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Rare Q&A With Rockstar Games Head Sam Houser 89

Posted by Soulskill
from the penny-for-your-thoughts dept.
Paul Williams writes "Develop Magazine has posted a fascinating multi-part interview with Sam Houser, president and founder of Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games. Houser is rarely quoted outside of press releases, and almost never does interviews. So, reading his frank views on things like Rockstar's critics, the creative secrets that make games like GTA IV a success, and how the developer rejects things like focus testing — a common practice at the likes of EA but an 'anathema to creativity' according to Houser — is very interesting. Houser has even written a mini biography of his career with some fun references to the Hot Coffee scandal: 'July 2005: Residue code found in San Andreas. Hackers modify it and it turns into scandal known as "Hot Coffee." Get dragged into legal nightmare, ending in trip to Washington in February 2006 to sit in front of federal trade commission staff — for nine hours.'"
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Rare Q&A With Rockstar Games Head Sam Houser

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  • Drop the script (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 4D6963 (933028) on Friday August 15, 2008 @10:12PM (#24623627)

    Of all things, storytelling is one of the areas that in some ways has the furthest to go.

    Indeed. Please drop the whole "scripted storyline" concept and make a super fancy algorithm so that the story derives from whatever the player does and whatever happens as a consequence. It would be a tremendous paradigm shift, instead of have a linear story, or a branching storyline in which choices and such make the story branch out, every single of your action would influence more or less the future, and instead of cutting the story into missions in which you just do scripted missions until you succeed at each and every of them, let the player evolve with no safety net.

    Therefore not only would you have to make complex decisions, but the way you execute these decisions would be crucial, and you wouldn't know if it was a good idea before you see it works and as long as you're there to see that there were no negative consequences.

    Sure, that's a hell of a lot of R&D that would be involved, but that would kick a whole new level of arse!

    • Yeah. (Score:5, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 15, 2008 @10:37PM (#24623743)

      And when I dream, I want a pony.

      • Tell you what - you hang on to the pony, while the OP and I play Far Cry 2 [gamasutra.com] and Spore [eurogamer.net].

        Moving beyond the linear storyline in games might be an ambitious goal, but some game developers are giving it a go. The links above, especially the first, show just how they're trying to achieve it. They might not pull it off quite yet, but at least they're giving it a try.

        • Nonlinear storylines are an extremely old hat.
          The problem you get is always, that the more freedom you give the user, the less it remains to be a story.

          You see, a story has several rules, like a normal state, then a depression, then the buildup, and the climax. Between those steps, the change is amplitude-modulated with smaller factors in a fractal-like way. At least in theory. :)
          Most people do not realize, that if you remove this quite fixed rules, the story stops being interesting.

          Then, there is the conce

          • I take it you didn't read the links I posted (hey, this is Slashdot after all!) Far Cry 2 is a work in progress which has very little in common with the original Far Cry (which was, you're right, a pretty standard shooter with a minimal and very linear storyline).

            What they're trying to do with the new game is address all of the issues you bring up about creating a good storyline. Effectively, they're attempting to create the huge "good story" algorithm, as you put it. That doesn't mean they'll necessarily s

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Play some fallout 1&2 (Hopefully 3 will be as good). You'll get about as close to what you want as a modern computer game can get.

    • Re:Drop the script (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fm6 (162816) on Friday August 15, 2008 @10:58PM (#24623835) Homepage Journal

      I agree that would certainly make for a better game. But do you have the slightest idea what you're asking? The software would have to creatively synthesis an outcome based on everything the player did. That's way beyond any "super fancy algorithm" available right now. You're basically talking about "strong" AI: software with the same level of creativity as a human.

      That's an ironic suggestion, since the AI in GTA is remarkably poor. (At least in the version I played, GTA III for the PC; I suppose it might have improved in later games.) One example is the inability of NPCs to go from point A to point B if it involves any serious pathfinding. I was once in a parking lot, surrounded by cops, and none of them could get to me, because there was a low wall around the lot, and their travelling skills did not extend to "find the entrance" or "get out of your squad car and step over the wall."

