Rockstar's upcoming Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is sure to make a splash when it hits the Nintendo DS later this month. The game is arguably the most ambitious to hit Nintendo's handheld to date, aiming to offer a genuine GTA experience on a cartridge. As insane or impossible as that might sound, our previous looks at the game have shown that Rockstar is doing just that. With the game's release fast approaching, we reached out to Gordon Hall, president and founder of Rockstar Leeds, the developer of this impressive game, to find out how it's come together.
GameSpot: The GTA series has a strong lineage on the PSP; why has it taken so long to bring it to the DS?
Gordon Hall: The lineage of GTA is long and runs across nearly every platform Rockstar has ever wanted to make games for. From the early days on PC, PS1, and Dreamcast, to the current console offerings on Xbox 360 and PS3, Rockstar has always set out to make the games that we want to see on every piece of hardware that we enjoy working on. For us over at Leeds, however, we focus on taking everything we love about our console offerings and working nonstop until we can deliver an experience on our favorite handheld systems that stands toe-to-toe with the best there is on consoles.
The PSP "Stories" games were designed as an exercise in delivering a fully realized GTA experience for the hardware, which we've always felt has been more of a "portable console" in some ways. Their production was no easy task, and we feel we truly broke through the idea of what kind of console-like experiences you can take with you.
For the DS, however, we're working with something that feels less-so like a portable console. Thus, the thinking would have to be a bit different behind the design of the game, and since the hardware obviously has some very different capabilities in terms of what it can do, the amount of work that would have to go into building a fully realized GTA experience that could stand up to what we've done on consoles would have to be incredible. This is essentially the reason why we've moved onto DS, it was the challenge that we knew it would be. After learning everything we had learned from VCS and LCS, we finally felt like it was time to step up and push ourselves even harder with this game, using a team that nearly doubles the size of anything we've worked on before.
GS: Did you know what kind of game you were going to make on the DS or did you experiment and iterate?
GH: We don't ever want to make anything that isn't going to stop the audience in their tracks and have them rethink what kind of games are possible on the hardware. Part of the ambition of this project came with the idea for the setting and story. We knew we were going to be working with the same massive world of Liberty City that fans have come to know so well from GTA III, LCS, VCS, and GTAIV (with the same massive topography, minus one borough, of GTAIV), and we knew we wanted to build it in 3D from the ground up.
Thus, we knew that this would have to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, games ever built for the system, so we knew that we had our work cut out for us. For nearly two years, our guys worked day and night figuring out how it was going to happen, how we were going to build this massive city in a way that it would fit onto the DS with its own unique sense of style. We worked like lunatics, referencing nearly every corner of the boroughs of Liberty City until we had something that was going to be familiar to players from the other GTA games. But beyond that, it wasn't just the setting by any means that we wanted to feel familiar to players, it was the feel of the game itself. Moving over to this hardware for the first time, the first GTA that our studio has done on a Nintendo system in fact, we knew that we had to build something that was instantly familiar to anyone who's played GTA before, yet also something that couldn't really be done on any other piece of hardware.
GS: What do you think makes a good DS game? What do you think makes a good GTA game?
GH: As far as DS games go, we aren't big fans of seeing some titles with these deep roots in gaming that just get so rethought for the market to the point where the game loses sight of its own roots, and loses interest from the players that enjoyed these games so much in the first place. The games that actually do something fun and unique without alienating a part of the DS's wide audience of gamers, those are the best ones.
For GTA, we're in the rare position where we have over 10 years' worth of design and evolution that has gone into the series to pull from and build upon here. When we started on the project, we asked ourselves the same question you've asked us. What are some of the things we like the best about this series? With that, we knew that we loved the fast-paced, arcade-like action of GTA 1 & 2 with things like barreling down a sidewalk at 90mph taking out rows of gang members. When the series leapt into 3D with GTAIII, it changed the playing field with its innovative mission structure, expansive settings, deep narrative, and unparalleled depth to the gameplay. Then at the next phase with GTAIV, the world just became that much more massive, modern, and it really just changed the way the player could interact with the characters through the storytelling and the technology in the gameworld.
So it's parts of all of those things and much more that we feel make GTA what it is, but as far as what was going to make GTA great on the DS, we knew we had to pull from all of it. We also knew that with the DS, we were working with a much different device that people would be playing on. We weren't going to have that captive audience on a couch in front of an HDTV like you have with the console games; so we wanted to create something that would wow the player with as much intense action as possible on the screen. It's something that builds on the arcade-like action of GTA 1 and GTA 2, but something that will feel so much more familiar to players of GTAIII and beyond.
GS: Why have you introduced a new wanted system for this game?
GH: This is in line with the thinking of how we had to keep the player involved with the action as much as possible. In the previous games, we were trying to escape the police or lay low as much as possible, and that just wasn't something that was going to play into the experience we were trying to build. We wanted players engaged in the action as much as possible, and this meant having them actively engaging the police as much as possible.
