Interview: Rockstar’s Dan Houser
Visiting Rockstar’s HQ for a look at Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, we also felt duty bound to talk with vice president of creative Dan Houser about the wider world of Grand Theft Auto, and specifically the fourth instalment, on which he and the Rockstar North team are obviously still working as they prepare the first of two episodes of downloadable content, due for release over Xbox Live.
Looking back at the launch of GTAIV, what was it like from your perspective?
Nerve-wracking, always nerve-wracking. The bigger the game, the more nerve-wracking. It was a smoother movement from GTAIII to Vice City to San Andreas, and then we hit various political roadbumps in the intervening years, and also we had to deal with a movement on to the new hardware, with technical roadbumps and so on.
The challenge in some ways was outside of the process of making a game, in terms of what we do using experts from Microsoft and Sony to come in and work with the hardware – there was the American government and the crap that went on through 2005 to 2007. So I suppose there was more pressure than there was even with San Andreas. So the sense of relief when it all went off was even greater.
What’s your take on how the game was ultimately received among consumers?
You always get so many opinions. The big thing that we have become aware of, having made any game – since GTAIII, really – is that everything you change, someone will love it and someone will hate it. And there’s no way you can account for that because you have to change it – you can’t just keep making the same thing again and again. But if you keep in mind that we changed things for reasons of integrity, in terms of design, then I think people overall responded amazingly to the game, both in terms of the critics and consumer response.
Of course, you get people complaining that this thing or that thing we’d removed was the thing they’d loved most about the previous game, but the numbers of those were smaller than at any time since GTAIII, I think. In the world of message boards you need to have thick skin because you get insane amounts of hatred for anything you do. But at the same time we get insane amounts of love. Of course you get loads of people going: ‘You’re arseholes!’ but so many people just email in and say: ‘This game is amazing’. The feedback was incredible.
You get concerns with things like the online not working for a few days and people not being able to get a game working, and that’s heartbreaking for us because we want everyone to have a smooth experience. We take that stuff as seriously as we possibly can, and make it as good as we can, so problems like that are really upsetting. But, overall, the fanbase seem to like the direction we’ve taken – they see what we’ve done and why we’ve tried to do it.
Has the direction taken by GTAIV – with more considerations for realism, and the removal of jetpacks and so on – set a direction for GTA as a whole? And is that direction set in stone?
No, not necessarily. We’re still figuring out what we’re going to do next, because of the downloadable content. I don’t think it’s set anything in stone, it’s just what we did with that game. The idea that the tone was identical from GTAIII through to Vice City to San Andreas to Liberty City Stories to Vice City Stories is a little bit of revisionist history. It really wasn’t as close or as unified as all that – sometimes even within a game like San Andreas the tone moved a lot, and we desperately tried to make that make sense.
And we tried to do something different with GTAIV, and I think we’ll always go with horses for courses as a basis for what works in a game at a moment in time. The masterplan, if there is one, is to keep evolving and make the perfect game, and I don’t think we’ve even got close to that. I think GTAIV was as good as we could do at that moment in time. I think it was a really well worked-out game that combined the three elements of what makes GTA on a console. On the one hand that’s a progressive, tight, action game, with a better targeting system and the amazing physics and bunch of other things that really made the seamlessness of the design feel like it was taken up a level.
But then it’s also a strong narrative-driven experience that’s meant to feel like a movie or a TV show, and I think we set a new benchmark for what we’re capable of doing in that regard. And I think the third thing is that it’s a digital fantasy world that you go and explore, and we set another benchmark for ourselves there. The energy we got into that world – whether you’re going for a drink in a bar or seeing a busker when you walk down the street – is, I think, as much as we were capable of at that time. And we did that by really going to a granular level with everything and really figuring stuff out – how we got the animation and AI much tighter, for example. And we’d look to do that fundamental stuff if we did another game. And if that game wasn’t suited to the tone of GTAIV, it wouldn’t have that tone.
What can you say about the downloadable content right now? Will it deliver what people are expecting – ie, a bunch of new missions? Or more than that?
[Pauses] I’m trying to think of something to say that’s not too bland, because I can’t really talk about it. I think it’s really cool, and as an overall package there are two episodes, and each episode works on its own, and as a whole it works well. It adds to the experience in a fun way. If you enjoyed GTAIV, you’ll enjoy it. If you didn’t, it will provide some new things for you to not enjoy.
Is there any way that you can track the decisions players made at crucial points during GTAIV?
I don’t know if it can track exactly those things. I wanted to go through at some point and look at all of those points to get a sense of how people tackled those decisions. What about you – did you kill Darko?
You killed him, didn’t you? I can tell from your face.
Completely shot him to pieces, yes.
Interesting. But not everyone did – I know a bunch of people who didn’t. So that worked quite well. What about Dimitri?
Well, on the first playthrough, Roman died. With Kate, though, it was a matter of being so wrapped up in other activities – she would call to arrange a date and there always seemed to be other things that had to be done. You find yourself reaching the conclusion of the game and you haven’t found the opportunity to let her become a big part of your life.
That’s amazing that a game can do that, though. That’s amazingly gratifying because that’s how we want people to respond to it. That’s what we wanted it to feel like. A cinematic narrative but giving you things cinema can’t, which is choice, and feeling that your actions have influenced outcomes. It’s not ‘find a key and get through a door’, it’s more subtle, and there are more inputs than that.
It’s almost like event television, in the way you arrive at work and talk with colleagues about what happened last night, except in this case your experiences obviously have the opportunity to be different. We’re interested in seeing what happens in this respect when the DLC is rolled out.
So am I. It’s like Chinatown Wars in that it’s something totally new. We’ve never done anything episodic at all – the only thing we’ve done remotely similar, I suppose, are the PSP games; new stories in existing worlds, and on a handheld. The idea of sending content down the internet is scary to me in some ways, because I’m old enough to think it’s all got to be on a disc. And the same with Chinatown Wars, to be fiddling around, doing stuff on a DS and trying a totally new platform, and also working with Nintendo, who we’ve never really worked with closely before. It’s new ground and it’ll be interesting. Fun, though. We’re not going to get stuck doing the same thing. Everyone seems convinced that the internet is eventually how you’ll be distributing your games, and this is our first foray into that, and I think Xbox Live is a great environment to be doing that – they’ve got a really vibrant community and insanely popular and efficient ways of getting stuff out to people.