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Dan Houser On How Rockstar Does It

November 18, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Rockstar Games co-founder and vice president of creative Dan Houser doesn't spend a lot of time on the interview circuit, and you'll almost never find him on a panel of industry experts. Instead, he prefers to let the company's work do the talking.

In this rare interview, Houser outlines how the company makes its decisions -- from booting Max Payne into the future to deciding not to give players much of a window into its games prior to their release. He also discusses lessons learned from Red Dead Redemption and the creative bible for the Grand Theft Auto series.

With Rockstar's next major release -- Max Payne 3 -- approaching its March 2012 due date, though, he spoke to Gamasutra about the game, the challenges its faces and some of the philosophies behind one of the industry's most respected and admired development houses.

It's been eight years since we've seen a Max Payne game. That's a long time in this industry, especially these days...

DH: We have never really been annualizers. [Almost] every time we have worked in any kind of excessively quick time span, it hasn't been something we enjoyed, or thought we were able to express ourselves properly, or make it interesting. So that doesn't really concern us.

We see our role as to make good stuff. With any property or new property, it takes as long as it takes. You have to make the right game before you release it. We are convinced that the industry has come around in some ways to our way of thinking, which is there is not much middle ground anymore. There is only room for stuff of the highest quality on the consoles.

Are you concerned about player reception, since you are fighting the nostalgia factor?

DH: I think the challenge of nostalgia is a more profound one, because one thing about video games is your memory tends to remove the horrendous. Even though you enjoyed it at the time, your memory tends to fill all the blanks and [older titles] become these great, perfect experiences.

So that nostalgia is definitely a challenge. You want to appeal to the fans of the original and bring in a new audience. It's a challenge to anything when you are doing stuff with properties that have existed for sometime.

Is it more nerve wracking to go up against that sort of nostalgia or to go up against a game that is more recent in people's memories -- like when you do a Grand Theft Auto game?

DH: I don't know. They both terrify me, because we really put an enormous amount of effort into all of the games. Sequels are an interesting thing when you've got something new to say. And we obviously make plenty of sequels, but we really push ourselves to make sure we are not just doing it as a way of trying to fleece out money and strangle a property in its infancy.

So, I think, in both cases, the challenge is to get the fans happy with what you are doing. People are confused and upset by some [changes] and excited by others. And we have seen that with new GTAs [in the past] and we are seeing it now with Max Payne.

Before people play it, any change is a challenge. When they play it, hopefully, they will understand what you've changed, and what you haven't changed, and why you made those decisions, and come to see that they were not made out of anything apart from the love for the property and respect for the people who are playing.

Max Payne 3

You saw some of that reaction when screens for Max Payne 3 came out, with a paunchy Max and the shaved head.

DH: Yeah, yeah -- which was only half the story even then, but absolutely we saw a lot of people questioning our parentage, and our right to be doing this and, you know, our right to even exist. And I think we expected a little of that and we honestly were pleased -- not to upset anybody -- but pleased because it proved what we believed: that the franchise had a lot of love and there is a lot of love for this property. The fact that there's a huge rabid fan base is something that is very much in our favor.

Of course, at the time you are being called an asshole or whatever, it is upsetting because we take it personally. And we take the work seriously and upsetting people is not something we set out to do, but sometimes that kind of upsetting [occurs].

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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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 :)