Sitting down with Rockstar Games president Sam Houser in the freshly decorated demo room of the company’s headquarters in downtown New York, we ask him how he’s doing. Just over 1,100 uninterrupted words later, he’s finished giving us an answer.
Houser is, in his own words, the “loudmouth” of the Rockstar organisation, not that you’d know it in recent years, since he’s been maintaining a low public profile while the company over which he presides has become the default scapegoat for anything that is perceived to be wrong with videogaming. The most testing point came two years ago, in a Washington courtroom, when he and several of his colleagues faced up to a nine-hour cross-examination at the hands of US federal investigators brandishing stacks of printouts detailing thousands of internal Rockstar emails. Some going for a group of people in the business of making digital entertainment.
All that nonsense may be in the past, but it’s certainly left its mark. “It’s made our resolve that much stronger, and in some ways I feel that some of the negative stuff had to happen to keep everybody’s feet on the ground, and to keep everybody hungry and motivated,” Houser says seriously. “With the sales of some of our previous games we’ve accomplished a lot of what people would have thought we’d set out to achieve, and the fact that, after all this time, we can still be this hungry and ambitious and driven and crazy – that’s got to be a good sign. Because if they can’t shake us now, then what can they do to us?” His eyes are sparkling and he’s laughing heartily now, and we can’t help but join in.
It’s important to note that Houser isn’t the monster his critics would have him painted as. OK, apparently one Raymond Liotta once described him as “a fucking lunatic” (Houser took it as quite the compliment), but this bearded bouncing ball of energy is also a sensitive soul (“I get a panic attack if I get a parking ticket,” he says, laughing again), and is desperately committed to supporting those around him, which in the context of GTA involves ensuring that we understand that it’s the dev staff at Rockstar North in Edinburgh who are the real talents behind the phenomenon. There is an unusual sort of bond in evidence here – the result, perhaps, of standing together in times of difficulty – and not for nothing is the Rockstar Games setup sometimes referred to as a family. Whenever Houser’s colleagues talk about him it is with respect, but also admiration for what the company has achieved under his leadership in the ten short years since its birth.
Anyway, we’re here in New York City not to talk about videogame controversy – an issue that hasn’t so much been flogged to death as beaten with an iron pipe, slashed into variously sized pieces and lobbed into a dumpster. We’re here to discover the real stories behind a series that has transformed perceptions of what the 3D action game can be, and has, with each further iteration, not just progressively refined the genre but reimagined, reshaped and rewired it until it has become something that can no longer be comfortably placed alongside other types of game because its ambition exists in a different sphere.
The signs were there in GTAIII, the 2001 release that showed just how differently Rockstar considered the notion of what a videogame could be all about, its astonishingly engineered mechanics, storyline, technology and soundtrack fusing to create something that wasn’t so much a game as it was an experience. That Vice City, a sequel that built upon its successor in every conceivable manner – and some that were inconceivable at the time – emerged from Rockstar North’s studio only a year later is one of modern-day game development’s wildest accomplishments. By rights, the successor, San Andreas, had no business throwing up any surprises, and yet it punched through expectations with a sense of breadth and scale unmatched in videogaming as a whole.
Today, we’re going to talk about all of these achievements, along with Rockstar’s most ambitious work to date, Grand Theft Auto IV.
GRAND THEFT AUTO 3D
On the city outskirts, a police officer is chasing a young man across a car dealership’s parking lot. The man appears unarmed, but the officer has drawn his weapon and is preparing to open fire. In the background, curious bystanders have gathered to see what will unfold. The suspect runs between two cars in a frankly pitiful attempt to hide. “Get in the Humvee, man!” shouts one of the onlookers. He does as he’s instructed, fires up the hulking vehicle’s engine and slams it into reverse, ramming the robust bodywork squarely into the cop and flattening him.
“YEAH!” shouts one of the bystanders in delighted approval. The rest, probably a dozen of them now, are standing there transfixed by what they’re seeing. This is the showfloor of E3 2001. It’s the first chance we’ve had to play GTAIII, and we’ve unintentionally attracted quite an audience.
The game has turned up with little in the way of fanfare, but it leaves an impression on all of those who bother to give it a go. Which turns out to be not as many as Rockstar had hoped, leaving it to be overshadowed by many other titles making debuts this year, not least the company’s own mass-scale beat ’em up, State Of Emergency.
“I remember our booth at E3 that year and really loving it and feeling like, you know, we’ve actually got a selection of games here, it’s all going on, this is great,” says Houser today. “But the game that I was closest to and most proud of was GTAIII, and I remember me and Les [Benzies, producer of GTAIII and now president of Rockstar North] could not really get arrested with it at that E3. People were not really interested. I was really shocked at the time. I mean, State Of Emergency definitely had a great engine, and it was perfect for a trade show, where it was going to be played for five or ten minutes at a time. GTAIII wasn’t so suitable because it wasn’t glossy or spangly – but if you gave it a chance, it took you somewhere special. I definitely remember that E3 made us all a lot hungrier for the game – we were like: ‘Well, we’d better put the fucking hammer down now’. So I’m very grateful to E3 for that, if nothing else. And we fucking well did put the hammer down.”
It wasn’t that GTAIII lacked polish in its E3 incarnation, more that it was so different to anything else being shown at the event that many people just didn’t get it. Plus, as Houser admits, GTA2 – a 2D title released three years after gamers had embraced 3D spectacles such as Tomb Raider – hadn’t sold in the sort of numbers that matched Rockstar’s expectations, so awareness of GTA as a brand was low.
Houser had previously experienced frustrations with GTA’s evolution. He recalls the transition from 2D to 3D: “At the end of GTA2 someone from the team popped up with a version of the game which was in what we described as 2.5D – in real layman’s terms it was like an isometric fixed viewpoint, kind of like SimCity but with more of a dynamic camera. It was basically the GTA2 engine but you could play it in 3D and it was mind-blowing. I was like, ‘Why don’t we get this in there?’ But it chugged along, and for whatever reason it wasn’t happening, but I remember it really firming up in my mind, and I was here on my own, going, ‘Oh, man, if we do this in proper 3D, it’s going be insane’. But separately, the team was working on something that was loosely along those lines. Leslie [Benzies], Obbe [Vermeij, technical director], Adam [Fowler, technical director] and Aaron [Garbut, art director] had just moved to Edinburgh, and their side-project kind of evolved into what GTAIII became.”