      • by LowlyWorm (966676)
        I like to climb on top of the cop cars and shoot down helicopters and other police vehicles for as long as I can. The car I am on always drives around looking for me. BTW I did read 1984.
        • by fm6 (162816)

          BTW I did read 1984.

          So feel free to talk about it.

          • by LowlyWorm (966676)

            OK. The book is far better than the movie. The movie was impossible to follow without having first read the book. I think George Orwell chose the name of the main character, Winston Smith to reflect both the extraordinary (Winston Churchill) and the ordinary every-man (Smith). Both aspects are reflected in the character in that he is inwardly opposed authoritarian regime of Big Brother and he reflects many of the same vices of the ordinary populace such as smoking and drinking. Those "faults" are not consid

            • Damn. You already spoiled it. I guess the flyers weren't enought... you had to post them on slashdot.

              And the book didn't even came out yet!

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by papabob (1211684)

        This can be implemented in many ways, none of them requiring 'strong AI'. For example you make the game with a normal storyline (ascending to mafia boss and the like), and you only have to give the NPCs scripts more execution paths depending what missions you have completed before and whom did you talked to. You robbed the bank killing more than X civilians? Ok, you're a hard guy and the next NPC will give you the mission of collect the 'protection fees' from the bartenders. If instead you managed to win th

        • by 4D6963 (933028)

          You've got a point but I think you're suggesting an overly simplifying solution. What you suggest would be very rigid, everything would still be scripted, just scripted in a way that would allow for more freedom. What I suggest goes further than that, and brings the whole storyline down to characters with a personality and an initial situation, and the algorithm I was initially talking about.

          Basically you'd simulate each character's psychology. I.e., give them a few character traits, and based on their situ

          • by fm6 (162816)

            That's still scripting. You're just using the script to drive a character-driven story instead of a plot-driven story.

            I've seen several attempts to emulate person-to-person interactions in games, and I've always thought the results were pretty lame. You can always see the gimmicks behind the facade: the decision tree, the storing keywords to throw back at you later. I suppose it could be done right if the design team had a lot of creativity, imagination, and psychological insight — not to menti

            • by 4D6963 (933028)
              How's that still scripting? And are we talking about strategical AI decisions or are we talking about dialogue?
        • Tales of Symphonia had something like that. Depending on who's your soulmate entire scenes would change to match that. And then some scenes the least liked characters (as in those who like you the least, not the other way around) would stick behind. At one point your soulmate even gets kidnapped, leading you to the climax of the game as you watch everyone else fight their fears.

          That's nothing though. That's very light AI. At one point (spoilers!) you get the choice to refuse all three of your "best friends"

        • by HTH NE1 (675604)

          Sure, it increases the work of the writers and the QA guys

          Yeah, exponentially! Every decision with two story-affecting choices doubles the number of endings. For a story with only 8 decisions, you'll have 256 story paths to write and test. It gets more complex when a decision changes the meaning of other decisions (earlier and later) or adds or removes decision points.

        • Wow, this sounds like a game i played ages ago called Deus Ex... I loved that game... Then Microsoft had to buy it out and put out Deus Ex 2: Invisible War for the xbox that was just a huge pile of shit... Well, in comparison to it's succesor...
      • by 4D6963 (933028)

        I think you're stretching my suggestion quite a ridiculous bit. I don't think it would take anything even remotely like strong AI. I think it could work by giving a logic to each character, a logic which they would follow based on everything. Surely that would take some CPU power to simulate everybody's logic, but I think the algorithmic challenge resides more in the optimisation of that than in the feasibility.

        A 7 year old game making use of very basic AI algorithms doesn't prove any point really.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by MrMista_B (891430)

      God, I hope not. Who wants to play real life? What you're suggesting is the opposite of improving 'story' - it's the removal of story alltogether, leaving only player decisions and random 'whatever' prodecural generation.

      Basically, what you're wanting is something like GTA, but without any story or direction whatsoever, just things like the cops coming after you if you get too crazy and other such things.

