There aren’t a lot of surprises in the entertainment world these days — particularly when it comes to tentpole events.
Whether it’s a quick-cut trailer, the interview circuit or an online spoiler site, audiences generally have a pretty solid idea of what they’re going to experience — with movies, TV shows and videogames.
But that’s rarely, if ever, the case with new releases from Rockstar Games. The vidgame developer tightly controls the flow of information before a title’s ship date and seldom emerges from the studio to talk about its products. The reason, says Dan Houser, the veep and co-founder of creative at Rockstar, is pretty simple: Letting people peek behind the curtain spoils the fun.
“It’s really important to us that the games (feel) kind of magical,” he says. “It might annoy people that we don’t give out more information, but I think the end point is people enjoy the experience. … The less they know about how things are pieced together and how things are broken down and what our processes are, the more it will feel like this thing is alive, that you are being dragged into the experience. That’s what we want.”
Houser himself prefers to stay in the background, but as the company’s next major release, “Max Payne 3,” nears its March 2012 due date, he was willing to talk with Variety about the game, the challenges it faces and the studio’s philosophy.
“Max Payne 3” is the sequel to an action series that, in many ways, introduced cinematic aspects to the videogame world and remains one of the more story-driven shooters to come out. Payne was a fugitive undercover cop, framed for murder and hunted by the NYPD and the mob — and the first two games had a very noir feel to them. The 2008 cinematic adaptation was critically panned (and not much of a commercial success), but fans of the game series have stayed loyal, despite an eight-year gap since the last installment.
That puts Rockstar in something of a complicated space: Not only will the game compete against other titles in its genre, it has to fight the nostalgic memories of players who have long since forgotten any of its weaknesses. (It’s a battle not unlike the one ABC faced with “Charlie’s Angels” and “V.”)
“I think the challenge of nostalgia is a profound one, because one thing about videogames is your memory tends to remove the horrendous,” Houser says. “(The games) become these great, perfect experiences. … It’s definitely a challenge to get the right pitch when you want to appeal to the fans of the original and bring in a new audience.”
The new game sees Max working as a private security specialist protecting an industrialist and his family in Sao Paulo. When gangs target the family, Max must battle not only the gangsters, but also the inner demons that have driven him for so long.
It’s a story that, on the surface, sounds formulaic, but both Rockstar and the Max Payne series have always taken pains to weave a complex tale into the games, rather than loosely tying event moments together with a threadbare plot.
Houser, who is also lead writer on “Max Payne 3” (as he was on “Grand Theft Auto IV”), says he believes refining writing is essential to the maturation of the industry.
“If games are to be the next major form of creative consumption, art, cultural expression or whatever the correct term is, then strong narrative has to be part of that,” he says. “If the mechanics are fine and the story is ridiculous, the experience is much diminished.”
Maintaining control over story — and any cinematic qualities — is especially challenging as the gaming world moves toward a more multiplayer focus. Players still appreciate a good campaign, but if a game doesn’t have a strong online component where they can play with (or, even better, against) others, it hurts the game’s earnings potential.
Rockstar hasn’t talked much about the multiplayer aspects of “Max Payne 3,” but Houser hints that just because those elements of the game live outside of the campaign, it doesn’t mean they’re not part of the narrative.
“We wanted to put some elements of single player into the multiplayer so the multiplayer will have a lot more detail and have elements of story in it and have a sort of an immersive quality,” he says. “We think that’s something that is underexplored in multiplayer.”
“Max Payne 3” has been a long time coming. First announced in 2009, with an expected ship date of that winter, it has been pushed back a couple of times to let the development team polish it and ensure the quality was up to Rockstar’s exacting standards. This includes an excruciating attention to detail, which Houser says is the real key to the company’s success.
Realism, he says, is also a major goal. “We are building a film set, but it’s a 360-degree film set that has to join together and feel real,” he explains. “Some of the stuff we end up being most obsessed by are the things that join between walls. And where a lot of other games fail is their models may look great, but they don’t sit together very well.”
While Rockstar likens itself more to a film studio than a traditional game developer (the company shoots the equivalent of a feature film every few weeks with its motion capture rig, Houser notes), it’s not eager to embrace a film industry trend other gamemakers are chasing: 3D.
While the PC version of “Max Payne 3” may be 3D-compatible (nothing, so far, is confirmed, but most major PC games offer the feature these days), Houser says it’s not a passion of his. “I don’t think anyone has solved the riddle of how you make 3D an integral part of the gaming experience,” he says simply.