Taking GTA from its established 2D roots and into 3D was a bold move, but an obvious one, we suggest. “Bringing it across to 3D was hard, but yeah, it was a very logical thing. And I remember the first time I started to see images of what was going to be created by the team – I was just like: ‘That’s actually what we can do? That’s bananas’. I think the first time I saw a wireframe of a 3D carjack, I was like, ‘That is it, right there’. Just, ‘Oh, my god’. Just amazing.”
The shape of the project began to crystalise, and the team at Rockstar North, with inspiration feeding in from Houser and his brother Dan (originally a writer on GTAIII and now vice president of creative at Rockstar) in New York, began to realise its potential. The key to the project’s overall success, claims Houser, was collaboration. “I think what was very special about the GTAIII development process – and it’s something we still cling on to – was the fact that ideas would come into the game from anywhere and everywhere in the company; it was the son of so many great minds and opinions and attitudes and energies, and everybody was just throwing it in the pot. It’s an example that’s been taken out of context in the past, but from a pure game mechanic point of view, the fact that you could go with a hooker and then go and whack her and take your money back, just the game mechanics of that – looking at it completely isolated from the fact that it involves a hooker – were brilliant, I thought. And that was the contribution of just this one guy – that was his bit. And on the soundtrack side we were like, ‘Why don’t we license the whole soundtrack from Scarface?’ That was pretty weird, right? And if you think about those two extremes and then you apply that across the whole game, every single bit was approached like that, every single bit.”
Rockstar North had to innovate in many areas in order to make GTAIII stand up, not least in spooling the complex, heaving gameworld from the PS2 disc on the fly (“Other developers were doing streaming, but the guys at North just pumped it”), and also in terms of bringing Hollywood acting talent on board to deliver the game’s distinctive vocal work. “We had a tight budget so we had a very interesting selection of actors that got involved, but they are people who I think stand the test of time,” says Houser. “I remember having Kyle MacLachlan, who did an incredible, very flat kind of delivery for Donald Love, but it sort of worked. He was just on it. And Joe Pantoliano, an incredible character actor – he’s the first guy you meet in the game, Luigi. The Sopranos was so hot at the time, and I remember the first time I actually went and got a mission from Luigi, and his voice was actually in, with the right animation, with a little bit of lip synching – as simple as it was in those days – it was just like, ‘Wait a minute – I watched him on the TV last night and now I’m playing and hearing that’. There were so many moments there.”
And yet the lead character himself never spoke a word. What, we wonder, is the story behind that? “That was one of those things where I think I only remember noticing kind of late on, like: ‘Fuck – he doesn’t speak’. And I’ve never said that to anyone before – I’m being honest here. But I remember thinking, well, it kind of works – who cares? And there’s been a lot of debate about these things – like whether his name is Claude Speed, or whether he’s this or he’s that – and it was a lot less planned out than that. It was a lot more like, we were making a game, the guy needed to do certain things, so obviously we’re going to have to have these sequences. Initially I don’t think we even thought of them as cutscenes, but we were always going to do them, and then we started motion-capturing them and we were like, ‘Oh, these look quite nice – we can start adding to them’. And this is me speaking purely my opinion, but it was like he didn’t need a voice, so he didn’t have a voice. But it was one of the things that people really picked up on afterwards, and when you saw them debating you kind of thought, actually, guys, there’s a lot less to this than meets the eye.”
From the excesses in evidence elsewhere, it seemed that there should’ve been more to all this than met the eye, not less. Here was a game that succeeded in actually inventing a genre – the free-roaming actioner (or sandbox game, if you want to use a label Houser isn’t particularly crazy about) – something that doesn’t happen very often, and hardly ever in a manner that is so comprehensively, convincingly realised. It also had a profound effect on Houser’s personal view of another form of entertainment. “To me, as a film nut, there was something about GTAIII that just drew a line in the sand between games and movies, and it felt like: this is us taking over now. And it may be another ten years or 20 years until that really happens, but to me, I’m never going to be able to go back to, say, an action movie and watch it in the same way, because with GTAIII, I’m in it – a movie just isn’t relevant in the same way any more. Now, that’s a slightly extremist approach, a slightly hardcore approach, but that’s how it made me feel. For someone who loves movies, suddenly I could not sit still and take in a movie in the same way; it wasn’t speaking to me in the same way. It’s depressing because a large part of my leisure time suddenly took a knock because I couldn’t take it seriously any longer. This is also connected with celebrity culture and how this stuff has rolled out. Now, when I watch a movie, I see the actors. I see a guy – whoever the actor is; let’s not pick on any one person – who’s getting paid $20 million: he’s playing dress-up, he’s reading out some lines. By definition he is acting, and there’s something fundamentally unbelievable about that if you push it too much in your own head. Something just changed almost overnight. I think September 11 also had something to do with all this as well, because I saw that happening through my apartment window and it was the most real action movie thing I’d ever seen because it fucking well was real, and no explosions have looked real to me since that point. You see one in the flesh and it’s like, ‘You can keep your Bruckheimer ones created on computers – that doesn’t work any more’.”
GTAIII launched in October 2001 and immediately hit the number one spot in the charts, propelled by a mix of frothing reviews and the sort of word of mouth whose value many marketers are only now becoming aware of, its devotees so wrapped up in its heady world that they were compelled to share their stories with anyone who’d listen. And the game kept on selling, remaining at the upper reaches of the charts for the next year. Just about until its successor arrived, in fact.
NOW ENTERING VICE CITY
For GTA: Vice City, Rockstar had an obvious direction in which to expand its series: upwards. GTAIII had infamously featured an aircraft in the form of the Dodo (“There was an airport in the game so the team had to have a plane in there, and these guys are made in such a way that they couldn’t just put a plane in there; it couldn’t just be a model, it had to actually work”), but Vice City took flight more seriously, introducing helicopters whose vantage points afforded players magnificent views of the dazzling new territory Rockstar North’s artists had carefully assembled.
