What Red Dead Redemption could mean for the future of Rockstar’s games.
UK, February 25, 2010
It’s not wholly inaccurate to bill Rockstar as the house that Grand Theft Auto built. After all it was the success of the first top down game in 1998 that helped birth the company, and subsequent games have helped define it, from the revolution ushered in by GTA III and the cultural impact of Vice City and San Andreas to the cinematic cool and shocking detail of GTA IV. But as its slate for the coming months attests, there’s a sense that it’s shifting the focus away from its staple series as LA Noire, Max Payne 3 and Agent fill out a year that many thought would see the release of the next GTA. Is it possible that Rockstar is trying to move away from being predominantly known for GTA ?
"Hopefully we’re not just famous for GTA," says Dan Houser, creative VP and co-founder of Rockstar. "That’s how we would look at it and obviously we believe [Red Dead Redemption] is the best game we can possibly make at this time, just as GTA IV was the best we could possibly make at that time. We put our hearts and souls into making the games as best as we can. Last year, 2009 and 2008, we released a three part GTA IV epic experience and now we’re working on a couple of other things."
In order to get a handle on what Rockstar will be offering next, it’s worth looking at what’s important to them now – and Red Dead Redemption’s embellishments to the open world template give a good idea of what direction its games are taking. "Our next great thing that hopefully Red Dead is taking a step further forward is multiplayer," says Houser, and it’s important to remember that it’s an area that Rockstar is still relatively new to, with GTA IV and its subsequent episodes the first full-blooded attempt at multiplayer from the company.
http://media.xbox360.ign.com/media/...We don’t know much about multiplayer, but expect some horse and cart shenanigans.
What those steps will be is a mystery for now, as multiplayer details remain scarce around Red Dead Redemption – though we expect it to add to GTA IV’s suite and make full use of Redemption’s envious assets, throwing horseback gunfights and open savannahs into the mix as well as a handful of surprises.
Whether we’ll see a shift comparable to the one made by GTA III as it introduced 3D to the series and GTA IV as it embraced the HD generation remains open to question, but another of Red Dead Redemption’s focal points reveals an area that’s close to Rockstar’s heart – and one that Dan Houser sees as being the next logical step for its games.
"I think AI is probably the single area where games are not as far ahead as they could be, for me," he tells us. "In terms of where you will suddenly see cities come to life the next level will be because there is much better AI on all of the characters."
With a desire to embrace multiplayer tied into one to take artificial intelligence one step further there’s one obvious catch-all answer – a massively multiplayer online game, an answer that Realtime Worlds has run with in APB. It’s something that’s certainly crossed Rockstar’s collective mind, though its games would have to compromise more than most, perhaps losing the dialogue and plotting that’s defined many of its open world pursuits.
"As soon as you’ve got an MMO you lose that," says Houser. "Our feel with the MMO is that it becomes like a costume party and you lose the immersiveness of the world, partly through behaviour but also simply just through the way everyone sounds.
"Suppose you’re making a city MMO and you’ve unlocked the great job of being a security guard, standing there until someone comes and shoots you. There are just too many bit-part players in too many of our games at the moment to do it where you have no AI. Whether you could make a world that was more persistent and have more characters with broadly similar goals and maybe compete with each other, living in it, then of course and that would be very interesting. We’ve always been thinking about that but we haven’t really had the chance to put any major thought into it and actually do it.
"I think you’ll see that [Red Dead Redemption] is definitely an instrumental step forward significantly for us from where we were before but overall an MMO ? If we had an infinite amount of teams and time when of course we would do one, but without that we feel like we’re working manically just to do what we’re doing. So maybe in the future. Who knows ?"
A Rockstar MMO might be some way off then, but there’s other avenues it’s already pursuing. Take, for example, its episodic approach to GTA IV, The Ballad of Gay Tony and The Lost and Damned delivering what could be easily regarded as two content heavy sequels at a budget price and within an impressive time-frame. Although it’s not an approach that’s openly being considered for Red Dead Redemption right now, it’s one that’s viable for future Rockstar products and as far as Houser’s concerned, it’s a simple question of value.
