BRAND STORY: HOW ROCKSTAR GAMES RULED THE WORLD
Few brands have managed to successfully dictate their values and stance, and make an impact on pop culture with their products than the gaming behemoth, Rockstar Games. I’m a gamer, in a particularly casual sense – I do it, earn a living from it, and most of the time I’m tasked with playing games I don’t particularly enjoy (Call of Duty: Ghosts) That title is growing on me but for awhile there it was a real headache. Rockstar’s titles on the other hand, have always been both enjoyable experiences in that I like playing them/am enthralled and they pay off. That being said, the titles they’ve released have managed to show the Houser brothers’ (CEOs of Rockstar Games) taste in terms of films, music, literature, dark humour, and a satirical take on pop culture.
Taking a look at Rockstar’s flagship franchise, Grand Theft Auto, the company has managed to change the landscape of games in terms of scope, themes, and possibilities. Rockstar recognized the potential for adult-oriented themes in games, they saw that a market for edgier, darker, games exists which was not adequately covered by existing properties. Through GTA, Rockstar has been able to convey their messages of pop culture satire, crime stories, and filmic elements. GTA games, in the most general sense, feature a vast, lively, cityscape in which a protagonist must participate in some criminal element while incurring issues and betrayals as he rises to the top. The games are littered with masterful homages to other works, in their most recent outing, a heist mission echoed the first heist in Michael Mann‘s epic, Heat (1995). It’s clear the Housers appreciated Mann’s work, incorporating other elements from the movie and actually, some other Michael Mann elements from his other films into this – the use of Tangerine Dream for the score was a genius move, they also scored Mann’s Thief (1981). This demonstrates films and cultural elements that the Rockstar holds in esteem.
Another viable concept to GTA and Rockstar’s sensibilities is the dark humour mixed with parody that permeates their games. GTA in particular has been described as “holding a mirror up to pop culture”. In their recent outing, we are subject to fake television stations that echo trends in reality television albeit gone horribly and hilariously awry. One such example would be GTA’s take on America’s Got Talent, X-Factor, and American Idol. Their version, “Fame or Shame” features contestants going to extreme lengths to become famous even going as far as keeping awful singing contestants on the show to stir controversy and ratings (similar to what American Idol does). Additionally it features a three judge panel with the judge characters emulating how judges on American Idol act but to an extreme degree. Another hilarious form of pop culture parody emerges in the form of fake radio stations in game featuring banter from hosts with extreme political alignings or the ever popular “Weasel News” their take on FOX news. When you combine the parody aspects, the dark humour with the violent gameplay and story’s overarching crime film-like gravitas, you’re left with very unique experience one that uniquely echoes the company that birthed it’s views on life. You see the Houser’s taste in films complimented one end, and what they find comedically disturbing skewered, on the other.
The best way Rockstar communicates the theme of their games is through video media, their trailers – not unlike a film trailer, convey the tone of the game to the audience and set up characters early for them to identify with. In the case of Grand Theft Auto V, they even went as far as releasing the trailer a whole two years before the game was actually released.
Further examples of setting characters up:
In the above trailer you are introduced to the three wildly different protagonists of V’s storyline. Stepping out of the Grand Theft Auto Universe, Rockstar’s other, equally impressive games, rely on this same strategy.
Additionally tying in with the video media is specific print media creations, limited edition posters and advertisements that are placed and available IRL (in-real-life) for people to own and display their affection for Rockstar’s franchises. Infact the games themselves often come with posters to hang up and Rockstar Games’s logo in sticker form to place somwhere. A more creative and innovative approach Rockstar took with V, in particular, which also demonstrates their lampooning of modern society, was the “LifeInvader” pages online – essentially it’s a fake social media platform ala FaceBook but featuring Grand Theft Auto V characters. It’s an actual website, where in by “stalking” akin to “following” you can alter events in game. It’s a really weird augmented-reality game taking the form of social media to advertise the game itself.