The journey towards this point began some years before GTAIII, however, as Houser recalls: “When we were doing the London pack on the first GTA, the idea we had after that was to do Miami in the ’80s, but for one reason or another it didn’t come together. So you’ve got the idea and it’s about gangsters and the mobster underculture, and a celebration of all things along those lines, and you think, where do we take this now? With something like the GTA series there are a lot of options – you can have more fun in Liberty City, or you can do this or do that – but as we were all talking the idea that seemed to have the most meat on it, the one that had the most material that we could work with – in a lot of areas we’re interested in: the vibe, the storytelling, the culture, the fashion, the music and on and on and on – was Miami in the ’80s. To me, it’s still hands-down the grooviest era of crime because it didn’t even feel like it was crime. You had Cuban hitmen coming across and gunning people down in the street, but it was still celebrated in a sort of haze of cocaine and excess and Ferraris and Testarossas, and it was a totally topsy-turvy back-to-front period of time. It was everything that was crazy about the ’80s, and it was in America so it was crazier – and geographically it’s the gateway to the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean, and so everything floods in there.”
The Scarface influence was already deeply embedded in the GTA DNA thanks to the previous game, but a more overt influence on Vice City came from a TV series, not a movie. “The thing that was more of a direct influence was Miami Vice, because it’s a little bit later. Scarface is earlier, like ’83, and it kind of looks it, but Miami Vice was ’84 to ’89, about five seasons, 110 or so episodes, and I’ve seen them all many times. Before you could get them on DVD I bought them off eBay – the crappiest quality VHS copies you’ve ever seen, and I have them all. But it was an incredibly slick show, and when we were first talking about it, everyone was kind of laughing, like: ‘What are you on about?’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no – it’s so slick’. Just in terms of music alone, when you look at the tracks that Miami Vice used, it’s an amazing list, and Michael Mann would create these miniature pop videos in every show which would be montages. So his use of music in the show was remarkable. A dream of mine and Dan’s is to have a montage in a game, actually. We’re on our way; we’ll get it one day – a montage of your experiences set to music. Come on, that’s going to be amazing, right? With hard drives in consoles, you know it’ll happen.”
We agree that it’s an intoxicating prospect, but before we’ve got the chance to mull over the finer details of such a feature, Houser’s off again. “Then the other thing I loved – and we all loved, actually, although initially there was a lot of arm twisting that had to go on in order to make people watch it – was that each show was kind of like a mission. It may have had a few cool little action sequences in it which were novel, but the overarching story was like a mission, so there was so much cool stuff to take in, whether it was the vehicles they used – incredible cars, incredible helicopters, incredible boats – or whatever. While we were finishing GTAIII I would even go home at lunchtimes and watch episodes, and I did that for about a year – it was all I watched.”
So Miami Vice conveniently chopped out plenty of ideas that could be appropriated, but engineering them in cohesive game form was hardly a straightforward task, especially coming off the back of GTAIII. “Basically, we were following up a game that had surprised us all, so we started the game immediately after we’d finished GTAIII and as the months rolled on GTAIII became more and more well known and was winning a lot more awards, so the pressure on Vice City went up and up and up, along with the expectation. So that definitely made things harder. The other thing is that we effectively made Vice City in nine months, start to finish.”
Along with proper flight this time around, and the introduction of motorcycles (necessitating the minor task of engineering and testing a new driving model), one of Vice City’s biggest leaps undoubtedly lay in its audio content. Houser’s career began in the music business, and his geekily encyclopedic music knowledge has had a direct influence on the soundtracks that have done so much to define the GTA experience. Here was a chance to really have some fun. “GTAIII had less well-known music in it. There was some real-world music and there was some fictional music that was made internally. It was a really cool mixture of stuff, but suddenly we’d gone from our in-house music – which was so high-quality but was clearly satirical and its own thing – to drum’n’bass and Moving Shadow and all those guys, and the classical music, and the Scarface soundtrack, to Hall and Oates and 99 Luftballons…”
We sense that Houser’s about to have another of his moments, where he reveals how serious things become when it comes to analysing games that will ultimately bear the Rockstar logo. “And the first time I played the game with the music, when I was over at [Rockstar] North, I was like, ‘Whoah’. I had a weird reaction. It felt like crossing a line between the reality and the fiction and all this sort of stuff, and I was like, ‘I don’t quite know how this is going to work out’. And that spun me out for months. Fortunately there was the strength of some of my colleagues, who were like, ‘It’s hot as hell – what are you talking about? It’s amazing’. Because I was the one who dragged everybody down that path, I had a tremendous feeling that my neck was on the line with all the people I looked up to. I mean, initially some of the guys on the team were like, ‘The ’80s, man? That’s a rough one, isn’t it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, of course it is. But that’s all the more reason to do it’.”
A smoother consideration – at least most of the time – was getting Ray Liotta on board to give a voice to protagonist Tommy Vercetti. “He was a very interesting guy to work with because we had to have him in for quite a long time – it was the most time we’ve ever had someone like that around, actually – and in some sessions he was so fired up and he was so into it, but then sometimes it’d be like he was in some kind of a hole, and he was very dark and couldn’t work. He’s a pretty amazing guy, kind of an amazing actor. He’s not been in as many good things as he should have been, I think. He is so good in Goodfellas that he kind of doesn’t need to do anything else, but whatever he’s in he always catches your eye because he’s got something about him, and in the flesh he’s definitely got that about him, too.”
But what about when Liotta publicly grumbled about Vice City, post-release? “He made some comments later on through his agent, something like, ‘Hey, that game was so big I should have charged them more money’, and I hate that kind of chat. It’s like, be cool. You know? I hate that – it’s so cheesy. Like he’s saying, ‘Next time I’m really going to pin it to them’. Well, how about we just killed off your character? So he doesn’t exist – there is no next time. That’s how we handle that.”
The more we talk about Liotta’s inclusion in Vice City, the more we realise that we’re heading back into the sort of territory which Houser has spent a long time rolling over and over in his head. “Obviously landing Ray Liotta for Tommy Vercetti was a massive project for us, because at the time actors weren’t doing things like that, and I think we did a lot to introduce actors being involved in games. And I remember playing Vice City and thinking his performance was fantastic, but something in the months afterwards when I was playing it was conflicting in my brain: was I playing Tommy Vercetti or was I playing Ray Liotta? Which is obviously going back to what I said about movies earlier. Who was I, what was going on here, what was happening on the screen? And it really sort of caught me off guard, and it kept happening to me. It didn’t happen to me so much with the other characters but it happened to me with my character because he’s an extension of me on the screen. To some extent it left me a bit confused, and it certainly made us resolve for future iterations to dial down the use of famous actors. So if you look at San Andreas, there weren’t as many in that game. I think that Samuel L Jackson did an absolutely incredible performance as Tenpenny, but he’s the biggest star in that game by a long, long way.”
