Dan Houser: The GTA San Andreas interview

Rockstar won’t talk to nobody, fool. You can’t see Rockstar. Until now. Eazily Dan approach, the microphone because he ain’t no joke…

Dan Houser, in a mammoth interview with UK’s Official PlayStation 2 magazine, has revealed GTA: San Andreas to be the game of dreams. Unbelievably, San Andreas – set in the early 90s Los Angeles of Eazy E, NWA, Bloods, Crips and the old skool, fool – is a monstrous five times the size of Vice City and contains more updates, tweaking and downright major improvements that its role of the biggest selling video game of its generation is already sealed. Forget raising the bar. Rockstar creative VP Dan Houser is about to snap the bar over the rest of the industry’s collective heads.

You already know what’s been released so far. Gang member CJ returns home after the murder of his mother to the crime-riddled Los Santos to gangbang, deal dope and live out the hiphop fantasies of every 30-something man reading this page. Read. It’s beyond mental. Word.

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On swimming: “Swimming we never had before. We just got pissed off with people saying, ‘We can’t do swimming.’ It works well in the game. So if you drive off a bridge you’re not going to drown. But that said, it’s not a swimming game.”

On getting out of cars in water: “If you don’t choose to exit the car, you will sink with the car, then you’ll have a certain amount of stamina under water which you can build up. There’ll be a few missions that will have swimming in them, but it’s not going to be like a PSone-era action adventure game where everyone was obsessed with swimming periodically. Definitely not. It just gives it playability.”

On stupid hair: “If you’ve got a stupid haircut, people will say, ‘You look stupid’.”

On territories: “You can now recruit a gang and take over territories with them, and then lose territories if you don’t look after them. So you’ve got the idea that bits of the map become personalised to you as much as your own character becomes personalised to you.”

On story and mission structure: “Yeah, you can make money out of them if you look after them. There are bits in the game that are more gang focussed and bits where you’re more of a lone operative. We’ve got this challenge in the game where we want to keep it open and we want to put a good story in – the stories are really good for dragging you through everything.”

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On game personalisation and more on mission structure: “If we’d both been playing for a while, your game would begin to feel very different from my game. We might be at the same point in the mission structure, but your character might look great, you know, have all these great attributes, have a lot of money coming in, but if I’m just focussed on the missions I might look like a piece of shit. It’s about giving people that freedom of choice. It’s still very much an action game, but there’s a whole world out there to explore if you want to. At points in the GTA existence we’ve gone very, very non-linear, like GTA2 was very, very non-linear. And we’ve tried to get the best of that (in GTA:SA) which comes down to giving people the freedom of choice at any moment. You also get the advantage of a story which relies on emotion and characters. So the story opens up, it feels very non-linear, then it closes for a bit, then it opens up again: it works quite well, I think.”

On the open countryside: “We love, from a technical point of view, the driving in the open spaces on Smuggler’s Run. It’s awesome. Now you’ll be able to do that in GTA, with all of the GTA gameplay. We’ve now got a sick number of vehicles, and some that you can’t really put in the town but you can put in the countryside, like a quad bike. You can really race across this countryside – it feels really quick out there. We’ve done a lot of work on the driving physics. It’s still very much a chasing game, not a car racing game, but once you get into the countryside it feels super-quick now. It’s also put through the Grand Theft Auto filter, so it’s not the friendliest environment. Like when towny goes to the country, it’s scary and full of inbreds and what-not. Your missions reflect it – you’re meeting degenerates and going off to do local bank heists. It works really well from a story perspective. We’ve gone to a lot of trouble to make sure the more outlandish missions still make sense within the world and where you are in the story. The countryside is chunks and chunks and chunks and there are bits to do everywhere. The map looks super-organic, so it looks real. We’ve done a lot of work so it doesn’t look toy-towny; a lot of work rounding up corners so it doesn’t look square. Also, whichever way you want to cross it – be it on a car or a bike or be it on foot shooting – there’s really good gameplay built naturally into the environment. We’ve thought about the world from lots of different perspectives to make sure the missions show off all the best assets of the map.”

On NPCs and bringing cities to life: “We’re really trying to give the cities more life. Every pedestrian now has a brain. They’ve got much more refined AI. They’ve got a lot more unique animations depending on what the pedestrian type is and what activities they do. So not only will you see a lot more pedestrians, but they’ll do a lot more shit. So the guys you see in the ghetto and the guys you see in the countryside are going to both act and look different. It gives it more life than it ever used to have. We’ve done much more research on the characters, like we now go and do fashion shoots to make sure all the period costumes are right. The characters now have more bones, so we get proper facial animations and stuff.”

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On graphics, time-of-day action and shadowing: “We’ve done a lot of work on the graphics from a technical standpoint. We’ve completely rewritten the render pipeline. The detail and the scope you now see, we couldn’t get before. Like, in the desert, there’s tumble weeds and so forth, really organic stuff. There are tons of unique interiors, a much more densely populated map. There were bits in the Vice City map that we felt were a little under populated. And even in the countryside, it feels like there’s more possibility for action. We’ve got real-time reflections in mirrors, we’ve done a huge amount of work on the lighting system. We were pioneers in the day-to-night clock system. But now it’s a lot better. There’s a totally separate model for anything in the day-time and anything in the night-time. So you get a much better feeling of night and day, a much better contrast. There are shadows, which give us a gameplay thing we never had previously, because you can hide in them. Now you can sneak in a GTA game for the first time. You can have a mission where you can play it balls out with a machine gun, running and trying to blast everyone, or you could sneak around and pick them off one by one. It gives a lot of choice.”

