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GTMature: How Rockstar grew up with this generation

Wednesday, 14th December 2011 09:37 GMT By Johnny Cullen

Rockstar’s maturation this generation has dumped parachutes and defined the modern console market, pushing the company from Mail-bait and Jack Thompson’s favoured target to a creative giant focused on seriousness and emotion. Johnny Cullen explains.

Rockstar Games

Founded in 1998 by Dan and Sam Houser, Terry Donovan, Jamie King and Gary Foreman.

Flagship studio is Rockstar North in Edinburgh, but its HQ is New York-based.

Has released 12 titles this gen, the majority coming from North and San Diego studios.

Currently slating Max Payne 3 for March, with Grand Theft Auto V and Agent on TBA timelines.

Let’s be honest, here: for many of you, your first experience of Grand Theft Auto was an underage one. It was for me.

GTA III was my first experience at 11 years old. And it was amazing, roaming about this big city doing whatever the hell I wanted. Driving tanks, flying Dodos, killing people at will. That was what defined GTA, for better or worse. That’s why it became the poster child for violent games at the Daily Mail.

But it wasn’t just GTA that showed Rockstar’s edgy side. State of Emergency was incredibly violent, and Manhunt was a perfect example of gaming torture pornography. The title of Bully (or Canis Canem Edit, as it was known here in the UK) speaks for itself.

It was from some of that notoriety that Rockstar got itself into hot water: headlines screamed about underage children playing GTA, death by Manhunt, a video game that actually lets you become a Bully (in fact, it didn’t). It was GTA that defined Florida-based lawyer Jack Thompson’s crusade against violent videogames, beginning with the Ohio case of Dustin Lynch in 2003.

And to this day, the Daily Mail launches the odd crusade against Rockstar – although Call of Duty is its new favourite whipping boy.

Things will be different

While Rockstar appeared to relish in courting controversy in the last generation, though, we’ve seen take a new direction in this hardware cycle.

Everyone was expecting a bombshell debut for PS360, but instead got Table Tennis from Rockstar’s San Diego studio in May 2006, just before GTA IV was announced at E3.

It was a smart sports game, but way outside Rockstar’s norm. To give credit, it did well critically and released at a cheaper RRP than most titles at that time. It stands at 81% on Metacritic five years after its release. A Wii version released a year later. At that time, it was a Rockstar culture shock. We were expecting violence, tits and tanks – not ping-pong.

The crusade looks set to continue in 2012, beginning with Max Payne 3 in March. Ironically, it seems more macho-action-packed than anything the company has put out in the past five years. While it isn’t in the hands of Remedy with a story crafted by Sam Lake – although the Finnish developer is consulting on it – Rockstar Vancouver has apparently created something insiders are promising will be “massive”.

It would be a year-and-a-half before Rockstar would appear again on the new hardware. Bully came to Xbox 360 and Wii with a Scholarship Edition, but nothing particularly new was added over the PS2 version besides HD graphics and Achievements. It was still the same game it was two years beforehand.

But months after its release, in April 2008, we finally got to see what Rockstar was capable of: Grand Theft Auto IV released. Telling the story of an Eastern European immigrant with a dark past, the game represented a more serious tone than Vice City or San Andreas. There were no tanks, no planes, no parachuting, no making the protagonist fat.

Instead, there was the world of Liberty City. You had a social life, a sex life, and everything in-between. Niko showed a new side to Rockstar. He is one of the most-liked, best-rounded leads in the series. He had a charm never present in games past, something that Johnny and Luis couldn’t muster in the DLC.

If GTA in the PS2 era showed Rockstar as the edgy leader of game development, GTA IV showed it could do a mature story. No, there wasn’t any crazy, but the brand alone has sold-in 22 million units as of September this year. Rockstar managed the hardware transition by deepening its flagship IP alongside the new tech.

After the release of Midnight Club: Los Angeles, we got the two DLC episodes for GTA IV. The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony opened the door just a crack in bringing the fun and over-the-top stuff of past GTAs into GTA IV. But, good as they were, the stupidness was nowhere near comparable to, say, Vice City or San Andreas.

