Rockstar San Diego occupies the second floor of a nondescript building, with no visible Rockstar signage on the front. If I didn't know the address, I wouldn't know I was in the right place – but I am, and upon the event of a small development studio tour of San Diego, Rockstar SD has allowed me to check out their facilities, and interview their director of product development, Alan Wasserman. Alan is essentially in charge of all that goes on in the San Diego studio, and has been with the group (creators of Midnight Club series and Rockstar Table Tennis) since they were Angel Studios, purchased by Rockstar in 2003.
Once inside, the work environment feels incredibly open. The blinds are drawn, and though the fluorescents are on, people are working mostly by natural light. Rockstar San Diego has an amorphous work environment, with all desks on wheels. If designers and programmers need to work together, they can pick up and move. This doesn't happen constantly - according to Wasserman, who gave me the walking tour – but they like to have the freedom to put people where they'll be most efficient. It's similar to agile development, though Wasserman says they don't call it that.
The studio space is still being worked on, with only a few posters up on the walls – though the corridor leading to the audio facility sports gorgeous Rockstar games-related original paintings from the art team. All of Rockstar SD's audio is done in-house, where they have a foley room, and recording and mixing facilities. The company also has a break room, with two foosball tables, both of which were fully manned. "I swear I didn't stage this," Says Wasserman, who had just finished espousing the virtues of their non-electronic game stations.
Back in Wasserman's office, I got to conduct an extensive interview – rare for Rockstar these days, as the company has chosen to manage its information and executives very carefully. We spoke at length about how to make seamless worlds, the Rockstar mystique, the viability of Xbox Live Arcade/PSN games, and what makes a game "next-gen."
So you have two major teams, right?
AW: That number has fluctuated. In the time I've been with Angel and then Rockstar, that number has fluctuated inwards from two to four teams based upon where we are. When we had Table Tennis running, we were at three teams. We ramp up in scale from having to distribute the people on the teams based upon what we're working on.
How did the transition from Angel to Rockstar go?
AW: I'd like to think extremely smooth. I started working in 1999 with Angel Studios, and the first projects I worked on were Smuggler's Run and Midnight Club with the other team. It was an incredibly smooth transition, because we were going to be working with them.
The purchase was in 2002, so we pretty much developed games with Rockstar for about three years of dating, before we got married. It was great, because working with those guys brought us from the level of being on the Nintendo dream team, because we had a high level of technical proficiency. Working with the Rockstar guys pulled us to a higher level from a design and creative point of view.
Which are the titles you have actually done here at San Diego, as a studio, for Rockstar?
AW: Smuggler's Run 1 and 2. Midnight Club 1, 2, and 3, plus Remix. Red Dead Revolver, and Table Tennis.
Do you guys use proprietary or external tools that you license?
AW: It's a mix. We have a group called Rage where we work on a core technology that's used both here and throughout Rockstar.
What external tools do you use?
AW: Things like Maya and Photoshop. The Table Tennis guys use Zbrush. Other studios use Macs, then there's some other things we also use but haven't been rolled out officially yet.
Do you do all of Rockstar San Diego's sound work in-house?
Alan Wasserman: Definitely for sound effects, and it's a mix on voice stuff and music. Up to now we've been heavily licensed, but there's some original composition that happens as well.
Do you do any sound effects for other studios, or is there any sharing?
AW: There's some sharing that happens between places. We've got terabytes and terabytes of data that is shared between games, if it's appropriate. We spoil our sound guys enough to hear things like "that explosion is last-gen," whatever that means. It's right down to where we literally had a recording session where we hired crane operators to drop cars from 25 feet in the air. Then we heard things like, "Well that's a small car, let's get a big car," or, "What happens when we take this car and smash it against a bus?" There's some cool videos of that. Ultimately it's all about how we get the best experience. We like to think that we craft our games.