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The Replay Interviews: Gary Penn
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The Replay Interviews: Gary Penn

January 31, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Did games from the U.S. seem very different at the time?

GP: Yes, you did get quite a strong cultural sense. It kind of got homogenized and it's inevitable. I'm not decrying this, I don't think it's a bad thing. There is a homogenism that has occurred as things become more global and that I think in many respects is a very good thing.

One thing that is missing that is coming back now is that there was this real dead period where the individuality was missing. The stuff from America wasn't necessarily slick. It was usually bloatier, because they would rely more on disk drives out there.

The perception was that they were lazier about the way they handled this stuff. I don't know if this is true. Whereas we had cassette tapes and had to keep loading down and had to be much more efficient with the way we wrote things and did things.

But the Americans were ahead of the curve in that they had these teams. It felt like the Americans are coming and they're bringing this bulk, this fatness, this bloated wisdom and it was spoiling things. Again I'm not sure if this is really the case, it's just how it felt at the epicenter.

It didn't really matter -- we just wanted to play games all the time and you didn't really care who made it, where it came from, what it was about, what it looked like as long as it played. And to be honest, sometimes even if it didn't play that well, as long as it was different and interesting in some way that's all that matter. From a personal standpoint it was kind of enriching to have something different into your life, particularly when something that you grow up with that was culturally a very different parallel to what was going on.

So maybe my parents grew up with music becoming much more the dominant prevalent media with the rock 'n' roll period and to a lesser extent punk at the very tail end of that. My medium would have been video games, very much from the early '70s. So yes, you have that hunger; it's so fresh.

So how did you make the leap from journalist to game designer?

GP: I used to make games when I was younger. I used to code, mainly BASIC, but supplement it with machine code. I've always made stuff. I like making stuff and, as I say I like making stuff with people, that's great fun. So it didn't feel weird to me. To me the medium was the thing that was interesting. What you did with it -- giving, taking or commenting -- were really almost irrelevant.

If I hadn't have got into journalism, I suspect I would have started my own games company, so god knows where that would have gone. I was a freelance producer for Konami for about a year or so I think. The main two I did were Batman -- one of the Batman licenses, I forget which one it was. And the other one was with David Braben on Frontier. In '94/'95 I joined BMG Interactive as a producer.

After that you ended up at DMA Design working on Race 'n' Chase, the early version of what would become Grand Theft Auto. Am I right to think that originally you played the cop?

GP: As I recall, it was either/or. It was basically cops and robbers. It didn't really have much -- it had an odd structure at the time and it was very much a traditional mission-based thing. You chose your missions and it was quite linear in the way it worked.

But I'd been working on Frontier, which is very different and there were definitely other people on the team who had things like Syndicate, Mercenary and Elite very much in their minds as well. That combination definitely led to the more open plan structure there is now.

The game as it stands now is basically Elite in a city, but without quite the same sense of taking on the jobs. You take on the jobs in a slightly different way, but incredibly similar structurally. It's just a much more acceptable real world setting. The game was cops and robbers and then that evolved fairly quickly -- nobody wants to be the cop, it's more fun to be bad.

And then that evolved into Grand Theft Auto and it was a real mess for years, it never moved on, it never went anywhere. It never really felt like it was going anywhere. It was almost canned. The publisher, BMG Interactive, wanted to can it, as it didn't seem to be going anywhere.

What was so wrong with it?

GP: There are probably two key things it fell down on. Two critical things. One of them is stability, which is a really boring one but it crashed all the fucking time. So even if you did get something in the game, you couldn't really test it. The designers couldn't test stuff out or try things out, it just kept crashing as simple as that. That was a boring one, but that was pivotal -- so that was the first step to get that knocked out.

Now the other thing that was a problem was the handling -- the car handling was appalling. There was a point in it where you used to have a button for opening the doors and it was just rubbish. I can't remember if this is true because we used to joke about it that you even had to start the engine. It was awful, it was too sim-y.

And there was a whole living city thing that crept into it. That kind of inspires people to be more realistic and simulate more often. That steers you in a certain direction.

But there were people on the team constantly trying to get that fixed. So the core of playing was fundamentally broke. There were steps being taken to fix that, but it wasn't really gelling together. The police behaved really badly, the way they originally worked was just rubbish.

Then one day, I think it was a bug, the police suddenly became mental and aggressive. It was because they were trying to drive through you. Their route finding was screwed I think and that was an awesome moment because suddenly the real drama where, "Oh my God, the police are psycho -- they're trying to ram me off the road."

That was awesome, so that stayed in. It was tweaked a little bit, but that stayed in because that was great fun. Suddenly the game got more dramatic and it's no longer boring -- the police trying to pull you over. They're after you, they're trying to ram you off the fucking road. Everybody suddenly went, "Hey this is actually pretty cool. There's something in this, this is working." It was less about the mission stuff, which we always thought was another mess, and more about just general play -- just being able to piss around.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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