Far Away

GTA isn’t the only game this generation that demonstrates Rockstar’s bid to be taken seriously: Red Dead Redemption ably shows how much the Housers have matured in the past five years. It was announced in 2009, nearly a year after GTA IV released and the first of three Rockstar announcements that year with Agent and Max Payne 3, but it would be another year before we got to see how Rockstar San Diego would follow Red Dead Revolver.

No one expected the result. While Revolver was a plain old action title, Redemption, released in May 2010, was an open-world effort that went past anything previously achieved.

Far Away. Epic.

Red Dead Redemption was a run away success, shipping 12.5 million units as of September this year. The ambition, the scope of the world, the ambiance and depth of storytelling captured a boatload of Game of the Year awards, and with good reason. You’d be pretty hard-bitten to not admit crossing over to Mexico with Jose Gonzalez’s Far Away playing in the background is one of the finest moments in modern gaming.

While Redemption was “gown-up,” however, Rockstar slotted itself into a pattern with the optional extras, continuing down another route other than mature storytelling: Undead Nightmare released five months after the main game, allowing Marston to deal with zombies.

The case that makes you, the case that breaks you

LA Noire further strengthened Rockstar’s position as a “serious” games company. All was quiet on the Team Bondi project from its announcement in 2006. No one knew a thing other than it was set in 1940s Los Angeles. As we started to learn more of the crime thriller, it was obvious its incredible facial technology, known as MotionScan, would define the game.

LA Noire eventually released in May this year, a year after RDR’s launch. It was a critical darling, scoring 89% on Metacritic. It would also become the biggest-selling new IP in the UK ever at launch.

While the situation at Team Bondi itself turned sour quickly after LA Noire released, the game concreted Rockstar’s switch from a “murder simulation” company to one focusing on maturity, bleeding edge technology and plot, even if LA Noire was made externally.

The transformation is complete. Creative bosses Dan Houser and Leslie Benzies, as well as president Sam Houser, have formed a unique take on modern triple-A, a serious interpretation of contemporary mass market success for the current generation.

Rockstar’s golden ticket for 2012 – GTA V.

The crusade looks set to continue in 2012, beginning with Max Payne 3 in March. Ironically, it seems more macho-action-packed than anything the company has put out in the past five years. While it isn’t in the hands of Remedy with a story crafted by Sam Lake – although the Finnish developer is consulting on it – Rockstar Vancouver has apparently created something insiders are promising will be “massive”.

And then there’s Grand Theft Auto V. It’s obvious Rockstar North is continuing down the road of character-driven storytelling, even after one trailer, with themes of recession and immigration being forefront to what we’ve seen so far.

And we’re missing one more title. We’ve seen a logo, but nothing more: we still have Agent. We know it’s in the 1970s and we know it’s set in the Cold War. It’s also still (apparently) a PS3 exclusive. That’s it.

Will it be the best Cold War-themed game ever? Probably. It’s time we saw a full, proper CW-based game take the mantle from MGS3. Will it define a genre, expand video gaming as a whole and reach for a storytelling level most other triple-A publishers can only ever aspire?

Knowing Rockstar, it can do it. It’s a mature company after all.

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23 Comments

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  1. Vahramas

    “You’d be pretty hard-bitten to not admit crossing over to Mexico with Jose Gonzalez’s Far Away playing in the background is one of the finest moments in modern gaming.”
    THANK YOU! Great article.

    #1 3 years ago
  2. viralshag

    Imo, RDR is the only Rockstar game I can honestly give a lot of praise to this gen.

    LA Noire was good, but calling it a “game” is bit of a stretch. Good story though.

    GTAIV did nothing for me. I found it boring and a lot of the characters dull and irritating. It looked ok I suppose, if you like dreary environments.

