IGN reveals the behind-the-scenes story of how Rockstar reimagined video games and won a huge new audience.
"Objects contain the possibility of all situations," Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote. He was not talking about Grand Theft Auto III, but the process by which Rockstar's open world game came to be is a model of the sentiment.
Perhaps more than any other form, video games are bound by the expectations of their audience. What is thought possible is based on what has been done in the past. Acolytes and apologists spend a lot of time talking about what video games might one day become or what they could theoretically be capable of. It's lucky to encounter a person or group not willing to postpone that future. With Grand Theft Auto III, Rockstar Games made history by refusing to accept the idea that there were places games couldn't yet go. Instead, they took them there. This is how they did it.
"We felt that not only was the content of video games becoming very staid, focused primarily on fantasy, children's characters or science fiction, but also the gameplay of those games was becoming very predictable," Dan Houser told Design Museum,"We felt that video games, interactive entertainment or whatever you wanted to call it could also appeal to a bigger, wider audience - older people who enjoyed playing games, but did not do so to the exclusion of everything else. People with an interest in film, music, books and a broader sense of popular culture."
Houser, along with his brother Sam, had worked for BMG Interactive, the video game arm of the music conglomerate. The pair approached video games as a form of culture and not a curiosity of computer programming. "We were more heavily influenced by companies working in other media which had a sense of style that we admired - record labels, obviously, and clothing companies, which were obsessed with details and with an integrity between design, product and marketing," Houser said.
The Housers found like-minded partners in DMA Design, a Scottish studio that had created the Lemmings series on PC and been a part of the "Dream Team" group of N64 developers with Body Harvest and Space Station Silicon Valley. With BMG Interactive producing and consulting, DMA developed the first Grand Theft Auto for PC, a top-down cars and crime game where players had to raise money for mob fifes by pulling off increasingly elaborate crimes while evading the police.
The series was a success, fostering a sequel, two expansion packs, and a port to the original PlayStation, with cumulative sales topping 6 million units. In 1998 , BMG sold its games division to TakeTwo and the Housers rebranded themselves Rockstar Games. With the new identity and the promise of new technological possibility of the PlayStation 2, they decided to gamble with the creative principles behind GTA.
"We felt that as the hardware improved, we could put more and more detail into the games and begin to make the game we dreamt of playing," Houser said. "A product which was three things at the same time--a game, a movie and a chance to explore and to be amused by a strange place."
The biggest change came in the move to 3D. With the overhead perspective all of the series' hallmarks (sarcastic humor, creative violence, freedom of movement) had been more theoretical. Bringing the camera down to street level would mean translating those distant overhead ideas into direct emotional experiences.
"I can recall Sam, more than a few times, asking 'Are we crazy? Is this going to work?', and he wasn't just asking rhetorically, he was really questioning it," Jeremy Pope told IGN. Pope, now an independent game producer and consultant, joined Rockstar in early 2000 and served as an associate producer on GTA III. "We were looking at a gray, blocky world. Nothing had been textured yet. It was easy to see there was massive potential, but no one was completely floored."
Most of the design work on the game was handled at DMA in Scotland, at that point a modest team of 23 artists, designers, programmers, and musicians. With the PlayStation 2's move to DVD storage--a huge leap in capacity over the original PlayStation's compact discs--the team decided they could create an full-sized city, and not just a series of walled-off neighborhoods.
"The underlying principle for us when creating the game's concept was for us to create a city and breathe as much life into it as possible," Leslie Benzies, DMA's (and now Rockstar North's) lead producer, told IGN in 2001. "Give it an underworld, complete with turf wars, fights and so on. Populate it with everyone from muggers to respectable businessmen. Fill it with a load of cars and then let the player loose in the underworld. They can do whatever they want in it."
Before anything else could be done, the game needed an engine that could constantly stream new data from the game disc without forcing players to sit through a loading screen. "There was a lot of back and forth and tuning done to get the level of detail right so that the streaming would actually work the way we wanted it to work," Pope said. "You needed to be able to get into a car and drive at full speed and not have everything break down. It took a lot of tuning and technical tricks to get that done."
The basic technical elements all began to come together in the summer of 2000, with a stable streaming model and a prototype for the carjacking mechanic set in place. The game now needed some creative life, a sense of story, mood, and a way of carving a mission structure into the freeform world. All throughout Dan Houser and James Worrall had been working on the game's massive script.
"GTA III was as polished a script as I've ever seen," Navid Khonsari said. Khonsari was originally hired by Rockstar in early 2001 to direct the motion capture for all the game's cinematics, and he subsequently stayed on with the company, helping to evolve their approach to woven cinema and gameplay. "When they brought me in and gave me the scripts I really got a sense of how ambitious everyone was on every level. It was something I wanted to be a part of, it was really powerful to have all these people so excited and creative about doing something. It was kind of addictive to be around."
The story's reference-points are not obscure. Houser and Worrall drew heavily on gangster plot traps and the deglamorized mafiosi of Scorsese films. Yet, the team went to great lengths to consider how this sensibility could be made interactive, hewing as closely as possible to mission objectives.
