Angel in Disguise: An Interview With Rockstar San Diego's Alan Wasserman

By Brandon Sheffield

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.

 




How long has [your desk-moving practice] been in effect?

AW: It goes back a ways. In the old days, one of the philosophies at Rockstar was to treat the developer like a rockstar, and give them the tools that they need so that they can do what they need to do. We used to do the same process where we move desks around, because it's common sense to me.

Why have the designer who needs to work closely with the programmer across the building? Then it may make sense to have them together for two months, but afterwards he may rather go back and be with other designers, because the programmers are too dry. We'll do it on a need basis, and because some people just get more out of it. It's much easier for me to say, "Hey Bob, can you help me with this?" from across my desk. IM is great, but there's no substitute for face-to-face. You'll get a much better understanding of intent -- not task -- when you get out of your chair to talk to somebody. That's what I think so many developers miss. They get hung up on task stuff, but did they deliver what was intended?

Do you find much resistance to that sort of thing?

AW: No, absolutely not, even with the guys who are real shy and want to be left alone. The very nature of sitting near the person they need to interact with means they get to know the person. You're asking them questions as a person, not as an AI programmer. If they interact on a human level, the desire is there to give what is needed.

You mentioned treating the employees like rockstars. What is the company culture like right now? How is it different, in your experience, from others?

AW: I'd like to think that we're more about the game and getting it right than about ego. We want to focus on decisions that attempt to make the game better. It's all the way up the food chain, and if someone's feelings get hurt a little bit, it's not intentional, and you can say sorry later on. It really is about the game. That's the philosophy of the studio. Let the game talk for the studio.

What is good about the Rockstar brand and mystique?

AW: I think the "wizard behind the curtain" kind of mystique about Rockstar makes people all the more curious [about us]. They ask, "What is that like? Can I be a part of that? It seems so cool!" I'd like to think it's as cool as people probably think it is. I think that helps.



Do you think withholding game info until it releases builds anticipation?

AW: I think that servers being brought to their knees so that people could take a look at the first [GTA IV] trailer is evidence of that.

Does that sort of stuff generate interest from developers and potential employees? Do you think that's part of why people want to come work here?

AW: I think it works both ways for us, but in general, it's an advantage.

GTA IV is cross-platform now…that's interesting to me, because it seems as though everybody is going cross-platform now. It seems like the day of the exclusive is at an end, because of budgets and things.

AW: I'm not able to talk about it other than to say that it's very difficult. Who knows whether it's going to be Blu-ray or HD-DVD, or whether it's going to be Xbox 360 or PS3? Unless we're being limited or curtailed in our ability to create the games we want and express ourselves in the way we want, why not create for both?




There hasn't been much Rockstar investment in handhelds so far. Is that out of Rockstar's scope at this point? Do you want to just make more big games?

AW: Midnight Club 3 is on PSP. Max Payne is on the GBA. Rockstar Games is not about hardware. It's about delivering an experience in any way that will make sense. Think about Table Tennis. The fact that it was announced on April 1st led people to believe we were joking, but the thing about the game is that the experience is intense. It's an intense, head-to-head game, whether you're playing the AI or another person. It's a great party game.

It's curious to me, since it's almost one of those things where you think, "Do we really need a video game about this?" Table tennis is a thing that is quite easy to play in real life, and quite often, games are about being able to do something you are not really capable of doing. That took a lot of people by surprise.

AW: I think people have various preconceptions of what Rockstar is all about. Whether you're talking about Table Tennis, Midnight Club, Smuggler's Run, Manhunt, or GTA, the common thread in those games is delivering an experience where you walk away saying, "Wow." You're not questioning whether it was money well spent. We've given you an experience, not $40 of entertainment for X number of hours.



It seems that the day of the character-driven game is over, and it's now all about experience-based games where you can go out and affect a world and have that world react to you. I think Rockstar is a big reason for why that shift has happened. What are the elements of that that are important or appealing for Rockstar?

AW: I'll frame it within Midnight Club. What you get out of a Midnight Club experience is, in theory, just racing. In theory, we could carve out the city in such a way that you think you have choices [but you don't]. Part of what I think makes Midnight Club special is that you could play the game to win, or at any moment you can say, "Hey, I wonder what's over there?" Does that mean you're going to win, or get a faster score or a better time? No. What that means is that you can do what you want.