    #2 3 years ago
  3. polygem

    @2:agreed…
    though even rdr was more in the 8/10 section in my book. i enjoyed it but i forgot about it as soon as i finished it. LANoire was quite good but extremely repetitive 7/10 and GTA IV…i just can´t stand these pseudocool gta gangsta charakters. i find them dull too. what is supposed to be funny just isn´t. at least not for me…they try so hard to do crazy stuff. like the gay tony dlc. typical american humour. seen that a million times. not so funny anymore. when you are 15-25 maybe.gtaV…not hyped yet. not at all. but thats more like a relief since there are so (too)many other games i am interested in.

    #3 3 years ago
  4. triggerhappy

    ^ ive got a friend who says the same about GTAIV… I loved it though, more serious & mature was definitely the way I wanted to see the series progress…. well, even although some of it wasn’t that mature or serious but y’know what I mean :D

    #4 3 years ago
  5. Patrick Garratt

    I just couldn’t play GTA IV. I could see how epic it was, but the whole concept of living Niko’s life ended it for me very quickly. I reckon I played about eight hours. I might go back and look again, in fact. Maybe I’ll get it now.

    GTA IV has to be one of the most divisive games this gen, I reckon. Proper Marmite. I know people who had the most amazing game experience ever, and people, like myself, that got bored with it nearly instantly. You can’t fault the vision, though, whatever you think of it.

    #5 3 years ago
  6. triggerhappy

    ^ I sank 72 hours in to it that summer. It just absorbed me.

    #6 3 years ago
  7. viralshag

    @Pat, I was exactly the same. Some of the mechanics included just put me off quickly. I don’t think I spent more than 10 hours in the game.

    Think Rockstar learnt from GTAIV, although it was a step in the direction of more serious games, it still retained some stupid and flat out bad comedy. In RDR I felt like they hit the nail on the head and had an overall more serious story with funny moments, imo they got the balance just right.

    @3, I agree I think RDR was about an 8 for me too. I loved the setting and the story, it looked great and I think Marston was a much more likeable character than Niko. But I was someone that did just feel like it was GTA on horseback. I burnt out quickly on that too.

    No doubt I will be interested in GTAV but it’s going to have to have something that really appeals to me to get it first day.

    #7 3 years ago
  8. Johnny Cullen

    i’m actually on the boat that thinks GTA IV was brilliant. In fact, it’s one of my top five games this gen.

    #8 3 years ago
  9. G1GAHURTZ

    What happened to Jack Thompson??

    The guy was obsessed, and an obsession like that doesn’t just fade away.

    I know he got his right to practice law revoked or something, but I wonder what he’s doing with himself now…

    #9 3 years ago
  10. YoungZer0

    @9: Looking for a real job probably.

    #10 3 years ago
  11. strikkebil

    interresting.
    when people say “running around killing people in gtaIV just wasnt fun”, i dont think its rockstars fault. i think its the medium that have matured. its not the game, its u.
    sure when gta first came out it was amazing to drive over pedestrians and causing havok, but now games can do so much more; stories can actually make u feel something. when action movies started to look cool in the 80s and 90s, people loved rambo. but how many people would pay for a movie like that today? not as many as in the golden days. why? because people want deeper stories, characters and issues they can relate to and maybe learn from. same thing is happening to videogames. this is a good thing IMO. i think good stories + good gameplay + photorealistic visuals will blow this industry into proper mainstream. that said, i still hope rockstar can take their more mature approuch and still make something thats silly and lighthearted. and i think thats exactly what were gonna see in gta5.

    #11 3 years ago
  12. TD_Monstrous69

    Mr. Cullen, you’ve just stated some of the reasons on why it is that Rockstar Games is maybe my favorite game companies from top to bottom. Great article, and I agree with your points. Though I’d really like to see on where the hell Agent is at in development. Because with Rockstar’s storytelling prowess, and great game physics, they could truly make a great Cold War game. Plus, it’s been 2 years since its announcement, and so far, nothing but a logo for the game (the same logo used for its announcement back at E3 2009). Though seeing as how Rockstar North’s also working on GTA V, I don’t think Agent will be coming anytime soon (though I hope something’s unveiled about it come 2012).

    #12 3 years ago
  13. DSB

    I don’t know what’s meant by growing up, but I feel like Rockstar have shrunk immensely. If growing up means maturing, then they’ve gone straight past the fun yet reflective 30′s and straight into the retirement home.

