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].