Taking a look back to the above mentioned examples, they are further evidence of Rockstar’s taste in narrative film. Tying it back to the above mentioned examples of themes that permeate their work and tell their story. Red Dead Redemption echoes themes from “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly”, as well as a fair chunk of Leone‘s filmography (“Once Upon A Time in The West” to name a few) as well as other western staples, “Hang ‘Em High”, “The Outlaw Josey Wales”, “True Grit”, and “Unforgiven”. And we are able to gather this simply from sampling the trailer and by this we are able to gather that the brothers Houser love these types of movies, why else would they sample their games off these movies? Similarly Max Payne 3 echoes themes from the stylings of the late Tony Scott with “Man On Fire” (heavily borrowed from) and “Domino”, to Noir detective films of the 30s, to Eastern action films “Oldboy” and “The Killer”, to even Michael Mann (again)’s work in “Collateral” – EVEN Brazillian crime-dramas, “City of God” and “Elite Squad”. These films all have thematic nods in playing Max Payne 3 and would indicate an enjoyment from Rockstar, having built their game on these cultural elements.
The story of Rockstar itself is almost as impressive as their games, having made over a billion dollars during their last launch in September, the company has had continual watershed moments in game development for the past ten years. By finding refuge in movies and music they like, the Houser brothers were able to find a target audience of similarly minded audience and sell their works to reap massive rewards. Looking to the story of Rockstar Games, their past, one can also understand how this came to be. Originally Sam and Dan Houser had inclinations to follow down a hip-hop path, they spun New York hip-hop records in their basement whilst being enthralled with music producers DefJam’s Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. They eventually secured an internship at BMG – a large scale music giant from Germany. As gaming became a potentially lucrative investment, BMG would create BMG Interactive, and the brothers Houser would eagerly sign on. When BMG was sold to Take-Two Interactive, a part of the deal was that Sam Houser would become president of the new company – thus Rockstar Games was born. Referring back to the influence of hip-hop, it is apparent not just in a music sense in the brothers’ current works, but in a thematic sense. A key tenant to hip-hop is a technique called sampling, basically taking a sound clip of a recorded piece of music, instrumentation, or words, from one song and using it in an entirely new song. When we look at the Houser’s self-proclaimed “pop culture junkie” nature, it’s easy to see how that (films, books, music) is sampled into their works. Rockstar went on to massive success with their releases, constantly pushing boundaries in terms of money accrued and content/story boundaries. But every victory is not without hardship, even a villain or two – what’s a good story without a bad guy?
Ever since Grand Theft Auto III emerged on the gaming landscape in 2001, a watershed moment in the capabilities of the PS2 and the video game artform, Rockstar has been in the crosshairs of one Florida attorney. Jack Thompson set forth a massive campaign to tear down Take-Two Interactive and thereby silence Rockstar Games. Claiming that violent video games caused players to take up violent actions in real life, even when that has been disproven, Thompson began filing civil suits against Rockstar and lobbying others to stop selling the game. They eventually came to a settlement, however when Grand Theft Auto IV was released >Thompson called the game, “the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio.” Thompson’s crusade against Take-Two was largely futile. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, a much larger problem for Rockstar that occurred during the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas period resulted in a congressional hearing. It was Rockstar Games, the brothers Houser against the Federal Trade Commission for misrepresenting the game. This boiled down to hackers finding a hidden mod that enabled defunct code in the game, this code actually allowed a sex mini-game between the protagonist and one of his girlfriends. This finding naturally put Rockstar into the sights of the FTC while Take-Two, Rockstar’s publisher, was forced to take a massive loss on thegames. This is on account of ESRB ratings which shifted – see most stores will happily carry games from rated “E” Everyone all the way to “M” for Mature, they will not, however, carry “AO” Adult-Only. It’s akin to XXX ratings for movies, cinemas simply will not show movies with that content as it is bad for business. When the ESRB got wind of the sex mini-game, they forced the rating on GTA: SA to change from “M” to “AO” thus making it unsellable. A settlement was eventually reached, allowing Take-Two and Rockstar to proceed with further game releases pending patching Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It is estimated that Take-Two/Rockstar lost $24 million dollars in sales. With the murky waters of Federal legal trouble being sailed through relatively intact, Rockstar Games proceeded into the late 2000s with a massive release, only dwarfed by their most recent endeavor. It’s also worth noting, Rockstar Games arch-enemy, Jack Thompson eventually ended up being disbarred permanently from the Florida State Bar. With all of their mainstay opponents down and out for the count, it would seem Rockstar would go on to prosper without issues. However like any good narrative, a new problem is always around the corner.
2013 was a big year for Rockstar, winning much acclaim in terms of critical respect and sales, toppling the giant that is Call of Duty – not an easy feat, but not without issue. Rockstar initially held off on releasing a huge secondary component to Grand Theft Auto V, the online portion, which was promised in the videos was held off until October (a whole month after initial release). When online went operational it was so unexpectedly popular, it took Rockstar’s servers down. For days, people couldn’t access the other half of the game they had just dropped $70.00 on. To add fuel to the fire, once people made it online and spent a few minutes trying to create their character, they were locked in this surreal training stage, which seemed pointless considering nothing changed control-wise. Players were locked in this lobby, you could hear other players, the only thing you see is a loading icon and some disturbing electronic music – for hours. To make matters worse, when some players progressed and actually reached different ranks (where new stuff unlocks) when they shut the console off after saving and returned later, they’d find their characters and the money they’d earned in-game had all been erased. The launch was a nightmare, pure PR disaster. Rockstar responded by granting every player a $500,000 in game bonus and a free downloadable content set. Another issue players have had is with the promised “heists” feature as advertised. Heists was set to be the mainstay of online, in which you’d go on daring heists with friends and earn huge cash payouts and RP bonuses. Unfortunately we’re a season in and not a single heist has been released. This in addition to other bugs and glitches have been a turn-off for some players.
An avenue Rockstar should explore for releasing their initial downloadable content pack, the first round of heists, is in creating a trailer not unlike what they did with previous DLC installments for their other exceptional game, Red Dead Redemption – whose Undead Nightmare Pack received a massive trailer, a video marketing campaign. If they can build gamers hype up with a new video, highlighting new vehicles, weapons, and missions, and have a reasonable ask – they’d bite. I think a dual DLC strategy would be effective, offer all the online stuff for free, separately offer single-played DLC at a cost (bring the main characters back). Use video as the primary medium to advertise, allow YouTubers to re-upload it and market your game for free. Video really is the only way to effectively communicate how a game might feel, and it certainly does justice to the cutscenes which play out just like a film. Personally, I think Rockstar won’t botch this up, any gratuity would inspire faith for the audience that got screwed over in October. As a reasonable person, however – I’m not holding out for it, I’m sure whatever they cook up next will be amazing.
For the past decade, Rockstar Games has positioned itself as the adult themed content developer capable of delivery hit after hit. It’s telling of the times when television programs such as Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones excel – people want more of that type of high-quality content, Rockstar recognized this model and applied it to their games albeit with a more dark humour tone (in some instances). By being master storytellers, the brothers Houser have managed to oversee a company go from rags-to-riches, shaping the way a medium progresses through their forward-thinking games, all the while battling attorneys from Florida, the FTC, and technical issues. Their marketing endeavours have managed to concisely boil down these massive stories and universes into an effective short piece that successfully conveys both Rockstar’s appreciation for culture and the high-quality narrative and gameplay to their games; to the tune of a billion dollars in sales for GTA V and outsting their nearest competing franchise. I don’t think Rockstar will have any real worries for a long time.
- Criminal Mind: The Reclusive Genius Behind the Grand Theft Auto Franchise (playboysfw.kinja.com)
- Read the Fascinating Profile of Sam Houser – ‘The Reclusive Genius Behind the Grand Theft Auto Franchise’ (highsnobiety.com)
- Why Grand Theft Auto has not been made into a movie yet (kyrierose.wordpress.com)
- Grand Theft Auto V (gameforest.wordpress.com)
- How Rockstar’s Dan Houser views the making of GTA V (soshitech.com)
- Take-Two Talks About ‘Grand Theft Auto’ Film (games.com)