"It could work for all games potentially. I think that as a general concept downloadable content is correctly priced and added to the overall experience I think people like it, and if it’s not exploitative then I think people feel like they’re not being ripped off. I know that we can’t make games that everyone is going to love but I’m pretty confident we make games where people don’t feel they’ve been ripped off when they play them. They might not have liked it but at least they know that we made something big and put a lot of effort into it. We’re not selling very short single-player experiences and a couple of levels of multiplayer."
But will the episodic approach trailblazed by GTA IV take precedence over the traditional boxed copy any time soon ? Houser’s not so sure.
I don’t know - people have been saying that for so long. We as a company try and be progressive and market leaders in some areas, but also try and concentrate on not being [market leaders] in all areas because otherwise we would be out of business quite quickly. It just depends where things go if that’s how people want it. If people want to have big games that they buy once or buy a section of a game a game that is divided into five sections - it’s not really clear one way or another at the moment quite how things are going to go. In the long term is that the future ? Probably. But is that in two years ? My sense is probably not. I think people are still very, very attached to buying packaged goods."
"AI is the next step for Rockstar - and Redemption is the latest step up."
There is of course another wave that’s been threatening to consume the current generation of consoles for some time, and it’s one that’s been predicted by the success of the Wii. Talk about the potential of Microsoft’s Natal and Sony’s Arc (or whatever the company deems to call it by the time the PS3 Motion Controller launches this year) and Houser’s not exactly sceptical but most definitely grounded by Rockstar’s prior experience with the Wii.
"We thought with Bully we had some decent results, but we certainly sold a lot more on 360 - and the versions came out at the same time so it’s easier to do a comparison," he says as a note of caution. "I think there’s no reason why any of that stuff couldn’t work. We see ourselves as concept makers and so just as we can make a fun game for the DS there’s no reason why we couldn’t do things for whatever platform we put our right guys minds on figuring out how to do something interesting for it."
Indeed, Rockstar remains not just platform neutral but rather platform positive, working on whatever hardware’s to hand as has been witnessed by its open-armed embrace of the iPhone with the recent ports of Beaterator and Grand Theft Auto : Chinatown Wars. Getting its head around new technologies is one thing, but quite another is getting the most out of existing ones.
"We feel we’re getting to grips with the true complexities of making games for these machines now and it’s certainly been a lot of work," he says. "I don’t think anyone could have accurately estimated when people were announcing this round of hardware what the opportunities to do good stuff would be, but also what are the realities of doing that. The technical challenge of making games on 360 and PS3 is something we feel now we’re getting properly to grips with but it definitely is still challenging - it’s the sheer amount of manpower you need to put in these things."
And in Houser’s mind neither the Xbox 360 nor PlayStation 3 have truly reached their peak : "I think it’s as much as we can do now," he says.
"I think we’ve always tried to push the machines as hard as they can be pushed. With GTA III we were pushing the PS2 as hard as it could be pushed at that time but three years later we could have a pushed it a lot harder.
"I also think you’ve got to provide people with a compelling reason to buy new hardware and unless someone comes up with one the idea that games are going to stagnate and not get any better, at least graphically, is absurd. Game design moves forward and backwards and gets more interesting and less interesting - you know it moves in a slightly different trajectory that isn’t purely driven by technology but the graphics are going to continue to get better."
It’s hard to imagine much more being pushed out of the current generation than Red Dead Redemption is acheiving, but if anything was to raise the stakes again could it be a sequel to this game ?
"If we can think of an interesting story to tell that works in this world then of course we would look at it," replies Houser. "But for the moment we really don’t sit there thinking we’re making a trilogy and this is part one of a trilogy, because then we feel we’d be holding things back from the first game and I really don’t think we’ve held anything back from this game - it’s so big and all encompassing."
Check back tomorrow for this week’s final feature, exploring the story and setting of Red Dead Redemption.