      And, sure, that's fun, I don't really play GTA for the story anyway. But don't confuse 'sandbox game' wi

      • by 4D6963 (933028)

        Well correct, and my idea would make the whole thing cease from being GTA anyways. But I don't think it would remove the story, or make it be all about cops coming after you, it would make the story be generated. Maybe in quality it wouldn't be as good as the professionally written GTA storyline, but in a way that would be *your* storyline, based on everything you did throughout the game. And it's much more about interaction between you and influential characters than 'improved cop AI'.

        Who wants to play rea

    • Re:Drop the script (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Xtravar (725372) on Friday August 15, 2008 @11:05PM (#24623859) Homepage Journal

      Please acquire "The Sims 2" and leave the rest of us alone who don't want to be annoyed as fuck when we find out we have to replay 9/10th of the game for not saving Billy from the Mafia in Act 1.

      The only reason I play games anymore is for the storyline. Eventually, every game starts looking like the Real World and all quests look like Work. The only difference is that games HAVE A GOAL YOU CAN ATTAIN and work just drags on forever, sucking the life out of you until you die.

      • I found movies and anime much more up to the task of getting my story fix.
        I, like you, played mainly for the story. Got bored with trying to attain the stupid goals. Just wanted more story.

        Besides, the stories in anime and movies (those rated well by your favorite critics) put game stories to shame when considering the gameplay involved.

      • by 4D6963 (933028)

        You mean you actually played GTA for the story rather than anything else? Let me guess, you buy Playboy to read its articles?

        By the way, I don't get the point of your first sentence at all. What I'm talking about is an (essentially) scriptless storyline, in such a game, if you failed at saving Billy, you'd either assume the consequences, or you'd go back to your last save state. I don't see how that would be inferior to being stuck in GTA cause you just can't shoot that speedboat in time and being forced to

      • Work is creation and is one of the fundamental rights of humans. If you feel that it is sucking the life out of you then you need to think about getting another work, and while at it, reconsider a few things about life. Yes, I know it will not be easy, but it is not supposed to be easy. And from the way you phrased, it is going to be easier than what you are going through now.

        Unless of course you are winning, so then all bets are off.

    • by wisty (1335733)
      That would be nice, but very difficult to do. Please just give us decent scripted stories. Most of the current ones suck. Remember the days of Monkey Island, Zelda, Mist, Dawn of War, Starcraft and Minesweeper, and Quake?
    • by Talgrath (1061686)

      You're obviously not a coder of any sort; that sort of "algorithm" is approaching something much closer to a human mind, or perhaps even a God-like one (remember, even humans get stumped). The best you can do (at least right now) is to script in a random quest generator based on templates or simply create a hell of a lot of content (GTA 4 does a bit of both). Neither one tends to result in the same sort of quality storyline as a "scripted" story though.

      • Re: (Score:1, Flamebait)

        by 4D6963 (933028)
        You're an idiot. Check my first link in my signature, of course I'm a coder. And then you're an idiot for assuming it has to be anything like strong AI. You can just have a basic macroscopic (by that I mean that focuses on large easily observable traits) psychological simulation for each character and let it run based on their situation, what they want to do based on their personality, and the events that subsequently happen. Just because you can't think of a proper algorithm to do that doesn't mean it's im
    • Re:Drop the script (Score:5, Informative)

      by Fweeky (41046) on Friday August 15, 2008 @11:54PM (#24624071) Homepage

      Please drop the whole "scripted storyline" concept and make a super fancy algorithm so that the story derives from whatever the player does and whatever happens as a consequence

      Here you go [wikipedia.org]. Some assembly required [fromearth.net]. Dwarf Fortress is in many respects built to allow stories to emerge from gameplay [gamasutra.com]; indeed, it's a significant [bay12games.com] part of what people find attractive about it.

      It's kind of a mixture of Dungeon Keeper 2, Sim City, Nethack, The Sims, The Incredible Machine, and experimental brain surgery.

