In another life, I would have more actively sought out a career in the videogame industry. Videogames were as much of a staple of my young life as film or television, starting with the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). I was also involved in computer gaming starting in the late 1980s and more heavily so by the mid-1990s. As a result, I learned quite a bit of my early computer knowledge while trying to coax the hot new games to run in the archaic world of MS-DOS and Windows 95.
Quaint as it might sound now, CD-ROMs just then were coming into the mainstream and they seemed like the start of a revolution. Sound and graphics cards in computers created powerhouse systems that made one feel like they were on the cusp of the immersive experience that many had speculated would become the norm in the 1990s. Over in the game console world, 3D graphics also became the standard.
I ultimately drifted away from videogames after realizing how much of a time sink they had become in my life. In seeking out the most immersive games, it meant giving the game a commitment of dozens to a hundred or more hours. As appealing as virtual experiences like videogames might have been, I realized that such commitments might not be overly healthy for me. As such, I largely ‘retired’ from regular game play. However, I still keep an eye on the game industry, enjoy learning about aspects of its still-recent history, and often fight off the temptation to dive back in.
From a historical standpoint, one can argue that videogames in the second half of the 1990s were ultimately defined by the emergence of “Doom”-like first-person shooters. That’s an argument based largely on game revenue, as those types of games dominated the sales charts.
By that same measure, the “Grand Theft Auto” series – give or take the cumulative revenue of some massive multiplayer online games – has dominated for the past decade or more. Although I had played the first game in the “Grand Theft Auto” series, I largely lost touch with what had occurred since that time. As such, I became more interested in learning more about the “Grand Theft Auto” franchise after coming across a profile on the head of Rockstar Games on the cusp of their “Grand Theft Auto 5” release (Goldberg).
That article referenced David Kushner’s book “Jacked: The Unauthorized Behind-The-Scenes Story of Grand Theft Auto,” suggesting that it was a definitive work on the subject. After reading Kushner’s book, I found that it wasn’t entirely the insider look that one might have hoped it would be. Given Rockstar’s secretive nature though, Kushner probably gained as much access as could be expected. The company’s story, as told by Kushner, ultimately came down to a few essential points.
The key figure at Rockstar Games was Sam Houser, with game story assistance by his literary-minded brother Dan. The Houser brothers were the sons of London Club owner Walter Houser and model/actress Geraldine Moffat. They lived a privileged upbringing in the U.K. that Sam parlayed into budding career in the music industry via BMG. When BMG ventured into video games in the mid-1990s, Sam moved in that direction, modeling the marketing and creative strategy of Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Recordings. The eventual Rockstar Games was essentially birthed via BMG’s game division.
There’s a key argument to be made regarding who was the ‘creator’ of “Grand Theft Auto.” Sam Houser certainly deserved a large share of the credit, but one should keep in mind that the game was repurposed from “Lemmings” developer David Jones’s “Race’n’Chase” concept.
As is often the case, making “Grand Theft Auto” into transcendent work took ingredients from multiple sources. Jones would later have a falling out with the Housers, but that didn’t stop the series from having increasing success. Unfortunately, Jones’s contributions have since been largely overlooked in favor of the contributions by the Houser brothers, particularly Sam.
To Sam Houser’s credit, he pushed to change the “Race’n’Chase” concept into something that had ‘attitude.’ It was that edge – changing the game from being cops chasing robbers to robbers running from cops – that made the game unique.
The launch of the first “Grand Theft Auto” game was a textbook case of manufacturing controversy as a means of gaining free publicity. In what was a key move, the Rockstar hired PR guru Max Clifford.
Clifford was well-known for being able to spin up manufactured controversies in the U.K. He used contacts in the U.K. government to plant seeds of controversy regarding the pending release of “Grand Theft Auto” and the plan worked brilliantly. Similar free publicity/’controversies’ started in the United States when politicians there also took the bait.
The great conceit in Clifford’s strategy was in forcing the hand of those who would surely be morally outraged by a game like “Grand Theft Auto.” Politicians who wanted to warn parents about a game in which children could pretend to be criminals didn’t seem to grasp that their public warnings were little more than free advertising for the game.
Rockstar also used some of Def Jam’s guerrilla marketing techniques, including plastering public spaces with stickers. At times though, these efforts went a step too far. One example was a ‘Steal This Game’ advertisement, in which players were encouraged to act like the criminals inside the game by literally stealing copies from stores. Retailors didn’t appreciate the encouragement.
Rockstars in NYC vs. Jack Thompson
The success of the first “Grand Theft Auto” game led to Rockstar Games being acquired by Take-Two Interactive. This transition added an element of corporatization to the situation, but Rockstar still remained largely autonomous.
