Who is this?

Technology Editor of Times of London until July 2010. Now swimming in the freelance shark pool, with abiding interest in games, gadgets and what it all means. If you're looking for product reviews, head elsewhere. Unless it's a really nice product. This is more of an attempt to sift out what matters from what doesn't. With a bit of gossip thrown in for good measure. I'm also learning to use Blogger as I go along, so please bear with me.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Rockstar rocks Star: Dan Houser full interview transcript

Congratulations to Rockstar Games, which - according to the inestimable Roy Greenslade's media blog - has just secured a libel payout from the British red-top the Daily Star.

The paper fabricated a story claiming that Rockstar, the maker of Grand Theft Auto, was planning a version of the game based on the Northumberland manhunt for Raoul Moat.

I know the people in charge of Rockstar to be thoughtful, cautious individuals and their work - whatever you think of the content - has played a vital part in turning video games into a fully fledged entertainment medium.

How do I know this?

Well, in November 2009, as Rockstar was preparing to release the final act of Grand Theft Auto IV, I met Dan Houser, one of the Rockstar bosses.

The interview appeared in The Times, and can be read for free here.

However, the full transcript has never been published.

So, here it is. Warning: it's long. Make a cup of tea. Some interesting observations about the media, though, and thoughts on games in general.

My questions are in bold. Gotta love that closing quote.

Are you happy to see the back of GTA IV?
I don’t really know… it’s I’m looking for an honest answer and I don’t know. I’m, probably pleased in that the games are quite gruelling to make, so finishing any of them, particularly the big ones you feel so beaten up by the end of it that you’re glad to have it done. This one’s odd because it had 3 separate finishes.

It’s probably been a stranger experience for my co-writer Rupert (Humphries) because he started working with us about halfway through GTA IV just after he’d finished at university, so this is all he’s done in his entire professional life.

What's the process of writing the games?
We try to keep the process of writing and the process of making the game as interdependent as possible. The purpose of the story is to make the game experience more enjoyable. We are making an interactive experience and we always keep both eyes on that fact.

The basic script is one of the things we do first while the last bits of dialogue are one of the last things to go in the game.

Approximate flow is that Sam (Houser, brother), and Leslie (Benzies, producer) and Aaron (Garbut, art director) will agree on a city. With that basic information we will then start to talk about a lead character.

The other key thing in GTA is the background characters and personality types in GTA we try to ensure that no one conforms to a cliché, there’s always something that informs or undercuts them. No one is ever quite as bad as they think they are, or quite as hard as they think they are, or quite as good as they think we are.

Also the way we construct it is not so much like a film as a sitcom or an epic novel. We have these stand-alone stories in GTA IV that are incidental to the main action.

Essentially you could reduce the game to saying that you’re a somewhat malevolent slave and people are ordering you around. The reason we like a strong narrative is that we think it gives the game more meaning, but then it means telling people what to do. So the purpose of characters in particular and to some extent story is to disguise that.

Are you surprised that GTA IV became such a phenomenon?
Yes. Of course. It’s massively successful on a huge scale, and you could never set out to do that. When you are taking other people’s money to make creative products your main goal is to break even or try and get them a return on their investment.

While we were making GTA 3, I think, we became aware during the course of development that this could become the game that we had been talking about and envisaged. But the public and press didn’t buy into that dream until the game came out. Only when people started to play it did we get this enormous groundswell of people saying “this is a new way of making action games.”

Did you always want to make video games?
Sam my brother was at BMG for a long time and I was always at the interactive bit. But it wasn’t particularly an enormous passion of mine but out of nepotism it was the only job I could get.

That was in the PS1 era, and I kept thinking this is fun and I enjoy it but it’s not what it could be. Then with PS2 the scope became a lot larger and the ability to do things that I was more interested in suddenly became a lot easier. From that moment on I realised it WAS what I wanted to do.

All of those people such as designers and programmers all have amazingly different personality types and it was fascinating to work on a project with them.