Houser’s conclusions would have an impact on the next GTA, and also the sequel beyond that. “Something happened there and, you know, it’s not something that I say is a final decision forever, but certainly I think with Young Maylay, what he did with CJ [in San Andreas] made him very, very human to me, and when I look at what the guy’s doing with Niko for GTAIV, it’s like Niko is a real person to me now, and there’s nothing that gets in the way between me and Niko. It’s the real thing – he’s a real guy and he feels like someone I know, like the ultimate bad-boy character but still a nice bloke sort of thing. There’s no doubt in my relationship with him. It’s weird to talk about relationships with videogame characters, but I have them. It wouldn’t be right to say there was doubt between Tommy Vercetti and me, or whatever, it’s just that it sowed a seed, and I think we’ve evolved from that now, and I actually think what we’ve ended up with is stronger. And also, I’ll be honest, it’s easier to work with someone who’s keen and enthusiastic, and not been in hundreds of films. It’s much easier to work with them, and to get good performances in games is very difficult. You know, sometimes you get a famous person in and they literally just read off the script, they want the cheque, and they want to go. I find that insulting and depressing.”
The more we talk, the more we understand how much Rockstar’s work means to Houser. To him, the concept of games manufactured by production lines is an utterly alien one. The company’s projects may be the collaborative work of many talented individuals, but each one benefits from a very personal attachment to the man who ultimately calls the shots, and that enthusiasm and passion shines through.
Vice City may have more zeal and zing than a dozen Oblivions or Halos, and it may still held be up by many as the best game in the GTA series to date, but Houser seems happy enough that the game succeeded in resonating with players at all, never mind its durability. “When it connected with the audience in a meaningful way it proved a lot about what we’d been thinking and hoping about people feeling about games. You know, you’re shooting in the dark and speculating, but when people get it you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s fucking cool. It’s not just us tossing our own selves off – people actually get it’. And with that game all of the things we set out to do with it, and all the little details, everyone picked up on everything, and I think that’s awesome.”
SCALING UP FOR SAN ANDREAS
We move on to San Andreas, the most critically acclaimed instalment of the GTA series to date, but also one which has divided opinion among players, some of whom simply couldn’t get their heads around its scale. “Is there any such thing as too big?” asks Houser, evidently aware of such criticisms, and probably tired of them too. “You know, if you don’t like driving over that distance, the point of the game is don’t go there, then. You don’t have to go there. We give the people an infinite amount of choice, and for every person who felt it was too big there were probably a fair amount that really got off on the scope of the whole thing, and wanted to take one of those single-propeller aircraft through the canyons. There were amazing things to go and do and it really took the whole toyset element to another sort of place. But it was big, there are no two ways about it. The story was big, the world was big, everything was big. But when we finished Vice City we were like, ‘Man, how the hell are we going to follow this one up?’”
The answer, of course, was to build the action around not a city but an entire state. Despite such grand scale, though, the starting point – a neighbourhood, surrounded by friends and family – feels intimate. It was an area on which Houser was particularly focused. “While we were doing Vice City, and even before that, the era we knew we could have fun with, well, what’s after Miami in the ’80s? Well, of course, the Bloods and the Crips and the LA early-’90s gang-banger culture.
I remember being in the UK at the time it was going off and being completely fascinated and terrified by it. Fascinated by how they looked – they dress amazingly – but these guys are all like soldiers, and are treated like armies, and this is very serious, scary stuff. And, as we were thinking and talking more about it, the idea that you could play an African American character became more appealing. Because not many games had done that at that point. A few, but not many.”
We ask Houser if at any point Rockstar felt as if it was taking a risk by using a black lead, not only because gaming is often lazily depicted as being a predominantly white pursuit. “We immediately embraced it – I didn’t see it as a risk because I don’t have any lines between these things. But I became aware, as the project moved forward, that it was something of a risk. It was certainly leftfield for the industry at that time but, you know, I’m proud to do things like that, and anyone who has a problem with that, we don’t want you buying the game anyway, mate, quite frankly. So we had the vibe figured out quite early on, but then in terms of the gameplay, well, how do you follow the previous games? So the idea came about to really improve the connection between you and your character, to really let him be a projection of what you want to be.”
This opportunity for customisation became another component that didn’t necessarily tally with consumers’ expectations, but Houser stands by Rockstar’s direction. “One of the things we are fascinated by is this notion of digital ownership – owning things that I think do exist but which don’t necessarily technically by normal people’s standards exist; I mean, CJ doesn’t sit here next to me, he’s in the machine. And people don’t realise that San Andreas is as much of an RPG as anything. It’s the most immersive RPG in some ways, I think, because there are no bars or sliders or tables – you can shape CJ however you want to shape him, but you shape him through your actions, and to me the idea of doing that in a game that’s as consoley as a GTA game, I just thought was so cool. Obviously, again, it was one of those ideas that in the course of development we all became increasingly neurotic about. You know: ‘What are we doing here? We’ve made GTA uber-nerdy in a way with this stuff – will people get it?’ And I have to say, when the game came out and I started seeing people’s photostories of the way they’d taken their character and then taken them on a journey and made little comics out of them, I was like, ‘Yeah, people get it, no problem’.”
We talk more about RPG content, but Houser returns to the topic of scale. He’s acutely aware that it’s been an issue, but perhaps he feels that he hasn’t clarified where the team was coming from. “It was definitely massive, but the games had kind of become known for being big by that point. I think the scale is epic, and it is a bit of a journey, it is a bit of an odyssey – you know, the journey of this gang-banger from the ’hood who goes and finds himself getting involved with the CIA and, yeah, it’s very, very fantasy, very fictional – I mean, the guy’s parachuting out of private jets. We really went bonkers with it and it touches on a lot of different flavours and themes and so on, but it’s interesting to talk about that because I’m very protective of it. I don’t want that game being remembered for Hot Coffee. One of my fears when the Hot Coffee thing happened was that it was going to take this really beautiful piece of work and it was just going to be known for something else.”
