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The Replay Interviews: Gary Penn

January 31, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In the writing of his history of the video game industry, Replay, author Tristan Donovan conducted a series of important interviews which were only briefly excerpted in the text. Gamasutra is happy to here present the full text of his interview with Grand Theft Auto developer Gary Penn.]

Gary Penn's professional involvement in the games began in 1985 when he became a journalist on the anarchic games magazine Zzap!64 reporting on the weird and wonderful output of the UK's early games industry.

Since then he has made to leap from journalist to developer, working on titles such as Frontier: Elite II and the first three Grand Theft Autos, and currently leading development at Scottish independent studio Denki.

This interview is the latest in a series of interviews conducted for Tristan Donovan's recent book Replay: The History of Video Games and being published in full for the first time by Gamasutra.

In it, Penn concentrates on the earlier part of his career, talking about the early days of the British games business, and sharing his thoughts on the rise of the indie scene and recalls the troubled birth of Grand Theft Auto.

You started out as a journalist working for magazine Zzap!64 during the early days of the games industry in the UK. What was it like working as a journalist at that time?

Gary Penn: A great feeling. The whole vibe was -- I wouldn't say 'Wild West' -- but there was definitely a sort of sense of it being the beginning of something big. It's easier to say that with hindsight but it was a really good sort of community. Everybody seemed to know everybody else, what they were up to. There were a lot of friends made. It was a fantastic time.

You had this sense that anyone could do anything and curiously I think it's like that now, but now it's better than then because you've got opportunities that are so much greater than they ever were. But it's quite weird -- last year [2008] I just had a very similar feeling to back then.

Due to the rise of digital distribution?

GP: Yes, primarily. You've got all these different platforms to develop for now. Whether you consider Flash a platform or Java a platform. There are many other tools -- the amount of middleware, development packages, freeware libraries.

The scope for being able to make something and not just games. If you want to make a film now, you can buy a digital camera for like £30, so if you're a kid who's fired up as I used to be, the potential to make stuff is just fantastic on any level. I've never seen anything like it -- it's the best time ever.

You've got the similar kind of vibe that we had back in the mid-'80s, but with much more opportunities than ever before. There's more chance to, not just make stuff, but to be heard. The thing about the time and the feeling that is similar to now is that it felt like one person could make a difference. It felt like anyone could do anything, but the general gist was everyone was kind of making it up as they went along. There was certainly a sort of punk ethos underpinning it.

It was also quite entrepreneurial. It was almost a punk do-it-yourself thing but also a sort of Thatcherite thing.

GP: Yes, I never really grasped it. I was a bit stupid -- not stupid, but my energy was very different -- it's never been one of commercial interest, it's always been just the doing, the making.

Looking back and I didn't see it myself at the time as a kid playing games in the '80s, but the games coming out of the UK in the 1980s were bizarre. Very surreal compared to anywhere else in the world, apart from maybe Japan.

GP: Yes we were definitely. The UK was very much at the forefront of this. You'd have games about cleaning teeth. One that's just sprung to mind, which was quite bizarre, was Dancing Monster on the Commodore 64. You shot a monster who fell to pieces to reveal a princess underneath. It was just the stupidest ideas, really good fun. People were making all sorts of weird shit because they could afford to take these risks.

The barriers to entry was really low, anyone could afford to buy. They didn't have to go through the sort of hoops that you had to go through with console publishing, where the barrier to entry is quite high. Literally anyone in his bedroom who had half a brain and some passion could make something and get it in the hands of people. More long winded than it is now, when you can just upload it, but it was a sort of low-tech version of that back then.

Given some of the games, you kind of think "well maybe drugs are involved there."

GP: Well yes, drugs were around. There was mainly a lot of drinking, but yes there were definitely circles of drugs but it wasn't as prevalent and as glamorous as maybe the music industry or the film industry might portray it. And I think that didn't actually have that much of an influence. It was just people trying out stuff.

Certainly there was a point where innovation started to dry up and that's where the industry felt like it was growing up. The companies start growing up because there's so much more money involved and they just have to -- business becomes much more prevalent.

It just felt like the life got sucked out of the industry. You were talking about teams all of a sudden and it wasn't just one guy or even one coder or one artist. It was suddenly teams and these teams cost money. The whole thing just escalated and it felt like it was at the expense of originality. I don't know if that's actually the case, I've never looked back to see, but it felt like it.

Oh, it's all licenses and, you know, it's the same old arguments that I see repeat themselves every five years or so. Even recently with people bemoaning licensed games and I'm thinking "Christ, this is so familiar, this is this shit so often." Someone sent me an old editorial I'd written in Zzap! I think it was from '87 or '86 even. And that's me as a 19-year-old bemoaning the unoriginality. I didn't remember it and it was just quite an unpleasant experience to know that these things don't actually change.

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Frank Lack
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Heh, reading about their problems with first GTA kinda proves what is said about Rockstar: that those people just can't make good games for PC. And before you say "no, they can", think how screwed up GTA 4 was when it was released. Or how poorly GTA 3 was working on PCs that were in shops in that times. Only reason next GTA3-engined games were working better was because PCs were going forward, while engine was still the same.

I bet only reasons why Red Dawn Redemption isn't on PCs is because they can't handle making stable, not working in 5 fps max. game. And quite possibly that's the reason why Max Payne 3 suddenly dropped dead and nothing can be heard about game that was supposed to be here over one year ago - R* said there will be PC version, but it's still totally screwed and not working fast enough, so they hidden it until everybody will have GeForce 7xx or Radeons HD7xxxx (or whatever numbers next gen will have).

Sting Cool
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You apparently didn't read the article because they clearly said the core engine team was replaced between GTA2 and GTA3. The problems with the PC version have nothing to do with Rockstar and everything to do with the publisher. The game is fantastic on 360, if Rockstar sucked, it wouldn't be any good on any platform.

Wylie Garvin
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Frank, there was a 10+ year gap between GTA 1 and GTA 4, a lot can change in a game studio over that time. For one thing, their development staff probably expanded by a factor of at least 10x over that time, and any of the original developers who stayed around are probably much more experienced by now. GTA 4 was developed by a team of hundreds of people.

There are also many factors that might affect the quality of the PC version; according to wikipedia, the main development for GTA 4 was done by Rockstar North (in Scotland) but the PC port was done at Rockstar Toronto and it sounds like it was their first big PC project they'd ever done. It sounds like there was about an 8-month gap between the release of the console version and the PC version; a lot of changes were apparently made to rendering engine. They integrated copy protection, Games for Windows, 32-player and LAN support, etc. It had high system requirements, but I'll just point out that the required PC specs were *lower* than the power available in the consoles it was originally written for (Xbox360 and PS3). I don't know how many developers worked on the PC version, but its likely that the PC version was only worked on by a small number of people out of the whole team, who had a lot to get done in only 8 months.

Anyway, unless someone who worked on it wants to give an interview about it or something, its hard to know what went right or wrong for them.