That, I think, is the heart of any Rockstar game, even something as focused as Table Tennis. What's the point of a game that's defining your experience with, "Hit A, hit B?" We believe [that discovery-based gameplay] is a better experience. We could make prettier pictures if we wanted. We could make it prettier -- though not much, since we're cramming every pixel and poly we can out of the systems -- but it would take away from the experience that we think is important.

Do you find that open-world type stuff is easier on next-gen consoles? Or is it simply a matter of there being that much more space, so you have to fill it up with that much more stuff?

AW: The next-gen hardware is just that; it's next-gen hardware. A next-gen experience is making everything you put into that world more and more cohesive. Whether it's a lamppost falling in a better way or breaking into more pieces because that's the way it would react, or getting pedestrians to scatter correctly, or damage on a car -- these are just layers upon layers of making the world more cohesive and filled.

Every time they give us new hardware, we are going to break it. We will take it to the limits, break it solidly, then back off in the minimal amount that we have to, to make our game fit. On that basis alone, we're never going to be done enhancing the experience. But the next-gen stuff is like, "What new thing can we add to it beyond just adding more of the same?" That's the challenge.




Have you found costs rising much? I know you're using your own engines, so I imagine that saves a bit, but they probably had to be ported and beefed up a bit.

AW: We have a bunch of rocket scientists that we keep in a room where they make it all happen! The obvious answer is yes, costs go up, because expectations go up. It's not about making more of something just to fill space -- you can have a smaller physical space and spend ten times more time [on it].

For a room in a game we were working on for a previous system, we'd just have less stuff. Now what we do is we have every piece [of that room] articulated. It's not that the space got bigger; it got denser. It became more interactive, and it became more real. We're able to deliver the expectation of what the consumer wants to do.

We recently ran a postmortem for Elebits from Konami in Game Developer. The producer Shingo Mukaitoge said that in order to make the gameplay more engaging, rather than taking a framework and making a whole bunch more levels for it to artificially elongate the experience, [developers should] make the experience deeper and varied within a certain spectrum. Is that similar to the approach you take?

AW: Absolutely. Like I was saying with the room example, for the right game and the right situation, we should take stuff out of the room, if it doesn't make sense and it makes the experience better. It's not more, but it's about making what is there work more and more as what's expected. If fewer characters and fewer levels make the experience [better] and you walk away saying, "Wow, this felt amazing," that's the right way to go. That's what all developers need to look at, and stop looking at X number of hours [of gameplay].

How do you feel about the explosion of the sandbox genre and everyone trying to move toward that type of gameplay? It seems like Rockstar pioneered the best implementation of that.

AW: That question supposes that GTA is just a sandbox. It's more. I wouldn't be talking about GTA if I was just talking about a sandbox game.

How did the established style of Rockstar come about? Angel must have evolved a little bit once it came under the Rockstar label. How is that maintained?

AW: Sam, Dan, Seth, and the core group back in New York. There's a creative beacon there. That's not to say that we can't be creative on our own, because we are. We've got 170 of some of the most creative and most talented people in this world here, but I look at Sam and Dan as a force multiplier. Take what you've got, and it's going to make you X times better.

How does that come across? Do they come here often?

AW: When we have a big milestone, Sam or Dan or both come here with others, or we pack up and go to New York, and go and sit down and we don't have a meeting. We just sit down and play the game, and we talk about it. Picture sitting down on your couch at home with five or six of your best buddies, and cracking the wrapper on the game you've been dying to play.

It's like a little kid at Christmas. We show the stuff we want to show and Sam's like, "Give me the controller! Let's go play!" We get good stuff out of it, and we get some bad stuff out of it, but the goal is that if something is not where we want it, we'll take it back and bring it up a notch.


Looking at the future, what do you think about Xbox Live Arcade, or the PlayStation Network?

AW: You never want to sacrifice the core single-player experience, but it's hard for me to imagine not factoring in online in some fashion. If you've planned well to make the game you wanted to make in the first place, online is just going to make the game that much better, or at least more varied so that it prolongs the experience.

