As co-founder/president of Rockstar Games, Sam Houser is – along with brother and creative VP Dan – the guiding light for studios which have had a huge impact on the games industry. Our Q&A with him kicks off a series of Develop Awards 2008 winner profiles…
GTA IV tells the story of two relatives who travel to America to make their fortune. Was the hint of autobiography in writing the story intentional? (And if so, which one of you is Roman and which is Niko?)
A lot of people have asked that question! No - it was not intentional or conscious, although I suppose any migrant can relate to their story in some ways, and migration is a very contemporary theme. They are only cousins, not brothers, and we like to play around with family relationships in the games as much as possible as they instantly provide complexity and depth to relations that everyone can relate to. In a game like GTA in which the protagonist meets so many new people, you need some people to feel anchored to.
As for who is the bumbling troublemaker and who is the war weary psychopath, isn’t it obvious?
The Rockstar business is famed for being built on the same principles as a record label. What qualities from the music industry have you tried to capture with Rockstar? Do you think you’ve succeeded?
Rockstar was built with the idea of consistency and quality that the best record labels embody, in which you associate a label with a quality and style. We understood early on what our goals were, whatever the product we were working on. A combination of accessible but innovative gameplay and high production values, with gameplay mechanics and settings we found appealing and unique. In this way, I think we have at least stuck close to what we set out to do. If we succeeded, well, that depends if people like the games or not.
In what ways has the business side of Rockstar remained different from a music label?
As an environment, all creative industries are unique, but games bear a somewhat closer resemblance to a combination of movie production and book publishing, I guess, but it is a mercifully unique environment. The team is the most important unit in game development and the size and diversity of personality types and skill sets is something unique to games and something we cherish at Rockstar.
Rockstar has expanded by about one studio every year in the last decade. Has there been a specific strategy for the way you’ve grown the Rockstar business?
No – this was pretty random, to be honest! When we found kindred spirits, or people we hoped could become kindred spirits, we tried to bring them into the family.
How will it grow further?
We don’t want to get too much bigger in terms of teams, because the games need to have the personal touch and production values that are in them, and we can’t do that at a much bigger scale, but we will always look to work closely with excellent people when we come across them.
In a management sense, how has the working relationship between you and Dan developed as Rockstar has grown? Has being brothers in charge of the business, working together, helped you?
We worked pretty closely together from the moment Dan left university without a clue as to what to do with himself in July 1996. That summer, he started temping with me and Lucien at BMG – Lucien King heads up our product development stuff in the UK – and he’s hung around ever since!
The process of producing games has evolved so enormously since 1996 that of course what we do has changed, but the fundamentals are still the same; help the production and help improve the game while getting it done on time. Dan tends to work in a more hands on way early in a production and me more closely later on, but it’s very inter-changeable. Of course, being brothers helps, particularly in the exotic world of American corporate life to which we are occasionally exposed as we are, obviously, very loyal and very straight with one another.
How much of what gets written about Rockstar in the likes of the tabloid press do you read?
I think we probably read most of it – if you turn on a computer this stuff reaches you, usually forwarded by an old friend laughing at you.
Do you pay any attention to it?
No – I think we are both depressed at how boring we really are and how unexciting even the worse fabrications and exaggerations are when you read about them. None of it seems very rock and roll, so we find it a little sad, when there are probably better stories that could be written about both us and the industry/medium. No sharks, groupies or pounds of coke or anything fun at all. We read like angry dorks, which might be true, but is certainly not very exciting.
But still, Rockstar has become an easy target for the press. Does it concern you that the negative and misleading coverage can overshadow the innovations and positive contribution GTA has made back to the videogaming business and medium?
Not really. Most of the people who hate us are people it is truly an honor to be hated by – reactionary creeps with strange agendas – and the Daily Mail. Most people who know about modern pop culture know about GTA and like or dislike it on its own merits.
Rockstar committed to episodic content for GTA before GTA IV was finished; how did that impact the way you write and plan for the first GTA IV game?
You’ll see in a few months.
In the next part of the Q&A, published on Friday August 15th, Houser discusses story in games and Rockstar's relationship with its audience.