Inside Rockstar North - Part 2: The Studio

Inside Rockstar North - Part 2: The Studio
Michael French

By Michael French

October 4th 2013 at 10:00AM

Studio director Andy Semple and president Leslie Benzies take us through how the developer operates

For more on our behind the scenes look at Rockstar North, read parts one, three and four.

Our tour of the studio takes us to Andy Semple next. He has been with Rockstar North since its founding in Edinburgh, as studio operations and director. At first he was overseeing a group of 25. Now it’s a team of over 360.

“Since day one until now, yes, it’s been quite the journey,” says Semple.

He’s underselling it at first. Like many Rockstar staff he’s a little daunted and a bit modest when you make them think back about how far they have come. But he elaborates: “The team is larger, there is more organisation, more process and order to manage the complexity.”

Somehow, though, through all that growth, Rockstar North feels intimate when Develop visits. The layout is almost completely open, although spread across a few floors, there are no rooms or sections that keep vehicle people away from level designers.

It’s not lost on Develop that this studio, like the games it creates, is very much an open world of its own.

Semple explains: “We’re here because of the game, and the people are core to making the games and how we run – and their relationships are key to that. If they aren’t collaborating and communicating, it doesn’t work. Art has to talk to code, the props people have to talk to the level designers. Sure, there’s more people, and the roles have become more specialised, but we’ve made sure to keep it open.

“I think all of that is reflected in the game – everything is so seamless and connected because of the way it is made. We don’t see it any other way. The investment of effort we put in – creatively, emotionally – you just cannot afford to isolate sets of people.”

It’s very different from other studios of equivalent stature or scale. But the huge silos of studios at other publisher run operations, the vast campuses owned by the superpublishers, says Semple, are ‘probably the antithesis of everything we do’.

Rockstar North studio

That reflects itself in how the team conduct themselves. Sure, there’s line management, and a structure, and teams with responsibilities, but questions about who tells who what to do are treated like they are almost irrelevant, archaic.

“We don’t have all that management side of things – we are still all connected with the staff, whether it’s directly or those people with their leads,” says Benzies.

Ideas from any member of the 360-strong team can rocket through the building and into the game, he adds: “It doesn’t matter who you are – we recently had a guy come in as a tester on GTA Online, and a few weeks later he’s doing some deep stuff, full-time, super important.

“If they are good ideas, that is. If they’re shit we’re not going to do them.”

TAKING LIBERTIES

Good ideas and good judgement helped Rockstar North’s stature not just grow in the industry but amongst its sister teams.

In the latest generation, it has become a safety net almost for sister projects, having a huge hand in finishing Red Dead Redemption, LA Noire and Max Payne 3.

This has actually evolved so much, say Benzies and Semple, that now ‘production’ of each giant Rockstar game isn’t just done by one studio – but all of them working together.

“That’s the way we work now - everyone works on GTA, or Red Dead, and so on, then we move on to the next thing,” says Benzies.

“Now that it takes 1,000 people to make a game, that’s a requirement. But we don’t want 1,000 in one place.”

Is it 1,000 people making GTA V?

“It’s probably more, much more.

“And that’s because of the size of the thing, we are modelling at such a minute detail. Once upon a time the car models have four moving parts. Now there are 15 alone in a car’s retractable roof. The detail is ten, twenty times greater than GTA IV, so it takes ten, twenty times more people.

“We’ve been blessed with more power on these machines, so we continually have to push it – plus these guys are freaks. When they see a convertible’s roof moving back, the artist is excited by it, and that’s the kind of people we like to have working here. Isn’t that how all the great things on the planet exist, because someone thought something was cool?”

The push and drive comes from wanting to not only honour our previous titles, but to better what has gone before. That’s just how Rockstar makes games.

- Andy Semple, studio director of Rockstar North

Semple says that the now global production process also seriously widened the Rockstar North talent base.

“There is a broad range of skills at the company,” supported by the business’ shared tech. “Rockstar is a very connected company. That’s probably different to other studios or publishers. No part of the game is being worked on that other teams don’t know about.”

