On the heels of celebrating the 10th Anniversary of GTA III (which is now available on tablets) and five years after the launch of GTA IV; Dan Houser, vice president of creative at Rockstar Games, looks back on the game franchise that has sold a reported 135 million copies to date in this exclusive interview.
[a]list daily: What were your goals when transitioning GTA into a 3D open world game in 2002?
Dan Houser: What we really always wanted to stand for is high quality games that are appealing and are not based on focused testing. Focus testing in 1999/2000 would never have predicted that a 3D gangster game was going to blow up. Then having done that, no amount of focus testing would say do it in the '80s. So doing stuff that is true to yourself, as opposed to what the market thinks it wants, that's definitely something that we've always done and hopefully other people have followed suit.
[a]list daily: The Grand Theft Auto franchise has been lauded for its cinematic presentation. What do you think game developers can learn from Hollywood?
Dan Houser: In general, good movies make more money than bad movies and that's becoming more and more true of games, as well. There's a general movement towards quality. Where Hollywood has become unstuck is when they haven't focused on product quality. That's something that happens in games, when they're just trying to fill a hole and make a game because they think there's an audience for it. That's probably true of pop music and every other commercial medium, as well. Movies have intrinsic glamor to them that games lack because they don't have stars, but that's not something that games necessarily need. I think movies are brilliant at finding their own place in the world, but games are doing the same thing.
Games are 35 years old and about where cinema was at about 1920. The speed of evolution between 1895 and 1920 in the movie industry was really nearly as rapid as it's been in games between 1975 and today. But it's been insane how quickly games are evolving. Games will hopefully continue to evolve from here and continue to find their place in the world. But movies differentiate themselves from recorded music and books, and games should do the same from movies.
[a]list daily: What are your thoughts about the impact that Grand Theft Auto franchise has had on the convergence of music and video games?
Dan Houser: We were part of a continuum. We definitely did our own thing creatively. We always thought music should be more than just badly written theme music. You began to see that with the birth of Playstation 1 with Wipeout, which was the first game that really pushed top quality pop music in the UK. That was huge. We wanted music that was to our own tastes and to our own style. We did experiments with radio stations on the earlier GTAs. With GTA III you had this move to DVD and suddenly you were able to create a whole soundtrack to people. The impact has been to show people that music can be more than just pop hits.
You can really find a way of bringing a world to life and introducing what unfortunately now is audiences a bit younger than us in some ways. We're now in our late 30s and you can introduce 20-year-olds to some amazing music they've not heard of. When you look at some of the songs on our soundtrack on YouTube, you see comments from people saying they first heard it in our game. It's a way that younger guys are consuming music for the first time.
[a]list daily: Who's behind the music in the GTA games?
Dan Houser: That's headed by Sam (Houser), who's obsessed with music and lovingly works on every single track that goes in there. He and Craig Conner, who's been the GTA music guy since '97, will bicker about individual tracks on radio stations constantly. They're both obsessed with it. It's an enormous labor of love for us to do it. Music helps create this world that people are immersed in. With all of this stuff, hopefully, we're showing that games are powerful and potentially important and interesting.
[a]list daily: Rockstar released a boxed CD set for GTA: San Andreas. How have you seen video game music evolve since then?
Dan Houser: I miss CDs. The first time we did that was the end of 2002. That was right in the heart of Napster and we were really starting to see the death of sold music. It was never a great money winner for us because of the time and the movement that was happening. I think a few years earlier it would have been a different story. Soundtracks at that point were just not selling, and haven't since, because people just take the tracks they want from other places. We looked upon that not as a great piece of ancillary business, but a way of putting things that we loved into people's hands. It was a way of exposing them to music. In some ways, now it's even easier because you simply have to put up a play list on iTunes and they can get a hold of music that way. For those that want it, there's no great risk to us. I don't think we're going to figure out the mysteries of the music business. Thankfully, it's not our job to. But where games remain powerful to the music business is as a way of exposing the audience to a song or an artist or a composer.
[a]list daily: How have you seen the game industry evolve over the past decade?
Dan Houser: Since really PS2 and Xbox 1, anecdotally, I've just heard more and more stories of, "My dad is retired and he's started playing 360, can you get him a copy of GTA early?" There are more people playing Facebook games now. The audience has been gradually expanding. One of the things we wanted to try and do -- and we did to some extent – is reach out to some older audience with LA Noire and go, "Hey, this game is a little bit slower. It's definitely historically interesting. It's more like interactive TV shows. It's not twitch-based like some of those games. You might have a go with it and see what you think." With content like that, you're always trying to find a way of reaching different audiences. And even with the action games, we're trying to constantly make them easier to play, and put different difficulty levels in them so the barely-skilled 18 year old with very short nerve endings can play at the hardest level possible. And those of us who are more afraid or whatever to begin with can play on the easiest level. The games are hopefully getting good enough as pure adventures, and they're interesting enough to play, that it's not just about shooting anymore.