Do video games get a bad rap?
It used to sadden me and annoy me. The films we used to like are often held up as similar cultural pariahs GoodFellas and so on. That was a key film for us, and it was lambasted for glamorising crime. Now it’s held up as a masterpiece, and all it does is show the gangsters as rounded characters within a tightly structured drama.

I think we get frustrated when we are singled out, or when video games are singled out and movies are given a free pass. That would be frustrating for anyone.

Where the arguments become quite ludicrous quite quickly is when people argue that they are somehow more dangerous than full-motion video. Within Rockstar sometimes we feel that some of our games get singled out and held up as pariahs, but we’re sort of used to that. It doesn’t really bother us. It’s been going on for so long.

Surely there's no such thing as bad publicity?
No, because I don’t really think it’s affected us one way or another. People who read The Daily Mail, for example, which has not been a huge fan of our work, are probably not going to buy our games anyway.

I think it’s all part and parcel of doing something that’s not been done before. One of the things that’s always been exciting is the feeling of being in at the birth of a new medium. So that’s enormously exciting and gratifying, but of course the history of technology-driven art from the printing press onwards has been of people fighting against that stuff. So it’s inevitable that we’re going to be caught up in the bad as well as the good of that.

Of all of the issues we’ve faced with the assorted powers that be Bully was the most absurd. It was a moral tale. A video game version of school fiction.

However, when the games get banned that’s not good, because it means we’re not doing our first job, of making the investors back their money.

Manhunt 2, for instance, was not a situation where we felt that we could make any money. The game was taken off shelves at the same time that Saw was being released in cinemas.

Video games are a popular and easy enemy but it feels like we’re moving on from that debate. The audience is getting past 30 so it all becomes a bit silly. That’s not to say that all games are for all people, we’ve never said that. GTA has always been rated 18 and we’ve always been very happy with that.

But is it possible to make a good game about person who always parks in the right place and obeys all the rules?
Well, is it possible to write a good book about such a person or make a good TV show about them?

Are video games a branch of the arts?
Games are part of entertainment, maybe they’ll become an artistic medium – that’s a whole separate discussion – but what they are not is pure software.

I recently found the original mission statement for Rockstar, and it was gratifying because it’s what it has become. We release fewer games than we thought but otherwise our codes are intact. We said that games are going to be the next major entertainment medium and that we were going to try and make games with the production values of movies where the design would always be progressive and we would try and make games about the subject matter that interested us, and if there was a choice between game play and graphics we would always take game play.

We like having the freedom to do what we want. The non-academic nature of video games gives us creative freedom to do what we want. There isn’t the sort of existing orthodoxy about how things are done particularly. A language of game design is definitely emerging, but we don’t have the same restriction as film, which has to be – say – two hours long.

But you are the sort of underground industry that Hollywood would kill for. $300 million in first day on sale….
What we like about being underground in a pariah industry is that it gives us enormous creative freedom to find new ways of doing something.

But there are hints of the same pressures…
There’s always pressure if you’re spending a lot of money to do something. Any situation where your own company or outside investors are saying can we have this back with a bit more please produces pressure if you take your responsibilities seriously.

One of the benefits of our company’s history is that we had at the beginning no money at all. We couldn’t compete on budget so we were very focused on deadlines and discipline.

In order to have a certain amount of freedom you have to have a certain amount of discipline,. We are blessed with people who want to make the games and to work hard doing it.

Anything you wanted to do but couldn’t?
For me personally, not really, but the stuff I work on is not really technology-dependent. We have usually ended up with a game that is most of what we imagined it could be.

Are you a notebook and pencil person?
I use a BlackBerry for everything. Sam or Leslie will always be e-mailing me. We believe in what we are doing, and we think we are scratching the surface of what these things could be,. We are making progress. The leap from PS1 to 2 to 3 to Xbox is equally staggering, but we are still only at the point when they are 3D cartoons.

I think that the Wii has had a greater impact than anyone thought.