"I remember going to Scotland early on and Dan and James would sit with the designers and just kick out this story that the guys loved," Pope said. "They'd give them the skeleton in this kind of Miyamoto style. They'd fill a room with post-it notes and take all the story components and reposition them to shape the whole game. They'd know they wanted one particular scene at a certain point in the story and they'd ask what kind of gameplay could we add to that scene."
As progress was made in tying the game's plot points to missions builds were sent to New York for testing. "A lot of our work in New York had to do with getting the flow right," Pope continued. "It would be everything from one mission taking way too long and making you lose sight of the story, or another mission bringing you through an area where you get lost in the sandbox-tinker mode."
"One of the things we tried to do was use the missions to introduce new tidbits in the game. We'd lead you up onto this rooftop where you'd get the sniper rifle. Even though it had been there the whole time, you probably weren't going to find it on your own. Using little things like that helped to keep the missions interesting."
Another challenge came in trying to make a video game cutscene with polygon-bound puppets carry the same dramatic weight as a movie. "The attitude at Rockstar was more about treating the cinematic as something that could take a good game and make it great," Khonsari said. "The cutscenes became a reflection of the environment and how the people interacted in it. It wasn't just about spelling out how to get from level one to level two."
Yet, even with advances of processor speed, system memory, and storage capacity, Rockstar had to work within some significant technical restraints. "We were limited with how many people we could fit in a motion-capture volume, and how big the volume could be," Khonsari said. "We actually had to string a number of pieces together from different shots to put a scene together."
Khonsari's background was in traditional film production but he quickly realized he had to rely on the help of other team members to get the scenes right. "I was working really closely with Alex Horton who was doing the animation for the game, to figure out how to get the camera in the right place, have cutaways, or use props that could help tell the story," he said.
"I really like having the constraints of technology, the limitations of motion capture at the time, trying to match all the audio we recorded outside of the motion capture, or like when the camera starts going through the wall--all those little glitches that you have to deal with, that all made us stronger. It allowed us to put aside anything that seemed frivolous and focus on what we really wanted to do."
Khonsari also found himself trying to explain to actors just what it is they were supposed to be imagining. Today actors have become as familiar with video game voiceover work as they were with animated film, but in 2001, the concept was still a strange one. "A lot of the actors had in their head the idea that because video games are animated their performances needed to be animated," Khonsari said.
"We had to continually bring those people down and remind them we weren't going for anything over the top. We wanted natural, subtle performances, and getting that across was sort of a challenge. A lot of them were older and didn't really play games. One of them literally told me the last game he'd played was Pong and so we had to get him kind of updated on technology and what had happened since then."
As GTA III drew nearer to its October release date it was hard to know how big an impact the game would have. "We weren't entirely sure that people were going to get it and really take their time to see how much was there," Pope said. "Seeing the reaction at E3 to State of Emergency and the relative ignoring of GTA III because we were 10 feet away at another kiosk--I think that cast some doubts. But in the back of our minds we all believed we had made something pretty special."
The team received another shock six weeks before the release date when the 9/11 attacks cased Rockstar's downtown Manhattan offices to shut down for almost a week. Rockstar decided to make a few last minute changes out of respect for the event, removing a jumbo jet that would periodically cruise through Liberty City's skies, deleting a side character, and changing the color scheme on the police cars so as not to draw comparison to the NYPD.
When GTA III was finally released, the game was given mostly lavish reviews, including Doug Perry's assessment in IGN concluding it was "absolutely, insanely good." The game continued to sell week after week and month after month, prompting a wave of media criticism that would eventually reanimate Jack Thompson, the lawyer who once crusaded against the 2 Live Crew.
The game also gave many at Rockstar a glimpse at public recognition. "I remember being in bars and people would come up, like a frat boy or something, and freak out, 'Oh my god, I can't believe you worked on that game!'" Pope recalled. "Even the women in bars had heard of it. It was really satisfying, especially after toiling away a bit on lesser known titles it was nice to finally be a part of something big."
This fame and notoriety also helped to formulate Rockstar's aversion to assigning too much credit to any individual in the creative process. "It's not me and it's not Sam and it's not Leslie, even though we're all heavily involved," Houser told Variety in 2008. "It's us and another well over 100 other people."
Yet there is something irrefutably special about the core group of people who worked on the game, and who remain central to Rockstar and Rockstar North a decade later--the Housers, Leslie Benzies, the art director Aaron Garbut, Lazlow Jones who scripted all the radio stations and solidified the particular sense of sarcasm GTA has become known for. If no one can be singled out, the collective work of these people is distinctive and historic.
"There was such a high bar set in terms of expectations and creativity," Khonsari recalled. "That's stayed with me and it still carries on now, aiming for a great level of detail, perfection, and having a great respect for the player. There was a high level of understanding that the game you release is a reflection of you, so don't slack off. I've carried with me since I left Rockstar."
All great works of human imagination find their place into the world only when someone is ready to believe that they are possible. There were thousands of reasons why Grand Theft Auto III was impossible to finish, but a small number of people inside Rockstar had imagined it, dreamed it, so, for them, how could it not be possible? "It starts at the top," Pope said "People like Sam and Dan understand pop culture so well and have so much experience to draw from. When you have people like that driving things, it gives you a solid blueprint and instills passion in everyone's work, so it becomes kind of a self-fulfilling project."