It’s nearly time to stop looking at the past and start talking about the present, so we ask Houser to pick his favourite bit of San Andreas – a tall order considering just how much you can do within its dizzying world. “It was just amazing being out there in this enormous world, on your own. When we were making it, one of the things I talked about – and thank god they didn’t give in to my idiocy – was, ‘Hey, we’ve got to make it interesting to drive four hours on a freeway and you have to stop to fill up on fuel’, and the team were like, “God, give it a rest, mate’. But it did take quite a long time to drive from Los Santos to Las Venturas or San Fierro, and that sense of journeying – but completely immersively in that gameworld – I thought that was very, very cool.
As I sit here and think about it, I’ve done those journeys in real life, and obviously they’re shrunk down a bit for the game, but they still feel epic, they still feel enormous, and getting that across in a game was no mean feat.”
GTAIV AND THE NEW BEGINNING
And so the biggest GTA project to date hoves into view. Not the biggest in geographical terms, but certainly in every other respect. Rockstar embarked on it with a mixture of trepidation, determination and, as was to be expected by now, the desire to shake things up a bit.
“When we set out for this game it was, again, ‘Oh my god, following up San Andreas is a nightmare’,” explains Houser. “A good nightmare, but a nightmare. And then with the new hardware it set a new kind of expectation: people are really going to expect something bloody cool and very progressive and very evolved from anything that’s gone before in a big way. So we had a lot of discussions about where to set it, but a more realistic Liberty City very quickly became the favourite option. For a lot of reasons, it just works – it works physically and it also works in terms of vibe. There are a lot of different energies going on here in a small area so you can get away with it – it won’t be weird, or forced, or phoney.
“When we were looking at the lead character we felt that a lot of the Italian American and traditional east coast gangster themes had been a little bit played out – a little bit hammered, actually…”
Houser isn’t referencing any other game by name, but we’re assuming he must have had at least a session or two with Saints Row (probably one of the most cynically derivative game of modern times, it should be said) in the process of reaching these conclusions, which have resulted in a vibe for GTA IV that, at least from the outset, feels markedly different.
“Whether or not we have reset it correctly, I can’t tell you that. I can tell you how I feel about these eastern European guys now. I’m as enamored with them as I ever have been with any of our characters, so I’ve done the job for myself, and that’s a good start. The more we dug about and researched, the more fascinating the eastern European situation became. You’ve got people who came here 15 years ago who may have been involved in very intense, terrifying conflicts in eastern Europe, and they’ve experienced the sort of post-communism meltdown that’s taken place. Some of these people have been in wars, and they all split – everyone went everywhere. I think these people are simply fascinating.”
We begin talking about the reception of GTA IV to date, and how it has already built a reputation for representing a shift in mood for the series. Where are we headed here? “The audience is getting a little older – the guys who were playing GTA III are now seven years older. People who were ten when GTA III originally came out can now legitimately play it in this country, and a lot has happened in those seven years.
“The game has to become more and more thematically sophisticated and mature without losing its GTA-ness, and its edginess, and its humour, and its self-deprecation – all those things. And that’s why when the first trailers for GTA IV came out, people were like, ‘Oh my god, they’ve gone so serious’. Well, no, we haven’t. Yes, there’s a seriousness to it, but it’s still GTA, and I think this is one of the things that is very special about this game, and this applies to all the disciplines involved: everything feels like it’s moved on or moved up while still being very much part of the GTA series. So it doesn’t turn anyone off that loved all the fun stuff from before – it’s all still there. And it’s crazier than ever, in a way – the humor is madder than ever. It’s more full-on than ever, definitely.”
But, we propose, the first trailer, which by definition lays down an overarching tone for the production, painted a dark picture of both the lead character, with his voiceover talking of the grubby events of his past, and also the game as a whole.
“The trailer was heavy, yes. It was, and I would say the game as a whole definitely is darker, but that’s because the resolution of the experience is greater. So if you think about playing GTA III or San Andreas in this resolution, we’d have to harden and toughen up the tone because the characters would look that much more real and the place would look that much more real. Everything would have that much more weight to it. It was like a natural evolution.”
During a demo of the game we encounter two Italian American characters, and suddenly this new take on the GTA universe feels more like the old GTA, and somehow more comfortable. We’re used to Italian American characters thanks to years of flicks such as Goodfellas and Casino and the established romanticisation of the mafia lifestyle, and in this instance our brains are being lazy by latching on to what is familiar. We haven’t seen nearly so many films focusing on Eastern European gangsters, and that relative lack of reference points explains why the lead players in GTA IV’s world feel so new, and certainly more foreign than before. They key issue, perhaps, is that they’re authentic. How authentic? That’s something Houser fretted over when he went to see Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg’s 2007 movie focusing on the very type of gangster figures that feature in GTA IV.
“I was nervous about watching it, thinking that he was really going to hand us our heads on a plate in term of delivering the vibe. Cronenberg’s like the master of atmosphere. So I thought: this is going to be scary. And yes, he’s got some good Russian vibes in there, he’s definitely taken with the same things that we’re taken with – all the tattoos and the craziness, he’s definitely got. The only criticism I would give him – and he is one of my absolute favourite film makers; Dead Ringers is one of my absolute favourite films of all time – is that Viggo Mortensen is Danish American, or something like that; he sure as hell is not eastern European. He’s good, but he’s not eastern European. And the other main character is played by Vincent Cassel, who is a good actor, but he’s French. So the two lead Russians are not played by Russians, and they don’t sound Russian to me. Vincent sounds like a French bloke doing a Russian accent – I can hear the French in him. And when I came back to our game, Vlad and Faustin, the two heavyweight Russian guys in the game, are very real, very Russian, and very fucking scary.”
Despite the new setting, it’s tempting to look at GTA IV as the game Rockstar always intended the 3D interpretation of GTA to be, partly because its visual fidelity more closely matches the sources of inspiration that have driven the series to date.
“I think ultimately we wanted to really connect players with a true GTA experience, but one in which everything has been cranked up by the power the consoles now give us, so that we really re-engage them – that was the goal. So we focused on making everything have more weight, and more consequences, and more meaning. Like going from spraying a gun to having each squeeze of a trigger actually being something that you feel – that was something we were very focused on.”
