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Dan Houser On How Rockstar Does It

November 18, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Your games often have a cinematic quality and that lets you, as developers, be in charge of the story. But it seems like this industry is moving more and more toward multiplayer. where you have less control of that.

DH: Absolutely.

So how do you handle that?

DH: Well, Max has both. It has a single player component and multiplayer component. So I believe that we wanted to put some elements of single play into the multiplayer, so the multiplayer will have a lot more detail and have elements of story in it and have a sort of an immersive quality. We think that's something that is under-explored in multiplayer.

In multiplayer, I think we are feeling like it's a really fun learning experience for us, really. We are trying to figure out how to get better at it. I think we've demonstrated the power of the third person perspective in single player games and our challenge is now to take that over [to multiplayer].

You obviously have certain advantages in the first person, with the targeting. To solve that first in a single person game that was a straight shooter like Max, and then to take that over to multiplayer, it's definitely a challenge we're excited by and aware of.

Are we going to see DLC for Max Payne?

DH: We'll see something, but I don't know what it will be yet. We are often not as organized or cynical -- you can see it either way -- as people think we are going to be with plans laid out this far out with everything. We will get those plans in order in the next few month, but they are just not sorted out yet.

What did you learn from the DLC for Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption?

DH: The two key lessons we learned were that if you want a vibrant multiplayer community, you have got to provide content frequently and fairly quickly after release, which we tried to do with Red Dead.

And I think the two GTA episodes, from a creative standpoint, were absolutely fantastic. We are very, very, very proud of them. And we are kind of compelled due to various other business factors to make them that size -- but something at $20 for DLC, maybe $10 is a more exciting price point.

We have to talk a little bit about the timing. You had the big coming out party for the game in 2009, with the Game Informer cover. And then you obviously had a couple of series of delays. What sort of impact does that have on the team and for you?

DH: I think it's part of the industry, if you want high quality games. Maybe, if you are making a sequel without much design innovation and without any real technical innovation -- you know, just a bunch of new content on board with a broadly existing engine with a broadly existing design -- you can have some degree of confidence in guessing your release date.

Anyone that's doing what we were trying to do and guesses at the start of the project exactly when things are going to be done, well they are better at this job than I am. We can't do that while guaranteeing quality.

What impact did it have on the team? None negative. I think the team was happy that we were pursuing quality. They weren't done, and they could see they weren't finished and it wasn't right, so we were going to keep working on it until it was finished and it was right.

It won't be our longest development cycle. It won't be our shortest.

One of the other things that this studio is well known for is very carefully controlling the information that comes out before and during a game. In the movie industry, they are offering fans more of a peek behind the curtain of late.

DH: Yeah.

It doesn't seem like you are very eager to embrace that. Does it take away the magic?

DH: That's really it. It was really important to us that the games felt kind of magical. And seeing too many videos and or even seeing interviews of us sitting there pointing stuff out and showing how it's all done [detracts from that].

I think with the movies, the less you know about the stars the better. The best movies are where you go and don't know anyone that's in it. And we want to keep that feeling -- we always did and continue to want it now -- where it might annoy people that we don't give out more information. But I think the end point is people enjoy the experience.

Obviously, it's a balancing act to sell the game... We used to have an exact formula for how much information you give out and how much you wouldn't. Literally, it was sort of a pie chart. It's hard to be that controlling, but you certainly want features that people are discovering. Some amount they learn about in advance, and some amount in reviews, but hopefully you can keep [other aspects] quiet until [people] are actually playing the game, because you want it to have the surprises and you want it to be magic.

The less they know about how things are pieced together and how things are exactly broken down, and exactly what our processes are, the more it will feel like this thing is alive, that you are being dragged into the experience. That's what we want.

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Mark Collen
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I have to utterly disagree with the assertion that 3D has yet to prove itself as a valuable addition to games, and games are certainly the "killer app" for 3D at this point.