HARD WORK PAYS OFF

Although everyone at Rockstar says that this huge scale – both within its games and the team(s) that make them – has been the biggest change over the years, North itself hasn’t suffered.

Its leaders say that retention is high, with few departures.

“I think we run a fair place – work hard, get rewarded,” says Benzies. “Some people here started as testers and are really senior now. If you have good ideas, they get in the game. Everyone can be who they want to be – and it shows.

“Our turnover is low,” adds Semple. “People do leave, but by and large that can be personal reasons for relocating or wanting a change.” People stay, because “we empower them to know that there’s a level where they can make a difference. That’s more important than any hierarchy.”

Rockstar North studio

What North expects in kind is dedication.

That doesn’t necessarily mean crunch but Semple is direct: “Making this kind of game with all its ambition is hugely rewarding but also demanding and difficult. It requires a certain level of energy and talent to get through that. There is an investment in the game from the people that make it. No one wants to sell it short and subsequently will ensure to make it the best it wants to be.

“Everyone is acutely aware of what we are working on, how unique and special it is – and the push and drive comes from wanting to not only honour our previous titles, but to better what has gone before. That’s just how Rockstar makes games. It’s what our fans expect – and it’s a reputation we are proud to maintain. It’s an attitude that everyone who joins us needs to understand.”

The games themselves are testament to the fact North attracts people prepared to give it their all, and many perhaps at a stage in their lives where they can give it their all. The bar is high, but the studio management work hard to support and reward that effort. A lot of the North staff have worked on multiple GTA titles, CV credits money can't buy.

“If you’re going to make anything decent, you have to work hard. NASA puts spaceships on the moon – they didn’t do that by working six hours a day,” quips Benzies. “So my point is that you have to do the work.”

We’ve had graduates that have really impressed those older hands, and it’s where those two sides meet that you really benefit.

- Andy Semple, studio director of Rockstar North

Benzies is talking about commitment and passion. Not crunch, which is about fatigue. “When there is too much work, then you address it. The games industry is a place where to work you have to love games, and when people love something they put the time in.”

“Making a game is like making an album, a film and a spaceship all at once.”

And the end result, an interactive experience like GTA, demands its audience listen to that album, watch the film and fly the spaceship all at once too.

RISING STARS

The cumulative force of striving for perfection, however, is talent. Rockstar North is home to 360 stars of the games industry – and it wants more. While there are lots of experienced staff, the team has all worked keenly to find good colleagues.

Says Semple: “We’ve had graduates that have really impressed those older hands, and it’s where those two sides meet that you really benefit.”

The impression, just looking around at the mix of faces, is that this is what’s helping the team remain eager and fresh.

Grand Theft Auto V

At the end of the day, it seems to be talent that really matters to Semple. His biggest regret isn’t a lack of media profile for the studio specifically – versus the acres of words written about its creation – but things like missing out on helping with this year’s Dare to be Digital. He and Rockstar North have been a partner on it for years, but completion of GTA V took precedent in 2013.

“Some of the brightest developers we have had came from that competition. We’d love to do more there, and give back to help create a thriving Scotland and UK games community. Time is always a problem for us – we’d love to do more but we end up having these massive games in our day job,” he jokes.

Our conversation with Semple turns back to how all of this – a talent hotbed, focus on perfection – afforded North independence.

To some in that still-big world of other publisher-run studios, that might sound like lunacy, but having someone tell Rockstar North what to do would likely be, says Semple, “the biggest risk of all.”

This is the second instalment (You can view part one here) of a four-part look inside Rockstar North, which was originally published in the October issue of Develop, out now with subscribers. You can purchase the issue to view through your browser or oniPad right now.

The third part, talking further with Rockstar North president Leslie Benzies plus an insight on the technology behind Grand Theft Auto from technical leads Adam Fowler and Phil Hooker, is available to read here.

For more, you can also read parts one and four.