The acquisition coincided with Rockstar relocating to New York City. It also occurred at a time when the series was moving into 3D and gaining further traction in the mainstream console market. The sales of each “Grand Theft Auto” sequel grew exponentially, with the series going from an interesting, controversial niche game in the late 1990s to a mainstream mega-hit in the 2000s.
The growing profile of the company and its key leaders led to frequent stories of ego run amuck. Partying was mixed with long hours of grinding work. Each new addition to the “Grand Theft Auto” series became all about ‘pushing the envelope’ in ways that would increasingly shock the public.
As Rockstar was gaining attention, the company began to catch the eye of Jack Thompson. Thompson was a Florida-based activist lawyer who had gained notoriety from successful attacks against ‘shock job’ Howard Stern. Thompson turned his attention to video games and their possible connections with violent crime. Not surprisingly, “Grand Theft Auto” came into his cross-hairs.
The increasingly-rebellious attitudes within Rockstar and Thompson’s witch-hunt against videogames set the stage for what Kushner focused on as the book’s central conflict. In 2004, Sam had pushed to include a scene in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” that included sexually explicit content. Due to game rating issues, that scene was cut out of the game but the code itself wasn’t removed. The scene was simply bypassed.
At roughly the same time, Rockstar had developed a tolerant relationship with ‘modders’ – game hackers who created add-ons or other ‘patches’ for games that might enhance the functionality. After the game was released in October 2004, a modder named Patrick Wildenborg noticed the extra content and released a patch entitled “Hot Coffee” so that users could play it.
Once this content became public, Rockstar doubled-down and accused Wildenborg of having added it to the game. This was a very bad move, in that it turned the hacker community on Rockstar. Understandably, the modders didn’t appreciate being called liars and being framed as ‘bad guys.’
Eventually, the truth came out that Rockstar had done a poor job of formally removing the controversial content before the game’s release. They had lied to the press and falsely tried to finger the modders. As a result of this admission, “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” was pulled from store shelves after being re-rated “Adult Only.” The game was re-released later in 2005, but potential sales were lost in between releases and retail store policies regarding the purchase of their games were tightened.
Thompson’s zealousness aside, it was hard to sympathize for Rockstar in that the handling of the Hot Coffee incident showed ego run amuck. The incident was a classic example of the cover-up being worse than the crime.
A mix of problems for Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive came about along with the Hot Coffee fallout, some of them unrelated to the controversy. Take-Two’s executives were investigated for illegally backdating stock options and other accounting issues. In general, financial analysts began to view Take-Two’s leadership as either incompetent or dishonest. All of those problems with Rockstar’s parent company only cast a further shadow.
Within Rockstar, employee morale began to fall. Employees took pride in working at one of the highest-profile, most successful videogame makers. However, even the most loyal employees began to fell burned out by an endless crunch of new releases. While the company encouraged hard partying by its employees, it also demanded unusually hard work from them as well. With no breaks in an assembly line production mentality, people began to crack under the endless pressure.
By this point, one could read the entire story as the rise and fall of a company that had let ego run amuck. The video game industry at large looked with glee at the problems that Rockstar had found itself encountering. The crew at Rockstar had managed to alliterate their peers over the years and that only made their fall from grace much harder.
As with most stories, how you view it has to do with where it ends. The story of Rockstar Games and “Grand Theft Auto” continued well beyond the low point that was hit during the Hot Coffee controversy. In hindsight, one can see that the series easily rebounded in the years since such controversies, with the latest installments in the series hitting sales records.
Controversies aside, it was worth keeping in mind the technical and managerial journey that was made over the span of the story of the “Grand Theft Auto” series. The games exploded in scope from small team projects to featuring a cast of 861 voice actors for one installment. Hundreds of other game developers and associated staff were involved. The script for that game included eighty thousand lines of dialogue written in multiple languages. The revenue for a single game would grow to easily clear $1 billion within days of release.
Where Kushner’s book fell short for me was that it didn’t give much insight into how the central figures at Rockstar evolved to manage such massive software projects. Instead, the book veered toward conflicts between the company and the public. Those weren’t uninteresting stories, but the “Jacked” felt like it lacked depth by being ‘The Story of Hot Coffee’ rather than a definitive history of Rockstar during a two decade span of time.
Maybe the story that Kushner told was the only story that he was able to find with enough drama in it to sustain readers. Unfortunately, I remain skeptical about that being the case. As it was, Kushner’s book wasn’t poorly written or uninteresting. It is recommended reading for what it is, but the definitive book on Rockstar Games and this era in video game history has yet to be written.
Goldberg, Harold. “Criminal Mind: The Reclusive Genius Behind the Grand Theft Auto Franchise.” Playboy. December 3, 2013. http://playboysfw.kinja.com/criminal-mind-the-reclusive-genius-behind-the-grand-th-1479684025/all.
Kushner, David. Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.