We wanted it to feel like a cop chase in movie. Cars rushing down the street at top speed and flying over curbs and corners, then flipping into walls, buildings, and other cars until the police cruisers were disabled just enough that they couldn't continue on with the chase! That's exactly how it works as well. Two or more stars, and you have to escape or smash, ram, and crash into the fuzz until they can't move their cars anymore. It gets fast, fun, intense, and ultimately, we just wanted something that would give us the opportunity to laugh as we get away and onto the next mission.
GS: Can you walk us through the role the touch screen will play in GTA:CW both from a gameplay and control standpoint? Was it an easy decision to make, or did you experiment with different ways to incorporate it? Did you feel you had to take advantage of every feature on the system (online, microphone, touch screen, et cetera)?
GH: As I had mentioned earlier, we wanted to make a game that players could pick up and instantly recognize as GTA. No tapping on the screen to move Huang in the direction of where he needs to go, and no sliding a wheel on the bottom screen to steer a car foolishly down a street at 100mph. That's not GTA, and that just leaves too much of an emotional disconnect between the player and the character. You'll be using the D pad to move around and the same familiar control setup on the face buttons that you're used to working with.
As far as what we did want to do with the touch screen, we decided to use it only where it made sense creatively, but never did we do something just for the sake of doing it because the DS had the capability. The wireless PDA certainly speaks to that. For the whole of the game, players will be using this device to interact with nearly everything going on in the gameworld. E-mails, chatting with friends connected online, plotting points on the GPS, and more--this is the main hub of communication for all things in Chinatown Wars.
For the other elements, though, all of that needed to be contextual. The touch screen represented this unique opportunity to get up close and see what the player is doing in certain situations we might not get to see in a console game. Things like hot-wiring cars, filling gas to make Molotovs, or scratching off lottery tickets in the corner store. This was a way for us to integrate everything into the experience seamlessly in a way that was fun and never took away from the core GTA experience. No, players won't be hot-wiring every car in the city--this is an action game, after all--but this did give us the opportunity to add more depth to the experience. Some cars might need a quick shank in the ignition with a screwdriver, while others, like say an exotic car parked in a wealthy Algonquin neighborhood, might need you to disarm the electronic security sequence. This of course requires skill, and if you're on the run and need to move fast, it allows the player to make the decision and try to do it as fast as they can, or maybe just steal another car that's already being driven down the street before they get busted by the cops.
GS: What, if any, limitations did the console's graphics hardware have on the delivery of your artistic vision for the game?
GH: None whatsoever. We knew the scope of the game when we set out to build it, and the only thing this meant was that it would be the most challenging project we'd ever be putting ourselves to work on. If we truly wanted to build the city in 3D on the DS and have it feel alive and breathing on the hardware, we knew that the amount of coding alone was going to be more intense that any GTA before this one. For us at Leeds, it's never a matter of if we can build it, but how we can build it. Looking at it now, and just seeing all of the flashing billboards in Star Junction, the lettering on the tops of buildings in Hove Beach modeled in 3D, the peds that wake up in the morning and go about their daily lives with their own unscripted AI--it's all come together in a way that's even more than what we maybe even thought we'd be able to get out of the hardware itself, and it simply could not have been done without the extraordinary talent we have working on this project.
GS: How important was it for you to include features like day/night lighting and weather cycles?
GH: This was also very important to us. Just as it's important to have the city and its inhabitants feel alive and running about their daily schedules, it was important that this setup was authentic and believable. The clock ticks on a 24/7 cycle, and we see the sun cast shadows across the city just as we would in any of our console offerings. This is a real place, a real world--but it's one that we're seeing on a tiny screen. Storms roll in and thunder roars across the streets as the peds pop open their umbrellas and drivers turn on their headlights--it's all part of what we set out to do without cutting any corners in terms of what players expect from the kinds of worlds we strive to create.
GS: What changes have you made to Liberty City for GTA:CW? We've been told you removed overlapping freeways and roads--why is that?
GH: All four boroughs of the city itself are here, including Happiness Island, and the two other islands that sit in the middle of the Humboldt River. Focusing our attention on Liberty City itself, instead of extending out of state into Alderney (featured in GTAIV), definitely gave us more of an opportunity to flesh out the iconic areas that more people will recognize. All of the neighborhoods are here in the boroughs as well. From Little Italy and Middle Park in Algonquin, to Firefly Island in the south tip of Broker, all of these familiar neighborhoods with their own characteristics are here for players to explore, and most are even inhabited by many of the different gangs that players will meet throughout the game.
