Working from design studios in New York, Dundee and Edinburgh, ROCKSTAR GAMES has remained at the forefront of innovation in the frenzied video games industry for five years with the best-selling Grand Theft Auto series.
Set in the mid-1980s in a sunny, sleazy city inspired by the Miami of Brian De Palma’s movie Scarface and the TV series Miami Vice, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City became the world’s best-selling video game after its launch in November 2002. By harnessing the most advanced technologies, its designers at Rockstar Games in New York and Rockstar North Edinburgh produced a game which is more visually seductive than its predecessors with more diverse and compelling characters, props, locations and narratives.
Rockstar Games was founded in 1998 by Sam Houser and Terry Donovan, friends since school in London, with Sam’s brother Dan. The following year Rockstar acquired DMA Design, the Edinburgh-based video games developer now named Rockstar North with which it had collaborated on the development of the Grand Theft Auto games series. Together they began work on the next titles in the series, including Grand Theft Auto III, which sold eight million copies after its launch in 2001.
For the fourth title, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a team led by Leslie Benzies, Aaron Garbut, Obbe Vermeij and Adam Fowler in Edinburgh and by Sam and Dan Houser in New York, created a game that overcame the traditional limitations of a video game – the linear narrative, condensed space and pre-determined activities – to enable its players to make their own choices. Rockstar Games was nominated for the Design Museum’s Designer of the Year award for 2002 because of the technical and creative ingenuity which produced Vice City.
Discover more about Rockstar Games at rockstargames.com
Q&A WITH DAN HOUSER
Q. How was Rockstar founded? And how did it become involved with DMA Design and the Grand Theft Auto series?
A. Rockstar Games was founded in December 1998, by Sam Houser, Terry Donovan, Jamie King and myself. We had all previously been working at BMG (the music group). Sam, Jamie and myself at BMG Interactive, the video games publishing division, and Terry at Arista Records. BMG Interactive was sold by BMG to Take Two Interactive in 1998, and we all moved to New York. Having had success in the UK with the first Grand Theft Auto game and some other titles, but entering the US market with neither the reputation nor the resources to compete with the major players, we set out to do something different.
We believed that the business was changing more rapidly than they or anyone else appreciated. Based on the products they were making, they seemed to think that interactive entertainment appealed to three discreet audiences: a very solemn and serious PC audience playing only strategy games and first person shooters; sports fans playing simulations of their favourite sports; and children. We felt that video games, interactive entertainment or whatever you wanted to call it could also appeal to a bigger, wider audience - older people who enjoyed playing games, but did not do so to the exclusion of everything else. People with an interest in film, music, books and a broader sense of popular culture.
At the same time, we felt that not only was the content of video games becoming very staid, focused primarily on fantasy, children’s characters or science fiction, but also the game play of those games was becoming very predictable. All that mattered was making games that looked better and better, but did little to make environments more interactive or compelling. From the start our aim was twofold - to make games that we wouldn’t be embarrassed to be caught playing ourselves and to expand the experience of playing those games by making them less limited and more engaging with the production values of movies.
We had been working with DMA Design while still at BMG and had developed Grand Theft Auto together. Since that time our relationship has continued to change and evolve. DMA’s becoming part of the Rockstar family seemed like a logical progression which allowed us to hand pick and assemble a ‘dream team’ based around Leslie Benzies, Aaron Garbut, Obbe Vermeij and Adam Fowler and to take our working relationship to the next level. At the time, they were based in Dundee, but had a small team in Edinburgh, we carefully built up the team in Edinburgh as we felt it was the best environment for making games.
Q. Are there any role models for Rockstar: either in terms of its structure and culture as a company, or within the video games industry?
A. Within the games business, we admire groups and individuals who do original things and who stick to their guns. Unfortunately, these are few and far between and the business has too often been controlled by people with a desire to make money, rather than something special. Obviously, Atari, Sega and especially Nintendo made the business what it is, so it is impossible not to admire them and be grateful to them, especially for those who designed mechanics which became standard. However none of them influenced us in the slighest as media companies, as opposed to console game makers, beyond a healthy disrespect for documents and love of playable code in making video games.
We were more heavily influenced by companies working in other media which had a sense of style that we admired - record labels, obviously, and clothing companies, which were obsessed with details and with an integrity between design, product and marketing. This is something that has always been very important to us: that the product, its packaging and public presentation should feel like the same thing, which is why we have always created all of our advertising materials ourselves, from TV creative to posters to promotional materials. Obviously a culturally relevant, detail obsessed approach to making video games was seen as rather ephemeral in 1999, but we felt that as the hardware improved, we could put more and more detail into the games and begin to make the game we dreamt of playing. A product which was three things at the same time - a game, a movie and a chance to explore and to be amused by a strange place.
Q. When did the development of GTA: Vice City begin? What was the original concept for the game? How did the concept change during the development process?
A. 1995, or 2001 – it is hard to say. In many ways, Vice City was merely a continuation of previous Grand Theft Autos. Some of the same core premises and design problems have been ironed out over multiple versions, meaning that development time on Vice City was shortened, as we had been working with the same ideas, in some ways, since work began on the first Grand Theft Auto. Vice City did not really go into full production until around the time that Grand Theft Auto 3 was approaching completion.