Above and beyond that, the smaller downloadable games that are possible to release online seems like a pretty good fit. I imagine that Rockstar has a somewhat iterative process of development, and features that get cut would probably be appropriate for that.

AW: It would be really fun and cool to have someone's baby show up there. It's a great thing to have there. One of my guilty pleasures is to show my ten-year-old and thirteen-year-old, "This is what video games were like 25 years ago!"

It's another outlet for creativity to have [games] on a smaller scale. I don't understand why a sprite-based thing running on a cell phone couldn't be next-gen. Live and the Sony experience is just another venue for those types of things to happen.

What do you think is next-gen?

AW: I absolutely hate the term, because it's a manufactured marketing term. To me, next-gen is any combination of thousands of things that developers pull out of their bag of tricks and mix and match things together to create their own special recipe. If it's done well, it's a masterpiece, and that experience is a next-gen experience.

It's like I'm baking a cake. I have flour, butter, eggs, and chocolate, but how I use those ingredients and how I combine them will determine whether I give you a next-gen cake, as opposed to something you'd get at Starbucks.

 


How do you plan for the end of the game world within a game? You know there's going to be those people who try to go off the beaten path and try to find what's out there and try to get out.

AW: I'll use Smuggler's Run as an example. That was a significant challenge for us. On one hand, we were hopefully delivering an experience where the vast majority of people are going to be happy to play how we want them to. And then there's fits of last resort, where "if coordinate equals X, reset them back into world," so you don't let them get out. If we've done our job well, you'll find very few of those places where people can get out.

In Smuggler's Run, we used mountains. You wouldn't get to the last mountain, since you'd get stuck on [another one] and see the real mountain just beyond. You'd spend your time thinking, "If I could just get past this, I could get to the outside world!" It's almost like a ring defense. You've got the part of the world where the game takes place, you've got a border, and a second border beyond that. I applaud the guys who figure out how to get there. Just let them know that we're hiring QA testers!

Are you guys hiring right now?

AW: Yes. We're always looking for top talent across the board. It's so I don't need to worry about, "Oh, I didn't plan for that particular guy in my budget." Yes, I do worry about it, but if we find the right talent that comes to us, we'll find a way to make that talent come in and be productive and happy within our environment.

It's the very nature of what we do. You always have to be looking, and you always have to be ready for that opportunity hire. You can't plan to go looking for an AI guy one week and not the next. The world's best AI guy might come to the door, and if we're not open, we're not going to get them.


What do you think is the importance of storytelling and writing in games? People were citing Rockstar as a good example of generally doing it right.

AW: Depending on the game you're making, it's either going to shift a balance so that the game hinges upon the character and the story to pull you through, or it's just going to be a really great enhancement. A great game with a not-so-great story can still be a great game, but a great story with no game is never going to be a game.

But the reality is that we don't deal in absolutes. It's one more of those ingredients that's going to make the experience feel more complete. For games that are more character or story-based, there's definitely more of a need to deliver the same level of quality [in story as in gameplay].

How do you think it is that Rockstar's managed to do a better job of [making games consistent on all levels] than other companies?

AW: Probably never being happy with our own games. We're constantly like, "How do we make it better?" It's also because we're making games that we want to make, and we believe that we're part of the audience that we're developing for.

When you're meeting your own expectations of what you want to play and are representative of your audience, it's so much easier to not fail. It's very hard to succeed, but it's easier to not fail when you're actually trying to make something for yourself.



How do you see Rockstar San Diego growing over the next few years?

AW: I don't think it's about numbers. I don't think that if we add 20,000 square feet to our space or 30 more people, we'll magically become better. I think the goal is to not get so big that we're spending so much time thinking about how to survive. I see us becoming more and more influential and able to push the limits of what we're doing further, but I don't necessarily think that means more people or a bigger size.

Is there anything else you'd like to get across about you guys and what you're doing here?

AW: I wish I knew the best way to be able to quantify what we are, who we are, and how we do things, so that people would want to be part of what we do, based upon what we really are. Like trying to define next-gen, trying to define what we are [is difficult].

We're this amazing blend of a thousand spices that all happen to work together extremely well, but it's impossible to describe the flavor without actually experiencing it. I love when we bring new guys in. Their dream is to come in here, and we don't disappoint. That's a really satisfying thing.

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