We have some of the best people in Britain and probably the world working on these games, and it’s only now that we are starting to exploit the power of the consoles as they become cheaper.

But I don’t think that the casual game market – to me people always say that games are like movies but I don’t really agree with that. I think games are like television. In the way that TV is the act of sitting in front of a screen, where you could be watching anything from sports to a game show, so playing games is a very broad activity that goes from playing GTA to playing tic tac toe on the phone. But watching sport doesn’t stop me liking movies. It doesn’t impact.

Is it difficult working with your brother?
It’s not difficult, it’s awesome. I really like and respect Sam and love him because he’s my brother, but beyond that I think he’s uniquely talented as an executive producer and visionary. So to work with someone like that, whether they’re your brother or not, is immensely gratifying. I can hang on his coat-tails.

We both do both things, but he’s very good at seeing the whole thing put together. And Leslie is very good at putting the games together.

It’s never perfect, there are always more problems. With the GTA making team we have a great relationship, I am honoured to work with them. The game we produce not only has freedom, but a certain spirit.

I see the games, even when they’re quite dark, as being like a black comedy.

The way we look at it is that the game is set in a world that is like the world would be if it was the way the media says it is.

The game evolved out of watching live car chases, American movies and so on.

Did you ever imagine you would end up living in America?
I’ve lived in NY for 11 years, since I was 25. Sam went first and I followed a few months later because we didn’t both want to leave our parents at once.

There's often said to be a cultivated mystique around you and Sam because you so rarely give interviews....
It’s a bit of a myth. I often speak to people like yourself. But for me, Sam and Leslie, we are very aware of the fact that we as a triumvirate do not make the games, 200, 300, 700 people make the games that the company releases. It’s easy for people to focus on individuals because that’s easier story to tell, but it’s not relevant to what we do, we don’t think.

The games are too full of anti-celebrity diatribe for us to be anything but hypocritical if we were to jump on that bandwagon. It truly holds no appeal for any of us to be a celebrity. I find it very depressing as a consumer when you read about one actor’s experience of making a movie. What about the writer and the producer and the cinematographer and the director?

We’ve got you know 100+ people at least 80% of whom are far more intelligent than me working on stuff, and to start saying it’s me or Sam or the pair of us because we’re such crazy brothers just seems stupid. And it’s not fair or appropriate.

There is a mystique about video games, about how they’re made, but it’s definitely not the work of one person. Sitting here and talking about myself is irrelevant to the work and not what I like.

When we were making Vice City I was at the time directing all the voiceovers. Because of the characters and the nature of the game we wanted to feel like a 1980s TV show or movie, so we hired lots of clapped out or older 1980s actors to do the voices. Every day I would meet one or two famous American people, and some of them were very good and some found the process confusing or obscure.

It seemed that a lot of the men, what they got out of fame or being famous was that they were able to have sex with lots of girls who only wanted to have sex with them because they were famous, I guess. Or sell product in Japan. And the exchange for that seemed to be in most cases the sense of humour. They would tell a joke and glare at you till you laughed because they were so used to having acolytes around them. In some cases it seemed like they’d surrendered their soul and had their humanity taken. For me personally running around like that held no appeal. And it certainly doesn’t for my brother.

We would never address an audience We keep a low profile.

Is there really no pressure on you to be a performing seal?
This is about as performing seal as I get. It’s not that we think we’re above it, we’re very flattered to be asked, but we really are busy. We bounce from this game to a big cowboy game (Red Dead Redemption) early next year. Which we’ve got to get finished. That’s the lifestyle we’ve signed up for. We work hard, lots of weekends at the office.

I guess from a more cynical standpoint that we wanted the games to be separate from any media circus and not have any feeling of being part of , and being underground may be an absurd word, but we didn’t want to be part of a big machine.