Q. What were the inspirations for Vice City? Why was it set in Miami? And why in the early to mid-1980s?
A. The game is meant to be fairly satirical, and we had just built a city that was more contemporary (for Grand Theft Auto 3) so to do something new, we felt we had to satirise something recent, but not entirely contemporary. The early to mid-1980s glorified values we felt the game could satirise very effectively - greed, the love of money, bad clothes, and the music was something we were all interested in, as it was a time when we were growing up and first getting interested in such things. We choose Miami as a starting point firstly because it was sunny and because we wanted to make an environment which felt glamorous, wealthy and complacent, in an attempt to evoke feelings hitherto completely alien to a video game. To try to make it feel fun and cool cruising in a convertible sports car through a sun drenched street while you decide what you are going to do. The city is based on Miami, but loosely so.
Q. Terry Donovan described Vice City in the New York Times as "bigger, bolder, faster, more twisted and weirder". Technically it is far superior to GTA III and other video games, what were the key advances in technology that enabled Rockstar to achieve these improvements?
A. We did a lot of work on our streaming technology - the thing that allows the game to be one continuous level, without long load times, so that we could add a lot of diversity to the world, without breaking the sense of immersion. We overhauled and developed the physics engine, so the player could drive planes, helicopters and motorbikes as well as an array of cars, and we developed and increased the use of motion capture so that all of the animations look more life like. Every aspect of the game’s code was tweaked with and improved, so that content moved faster and could be more diverse. As we are trying to make a city with the same hardware and storage medium (a DVD) as most people use to make things a lot less diverse, it is important for us to have things feel as a diverse as possible, as this creates the sense of life.
Q. Can you identify examples of individual elements within Vice City in the following categories - characters, cars or architectural environments - which contribute towards making the game more dynamic and exciting? Technically how was Rockstar able to achieve this?
A. Motorbikes, a speaking main character and a greater respect for making buildings realistic while still fun to play in and around are probably the biggest improvements compared with Grand Theft Auto 3. The motorbikes had to feel fun and had to be the most exciting vehicles in the game. We achieved this thanks to the improvements in the physics engine and attention to detail - a moped had to feel different to a sports bike. Making the main character speak was a challenge because we wanted him to feel alive and believable yet also express your thoughts in the context of the world or story. Making this work was dependent on the ability to stream in all of his comments, and the ability to create thousands of things for him to say. For architecture, we were keen to create a city that looked hot and glamorous, yet was fun to drive in and play in. This came from the experience of Grand Theft Auto 3, along with the development of a lighting system which makes the world look hot and sultry.
Q. The design and development of a game like Vice City is very complex and involves many people with different skills working over a lengthy period. Can you describe the key components - and landmarks - in this development process?
A. First of all we assassinated Grand Theft Auto 3, which was hard to do, as we all loved it, but we looked at it clearly and figured out everything that was missing from our dream game. Then we set about achieving them. This process involves the whole team, with everyone making suggestions as to how to make the game more involving, the world more alive and full of new features. Unfortunately, we are limited by time and space, so the whole game is in a sense a compromise - trying to make it as good as possible given the limitations of the medium. Were everything to be completely perfect, we couldn’t put it on the Playstation 2, and it would take a very long time, as long as it took Miami to be built and develop in the first place, so we work within the resources, especially, the system’s ability to draw media, or store data, to try to make the world as alive as possible, and the game as fun as possible.
For us, the key components were a visually compelling and massive environment, an engaging story, in which the player felt real affinity for the character they were playing as, a huge diversity of things to do and drive and a seamless integration of story and activity - that what you were doing was the game’s story, yet you felt it had a beginning, middle and end. The team is composed of a number of different groups - artists, level designers, audio engineers, musicians, programmers, writers, and animators - everyone works simultaneously to do the best they can within an overall framework and set of ambitions. The thing we are lucky with is that the various components of the team understand the overall aims and think in a similar way, so that we don’t really need a style book, or a huge number of meeting, because we share similar sensibilities. This is why the game works - everything feels the same - the way the world looks, what people say, how people act, the way characters animate all feel like they are from the same thing and it creates the illusion of a massive, sprawling and populated world. If anything doesn’t feel like everything else, like it fits into the world, we modify it until it does. These same sensibilities carry over to the way we market and package the game.
Q. How will Rockstar's games develop in the future? What are the next leaps in technology and other media that will enable you to produce more exciting and sophisticated games?
A. I hope based on the same ideals, expanded game play and very high production values, but pushing the newest technology to the limit. Obviously a faster processor and a bigger storage unit, including, ideally a hard drive while make it easier to make a game look better and play faster. Equally obviously, the internet offers the potential, if not quite yet the reality of vast game worlds where you play only human opponents. However, equally interesting to us are developments in artificial intelligence, so that non-player character are as life like as humans and animation so that everything appears as to move as realistically as possible. From a design perspective, we are learning how to make games as go along, where to make compromises and where not to, so that the experience is as amusing as possible.
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain