Today we take a look at the history of one of gamings most revered developers, Rockstar Games. From humble beginnings in the music industry to a standard of gaming quality few can match, Rockstar has expanded into eight separate studios and a library of high-scoring and, more importantly, high-quality titles. Welcome, ladies and gents, to Gaming History 101.
Perhaps the title of this article is a little misleading. This is less a history of Rockstar Games, but more a history of two like-minded brothers. A history of their venture into gaming and the mantra that has flowed through every game that’s left their studios (yes, and that includes Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis).
Music, hip-hop and philosophy
It all starts with Dan and Sam Houser, two English boys with dreams of making it big the world of music video production. It was the early-nineties, and Dan and Sam, with their love of hip-hop and it’s philosophies on self-expression, got a ticket to the big time when they scored jobs at music label BMG in London.
But for all their hopes and dreams of carving out a career in the music biz, something just didn’t click and the Houser bros started to look elsewhere for that elusive creative spark. And despite no experience in programming, that spark led them to the burgeoning world of games.
The land of Irn Bru and shortbread
In 1993, BMG made something of a bold move and created BMG Interactive, a new wing of the company dedicated to creating them there computer games. It was a gutsy move indeed, but the gaming industry was an ever-expanding beast, and the advent of 3D was in full-ascendance.
Stepping into practically unknown territory, BMG looked to anyone that could bring a new and exciting take on the humble game. Disillusioned with the reality of working in music, Dan and Sam jumped at the chance to pour their creative potential into something new and unknown.
BMG Interactive will hardly be remembered for changing the landscape of games in those early days, but games like Courier Crisis and Fire & Klawd showed a desire to break away from the strict tropes of game design and rewrite the strict rules of the industry. “It’s in our DNA to avoid doing what other companies are doing,” commented Dan in a interview with Famitsu (translated by 1UP) in 2011. “You have to have originality in your games; you have to have some kind of interesting message. You could say that the goalpoint of Rockstar is to have the players really feel what we’re trying to do”.
To kickstart it’s gaming portfolio, BMG signed a design partnership in 1995 with Edinburgh-based developer DMA Design, a dev famous for their black-humoured puzzler Lemmings. And despite being whisked off to Scotland to work with their new Scottish partners, Dan and Sam discovered the talent pool that would lead them to their career-defining game: Grand Theft Auto.
Grand Theft Auto vs The Daily Mail
Released in 1998 on PC and the PlayStation, Grand Theft Auto wasn’t exactly a runaway success, but it stood as a fundamental departure from the game design mantras of the previous decade. Grand Theft Auto didn’t have much a story either; it simply dropped you into a top-down viewed-world and let you decide your own path in a living, breathing world. Such freedom might seem commonplace now, but in 1998 such an anti-linear experience was mind-blowing.
Grand Theft Auto was also violent, really violent. It was no more violent than something like Doom, but it’s ‘real-world’ setting of Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas was enough to get some serious fingers waving. The Daily Mail discovered an overnight hate for games and called for it to be banned. That ban never came, but Grand Theft Auto had taken the first step of stripping away the sugarcoated reputation games had gained within the mainstream media.
That same year, aspiring US-based publisher Take-Two saw Grand Theft Auto as the perfect fit for it’s focus on a darker, more adult direction for its output. Take-Two bought BMG Interactive from BMG, shipped it over to New York and, just like that, Rockstar Games was born.
Hey, hey I wanna be a Rockstar (apologies for the Nickelback reference)
With their new venture alive and kicking, Dan, Sam and their fellow founding members Terry Donovan, Jamie King and Gary Foreman reached back to DMA Design in the hopes of making the next Grand Theft Auto bigger, better and well, ballsier. Grand Theft Auto 2 arrived in 1999, and while it was no great leap from the first game, the quality of production from DMA and the creative direction of the Houser bros was there for all to see.
Grand Theft Auto 2 also introduced a fictional gang warfare system, where helping one group would lead other gangs to jump you if you entered their territory. And, just like the first game, you could go on Kill Frenzies and run over as many lines of Harry Krishna as your heart could contend with. The live-action intro (later re-dubbed GTA: The Movie) even had Scott Maslen from Eastenders! East-enders! Big time, people, big time.
Grand Theft Auto 2 sold respectably and it received a mixture of reviews that swayed towards the positive, but Dan and Sam were already looking to do more than just create a game in the same engine. They didn’t just want to create ‘okay’ games like the Midnight Club series; they wanted to take the rule book, blow it to its base atoms, then reconstruct it in a way no one could see coming.
And in 2001, they did just that. That was the year that Rockstar Games gave light to the revolution starter that was Grand Theft Auto 3. That was the year that s**t got real…
Later this week, we’ll be finishing up our history of Rockstar Games with the ever-expanding saga of GTA, the second coming of Red Dead and some mind-destroying sales figures. For more GTA news and general games-related tom-foolery, follow us on Twitter @infiniterobots. Keep it Infinite!