Rockstar president Sam Houser has conducted an interview for the first time in three years, speaking with The Sunday Times.
The last time the Rockstar co-founder gave an interview was around the time Rockstar San Diego was getting set to release Red Dead Redemption, and has only otherwise since commented through Rockstar press releases.
In that time, press releases aside, Sam has maintained a kind of radio silence on the promotional front for his company’s games, letting people like brother and creative boss Dan Houser (of note: The Guardian went live with an interview with him yesterday), VP of development Jeronimo Barrera, Max Payne art director Rob Nelson, GTA series art director Aaron Gabbut, Rockstar North studio head Leslie Benzies or Team Bondi boss Brendan McNamara speak on LA Noire, Max Payne 3 or Grand Theft Auto V on behalf of a company that’s otherwise notoriously shy in giving interviews, instead opting to let the games and the teams who make them talk for themselves.
“The team is everything, and that’s what I love about making games,” Houser said in the Times interview, conducted by Joe Utichi. “It’s the sum of all of these idiosyncratic unusual parts. when you get 400 people together, with all their different skills, knowledge and baggage, really interesting things can pop out the other side.”
The timing of this is, of course, no coincidence. Grand Theft Auto V is nine days away from release. The anticipation for the Rockstar North-developed game, which is set to be the most expensive game ever made at a budget of £170 million according to The Scotsman, is now at fever pitch as the game head towards next Tuesday’s launch. With GTA V returning to San Andreas and the city of Los Santos for the first time since GTA: San Andreas nine years ago, Houser discussed his obsession with American culture.
“I grew up with a real fascination with America. When you look at it as a fan, you go at it harder, consume as much as you can lay your hand on and see it slightly differently, It was a lifetime of loving and living for American pop culture.”
Houser also talked a bit about the worlds that his company makes, with author Utichi noting that Rockstar had achieved an ‘ever more distracting beauty’.
Houser said: “When I’m away from the game, I’ve got images flashing through my head of exactly what you’re saying there. When moments are more challenging, it’s these that inspire me and keep me pushing through the day.”
“Life ground to a halt”
Houser also discussed the Hot Coffee scandal for the first time in very forthcoming detail since it went down. The situation saw US Congress vote massively in favour of a FTC (Federal Trade Commission) inquiry that sought out to discover if Rockstar and parent company Take Two had lied to the ESRB after submitting the game. Houser admitted things came to a stand-still around the time it went down.
“Life ground to a halt. It’s vote-winning, and they don’t care if they ruin your life, because these people are thinking on a macro level. If there’s a bit of collateral damage, it doesn’t really matter, does it?”
Speaking of the story of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who held a press conference to make note of the fact that GTA had prostitutes in it, only to eventually be embroiled in his own prostitute scandal in 2008 and eventually resign as a result of it, Houser added: “The hypocrisy is so funny, you can’t make it up.”
Grand Theft Auto is well-known to lampoon world events and GTA V is no different, this time focused on a Southern California in the persuit of the almigty dollar, according to Rockstar, whilst the real world is facing seriously financial difficulty, something highlighted by a terrific Tom Bramwell piece on Eurogamer back in February.
“With this one, we’ve moved it forward, because there’s a lot of material going on in the world to riff on and have fun with,” said Houser. “I think that makes it feel very contemporary, which I’m really proud of. It’s a videogame that is commenting on all the things that are going on in the world: good, bad and indifferent. If that doesn’t show the emergence of the medium, I don’t know what does.”
Houser also discussed the amount of time it takes releasing new instalments in the series (the game was announced nearly two years ago, but the gap between the release of Grand Theft Auto IV and V, not including IV DLC expnaions The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, is five years) whilst other powerhouse games franchises like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed are releasing yearly. Houser admitted he hates using the word ‘franchise’ for GTA, but noted:
“It became an industry before it became an art form. It comes back to something at the root of the whole company, which is that if you’re going to make £40 out of someone’s wallet, that’s a lot of money for a piece of entertainment – and you’ve got to justify that.”
“You want to find Kurtz every time”
He also compared the process of developing a Grand Theft Auto game to the documentary Hearts of Darkness, which told the story of the difficulties Francis Coppola faced when he made Apocalypse Now.
“We’ve all seen Heart of Darkness. We’re definitely in that realm of excitement and misery at the same time. It’s not supposed to be easy. Each time, we push everything to its limit. I don’t think it’s conscious, but it’s sort of how it has to be. It has to hurt more. You want to find Kurtz every time.”
At his own admission, Houser told The Times he was “famously not good” at letting go of a project once it releases, but Rockstar will continue to update the game through Grand Theft Auto Online, the multiplayer component of Grand Theft Auto V that is also being treated as its own thing.
“What’s really exciting is that we’re more engaged on what we do with it going forward, so I’m able to calm myself. I can kind of go, ‘Well, it’s not farewell.'”
Games have now come a long way, from being just a niche thing that people do as a geeky hobby to becoming massively mainstream – of which, Grand Theft Auto has played a massive contribution in doing – and while Houser admitted it may still take sometime for it to truly be accepted, it is happening.
“Gamers are growing up, though we are still 10-20 years from all people in governance or authority understanding that it’s the same as any other art form and should not be singled out we’re evolving. These kinds of things don’t happen overnight.”
After Grand Theft Auto celebrated its fifteenth anniversary last October, it’s the turn of Rockstar Games this year. The company that was co-founded by the two Houser brothers, Jamie King, Terry Donovan and Gary Foreman celebrates fifteen years of creating some of the best games this industry has had. It may have been controversial at times, but Rockstar has been at the epicentre for some of the industry’s finest moments, including providing the first truly living, breathing world with Grand Theft Auto III. And for his part, Sam Houser doesn’t see “the train” stopping anytime soon.
“Even though we’ve done this for quite a long time, I still have to pinch myself and think, ‘How did I get on this train at the time time?’ Nothing can claim to have the same infinite expansiveness ahead of it that this medium does. The train is still running.”
You can read the full piece online here, but you’ll have to have a subcription for the website as it’s behind a paywall. It’s also in the paper’s Culture magazine if you pick up the paper. It’s a fantastic read and one I wholly suggest.
Grand Theft Auto V releases next Tuesday, September 17, for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Grand Theft Auto Online will officially launch on October 1, two weeks after GTA V’s launch.