Longtime series writer discusses GTA III's ongoing legacy, why he's not concerned with public outcries, and how "no one gave a crap" about the game at E3 2001.
The name Dan Houser might not ring a bell for every Grand Theft Auto fan, but the English-born game developer has been a critical part of the franchise's success over the years. Among his notable contributions to the franchise is co-writing Grand Theft Auto III, the title that pushed the series into the mainstream spotlight and left a substantial mark on the next decade of game development. As we approach GTA III's 10-year anniversary, GameSpot recently sat down with Houser to get his opinion on the landmark action game's legacy, how the series has changed in the past decade, and some of the struggles the development team faced early on.
GS: Was there a particular point in time when you realized this was a game that people would still be talking about a decade down the road?
DH: During development, we obviously had no idea that it would go for 10 years or that it would be as successful as it was because you could never really hope for that level of success. Even the developer sort of fractured through the making of it. People didn't stay with us early on, because we were moving DMA down to Edinburgh and turning them into what would become Rockstar North. Some of those guys were like, "This could never work for reasons X, Y, and Z."
"…you could never really hope for that level of success."
About a year out--maybe 10 months or so--we first had the city, the cars, some of the weapons, and an enormous reservoir of problems that we hadn't figured out yet. We were like, "If this could get to where we think it should get to, this is going to be amazing. Now how the hell do we solve those other problems?" And then, the early part of showing people the game--including E3 2001--was disconcerting because it was incredibly underwhelming. Because we thought it could be magical. Not the Holy Grail, but this thing that was 3D but open and expansive, combining elements of hardcore action, driving, adventuring--all these genres. Very cinematic and story-driven gameplay, this experience that's really unlike anything you've seen before. And people were scratching their heads around it! We were all, "Are we wrong?"
There was enormous excitement around a few other games coming that fall. We went to E3 and everyone was obsessed by State of Emergency, and no one gave a crap really about GTA III. State of Emergency we thought was interesting, but not without its flaws--some of which never got resolved. But GTA III was already running, and we thought, "This is amazing!" But E3, I think, isn't the best place to show a game anyway, and that's definitely become solidified in our thinking since then.
The second half of 2001 changed people's perspective with some success. But still, it didn't really happen until consumers got their hands on it. I definitely think we were convinced the game was going to be pretty successful and we would make another one. Assuming Take Two didn't go bust because it was under enormous pressure. We'd begun to realize there was something really interesting in this kind of game. All of 2001 we sort of realized, hey, there's something really interesting here--are people going to see it? But we were very passionate about it from that point on.
GS: Can you describe your writing process for GTA III? How has it evolved since then, with recent games like Red Dead Redemption?
DH: I'm trying to think. Is there such a thing as a process? Are we that organized? I don't know if we are.
GS: Would you call it a lack of process back then?
DH: No, it's sort of similar in some ways. We don't necessarily separate the story and the design--they're kind of the same thing. We use the story to expose the mechanics, and we use the mechanics to tell the story. So it should feel very integrated. The way we organize the games is by missions, and the way we organize missions is by story. So there isn't really a big difference.
"We went to E3 and everyone was obsessed by State of Emergency, and no one gave a crap really about GTA III."
To begin with we were like, this is going to be easy! We'll just take GTA--which was probably a stronger game than GTA 2 vibe-wise--fix the bits we didn't like, make it in 3D, and we're done. Which was probably the most naive idea we've ever had. Something we've learned over the years is that the ideas aren't the difficult bit; the difficult bit is the implementation.
One of the things that GTA 2 had become bogged down with was this idea of nonlinearity. There was no story. With GTA III, we came to terms with the idea that what nonlinearity meant was choice. The skill was combining the strengths of freedom of choice with the strengths of narrative. On some levels they're diametrically opposed, so the skill was trying to figure out a structure to everything that would allow you to reconcile as best you could some element of narrative while still giving the players constant choice.
A good story is one that moves you through the experience well. Yes, you want clever plots and clever twists and clever this, that, and the other. For a game like this, we needed something that moved you around the map well and kept you engaged and is a constant series of mini-stories. Each mission is like its own short story, and then you need this overarching story that the player doesn't lose track of. You don't leave too many things unclosed, you don't leave too many characters hanging there, you don't slaughter absolutely everyone, but you do get revenge on some people. As much of that stuff as possible.
In doing all these open-world games, we've been learning each time to refine [our storytelling process], change it slightly, and modify it. We've overhauled those processes, but they're not radically changed. They're still in some ways fundamentally the same--the mission structure's kind of fundamentally changed a bunch--but it's evolved on from what it was.
GS: It seems like one of the biggest changes in storytelling is that you guys have moved on from the silent protagonist. Was that change brought about by more technical resources for added characterization, or was it simply a narrative decision?