Physical issues underpin much of what is new about GTA IV, and serve to give life to its intricately modeled components. Engineers from NaturalMotion have been working on-site at Rockstar North for months at a time to stitch in the company’s Euphoria procedural animation technology, introducing a bespoke, heavily integrated solution, not something simply bought off the shelf. The results are truly transformative, and evident right from the moment you begin to move Niko around the gameworld, his body shape cambering as he moves left and right while running, his feet properly connecting with steps and other topographical features. It’s tech that drives the behavior of NPCs, too, and the result is something that does more justice to the ‘living, breathing world’ tag so frequently attached to the GTA series. This is a genuine evolutionary step, and Rockstar and NaturalMotion deserve enormous recognition in getting here.
“The animation, generally, I thought was one of the biggest things that had to jump forward,” explains Houser, warming to a topic that is evidently something of an obsession. “Anything else was going to jump forward – you know, the artistry as a whole was going to be that much more beautiful – but animation is very difficult, a bit of a black art in some ways. It’s really difficult to get character out of these motions. It completely fascinates me, and intimidates me, too. I’ve been totally fascinated with the notion of procedural animation for years, as have a number of other people, and praying for it for a long time. The first time I saw Toby Gard and Galleon, the way it was animated was amazing. James Miller, who was his animation programmer, works with us in San Diego, and he’s brilliant. And all these different people, together with Sandy Roger who handles that side of things for GTA, came together and made it happen.
“When we initially saw Euphoria, I was floored. I was like, ‘That’s my dream – it’s happening, it’s there, let’s do it’. But all the realists who actually have to make the stuff were like, ‘Sam, man, it’s never going to work, it’s never going to happen’. I think initially it was very much pitched as something to use for cutscenes, to have a really cool-looking action of someone falling down the stairs or whatever. But there was a bunch of guys in our crew who really looked at it and they were like, ‘I think we can actually get this running in the game, in realtime’. So it’s been incredibly collaborative, which I love, and I think the fruits of it are amazing. When you’re taking a shot at somebody and they go staggering procedurally, and they lift up their gun to try and get a shot back at you – it’s giving people unique moments like they never had before.”
Another piece of middleware at the heart of the GTA IV experience comes from Image Metrics, which facilitates intricate facial expressions and smoothes out the process of incorporating lip-synching. With so many thousands of lines of dialogue in their repertoires, it is important that GTA IV’s expansive cast deliver them with some kind of conviction, and the beguiling results instantly make mannequins of the populace of previous GTAs. The sophistication of your interactions with other characters becomes especially pronounced when members of the opposite sex become involved, and we ask Houser about a possible love interest this time around.
“There are girlfriends. There are girls you can date off of the internet and things like that, and there are a couple of interesting… well, I don’t want to give anything away, but yes, relationships in general in games are important; I think relationships in games are fascinating. Having a relationship that’s been thrown up on the screen pretty much procedurally, and having feelings for one character or another, I think is immense, and I haven’t played a game where you feel as much about the characters, both good and bad. The characters you don’t like here, you really don’t fucking like, and you’ll be happy when you dispatch them. It will feel like you’ve done something. And the characters are so well developed – they’ve been modeled beautifully, then they’ve been animated brilliantly, and the writing’s great, and the acting’s great, and it all lines up so you can really get a sense of whether you do or don’t like them. And not everyone will like or dislike the same people.”
The backdrops against which these characters play out their stories are modeled beautifully, too. Rockstar has long had a full-time research team employed at its HQ, and for GTA IV the Rockstar North team made two lengthy trips to New York – bringing up to 50 people at a time – in order to further get to grips with both the territory and the people who populate it.
“I don’t even know what the number is, but the team took tens of thousands of photos,” says Houser. “We went bloody bonkers with it, quite frankly. Now, all the people in the game feel like people that you would meet or come across – certainly living here in New York, which can be a bit of a freakshow. And when we’ve been working on the game for so long it can get very blurry in your head because…” He pauses, possibly because he thinks what he’s about to say may make Liotta’s appraisal seem like an accurate one. “I was away for two weeks in Edinburgh, and when I came back here I didn’t feel like I’d left, because I’d been here the whole time [via Liberty City in GTA IV]. And I’m not saying that to be funny. I remember: I was coming over the bridge on my first day back to work and I’m like, why doesn’t this feel different? Because I’ve been doing it 50 times a day while I was there, and I felt it.”
When he’s asked about his favourite activities in GTA games, Houser often talks about just cruising their environments, listening to music, soaking up the atmosphere. Lately, though, he’s been spending more time on foot. “I can play GTA IV for a day just going around getting into punch-ups in the street, and I think it’s pretty good at doing that considering what it actually is – the fact that you can have these complex fights in 3D as opposed to, say, Street Fighter where you’re on a 2D plane. And you can feel each punch as it goes in. I’m not trying to labor these points but that was really the goal from day one – to give people the most detailed, weighted experience possible so that they really think about what they’re doing. And it can really connect with them, so whether it’s the street fighting or gun combat or the driving of the vehicles or the interaction with other characters or any number of other elements that make up the game, everything has been taken to this new place.
“So, absolutely, this is how we always wanted GTA to be, but it simply wasn’t possible until now. And some of the technology that’s gone into this new game, compared to what we had before, it’s shocking. It’s shocking about videogames in general. It’s like, my god, compare it to, say, the film industry, where ultimately not much changed in the last 50 years – well, in the last ten years CG’s taken over and kind of ruined things. But with games you take what you were doing – and you were maxing it out – and you throw it all away. And now look what you can do.”
We talk for a while about the implications of moving GTA to a new generation of hardware – how the process of testing is ramped up to an almost ludicrous degree; how the company as a whole manages to keep its secrets secret when so many more people are required to be in the production loop; the processes involved in finding and signing voice talent, and then getting them in for recording sessions; the motion-capture sessions; the incorporation of two new slices of middleware that fundamentally drive the way the game looks; the process of establishing new radio stations, resurrecting old ones, writing and producing the DJ banter that helps to bring them to life, not to mention the content for the dedicated talk stations; and more.
In strict gameplay terms, though, GTA IV may be at its most tangibly evolved when you’re simply seeing how it all unfolds. The ability to tackle missions your own way has always been a defining principle of the series, and with so many more variables in the mix this time around, the opportunity for emergent activity is only more pronounced.