    They used to play on those simple stories that would grab you and keep you going, complemented by equally simple, but still brilliant and imaginative gameplay.

    Now suddenly they fancy themselves grand storytellers, but they’re not even close. You’re never going to achieve anything by attempting to force “smartness” into a game for the sake of it.

    If I had to put a single word on Rockstars new style, it would be “forced”. It’s so shallow, and trying so hard not to be, that I get distracted by it.

    It’s not ballsy and it’s not clever. It’s the opposite. The ballsy thing would be to stay in a place where you feel comfortable creatively, and ultimately I think it would be far more enjoyable too.

    @5 I’m not sure what that vision was, and I didn’t see the slightest epic element to the game.

    They obviously weren’t aiming for the kind of storytelling that signifies a good gangster tale (eastern european or otherwise) – There was no “Goodfellas”, “Sopranos”, “Eastern Promises” or anything of the sort in there. If they were trying to mimick anything, it would be a reality show.

    Of the kind where you follow around a person that leads a completely boring, morally dubious life.

    It was incredibly well engineered, and that’s what got me through it, but ultimately it felt completely empty.

    #13 3 years ago
  14. DaMan

    #11 Many people play games to have fun or get competitive, your comparisons are off. Games are meant to be played, going the way of the movies and subsequently giving less control over the process or making it more restrictive is an oxymoron. I think what’s silly is believing GTA4 was in any way realistic, I could be wrong though.

    Oh, and I really don’t want to relate to anyone, especially rasterized meshes.

    #14 3 years ago
  15. strikkebil

    @14 just because games are meant to be played doesnt mean they cant have good stories. look at portal 2. fantastic story, well written, great characters, FUN to play, yet theres not many cutscenes in that game. gtaIV and red dead also gives u loads of freedom eventhough theyre heavy on story. so i dont follow…

    my point is, once games could do more than put u in a world with a gun, that old scenario stopped being fun because theres no actual challenge or depth to it. what fun is there in shooting random people on the street who cant even defend themselves, whats the motivation and wheres the challenge?

    also i dont think games have to be realistic to be interristing or have good stories. one of my favorite movies is “eternal sunshine from a spotless mind”. that movie is not realistic, but it made me think, would i ever erase memories if i could? is that a good thing or a bad thing and so forth.

    #15 3 years ago
  16. DaMan

    #15 I was talking about this particular change, thought they’ve turned what was one of the best games ever created into a boring pseudo sim, same thing with RdR.. instead of what I expected to be a chaotic open world wild west sandbox they made a boring restrictive grindfest. I’m not really opposed to storylines as long as they don’t come at the cost of gameplay.

    I ‘ve spent a lot of time on Just Cause 2, because it never gets old shooting people in the street.. these games tend to be as boring as the player acts. I wasn’t really referring to Gta as a challenging game but rather a fun one, regardless though the continously increasing strength of opposition (police) made it indeed progressively better when you’re further into the game.

    #16 3 years ago
  17. DSB

    @15 I don’t get how you can project those standards onto GTA IV though. I completely agree that Portal 2 was leaps and bounds ahead of everything else in terms of the writing, but GTA IV was mostly the opposite.

    Portal 2 had a set of very strong characters that all had an extremely precise role to play in the story itself. That made it effortlessly enjoyable.

    GTA IV was a collection of characters that weren’t interesting, that seemingly didn’t have a reason to exist, and none of which had a single line that I’ve cared to remember.

    If I had to compare Niko Bellic in GTA IV to something I’d probably go with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. He comes out of a bad experience, trying and failing to find a leg to stand on. The difference between those stories is that Taxi Driver has fundamentals.

    You have to build a story from the bottom up. Nothing good comes from building a story from the top down. You can’t lean on a shallow concept like “eastern european immigrant opera” – You need a character, you need a world, you need a purpose for it. A foundation to build on.