DH: It was a combination of the two. We were solving so many problems the first time. How would you bring a 3D world to life? How would you make a game that combines these seamless modes? How would you make a story that's both linear and nonlinear at the same time? And I guess we, quite consciously, came to the realization that…how would you make a player speak in an open world? We can't bother. We can't figure that out right now. We didn't even know if the narrative was going to be interesting enough to warrant it. We spent a lot of time on Vice City solving that riddle.
"…GTA 2 had become bogged down with was this idea of nonlinearity."
Once we realized that the stories could be and were as interesting as we hoped, we realized the next step was that the protagonist was going to have to speak. Even by the end of III, he wasn't just an everyman, and he had a personality. He just didn't speak! So that was a little bit disingenuous. It ended up feeling like it worked, but it could have been better if he'd spoken. It was a natural progression.
GS: Why has the series shied away from using celebrity voice actors?
DH: Two reasons, one practical. It used to be that we could get a famous actor in for a day or two, or even for a big part four or five days, and do all of the voice work needed. On PS2-era graphics, that gave us decent results. Now we don't really have a difference between our animation process and our voice-overs. When people use the words "voice acting" now, it doesn't really make sense to me. There's no voice acting. There's acting, now. Their movement and their voice are the same thing done at the same time. There is no difference between the two.
By the end of San Andreas, we were getting better results with non-famous actors. One of the actors playing a part stormed out. Not famous, but a minor C- or D-list actor. He stormed out because he didn't like the fact that the character was gay, or in his mind was gay. I liked the guy who'd done the mo-cap [for the character], so we just used him. And we got a brilliant result. He feels a lot more like the movement and the voice. They feel a lot more integrated. Once we moved to high-definition, that became a lot more important.
Another reason is that for the PS2-era games, we were aspiring to something that felt like you were in your own movie or your own TV show. Now we're able to get things that feel a bit beyond that, and having the famous people really distracts you. Now if we have famous people, they tend to be playing themselves.
We're still using top-level actors; they're just not famous ones. We audition them and take a long time figuring out if we've got the right ones, but we feel like we're getting better results for what we're doing. To me, it feels like a lot more alive now than it did then.
GS: So much fuss has been made out of GTA III's morality, but a lot of that was really a result of the player's own doing. Was that brought about because of a conscious decision to reflect the player's actions, or more of an evolution from the content in GTA 2?
DH: It was more of the former. The key idea of the game was that it wasn't about violence; it was about freedom. We thought that was something that games did very well, the idea that you're turning a viewer into an active participant. So give them the freedom of choice over what they do. Like what we were talking about with the story, give them the choice over what they do next. And when you're not in the story and you're in the open-world stuff, you can really choose what you do. Good, bad, and indifferent. Drive around listening to music. They were limited, but there were some minigames. Or you could be as big a sociopath as you see fit, and the game will punish you accordingly. The thing about the game is that, in some ways, it's the exact opposite: you get punished as much as you can punish someone in a game for your actions. And you don't get away with anything!
"By the end of San Andreas, we were getting better results with non-famous actors."
Subsequently, as we've developed the games and expanded them, we've tried to improve all of those things. We've certainly tried to improve the story, but we've also tried to improve how the non-story content works and make the space between the two smaller. A variety of content that's not likely to get you arrested, and a variety of content that is. We've tried to develop all areas of that. But we've definitely tried to give players freedom in how they played the game. That was key to what the game was about and is about.
GS: Why do you think it's still a struggle for games to be taken seriously as a vehicle for those mature themes?
DH: I don't know. We kind of do what we do, take the heat for it, and move on. If what we do is wildly pathetic and immature, we'll take the heat for that just the same as if it's fantastic. I suppose partly it's because they're animation. They're mechanical. They're still better at doing physical things than emotional things. Though I think L.A. Noire showed there's a pathway toward doing more diverse content and mechanics in that way.
It's still a young, young medium. I don't think in 1925 or 1930 or whenever movies were the equivalent age to where games are now people were taking movies anywhere near as seriously to where people are taking games right now. You can't expect games to have the same cultural cachet as an established medium because that's not how things work. But that's clearly changed in the past 15 years, and it will continue to change.
There was a real danger when things were being taken to the Supreme Court. That was the thing to take seriously. Everything else is about vanity. It doesn't matter whether we excite some abstract panel of cultural arbiters. What matters to us is do we excite, educate, entertain, amuse, stimulate--or fail to do any of the above--this individual playing our game? That's the person we want to have a relationship with.
Thank you Houser brothers for giving us gamers a brand that pushed the gaming industry from the crossroads towards a mature form of media! Peace \m/
This game was great, mainly because at the time games didnt give you freedom. I used to spend hours just lamely running around on foot in driver 2 and having fun thinking how awesome that was. Then GTA3 came out it was the perfect game to me at the time. Now a days a game has to give you freedom and exploration for people to be happy, boundries anger people these days were 10 years ago it was still the status quo.