Will being a father change all that?
Only through exhaustion. It changes your appreciation of the world, but only in a positive way. You are suddenly not as important as you thought you were. As a man in particular you realise how appallingly selfish or self-absorbed you are, and that’s certainly a fight, seeing that change is great. For me and anyone in our industry it’s a challenge because the hours are long and the work is hard, but… you knowI like my work and I like my family and I don’t socialise that much so I’m happy.

Will there be a GTA V?
We are just thinking about it now. Someone online is claiming there's a clue about the next location in the game brochure. But I didn’t put it in to the brochure, so my guess is that it’s a little bit of a red herring.

There’s always a chance of doing a game in London.

As a returning émigré would you be able to take same approach to London?
Well, I think there’s enough ammunition. It’s not something we’ve really thought about.

How do you feel about your appearance in Time magazine's power 100?
It’s very flattering, but to be honest we tried to make them make it Rockstar. We were very uncomfortable to be singled out, because it is the company and the team.

As a company award it is enormously flattering.

Did you ever imagine a day when you were one place ahead of Kate Winslet in a chart?
I never really saw a day when we would be anything with Kate Winslet, but if it means we’re part of the entertainment industry I guess it’s a good thing.

Are games the new rock 'n' roll?
I am really not the right age to ask, but I think you might find that 25 year olds now discuss games in the same way that we used to discuss music. We recently employed an HR man from the music industry and he said that in his years no one ever said music changed my life any more. He gets that all the time with people who want to work for us, saying video games changed my life, or changed th way I saw entertainment.

What strikes me now is that for anyone under the age of 60, it’s impossible to hear music that shocks or appals you. It must be very difficult for a teenager to share music with dad, who will then pick out where all the riffs came from. It might be a nice bonding experience, but it dulls the sense of discovery, doesn’t give you the chance to forge your own identity.

With cinema as well. Both media are suffering financial problems, but good content does well.

Just as recorded music turned up to live alongside printed materials, then TV, then the internet, which can turn your brain into mush in minutes, there’s pressure on people’s time as never before.

But old games will not age as well as the Beatles, say.
We do think about that. These are things that we put a lot of time and effort into but that technology has now made obsolete. Of course, you think is this completely disposable? Maybe the games are close to getting good enough where they will be playable in a few years’ time.

The American way of life is often the butt of your humour. Why live there?
I find New York pretty friendly, but to the average American, people in NY are horrible. Most Americans are insanely friendly, and we make a career out of poking fun at certain American excesses, but they get a very bad press. People love to go on about how stupid they are, but those categorisations are just as ignorant of most Americans.

This time it has been so long since I’d been here I really wanted to come back. Whether you live in London, NY or Tokyo the sheer venality of the life can get you down. “I can’t take this any more I want to go somewhere where people are miserable in a different way.”

I don’t think in 11 years it had ever been 7 months since I was last here, so by the end of Sept/Oct I was incredibly keen to get to Europe.

I think that NY is similar to London, if you like one you will probably like the other. NY is certainly my favourite bit of America.

When we started it was considered stupid to start a games company in New York, but we wanted to be in the middle on the time zone and the energy was always good for us, and you can eat at any time of day or night.

When we started, there were no games outside sports and no 18 rated games at all. PC games are an enormous barrier to entry. It’s not fun sitting at your desk.

How do you see technology changing the way we live?
Well the worst thing for me is newspapers. When I read how deep they were in trouble, I went straight out and subscribed to the New York Times. If you grow up in Britain you have to love newspapers.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview. I wish you'd asked him more about the humor. Dan Houser and Lazlow write hours of radio commercials and DJ patter for each game that play while you drive around, and it's sharp parody and satire that's funny as hell.

    From the washed-up transsexual DJ in Liberty City Stories ("At least in the 80s they could play their instruments and there were two ambiguously gay men beating a synthesizer who were up for a go") to the Dragon Brain movie trailer in GTA V ("We need a hero, or evil will reign for 2000 generations, and a million orcs will storm these lands, and the CGI bill will be... apocalyptic"), it's been consistently excellent.