Videogame company creates its own rockstars

In the videogame world, Dan Houser — the co-founder and creative VP of Rockstar Games — is a rockstar. But wearing a T-shirt and khakis, eating candy in a conference room of the company’s New York headquarters, it’s clear he sees himself more like a roadie.

Rockstar’s “Grand Theft Auto” games are a hit-machine arguably unparalleled in any other part of the media business.

But Houser himself avoids virtually all public appearances (whether corporate profiles or interviews with adoring fans), or speaking out when his work is being bashed by critics and threatened by politicians appalled by the violent and sexual content in the M-rated “GTA” series. Rockstar doesn’t even make photos of him available.

“We try to keep a relatively low profile, but not because we’re weird or reclusive,” Houser says during one of a handful of interviews he’s conducting around “Grand Theft Auto IV,” which comes out April 29.

“While (people) may find it interesting in the short term to read whatever crap I have to say, in the long term, the less they know about us, the more they are able to lose themselves in the world of our games.”

In fact, it’s tough to engage him in a discussion about videogames because, while he plays them, he’s much more of a movie fan.

He and his brother Sam founded Rockstar a decade ago with the express intent of making games for people who are “culturally savvy” and find most interactive media to be “slightly demeaning.”

Creatively, “GTA IV” is easily their biggest undertaking to date and one of the biggest efforts ever in the videogame biz. It’s been in the works for four years and undoubtedly cost well into the tens of millions of dollars. While outsiders may be aware of “Grand Theft Auto” only for its infamous hookers and carjackings, gamers know that the series features some of the most richly detailed worlds and intricate writing on the market.

Houser wants his game to sell tens of millions of copies, of course, but he’s also insistent that people take it seriously.

“We regard our competition, in terms of characterization and storytelling and cultural relevance, as being alongside movies rather than other games,” he says confidently.

Despite being one of the most successful brands in the videogame biz, and working with some of its biggest budgets, Rockstar’s loft-style offices still feel more like that of an indie-record label with its hardwood floors, employee bikes by the front door and a dog running around.

That indie feel also extends to the company’s content. “Grand Theft Auto” stands out in the videogame world not only for its record-breaking sales, but for how carefully the brand is managed. The biggest franchise in the videogame world last year, “Guitar Hero,” has four new versions coming out in 2008. “GTA IV” is only the sixth game in 10 years, along with a few handheld editions.

That may not always thrill parent company Take-Two, which has typically struggled financially in years when a “GTA” sequel doesn’t come out, but it’s a rare and luxurious position that Houser and his partners fully enjoy.

“We have always regarded the success of ‘GTA’ as having bought us the freedom to do what we want creatively and a responsibility to not milk it,” he observes.

It also lets Rockstar keep total control of it everything involved in the game. The publisher cuts every trailer, designs every ad, and handles every publicity detail inhouse, refusing to let outsiders get their hands on the “cultural product” that Houser maintains only he and the small team of senior execs and developers fully understand. That’s a massive undertaking for such a small publisher, as anyone who has seen “GTA IV’s” now ubiquitous billboards in major cities can attest.

The first “GTA” was developed, primarily under Sam’s watch, at BMG Interactive and came out in 1997. When then-small publisher Take Two bought the German conglom’s videogame division in 1998, the Brit native Housers moved to New York and were asked to start up a U.S. publishing division for the company, which at that point only distributed games for others domestically.

While they’ve always done relatively well, they leapfrogged to the top of the industry in 2001 with “Grand Theft Auto III,” the first 3-D game to take place in a completely open world where players could — or at least felt like they could — go wherever they want, do whatever they want and talk to whomever they want, rather than moving through predefined and tightly constrained levels.

Since then, Rockstar and its “GTA”-focused development studio in Scotland have made two sequels, “GTA: Vice City” and “GTA: San Andreas,” each of which was more and more successful. (There also have been two relatively successful spinoffs for the handheld PSP).

The games have been a bedrock of stability for Take-Two, which has had more than its share of corporate drama in that time, most recently resulting in a new management team led by executive chairman Strauss Zelnick — who, ironically, was CEO of BMG Entertainment when it sold the vidgame unit to Take Two — which took over last year following an accounting scandal.

In the past few months, Zelnick and his board have been fighting against a $2 billion bid for the publisher by Electronic Arts, whose CEO has admitted his bid is motivated in large part by “GTA.”

“If I freaked out every time this kind of thing was going on, we wouldn’t be coming up on 10 years,” Houser says, counting Rockstar’s time with Take Two, and the parent company’s never-ending intrigue. “There must have been 20 dramas in that time. It’s what I associate with being in America.”

While pinstripe-suit-wearing veteran media exec Zelnick deals with a hostile takeover offer on the sixth floor of Take-Two’s East Village offices, Houser’s T-shirt outfit stands out on the fourth floor for its conservativism compared with Rockstar’s hipster employees.

The creative muscles there, and at the “GTA” development studio in Scotland, are being pushed further than ever with “Grand Theft Auto IV.” Rockstar is attempting to break the pattern of the last few games in which the content was heavily influenced by pop culture from the eras in which they were set — ’80s Miami for “Vice City” and early ’90s L.A. for “San Andreas” — including everything from the hip-hop scene to “Scarface.” This game, Houser promises, is inspired only by Rockstar’s collective imagination.

“GTA IV,” which takes place in a scaled-down version of modern-day New York called Liberty City, is about an Eastern European immigrant named Niko trying to find his way, settle some scores and, as is typical in “GTA,” deal with some unsavory but often hilarious characters.

It has all of the series tropes that get attention from critics, like gunplay and sexy women, as well as the ones more often ignored, like an intricate plot with character arcs and a sharp satirical eye.

Houser describes it as a modern day gangster movie and says the game’s technological leaps, which include hi-def graphics, an advanced physics system, online multiplayer that takes place across all of Liberty City, and well over 100,000 sound effects and lines of dialogue, allowed him as the head writer and his team to develop a much more original story than they’ve done before.

“When we got to the point that we could make the graphics and animation and physics so much more detailed, we could write in a more naturalistic way to match that,” he explains. “We also felt that over the last few years, there hasn’t been a great standout gangster movie, and maybe we could produce it ourselves.”

Pressed whether other games that have come out while “GTA IV” was in the works, such as EA’s “Godfather,” might negate that originality, Houser scoffs. The only thing that gave him pause, he says, was “The Departed,” since “GTA IV” also features several Irish-American gangsters.

Violence and sex along the lines of “The Departed” are sure to bring “GTA IV” its share of complaints from the usual group of videogame bashers, of course. But “The Departed” was also the big winner at the
Oscars last year, which Houser says is exactly the point of what he’s doing and exactly what critics of videogame violence don’t understand.

“If this was a movie or TV show and was the best in its field, you’d give it loads of awards and put those awards shows on television,” he says, getting worked up for the first time. “I genuinely don’t aspire to that, but I do aspire to not being called an asshole for doing the same thing in a videogame.”

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