On nicking bits from other games: “Well, it’s just kind of picking out the good elements from everywhere. There is a certain magpie element on everything. Just trying to hone this enormous beast. We’ve honed the physics on both the player and the vehicle driving, so again it feels a lot more like an action movie. We’ve done a lot of work with the cars and the camera so it feels a lot more action oriented, while still giving you good control.”

On fighting upgrades: “There are tons more animations, so you’ve got a variety of fighting stances and a variety of attacks. You can now target while you’re fist-fighting, as well as while you’re gun fighting. We’ve totally overhauled the gun-fighting targeting system. Targeting is always a challenge in any third-person game, even in a built-from-the-ground-up third-person shooter, because you’re looking at this guy and he’s got to look over there – the physics of it make it difficult. But I think now we’ve got a really elegant solution that gives you a lot of control.”

On targeting: “If you’re in a situation where there are innocent people and enemies, it will naturally focus on the enemies. You will have more control this time, but it will also do a very good auto-target. You can still flick around through targets, but it’ll make much better first choices than it has ever done in the past. It’s something that’s currently being refined.”

On characters and satire: “We’ve developed our characters a bit more and to that extent it’s more serious. But it’s still very much trying to be funny at all points. The satire… I suppose it’s levelled at the broader weirdness of America and American consumerism and American action movies as well.”

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On humour: “Well, it’s because we’ve got six people working on it. Me and another friend of mine do a lot of the radio stuff and we have to compete with the stuff the other guys are doing on the signage (shop logos, company names). They’re coming out with all these ridiculous sick jokes all the time – it’s about having funny guys with a very dry British sense of humour working on stuff and the fact that everyone wants to push stuff. So that’s just completely grown organically. It was even there in GTA1 to some extent, that stuff. Some of the pager messages. GTA2 didn’t have it so much – we were trying to do that slightly futuristic thing. And then, from GTA3 onwards it really managed to come alive.”

More on humour: “The guys that do the signage can push it really far. They love the scatological stuff, but they’re always so on the money. The puns they come up with are so awesome. It’s like, ‘Ow, it’s a bit much, but it’s really funny,’ so they slip it in there. And a lot of the stuff people don’t even notice. Some people might not even like the GTA humour at all, but it becomes an action game at that point.”

On ‘getting the feel right’: “We are very conscious of that being the potential problem. And so, styling-wise, everything has to feel as though it matches perfectly. The controls have to feel like they’re from the same game, the animations have to feel like they’re from the same game, the art direction has to feel like it’s from the same game. Even the story – which might be outlandish, even though you thought you were in a game about being in a gang running drugs or whatever – needs to make sense at that point. We do want to stretch stuff, because we do want to give people a broad experience. Here it always feels like you’re in the same game. Now I’m having my hair cut, now I’m running around in a car… It all feels like the same world. Plus, of course, you have the freedom to do it or not to do it. We do some sections where you go first-person, but they make sense as well of where you are in a mission. It’s the third part of a loosely bound trilogy, the first of which was set in 2001, the second in mid-80s and this was in the early 90s. And there are some loose connections in there for the hardcore fan. We felt that the east coast was a good starting point, Miami in the 80s was great, LA was the coolest part of the world at that time. We’ve done a huge amount of research on the voices, making sure they sound like LA, not New York. It needs to feel Californian, but still presented in that GTA way.”

On filling up DVDs: “One area that I’m really involved in is creating the audio assets – I think we’ll have well over 400 speaking parts, which is insanity. The amount of studio time we’re having to get through and the amount of writing that’s involved, we’re more worried about getting it on the disc. That’s our initial challenge. We’re having to go to dual layer DVD because we’ve already filled up a full DVD.

On unbridled ambition: “This is the thing about having a very ambitious team. Everyone, every section pushes every other section, nobody wants to be the guy that isn’t pushing as hard as possible. Everyone wants there bit to be the bit that people remember from the game. There’s a lot of internal competition and pressure to do the best that they can do. You know, ‘How can we tie that in together?’ And suddenly you’re like, ‘Oh shit, it needs another 10,000 extra audio samples or another 50 pedestrian models. Oh well, it’s worth it; don’t let the side down…’ There’s a really good energy like that. The danger is currently the storage medium (DVD), and one we thing we’re all praying for in the next round of hardware is that they don’t just go, ‘It’s DVD again’. We’ve done some clever stuff with compressing it, but we were virtually full on the disc with Vice City – this time we’re overfilling the disc to the max.”

On California radio: “California has got the best radio of anywhere in America. There’s going to be a big, big range of music in this one.”

On voice acting: “From a production point of view we’re doing all the stuff now, so it’s not all put to bed. And we probably won’t even mention it until after the game comes out. But time spent in a voice booth doesn’t help with the quality of interaction. We use voices because they’ve got a strong voice for a cut-scene, no other reason. We like top do it because it adds to the experience, but we’d hate to think people buy the game because so-and-so is voicing it.”

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