Having said this, it's true that we aren't looking at an absolute foot-by-foot re-creation of Liberty City on DS. While the scope remains the same, there were certain streets that had to be widened and narrowed at certain points just to fit into the type of action we're trying to deliver on the smaller screen. The underpasses and overpasses were rethought a bit for sure, mainly since we're seeing all of the action from above. We never want to have players lose sight of Huang onscreen. For this, we've actually implemented an arrow icon on the screen that will always let the player know where Huang is if they turn the camera out of his view, but largely the idea was to build the city in a way that we'd minimize having to use this as much as possible.
On top of that, we should also mention the amount of verticality that we've worked into the game. You won't be stuck on the ground for this tour of Liberty City, as there will be plenty of instances where players will have to run up and down stairs and onto rooftops either to find hidden items, take down enemies, or in some cases, find a good vantage point for their sniper rifle.
GS: What was the decision behind choosing Triad gangs as the basis for this game? Can you give us an overview of Huang and Kenny and the roles they'll play in GTA:CW?
GH: There have been many criminal organizations in the series over the years, and the Triads have always been one of the more mysterious groups of the bunch that had never really been fully explored. The Triads had some trouble with the Mafia in GTAIII, and CJ had a run-in with them in San Fierro in GTA: San Andreas, but I know the writing team was intrigued by the idea of shedding a little more light on what kind of stories there might be within this organization. The Triads have clearly had some power over the years, but we were just never certain of what they had been going through to maintain it.
This is essentially the setup for Chinatown Wars with Huang Lee, the spoiled-rich kid from Hong Kong, and his power-crazy Uncle Kenny, who's struggling to gain the top position as leader of the Triads in Liberty City since the current head is about to retire. Huang is used to having everything handed to him on a sliver plate and not actually doing the footwork that Triads typically need to do since his father had been one of the bosses in Kowloon. With his father murdered, he needs his Uncle Kenny's help in finding out who killed his father, as well as securing his own inheritance that he hopes will afford him a ticket out of town.
Keep in mind again, though, that we actually have them fighting for power in the city between several other criminal organizations in the city. The Angels of Death, the Korean Mob, the Russian Mafia--the list goes on as the city's criminal underbelly is alive and well, ready to devour anything in its path!
GS: Given the amount of effort that appears to have gone into the game's sound design (including multiple in-vehicle radio stations), why have you chosen to approach the cutscenes more like a graphic novel?
GH: We recognize that a large portion of players might be playing this in transit or out in the public forum, and we know that not everyone always has their headphones with them to hear directly what might be coming out of the DS's smaller speakers. For those that do, or are playing in quieter areas, make no mistake, we've put a tremendous amount of work into making sure that every gunshot, screeching tire, and explosion packs a punch. For the radio stations, we decided that we wanted something more rhythmic, something that kept the pace of the action that felt more like a score for the game than a soundtrack--that's why we went with producing and licensing tracks that didn't have much in the way of spoken word. We wanted the players to keep pressing forward to the beat of any of the stations we have in the game.
As for the dialogue, we have plenty of recorded audio for the pedestrians on the street, but for the story scenes we wanted to take advantage of the dual screens in a way that made sense. Since we're far away from the action on the top screen, we were able to use the bottom screen to get up close and explore the narrative in more detail. We've always been big admirers of a lot of the best graphic novels and even manga out there, and this was a way for us to tell the same quality GTA story we always do with the same writing team, but tell it in a way that we just haven't done before.
GS: Can you run us through some of the mission types players will get their hands on when the game ships?
GH: There are such a wide variety of mission types here for players to explore. One involves protecting some new Triad recruits who are about to be killed, then initiating them yourself at the tattoo parlor. Another has you blocking off city streets with cars and stopping a swarm of invaders from burning down a store under Kenny's protection. One has you planting explosives at a rival gang's hideout, stealing a safe in a van that needs to be taken across town before it's destroyed, then cracking the safe to find what was inside. Another has you riding high above Happiness Island in a chopper like a rail shooter, dropping bottle after bottle of Molotov cocktails on a gang, then taking down a rival chopper as you face off at the crown of the Statue of Happiness! There's really just so much here in this game that we're offering players, and the variety of the action is probably more varied here than we've ever been able to offer in a GTA game. On top of that, all the classic OddJobs, Races, and Rampages make a triumphant return as well!
GS: Tell us about GTA:CW's Social Club integration and what players will be able to do with it at launch and further down the track.
GH: Tying directly into your single-player experience, there will be plenty of different ways that we'll be able to keep the player checking out the site in-between play sessions. All of your stats and progress will be tracked online, so at any given time, you'll be able to hop on and see where you stand with all of the missions, OddJobs, and rampages in the game. You'll even be able to see the city's surveillance-camera guy and watch what happens as you take down all 100 in the game.
Beyond that, there will be plenty of other surprises in store for players in terms of contests and prizes! A lot of that stuff is still being sorted out, but rest assured, our most talented players will be rewarded as long as they're signed up with the game and continue to synch their stats via Wi-Fi Connection, so stay tuned!
GS: Thanks for your time.