“I think the fact of the matter is, after this long of playing the game, unexpected things are happening to me all the time,” says Houser. “And I’m bloody jaded and bloody cynical, and I’m the first to complain about things, but this actually is doing that. I’ll be getting in a battle with some guys, I’ll steal someone’s car and some fist fight’s kicked off, and then suddenly he’ll be chasing me through the street, and I’ll get in position – like, ‘I’m not running from you any more; I’m going to fucking have it with you now, mate’ – and just as I’m about to crack him, a car comes flying through the shops, runs him over, and he goes flying. And these tiny little moments happen more per square inch – or per square pixel or whatever – than I ever dreamt possible, and it’s the organic nature of all the elements that have come together, and particularly the procedural animation via the NaturalMotion content, that allow the experience to be unique. There really are lots of ways to play these missions.”
Taking down enemies who navigate the gameworld in much the same way as yourself goes some way towards leveling the playing field, and we’re certain that GTA IV has missions in store to sit alongside rescuing Lance Vance in Vice City. Something working in the player’s favor this time around, however, is a weapon-targeting system that has been refined beyond recognition.
“I always could target whoever I wanted to hit in the previous games, but that’s not to dismiss the audience’s reaction to that stuff because, well, if people say that then something must be wrong,” concedes Houser. “I think we’ve introduced a level of targeting control that most gamers, from the hardcore to the absolute mainstream, will be able to play and have fun with. You can free-aim if you want to play totally like a balls-out hardman – be my guest, awesome. If you want to just snap from target to target it will work like that, and if you want to – and this is what I do, trying to be Mr Cool [laughs] – is target and then modify, so I can latch on to you and then headshot you. And it’s very satisfying, and I think and I hope that most people’s gripes and reservations with the previous targeting systems have all been addressed – and then some.”
We only get the opportunity to take part in a dozen or so firefights, but the confusion that sometimes clouded the action in previous GTAs has certainly been removed. In fact, these encounters are so focused and so dynamic that they feel more scripted than they actually are, like they’re taking place inside the carefully funneled, closely governed spaces of other games, not as part of this procedurally driven city sprawl.
The lock-to-objects cover system (and its blind-firing mechanic) also builds a new dimension into GTA IV’s combat, and comes into its own when you’re able to piece together a strategy on the fly and, say, make use of a car that’s just been turned over in front of you as a shield, since you can lock to dynamic objects, too, not just static items such as concrete walls. It is GTA, but it is GTA elevated to a different level, and in concert with some of the game’s other bold innovations it stands up as, dare we say it, what the term ‘next generation’ is supposed to mean.
We’ve been focusing on the more violent aspects of GTA IV, but it has innovations to spare, too, when you’re not engaged in blowing your enemies’ balls off. During the demo we noticed what sounded like a radio station dedicated to big bands – a first for GTA, and one whose output provides a different kind of contrast – and we ask Houser for clarification.
“My dad was one of the directors of [legendary London jazz venue] Ronnie Scott’s for many years, so finally we were like, ‘Let’s do jazz properly’. And he’s a real bloody jazz snob so he gave us these tracks and these tracks only – you know, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coltrane – and that’ll be for people like the classical music was in GTA III. It’s very New York and it feels great. But I could go on – there’s a lot of music in the game, an awful lot, and a lot of exclusive stuff, a lot of new stuff. It has been very, very important for it to feel as ‘now’ as we could possibly make it while still having great music. And the beauty of radio, particularly in the US, is that they play a lot of classics alongside new tracks, so when you play the game it feels like the radio feels here – you hear a brand-new record you’ve never heard before or you hear one of your favorites.”
Sitting back and listening to Liberty City’s diverse line-up of radio is one thing; taking in its selection of extracurricular activities quite another. When meeting up with friends you’re able to go out drinking, bowling or for a game of darts (Houser claims to be particularly handy with the arrows). Then there are the strip joints and, perhaps more unexpectedly, comedy clubs, which have been incorporated in a manner that is enough to make your head spin. Houser happily explains what the game has in store in this respect, but unfortunately we’re not allowed to talk about it here. He wants people who go out and buy the game to discover it first-hand for themselves. “It’s mad,” he concludes. We have to agree. It does sound mad. And solid proof, in fact, that Houser wasn’t messing about earlier when he said that this GTA is crazier than ever.
Another area Houser doesn’t want us to talk about too specifically right now is downloadable content (currently set for appearance only on Xbox 360 thanks to a deal put in place with Microsoft rumored to involve $50m), but he does hint at it feeding into random missions that stand alongside the traditional story arc.
“In the game, you might be walking around and then someone will come up to you and say something like, ‘Hey, I need your help’, and you’ll be like, ‘What? This isn’t a story mission’, and he’ll be like, ‘You see that room up there? That’s my wife and she’s fucking some bloke, and I need you to go and do…’ and this little story will unfold from there just randomly. The opportunity for things like that [with DLC] I would say is enormous. Really, though, for the downloadable content in general, it’s about seeing how people get turned on by the game, and then we will tailor the production. We are very tuned into the reactions of the audience and we will go a certain way or another.”
We’re beginning to think that GTA IV’s DLC may be more peripheral than we’d been expecting, but Houser is quick to assure us that it will, in fact, be substantial. “I think the mission packs with the episodes are going to be pretty deep, offering another full-on adventure in this world. I think we will be in a position to market them not a million miles away from the way the boxed game is marketed.”
We wonder how making a game that’s never actually finished impacts on the development team over in Edinburgh. It’s not a consideration that can be simply brushed aside, is it?
“Yeah, it feels like it’s a step towards something that we get asked about a lot, which is getting towards it being more of a subscription type of game, which is something that GTA will ultimately lend itself to rather well at a certain point in time. In that case you’d have your team that makes the initial disc and then there’s what I would describe almost like a ‘live’ team who are creating stuff.”
We’re reminded of a conversation we had with Phil Harrison just prior to the PlayStation 2 launch, at which point he foresaw a future in which new episodes of certain high-profile games would be delivered just as TV shows, with trailers encouraging consumers not to miss, say, Friday’s episode. Will GTA IV be marketed that way beyond the boxed copy?
“I don’t know the answer to that specifically right now, but I would say probably yes. Assuming people like this game then my sense is that they will probably like the episodes, and if they like the episodes it will probably make sense to market them aggressively, and we want people to be there on that first day as much as is realistic. Our goal will be to fry those Xbox Live servers – we want to have as many people tune in at that moment as possible.