    • by Ayavaron (971110)

      There was a PS2 game called Way of the Samurai that was sort of like what you describe. At most, the game was only about two hours long but you could play the scenario any way you wanted and the story would branch at virtually every player action. It wasn't done procedurally but it was a dang cool idea.

      I never played it myself though. I don't know how well it achieved the things I read that it was supposed to be.

    • I guess it would be sort of cool, but it would never lead to any truly meaningful story telling. The industry is still, after all these years, cautiously poking at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to normal story telling, so I don't think they'd do a very good job with dynamically generated stories. Video games could do a lot that film and literature can't, but is anyone exploring those possibilities? Probably not. So let's not start running towards the next best thing just yet.

      • by 4D6963 (933028)

        I agree. The story wouldn't necessarily have more point than real people's story, well it would have about as much a point as you would made it have, i.e. you'd need ambitions (in game) to achieve anything meaningful, and even them it probably wouldn't be an award winning storyline, but who knows. I think it's more a matter of gameplay than story telling. If you play games to be told a story, I can't argue with that, even if that's strange to look for stories in games in my opinion. However from a strict ga

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by mirshafie (1029876)

      I think a completely dropped script would make for very boring gameplay. That wouldn't be storytelling at all.

      Let me try to set up an analogy. I often have lucid dreams, I've had them since I were a little kid. But while there is in some ways a craze about lucid dreaming, with lots of people trying hard to achieve it nowadays, I find them boring.

      Because non-lucid dreams tend to have a much richer storytelling, as if someone else dictates what will happen next and therefore I'm always taken by surprise.

      The s

      • by 4D6963 (933028)

        Well, I don't think it's like lucid dreaming at all. If I'm not mistaken, in lucid dreaming you do pretty much anything you like, even if what happens isn't always what you intended in the first place (I used to read some lucid dreaming 'transcripts' out of interest). In what I suggest, you wouldn't be in control of everything, far from that, actually it would pretty much be like it is now, the difference being that you would have an influence on the storyline, not so much control.

        And no, the other people h

    • Re: (Score:1, Troll)

      by morari (1080535)

      I certainly wouldn't expect anything of the like from Rockstar Games. They do nothing but release buggy, unpolished titles. It's kind of sad really, that all of those "tardcore gamers" buy the stuff up just because it has sexual references and (im)mature language.

    • by DeadDecoy (877617)
      That seems nice in concept but is probably very hard to deliver without making the underlying formula apparent. I think, as of how the technology stands now, I'd prefer a well constructed storying line with underlying theme crafted in to a storying that was pretty much jigsawed together. The reason I prefer the former is because I am starting to recognize the tried and true scenarios: 1. [fetch item/kill npc] at location X and return evidence to person Y who [rewards/betrays] you for your efforts; If [rewar
      • by 4D6963 (933028)
        I know it's going to sound lazy of me but I detailed in some other posts in this discussion how my idea would be about basic psychological simulation more than anything else, so yeah there's no way you could really figure out the algorithm. Not that it's not a mission generating algorithm idea but more like a storyline replacement.
    • by fj3k (993224)
      I really don't mind scripting the order of the missions; it would be nice to have a more dynamic order but as long as doing the missions themselves is fun I don't care. I'm either playing the game because I enjoy the gameplay (like GTA), or I'm playing to see what their story is (like in Drake's Fortune). I do have a problem with missions that force you to do them in one and only one way.

      There are at least two forced motorbike missions in GTA IV; and I'll readily admit I suck at riding motorbikes in that g

    • by bemo56 (1251034)
      Chris Crawford is that you [storytron.com]?
  • Well in GTA:4, although there is lots of eye candy, where are all the cool side missions? No cash for wheelies?stoppies? Heck, where is the TANK, i spent hours upon hours just seeing how long i could go before i blew up or the tank flipped, cant do that now :( Can't even take the Dodo for a joy-ride. I dont think i will be purchasing any further games in the series, if you think that you can sell me a game for $60 then turn around and sell me all the good content for more $$$.
    • by tomblag (1060876)

      Well in GTA:4, although there is lots of eye candy, where are all the cool side missions? No cash for wheelies?stoppies? Heck, where is the TANK, i spent hours upon hours just seeing how long i could go before i blew up or the tank flipped, cant do that now :( Can't even take the Dodo for a joy-ride. I dont think i will be purchasing any further games in the series, if you think that you can sell me a game for $60 then turn around and sell me all the good content for more $$$.

