In the second part of our Develop Awards 2008 winners profile on Rockstar Games, which won four awards at our even last month, we speak to company founder and president Sam Houser about the company's relationship with consumers and plans to push the creative medium of games furtherâ?¦
Given all the work that goes into the narrative and writing and acting in a game like GTA IV, as well as the technology, does it frustrate you that games as a medium are still less recognised than film?
It used to but now, when games are clearly more vibrant and exciting than movies to anyone who is paying the slightest bit of attention (most of the critics and detractors don’t even play or look at the games), it actually excites us that they are being ignored as it gives us what we most cherish about this industry: the freedom to be innovative and develop in a less constrictive environment.
The problem with academia and prizes and awards and all the things the movie industry has wrapped itself in is that it constrains things too much. 99 per cent of movies are three acts told over two hours with very similar plot structures, camera work and so on. We can rip up the rule book every time we make a game as every aspect of every process gets reconsidered. Some things may ‘work’ but they are, mercifully, not yet unbreakable doctrine. And that freedom is a direct product of the lack of mass critical and academic attention the industry receives.
GTA IV asks the players to make a few key decisions during its story, and we’ve seen another Take 2 game, BioShock, experiment with similar ideas. How further can that model be pushed? Is it something you’d like to take further in future games?
All aspects of games can be pushed a lot further. We are only scratching the surface of what is possible in this medium. Of all things, storytelling is one of the areas that in some ways has the furthest to go. Using choices like that is something more or less unique to games, but the art is in combining a strong, cinematic narrative with choices, so players get the best of both models – the best story that feels like it is evolving around them as they play based on their decisions. Of course, we will continue to experiment with it, as we never get anything right first time.
Between the launches of San Andreas and GTA IV there had been a fairly significant growth in the games industry, especially when it comes to what people call ‘new player demographics’, or casual games, but really means just more people – and more ‘average’ people who aren’t that used to games – playing with and owning consoles. Was that something you took into account as you oversaw GTA IV?
Not really. We always tried to make games that anyone could pick up and play. They may, over time, reveal a lot of structural and mechanical complexity, but the first mission of more or less any Rockstar game is very easy and engaging for a reason – because new people playing the game have to be gently led into the world of 3D action games, or open world racing games or whatever. This is the way we try to cater for a mass market – but we are focused on making digital worlds that are fun to explore and interlaced with rich narratives, that even the most casual player can become a part of, if they want to. The challenge is to make a game in which ‘depth’ does not result in complexity the first minutes you play. This is a challenge we’ve always tried to embrace, and I hope we are getting better at it, just as I hope we are getting better at everything.
Does the success of GTA IV goes to show that you don’t need to make games for ‘casual’ audiences in order to reach the mass-market?
The division doesn’t make sense to us; good games will usually sell and be popular, bad games will struggle – of any type or genre or style. But we still believe big, high impact games will help the industry evolve and further surpass the movie industry as the next mass-market story telling medium.
Although Rockstar is famed for games enjoyed and designed for mature players, would you want to make games for this more casual audience that now exists?
In order to be successful, we are going to have to continue to do what we have always done – make games that we would want to play, and hope there is audience for them. We don’t believe in focus testing ideas (it’s like asking an audience what album they want to hear – they don’t know until they hear it!) or thinking of a target market or anything like that; it’s an anathema to creativity. We are trying to make commercially viable art, not sell washing powder. While people like what we do, we will continue to do it to the best of our abilities. When they don’t, we will have to stop and do something else.