. The first page in Archive.org of this first proper version of our site is from October 8th 2003, the day on which we received our 50,000th page view since September 12th, this meant we had reached 100,000 page views since the day of opening, our forums soon reached the 100 members milestone later that week.
In February 2004, the forums were unfortunately compromised by a hacker. Due to the fact we didn't have any recent backups, we were forced to start the forums again, this being the third time. Since then, the forums have been fine, and other than spam attacks, have never been compromised and are still going strong to this day.
Other than different themes for PHP Nuke, The GTA Place didn't change much from September until April 2004, when after almost 1 and half years in existence, I decided to stop using PHP Nuke and use what skills I had acquired in PHP to code the website myself, this included making a brand new layout as well. On April 16th I launched the new website, and began seeing traffic increase quite a bit at the same time.
New designs again
On May 23rd, 2004, I tweaked the layout slightly to reflect the red/orange colours of San Andreas and referred to this as version 2.0, you can see it on archive.org.
One last notable milestone in terms of statistics was our 1,000,000th page view, which happened on July 20th, 2004. It would be nearly a whole year before there was another layout change.
In May 2005 I began talking to Dennis again, by June 2nd he had a new layout ready for us featuring a much more graphical style - version 2.5 if you will. Unfortunately, Archive.org displays some of our old layout features among the new stuff so it looks a bit strange! See thegtaplace.com on August 10th, 2005 for a more accurate depiction.
Reliable Web Hosting
No more downtime!
Throughout the next year we had our fair share of webhosts. In June I received an email from Ron Holme, webmaster of SoccerGaming.com. They were setting up a new dedicated server and were looking for large sites to host for free, in exchange for two adverts being placed across the whole of the site. I initially declined but by July was forced to take up his offer after becoming too big for my current host, and using so much bandwidth. He put us on a server with a few other sites, one of them being another large GTA site - this eventually led to problems and the server experiencing downtime such was our tremendous growth. We then got moved on to a fully dedicated server where we are the only site on it, and we have been doing great ever since.
During Easter 2006, on April 17th to be exact, I unveiled version 3.0 of The GTA Place. This time I had recoded the PHP backend, and designed the site without using tables and to fully use CSS for styling. The pages on this layout load much quicker than they did on our previous ones. We also introduced different layout colour schemes for each of the major GTA games. This layout is still used today. thegtaplace.com on April 24th 2006.
In terms of major changes, TGTAP remained fairly quiet for quite some time after this. In September 2007 however, I had finished our new downloads database. Based on the popular paFileDB script, my custom version differed in that it was far more powerful, integrated with our forums, allowed users to upload their own files, and didn't get hackers attempting to compromise it every day. The database has received numerous improvements since it was first released.
The next major change came on 1st January, 2009. New Year's Day. Version 4.0 of The GTA Place had been in development for quite a while, and with it being finished in late December, I decided the start of the new year would be a great time to launch it.
New Year, New TGTAP
Exactly 3 years to the day after unveiling version 4 of The GTA Place, we made version 5 live, on 1st January, 2012. Version 5 wasn't a major revamp like the previous version was, rather, v5 was a modification of it. A modernisation of what had become a successful layout that worked well for us. We dropped the left navigation column and moved the main stuff to the right, with more space for that and the main content. On the homepage, we also made space for featured content, something we use fairly regularly to highlight interesting bits and pieces.
One month later, 1st February, 2012, we launched a mobile optimised version of the site at m.thegtaplace.com. The mobile site features the exact same content as the main website, but with large amounts of images and code removed, making the whole thing load much faster on smart phones and other web-enabled devices.
NOTE: The pages on archive.org may look weird due to the fact images are missing and/or have been overwritten since being archived, and that stylesheets may not have been saved so colours may look different. The full list of pages on thegtaplace.com in archive.org can be found here.