      How was taking the dodo for a joy ride fun? While their automobile controls are really good. The controls they put in for any type of airplanes were always worthless.

      • by dot45 (1135589)
        its not supposed to be a sim game, but buzzing people with the plane was hilarious.
      • by chis101 (754167)
        I loved the dodo just because it was difficult to fly. It gave you a sense of accomplishment to be able to maneuver the dodo well at all.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by 4D6963 (933028)
      I never had the chance to play GTA IV yet but from hearing the things that are not present in the new game (i.e. airplanes, parachutes, jetpacks, etc..) and some user comments it seems that Rockstar has unfortunately stopped focusing primarily on 'fun'.
      • If you're buying GTA IV for "jetpacks" and "parachutes" methinks you're buying it for the wrong reason. There is a very deep and satisfying story element to the game. You're missing out if all you want to do is fly a jetpack. Although you can fly a helicopter and drive a speedboat if you wish. Both of which I found very satisfying since overall GTA IV didn't have to resort to "gimmicks" to make the game fun.

        • by dot45 (1135589)
          My original point. Once you finish the "storyline", where is the fun stuff so you have a reason to play it? Online play is alright for the xbox360, but us ps3 owners got screwed on this deal. "Are you receiving mad signals from your mothership?"
        • Deep and satisfying story? Bah. Some key moments were good, such as when you decide on the fate of the guy you're chasing, but the vast majority of the time there isn't even any story going on, you're just driving around and doing random missions for gangsters for no apparent reason (what does Niko do with all that money that he so desperately claims to need?). The actual story appears so infrequently that you sometimes forget it's even there.

      • by Talgrath (1061686)

        You're telling me you only bought GTA: San Andreas for parachutes, airplanes and jetpacks? Seriously? I think the game you're looking for is a flight simulator; not a GTA game.

        • by lokiomega (596833)
          You've got to be kidding me. When I played GTA 1 when I was a teenager what drew me to it is running people over aimlessly. I don't even think I got the million dollars to get past the first level. The whole fun of the game (and what kept me playing for hours on end) is the depth and silliness of all the stupid shit you can do.
        • by 4D6963 (933028)
          It's not because a fun aspect of a game is secondary that it shouldn't make it to the game's sequel. Being able to jump off the top of a mountain with a BMX and open your parachute is fun, among a plethora of other things that made GTA San Andreas fun. You'd expect that these fun aspects would be improved on rather than rid of.
      • Expect the next game in the series to have all that.

        Vice City was different from GTA3, and introduced a lot of new and interesting features. The new engine was then used again, in GTA: San Andreas, and it featured three large sprawling cities in a desert, with jetpacks and parachutes, and actual planes, and bicycles, and other such stuff that VC lacked.

        • by 4D6963 (933028)
          Well I don't really see how the current trend encourages you to think that. I mean if it was in SA but not in IV I doubt it'll be in the future iterations of the game.
          • GTA VC lost a lot of things that were in previous games.

            And VC is a lot smaller than say the original GTA, where you could go to all sorts of cities.

            • by 4D6963 (933028)
              But that had more to do with hardware limitations, a 2D city doesn't take up as much as a 3D one. Here they got rid of these things by choice, because they think the game is better off without it.
    • There are a lot of cool side missions. An achievement for wheelies, they had all the jumps you needed to do, random strangers giving you mini missions. There are 200 pidgeons around the city you can shoot to get prizes. Hidden weapons. Dating.

      What you're upset about is that it didn't take the best parts of san andreas (IE the little extras) and replace the parts about that game that sucked (IE the graphics and story.)