    With Travis Bickle you end up with a deep and interesting character. With Niko Bellic you end up with little more than a label, a person who has nothing to say, nothing he wants to achieve, and apparently spends an entire game’s worth of time just getting pushed around by everybody else. For no reason.

    He’s a zombie, not a person. I feel absolutely nothing for him, because he doesn’t show a single genuine emotion throughout the game. It’s just a bad writers shallow concept, with nothing in it.

    #17 3 years ago
  18. strikkebil

    @16 i respectfully disagree. i think rockstars new direction have made their games better and also more fun. maybe its just my personal opinion that mindless open world games isnt fun anymore. maybe gtaV will return to the series roots, or maybe saints row will in the future only serve a small niche marked like rambo4 did three years ago. i believe the last and i hope rockstar will continue the path theyre on right now.

    #18 3 years ago
  19. strikkebil

    @17 it was not really a comparrison in that sense, it was a reply to post 15 about how u CAN make interresting and deeper stories without giving players less freedom. and that i still thought gta and red dead gave u freedom eventhough theyre cutscene heavy. ultimatly i just want stories and writing to be better in games cos it makes playing more meaningfull.

    as for the rest, thats subjective. i enjoyed gtaIVs characters and universe.

    #19 3 years ago
  20. DSB

    Of course how you enterpret it is subjective, but it’s not hard to establish the difference between GTA IV, and other stories. Simply treat missions as scenes or phases of another storydriven medium and compare it to others.

    It’s not something you can put into a spreadsheet by any means, but there’s a big difference between a well spun story and a poorly spun one, all the way from pacing to the words themselves and how they’re delivered. Even if people will never agree on how to feel about them.

    In terms of games coming of age and earning the same sort of esteem, I think we stood a better chance with far more focused efforts like Bully or Vice City. They actually had characters with a purpose, like Portal 2, or The Witcher 2 which is another example of writing that can really rival any other genre of media in my opinion.

    It’s great that people strive, but ultimately we won’t get anywhere by lying to ourselves and forcing it. Trying to make a story smart won’t make it so, you have to care for the process more than the result, and worry about what boxes you’ve checked later.

    It’s essentially the same when Naughty Dog aren’t willing to call a zombie game a zombie game. What’s the point?

    #20 3 years ago
  21. Ireland Michael

    @20 Bully I can agree on. That is one of their most surprisingly well focused stories to date. But Vice City? No. Vercetti was little more than a walking cipher of a character. Even though he could speak (unlike Claude) he barely had any real motivation or character of his own to draw upon for his actions.

    My biggest issue with GTA IV was the simple fact that Niko could amass nearly $250,000 in the process of the story, and yet he still spent all his time complaining about their poor, horrible circumstances.

    I do think they did a lot of things right right Red Dead Redemption. If anything, I think it was one of the *least* forced western stories I’ve ever seen. It had an understanding of the real history of those times, and it didn’t fall back on stiff like ignorant misinterpretation of native American cultures to tell its story. I enjoyed John Marston’s story. If nothing else, it was nice to see a gentleman in an industry chock full of gruff, foulmouthed assholes.

    What’s your opinion of RDR, DSB? Very curious.

    #21 3 years ago
  22. strikkebil

    @20 they have to start somewhere.

    #22 3 years ago
  23. DSB

    @21 Maybe I’m just remembering it too fondly. Ultimately Vice City was a joke on all the “gangster” movies of the 1980′s, which is perhaps what I’m thinking of. Scarface for example was a movie that was all fundamentals. It was a really angry, really ambitious Cuban, who wanted to take over the world, and to me that’s the kind of focus that defines good storytelling. And he had some fantastic lines.

    I didn’t play RDR enough to be able to judge it properly. I borrowed it from a friend and never got very far. I remember feeling like the story was eclipsed by the features though. All the riding and the minigames. That’s pretty much what I got from a couple of hours, the story never got started. I enjoyed the gunplay a lot more than in GTA IV though.

    I’ve been meaning to replace my aging half-crippled Xbox for a while, and I’ll definitely grab RDR when I do.

    @22 Definitely. I like the ambition, just not the direction it takes.

    #23 3 years ago