While the folks at Rockstar North sit around all day throwing paper aeroplanes across the office and laughing at YouTube videos (and developing Grand Theft Auto IV), their sister studio in Leeds is hard at work. Their work is hard because there's just over a month to go until Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories releases on PlayStation Portable. The first PSP title was an unknown quantity almost until launch, and the degree to which the Leeds-based team managed to deliver GTA to a handheld exceeded all previous efforts; but now comes the hard part: escalation. Fortunately, they learned a great deal during the original's development - not just about the game, but the hardware - and much of that has come in handy during VCS' gestation. With this in mind, we quizzed studio head Gordon Hall recently about how the experience compares to the last one, and whether it will ever be possible to drive us to the logical conclusion: a PSP-based San Andreas.
Eurogamer: Apart from the obvious feedback you received - I'm thinking primarily about comments concerning mission length and variety - what lessons did you learn in making Liberty City Stories that have influenced the design of Vice City Stories?
Gordon Hall: With Liberty City Stories the development team at Leeds were very much dealing with a platform in its infancy, and with any platform it takes some time to come to terms with the development tools. A lot of the missions were built with a handheld in mind... namely, quicker and simpler mission types. While happy with the decision, having a chance to create a new title in the universe on the PSP, we opted to go with longer and more diverse missions. What we did not want to do was replicate Liberty City Stories in a different city; we wanted a whole new game set in this universe. Doing so required a new visual setting, and a fresh gameplay feel.
At the same time our ears are always open and constructive feedback by fans is taken on board. We are always looking at ways to improve what we do and this time around our newfound experience has enabled us to work really hard to make the missions even more varied, dynamic and action-packed than before with multiple ways to tackle them by land, sea or air.
The Studio is known for its ability to compress data, achieving the previously unachievable. This kind of grim determination to prove people wrong pays dividends when you are faced with the task of putting a game like Vice City Stories on a PSP, a platform many industry pundits said could never render such a game in a good light. We have moved on from our experience on Liberty City Stories to a place that is truly very interesting indeed.
Eurogamer: Given that a number of your target audience will be intimately acquainted with Vice City on the PS2, have you taken advantage of that to play on their expectations, perhaps with a bit of comic intent, and can you offer any examples?
Gordon Hall: For me, Vice City defined the term 'cool game', I remember playing it thinking this was a big turning point for the industry. To be able to take players back to this world is a big thing for me personally. You have so many fond memories, such great places to re-visit - it's a great opportunity that needs serious, heart-felt attention. The scripting is an integral part of any Grand Theft Auto game and Vice City Stories is no exception. The footprint of the map in Vice City Stories is the same but as the game is set in 1984, two years before the events of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, there will be thematic and structural differences to the city, including some cool new landmarks like the new Ferris Wheel (Chunder Wheel) near Vice Point. We firmly believe that fans of the original Vice City will have an incredible sense of nostalgia as they cruise down Ocean Drive and other popular destinations, but we hope they will also be pleasantly surprised with some of the differences present in the city. It should be fun.
Eurogamer: What's the nature of your collaborative relationship with Rockstar North, and how does it manifest itself in the development of Vice City Stories?
Gordon Hall: Rockstar North is the series creator; they obviously want to see that we're treating their baby well! As everyone knows, North have an amazing track record making Grand Theft Auto and the missions/experiences that take place within them. At our studio we primarily create handheld games for GameBoy Advance and PSP, and our expertise in that platform combined with key investments in personnel have made it possible for us to produce the level of work necessary for a Grand Theft Auto game. We all work closely on all levels, and as a result, the full Grand Theft Auto universe has transferred perfectly to the portable medium, and we really think that in our second go at it we've polished most of the rough edges. We hope the audience agrees. Fingers crossed...
Eurogamer: In developing the "Stories" titles for PSP, how much license does Rockstar Leeds have to alter the fundamentals of the Grand Theft Auto formula?
Gordon Hall: Well, license is dictated by two things: imagination and technology. Between Rockstar North, Rockstar NYC and Rockstar Leeds we have no shortage of imagination. However, with technology, that's a whole different story. I don't think there's a device on the market capable of building what's in our minds at the moment. However, when building a game for the PSP, we feel we took advantage of all of the system's strengths, and found ways around the shortcomings. Reconfiguring the game to feel natural with the PSP button layout (minus two shoulder buttons and an analog stick, as well as making the cars handle as well as they do with the analog nub), ensuring that a game as big as Vice City Stories streams in as well as it does, while maintaining complex AI scripts, streaming music, environments, etc is no small feat. Liberty City Stories was a big accomplishment, and Vice City Stories, which has so much more going on, boggles our minds that we even got it running, let alone crammed as much content as we did on there.
Eurogamer: Rockstar views PSP as a different user base to PS2, and with Liberty City Stories it took advantage of that later on to release a PS2 version. Has your approach to those markets changed in light of LCS' performance on these platforms?
Gordon Hall: At Rockstar we are committed to providing groundbreaking gameplay experiences for platforms that we find exciting, which includes both the PSP and PlayStation 2. Vice City Stories will mark our third game for PSP with Midnight Club 3 and Liberty City Stories before it, and we believe it is a powerful and innovative format to develop games for. The fan reaction to Liberty City Stories has been fantastic and we never could have foreseen the level of success that it has achieved on the PSP. What it also showed us, however, was there was still a very big demand from the PS2 fan base which at that point hadn't had the opportunity to play this particular installment in the Grand Theft Auto franchise. As for Vice City Stories, there are as yet no plans to bring it to PS2; we hope everyone enjoys what we've done with the game on the format it was designed for.
Eurogamer: We've been told that Rockstar Leeds has made huge leaps in terms of the technological capacity of the PSP and the amount of content it's possible to include. With this in mind, is it realistic to expect the PSP to support something as gigantic as San Andreas in future?
Gordon Hall: Technically feasible? I'm not sure, we'll have to see. With every project we ship for PSP we uncover new ways to squeeze the best out of the machine. This has meant that in the year between Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories we've been able to more than double the city size capable of fitting on a UMD. Who knows, at that rate we'll be able to go bigger the more we know and the more the technology moves on. Can't rule anything out in terms of being able to fit San Andreas on there, but whether we'll actually do it or not, that's another matter! All that I know at moment is I am very excited about Vice City Stories, and even more excited about fans' reaction to this game. We will always try our best to push the boundaries on each consecutive title; who knows what the future might bring.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories is due out exclusively on PSP on 3rd November.