      I aplaud rockstar for making a sequel rather than a clone.

  • Rockstar sold out and is only giving downloadable content to the 360 owners, once you beat the game it's fucking BORING.
    • Off topic here, but the DLC has actually been delayed. Possibly all the way until Q1 2009. I'll be returning my PS3 copy and getting the PC version when it comes out (November?) so I can just make my OWN extra content :)
  • Different approaches (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 4D6963 (933028) on Friday August 15, 2008 @10:25PM (#24623681)

    We donâ(TM)t believe in focus testing ideas (itâ(TM)s like asking an audience what album they want to hear â" they donâ(TM)t know until they hear it!)

    In art, the offer creates the demand more than the opposite. However if you're a marketing type and you want a sure shot, a product that you're sure people will want, you have to find out what the demand is.

    Two different approaches really, an art-oriented risky but genre-defining approach, and a non-innovative but safe approach a couple of trains behind (i.e. the public follows the successful innovator, the EA-like company follows the public).

    • "Slow and steady wins the race" from the Tortoise and the Hare by Aesop

      Here's the deal, most marketing is useless bullshit, just noise. It's a ridiculous cancerous growth on commerce, a growth facilitated by the way publicly held corporations focus only on the short term...next quarter's profits better but up! Gotta throw more $$$ into marketing research!

      Like the fable says, those who plan for the long term will win.

      Focus groups vs. "making games WE like to play" is not just a "different tactic" it's the di

  • Why put 2 links to different pages of the interview? Just link to the first page of the interview and that's it. We'll find out that he talks about why he rejects focus testing while reading TFA.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tirerim (1108567)
      Presumably because the link to the second page in TFA is in a non-obvious location -- it's only in the sidebar, not at the end (or beginning) of the actual article.
    • by Aluvus (691449)
      I didn't even see the "previous interview" and "next interview" links on the articles until I deliberately set about finding such links. I did spot the links under "recent features", but those will eventually move down the queue and out of sight. So it's actually somewhat helpful for TFS to link to the 3 articles. Granted, better web design could have made the additional links unnecessary.
  • Tossing softballs (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Akoman (559057)

    I hate how this interviewer softballs his questions:
    "GTA IV asks the players to make a few key decisions during its story, and weâ(TM)ve seen another Take 2 game, BioShock, experiment with similar ideas. How further can that model be pushed? Is it something youâ(TM)d like to take further in future games?"

    As if we haven't seen games providing two plot choices that affect game outcome in the past. Dark Messiah of Might and Magic jumps out as a very recent mediocre game that fits the bill there. The

    • What an amazingly stupid question they managed to ask. I can't immediately think of anything specific, but I'm sure you could go back all the way to the eighties and find lots of games with branching storylines. In the nineties you'll of course find such classics as Fallout which provide you with a bit more than just a couple of decisions. Gamers have incredibly short memories.

      • but I'm sure you could go back all the way to the eighties and find lots of games with branching storylines.
        .

        There were the "Chose Your Own Adventures" and "Fighting Fantasies" in paperback. Deathtrap Dungeon [wikipedia.org] [wikipedia.org]

        Maniac Mansion for the C-64 and other home computers.

    • The only thing exciting about Bioshock's decisions were that there were manifest benefits to selecting the immoral choice.

      But there actually weren't. if you add up the amount of Adam you get from the teddy bears, you get almost the same amount, it's only like 1 or 2 plasmids worth difference, and you get a few plasmids in the teddies, so really, there's no significant difference.

  • 'July 2005: Residue code found in San Andreas. Hackers modify it and it turns into scandal known as "Hot Coffee."
    .

    Tell me how you introduce new graphics, animation and game play into a console port that has been stamped out on a DVD:

    Rockstar Games...initially denied allegations that the minigame was "hidden" in the video game, stating that the Hot Coffee modification..is the result of "hackers" making "significant technical modifications to and reverse engineering" the game's code. [T]his claim was under

I'd rather just believe that it's done by little elves running around.

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