Good times, I remember playing this game when I I was 6. I jumped of a building, then my mum walked in as his body splat on the ground and a pool of blood poured out. I was banned for years. What a game.
Loved this game. About the time I used "the protagonist" to kill that first mob boss by barricading his car in the driveway and then setting it alight with a flamethrower, I thought "this is incredible--no game thus far has been this fun." I might have given up on games as having been too formulaic. The PS2 was just kinda boring until GTA 3 came along. And by the time I had finished San Andreas (which I believe was the holy grail of video gaming, it really was), I knew gaming was on the rise again.
Vice City had the best music and the best atmosphere, while San Andreas had the best diversions. GTA IV was a let down for me in a lot of ways because there was so little to do outside of the story. The bowling and darts and pool were okay at first but after a few hours, I was like, "where's all the fun?" It seemed like they stripped away a lot of what made GTA great in favor of a more realistic story and character. I did enjoy GTA IV. I did like Nico Bellic's story. But, looking at the series as a whole, I invested way more time into the other GTA games (that's including the first top down version on PSOne) than I did in GTA IV. I don't know, it seemed like the magic was lacking in IV.
Really hope GTA V will be more like San Andreas gameplay wise and Vice City environment wise or they could just make them HD and put then on Steam, PSN and XBL, and just make GTA in Europe. :D
I'm surprised he said nobody gave a crap at E3 because the first screenshots of the game Gamespot ever put out, i linked to my then "blog" and wrote a whole post about how this looked to me to be the game I had been waiting for all these years. I had no doubt it was gonna be a hit. I'd have been surprised if it would have turned out otherwise. While the series has evolved and in all fairness, San Andreas is the best one, at number 2 I have to put GTA III...the memories...oh...the memories.
I liked the original GTA, I never got anywhere with that game as far as missions went, I just drove around messing with the cops and doing my own thing..... I also liked GTA 2 for much the same reasons, I did try though to get through the missions and I got kinda far before the game was stolen from me Arg.... GTA III and Vice City are the best in the series, I actually beat both games with and without cheats...I liked GTA3 because it so different from the originals and it was fun, Vice City was just enjoyable in all it's eighties wannabe Miami Vice glory lol.... I liked GTASA but really I just liked the advancements in the engine and combat, I didn't care much for the missions or story, the PSP GTa's sucked, the humor was so immature I was turned off by them...... GTA4 was okay but too realistic, I like Nico a lot and I like some of the characters from the game and I do like the way combat feels but overall I can't say I enjoyed the game....
this is PURE honestly coming from me: i actually loved Grand Theft Auto III and every game after that.. what i didn't like though is the first and second GTAs because it was like looking at the game from a bird's eye view which i thought was a little bad. no disrespects to Rockstars and other who works for them because i love ROCKSTAR and when i heard that they were making another GTA, i almost did a triple backflip in my chair i was so damn excited... but i flooded my room with my own drowl though.... hahahah :)
Steam is totally capitalizing on this right now. And i couldn't say no. On topic i'm happy with the love this game got because as a young gamer of this generation i've learned to really appreciate what they've done and i really enjoy Rockstar and especially GTA as a whole. Thanks Dan!
Hah hah! an excellent interview right up until the last question- Gamespot managed to end the interview on exactly the WRONG question. Way to go, Dan Houser.
cant wait for android version, controls work for gangstar and im sure rockstar can improve upon it, i would love nothing more than to have one of my all time favourite games on my phone.............who would have thought that a few years ago.....gta 3.....on a phone.....naaaaaaaaaaaah, i remember when snake was mind bending for a phone
I heard on GTA 3 Pedestrian: I'm gonna get a gun. Pedestrian: Guns don't kill people. Pedestrian: People kill people. Pedestrian: Guns help though.
Was I the only one that could fly the dodo plane in this game. I swear everyone that I talked to about it said I was a damn fool.
"I know a place in the Red Light District where we can lay low but my hands are all messed up...so you better drive brother!"
I remember when i bought GTA3, i hadn't heard anything about it, never knew they were making a third one. Then one day in GAME, i came across it, remembered how i enjoyed playing GTA1 and bought it on impulse... Needless to say i was blown away with how much it had come on since GTA1+2. I miss times like those where a game would surprise you in ways you didn't imagine it could.
GTA III was a great game for so many reasons. But mainly for me it was a game that I enjoyed when playing it with other people, having a group of friends together taking turns at the controller and watching each other's crazy stunts, coming up with suggestions of what they could try next. Hell, even my sister loves this game. And it's all because of the freedom they gave the player within the game world. Keep on rockin' Rockstar.
Great to read Dan Houser's last comment. The idea that games should be trying to be more like movies is stupid. Games are better than movies!