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Dan Houser On How Rockstar Does It

November 18, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

You're in a profession where there is a lot of feedback from the people and not all of it is positive. Do you read the forums and feedback or do you just try and stay focused on what you are doing?

DH: We do a bit of both. We try not to read too much, but we definitely see some of it. We try not to get consumed by it, but try to look at it for what it is and look at what the underlying messages of anything are, rather than being too reactive to stuff.

The internet generates opinions on things when people don't have too much information. We know all the information about Max Payne, at least, so to respond to someone who doesn't know much about it yet based on one screen shot of one level of a big game causes you grievance.

Can you discuss the catalyst that made you decide its time to bring Max back and do more with him?

DH: Basically we have been meaning to start it for a while, but we have limited bandwidth and limited studios, and more games to make than we've started. So suddenly it was a good slot.

Also, contrary to a lot of people, we like to take a little bit of time at the end of a game before starting a sequel, so we can wait for the excitement or disappointment and everything else of the experience to shake down and really see what we should do in the next game.

So we knew that we didn't want to start doing the Bully sequel instantly at that second with those guys -- even though it is a property that, like Max, we adore and might come back to in the future. There was just no impetus to do that then.

So we said, "You can do Max, and then we will see what we can do with Bully." So it was really waiting for the slot to open up and the group to open up to at least start work on it.

A few years ago, you had mentioned that games were slowly getting creditability as an art form. I am curious where you think they stand these days. Have they made a sizable progress?

DH: I don't know. I kind of swore that I would stop talking about that because it got people obsessed by it. It's sort of a parlor debate, and we really never let it affect what we did.

We make something we think above all is going to be enjoyable for people to play. Otherwise they are not going to keep doing it -- and the idea that anything could be artistic and not enjoyable is something that I am not sure I agree with.

Apart from that, I think it is a commercial medium, just as cinema is a commercial medium, and pop music is a commercial medium, and they can all make some things that are artistic and some that are purely exploitive.

Does it have creditability? In some ways I hope not, because we will become more and more controlled and Academy-sized [as an industry] and you'll lose a lot of the freedom that we enjoy.

So it's probably not for us to say, but probably more for you to say if you think it's interesting and has artistic merit. If you sit there obsessing. "Am I an artist or the equivalent of someone who makes KFC Value Meals?" it doesn't lead to success. So we just do what we do.

For plenty of developers, story is an afterthought to the game's action elements. Why does Rockstar put such an emphasis on narrative?

DH: If games are to be the next major form of creative consumption, art, cultural expression, or whatever the correct term is, then strong narrative has to be part of that. I think it doesn't necessarily have to just be about linear narrative, but it can be about experience of being in these worlds we make and exploring them in a nonlinear way.

I think that's a great strength of games. You get this atmosphere and sense of immersion that you can't get from anything else. The immersion, which comes partly from the way things look and partly from the way you respond to things and the way certain random characters treat you, has to be engaging and the direct linear narrative has to be engaging. Plus a poorly written story ruins everything just as much as a mechanic being broken ruins everything.

Everything has to feel like it's the same level. It has to feel like you are the same guy when you shooting a gun or running as you are when you are involved in a story or when you are just wandering around the world. It has to feel like this is one experience. So if the mechanics are fine and the story is ridiculous, the experience is much diminished.

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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 :)