“If our experience with the trailers is anything to go by, people are very hungry and very tuned in. People are paying attention in a way that I think is immense, and it blows my mind when you put a trailer out there and you think, well, we’ve only really told the hardcore gamers about this, and then suddenly there are ten million people seeing it in three days. People aren’t messing around, and so I think, assuming things go to plan, they will really get into the episodes. And I think that they’ll be respectful of the consumer in terms of pricepoint – you’ll get a lot of content for your money, which I think is really important. You know, there are too many stories at the moment of people having the feeling that they’re not getting enough for their money in terms of downloadable content, and it’s easy for publishers to get away with it. I think that, when you put this game in the machine, and you’ve spent £50 or £60 on it, you’re getting your value for money. You’re getting a bloody big adventure. Is it too big? I don’t know.” Maybe it will be by the time you’ve finished. “It might be. It certainly is big, definitely. But again, I’ll go back to what I said earlier: it’s a good problem to have. And I never want people feeling that we’ve duped them in any way, shape or form. That’s something that we’ve been into from the beginning.”
So, what about multiplayer? It’s another feature – or rather suite of features – Houser isn’t able to discuss in detail today, but he does mention being able to get together online in the game with no goal other than using it as a meeting place. “I’m like, ‘Do you want to come and hang out for a chat?’ And I’ll meet you online and we’ll get in a car, just listen to music and drive around together, talking, and your 3D model’s sat there in the car next to me. That’s sublime to me. I might be weird, but I like doing things like that.”
We’ve been talking for hours, but when it comes to this GTA, there are so many details packed in there that we could be here for days. The sat-nav systems, with their spoken instructions, fitted in the more expensive cars, for example. The fact that some vehicles have beautifully shiny paintjobs that reflect the world around them, while the bodywork of old bangers is dull, matt and lifeless. The fact that vehicles get dirty over time – and that you can do something about it by rolling them through a carwash. Being able to use the radio facility on your mobile phone in order to take in the game’s many stations while on foot. The new explosion effects, which blast fiery, smoky plumes huge distances into the air.
The sandy shorelines, with their discarded tires and other pieces of junk, and the footprints you leave on both the dry and the glisteningly wet sand. The buoys that bob in the water. The water itself, whose surface reflects the late evening sun to create the kind of evocative scene it feels almost neglectful to not stand and soak up for a while. The spray on the camera lens as you hammer a powerboat down the harbor, and the bassy booms that accompany its bounces across the waves. The Poop Deck seafood restaurant.
The golf centre, with its caged driving range. The forklift driver who’s having a break from his work and standing around smoking (giving you plenty of opportunity to steal his wheels and take them for a spin, only to curse the fact that forklifts aren’t renowned for their agility or speed, leaving your ambitious attempt to jump one over a skip ending in upside-down calamity). The fact that driving slowly up to pedestrians sees them defensively raise their hands towards your vehicle’s bonnet rather than blindly ignore you until they’ve been turned into jam. The newspapers that cascade over the street when you collide with their flimsy vending boxes.
The fact that some drivers – the frail elderly, for example – can be swiftly removed from their vehicles, while younger, burlier types prove more stubborn and necessitate some additional persuasion via the end of your boot. The incidental dialogue intertwined right through the experience which gives even more life to this world (sample offering from a particularly impolite police officer we’ve stopped in front of simply to eyeball: “I’m a cop… and you’re a dickhead”).
The slightly dodgy-looking Japanese hot hatch with its tiny, almost unnoticeable logo which tells us that its engine features Invariable Valve Timing. The damage you can do to interior walls, ripping chunks out of plaster with gunfire. The you’d-only-ever-find-them-in-GTA companies such as RS Haul (slogan: ‘We’ll dump your load’) and the TW@ internet cafe chain. The realistically modeled bullet holes in car bodywork that stay where you’ve shot them.
The grubbily authentic graffiti. The police computer system that flicks through portraits of suspects like something out of a Tony Scott movie. The Liberty City road surface, a patchwork jumble of variously hued tarmac that looks like it’s been bedding in for years. The simple fact that, for the first time in a GTA game, you can change weapons while driving. The intricate overpasses. The subway system. Hanging from your fingertips on building exteriors and shimmying your way into more trouble. The people standing around at the side of the road, looking under car bonnets. The fog. The neon.
The Walk/Don’t Walk signs. The laundromats and nail parlors and drug stores that flavor the city streets. Queen’s One Vision. Alexander O’Neal’s Criticize. The $5 toll bridge (whose fee you can, naturally, ignore, so long as you’re up for smashing through a barrier). The lampposts which don’t simply fold over but buckle in a shower of sparks. The ubiquitous depth-of-field effects. The bin men who hold on to the rear of moving trash vans. Middle (not Central) Park. DJ Lazlow. Becoming distracted in the middle of a firefight by the sight of a jet heading across the sky from Liberty City Airport to who knows where. That comedy club content. And just looking across the river, at night, running your eyes across the twinkling lights of the city skyline. Imagining all of the possibilities that exist over there. Knowing that it’s going to be a blast. And, just as before, that you’ll want to share your stories with friends.
“In terms of the story as a whole, I think there are so many brilliant little twists and brilliant little nuances and decisions that you have to make,” says Houser as the interview is brought to a close. “People talk a lot about some of the things in games like Mass Effect, where you create these moral dilemmas – well, we haven’t really been making a big deal out of that stuff, but a lot of the things you are going to have to do in GTA IV will have real consequences, without wanting to give any of it away. Towards the end there are some very big things that happen that absolutely change things in an ‘Oh, tell me that didn’t just happen’ kind of a way. Not always good, either.”
Clearly such nuance isn’t something we’re able to take in from our demo session. Instead, encouraged by a Rockstar staffer to simply see some sights, our last taste of the game is a drive to the airport, where we crash through a security barrier and drive on to the runway. A jumbo jet is taxiing for take-off and, for a laugh, we match its speed and pull up to within eyeing distance of the pilot. Then things begin to go wrong. Our wanted level leaps from one star to four, and suddenly a helicopter searchlight is cutting its way through the night sky and on to our position. Gunfire threatens to explode our vehicle so we bail out, and limp away. We have no idea where we’re going, and soon yield to the attentions of the law, vowing to return here one day, better prepared.
A measure of any game is how much you think about it when you’re not playing it. In the days that follow our time with GTA IV, we can think of little else. Soon, the wider gaming world will be obsessed with it, too, and Sam Houser will have to begin thinking about where Rockstar Games can possibly go next.