I play Socom 4 (and played Killzone 3) *exclusively* in 3D, and it ups the immersion factor, and the ability to judge distances, etc., to the degree that when I for any reason step out of 3D (to show a group of people something in the game, for instance), it's like I've gone from being *in* an experience to to viewing flat cutouts in a cheap diorama through a window from a distance. It loses a *tremendous* degree of immediacy.

And as for games being the killer app for 3D: before I started gaming in 3D, I probably watched maybe four to six hours a month of 3D content -- now, playing my favorite game(s), I actually had to modify the glasses for comfort for such constant use, probably a hundred hours or more a month.

(And for reference, I'm fifty-seven, so this isn't a kid's enthusiasm for the newest, coolest thing.)

Just an addtional point of reference for the developer: Game companies are filled with game "lifers" who are simply used to things being the way they've grown up with them (i.e, thumbstick controllers, etc.), or they wouldn't be so deeply involved as to make it their livelihood, and they can tend to forget that their largest untapped market are those who DO NOT buy and/or try every single thing that comes out... those who are often unfairly label the "casual" gamer. The NON-"hardcore" gamer can be just as involved as -- and is usually prepared to willingly *spend* more -- than the hordes of whiny "I play everything but don't have a job and live in my parents' basement" 'hardcores'... we tend to focus on something we really enjoy irrespective of COD-style "leveling-up" dopamine-stimulation and trophy-whoring etc., and are consequently far less fickle about which IPs we remain loyal to.

Joe McGinn
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Current 3D tech is just far too crap for this problem to be really solved. 3D will have no impact on gaming until we have much better, closer to holographic, tech.

Ian Williams
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While I understand where you're coming from, and the 3D does sound sweet, calling hardcore gamers whiny basement dwelling trolls is hardly fair.

Joe McGinn
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I also have Pilot Wings. By playing with that 3D slider - and of course, if I hold the device *perfectly* motionless relative to my head - I can see a sort-of ghosty 3D effect that is really not that impressive. And it gives me a headache after a while, I can feel how it's screwing with my eyes as I play.

james sadler
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3D can do some great things for the gaming industry and vise versus, but the technology available to consumers just isn't there yet. I saw some technology about 4 years ago that allowed people to view 3D without glasses, similar to the 3DS, but on a large scale (think the display was something like 150 inches). It took a minute for one's eyes to adjust but it worked pretty well and didn't give the usual 3D hangover effect most 3D does give. But there was a lot of debate about having the proper lighting, how fast the image can be, size and viewing angle. There are just too many variables at this point. It also doesn't help that they came out with the commercial products way too soon after releasing the LED LCD displays as well as during an economic downturn. Now it just seems like they're trying to ram 3D down the consumer's throats and people are pushing back. Don't get me wrong, I like the idea of 3D for games and movies, but I think that it just isn't right yet.

Joe McGinn
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Yeah I think James nailed it, the tech just isn't there.

Dario keep in mind with current tech, the effect is *highly* variable to different people. It's likely that you are seeing an amazing effect and I just am not, that's perfectly consistent with what I'd expect from this tech. Some people can't see the effect barely at all (anyone with "lazy eye" for example) and others experience physical discomfort, while others see an amazing 3D image and can't understand why everyone isn't in love with the thing.

Dan Jones
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Good article. I have a lot of respect for Rockstar and it's always interesting to get some insight into the way Dan Houser thinks about games.

One minor correction in the very last bit of the interview: the name of the "Heroes" creator is Tim Kring, not Tim Crane.

Gil Salvado
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I agree, just lately I personally came to despite thinking of games as an art form. In my opinion they're design, because they have a function and technical limitations. As car manufacturer you wouldn't speak of your automobiles as a piece of art, would you? But others could, and that's the point I got to admit to Houser. For other people, the consumer in most cases, games can be art, but for us as developers they are design.

Pieterjan Spoelders
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Refreshing interview :)