Posts Tagged ‘ Dan Houser ’

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City 10th anniversary – Epic press trip in 2002, going down memory lane

Let’s get this out of the way. Crazy expensive press trips get a bad rep, journos being bought and all that bullshit.

Forget that, let’s just enjoy what went down between July 16-18 in 2002 when Rockstar Games flew a bunch of journos down to Miami for three days of fun in the sun with the aim of showing off and hyping Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Those of us who were there, still talk about it. Those who werent, know of the event. Some of my best industry friends are from this trip (whassup Diego!).

You know why this trip really was significant for me ?

I talked with Dan Houser for hours on the beach while having drinks. Shooting the shit about life, Rockstar Games, Grand Theft Auto and entrepreneurship. I decided there and then to quit my then great-sounding-but-turned-into-a-nightmare- job and set up my own video games magazine down the line. Later that year, Pelaaja magazine was born. I emailed Houser after that to tell him he had inspired me to do this and he actually replied to me. I still have that email.

I still have everything from this trip including the agenda and the envelope I got my flight tickets in.

Vice City trip agenda edit

The unfortunate thing is that Rockstar basically shut up shop after this and stopped giving access to it’s visionary talents to the members of the press.

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This was pretty much the last big, “traditional” press event that Rockstar did. Ever since this event, Rockstar tends to invite one or two journos to check out their games instead of a larger group (Ok, granted, they did a similair event for Vice City Stories, but the emphasis was on the actual game). This is the only event I know of where Rockstar founders like Terry Donovan (who left the company years ago) and Dan Houser mingled with us press types. The Houser’s have given maybe 15 interviews since 2002 and only a handful of those were of the kind where they openly talked about the company and the business and not just about the next Rockstar game. Edge’s Tony Mott conducted one such incredible interview a few years ago.

So this was in the summer of 2002. Grand Theft Auto 3 had blown up and the PlayStation 2 was changing the video games landscape. Everything was changing in the industry: we were on the cusp of a seismic shift and Grand Theft Auto would be the key driver of this. You could feel this at this event. We all felt something great was going to happen – that Rockstar and GTA would become even bigger. We were priviledged to be there, not just due to the fancy event, but what it entailed and started.

For me, I worked months behind the scene’s to get to see Vice City and be able to cover it for the magazines I was working for. I spent months on the phone and email. Grand Theft Auto 3 blew my mind back in the day, but as I love the 1980’s, the sequel was The game for me. The music, the colors, Miami Vice, the opulence and excess. So for me, Vice City was of great interest.

I also love Miami and South Beach. Miami was the first US city I visited with my parents in 1990. It’s left it’s mark on me and I really love Miami Beach and have gone back several times. Partly because of the great experience of the press trip, but in general, I just love the vibe of Miami and of course, the climate.

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On our way to the mansion in a limo.

We stayed at the Delano hotel. I stayed in room 1412. The room’s decor was completely white. One of the coolest hotel rooms I’ve ever been in. I’m actually decorating my new house’s bathroom in a similair way to what the Delano’s bathroom was. We all got gift bags with a dope Vice City sweater (still use it), Vice City towel (still drape myself in it), copies of Midnight Club and Smugglers Run, Vice City money clip and sun tan lotion which was pretty handy since July is fucking hot in Miami. Each room had a PlayStation 2 hooked up to the TV so we could play the games on our downtime.

We were split into three groups and during three days we saw 45 minutes of the game. The rest of it was about getting into the mood.

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Tommy’s mansion facing the beach.

The kick off was at this dope mansion (Tommy’s, 155 Ocean Blvd) and it was here where Terry Donovan and Dan Houser talked for a good hour about Rockstar Games and what Vice City was going to be about. I still have this entire session recorded on a Minidisc! Donovan was so amped up, so ready to take on the world and show a big fat middle finger to the stagnant games industry that he barely could contain himself. I’m so glad I got be there in the beginning to hear him talk before all the Hot Coffee and media bullshit and in-fighting at the company which drove him away. As a millionaire of course.

They revealed the amount of research that was going into the creation of Vice City and how the 1980’s were so ripe for Rockstar to take aim at and satirize the period. Rockstar played a showreel which was a combination of footage from several 1980’s tv show’s, especially Miami Vice (which actually is quite late 1980’s) which were the inspiration for the game. I always wished they would have put this this video out as it really gives off the vibe they wanted to achieve in the game.

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The mansion from the outside.

They revealed Ray Liotta’s involvement and thus the lead character Tommy Vercetti. Donovan talked a lot about the soundtrack deal, which was pretty massive 10 years ago. Seven or eight cd’s, I cant remember, but I do have some of those cd’s.

The game was demoed to one or two journos at a time so while that was going on, the rest of us were split into groups and different activities. I remember when I actually got to go to the suite at the Delano and watch the game being demoed, I was concentrating so hard in burning every little detail into my memory and scribbling furiously into my notepad (we wrote with a pen back then son!). I remember how awesome it was to see you now had helicopters in the game and they showed how you could fly around Vice City, which was pretty impressive back then. I cant remember what missions they demoed, but I remember being impressed at how much Rockstar North had managed to get done in less than a year at that point. Also, the visuals were really good in terms of capturing the vibe of Miami. I think the demo was done by Jeronimo Barrera and Jeff Castaneda.The latter runs communications at MTV and the aforementioned is the VP of development at Rockstar Games. One of the very few people who have stuck around at R* for so many years.

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We were taken to this private gun range at Trail Glades Range and they had a huge amount of different types of guns that were going to be in the game. We got shoot any gun we wanted and ammo was no problem. “Can I have guns in both hands?” “sure”. “Can I spray around with this Mac-10” “sure”. Everything went. I’m not american so I’m not that terribly into guns; Igot used to them in the military, but I cant deny it was pretty exhilarating to bust a few caps. Especially since we could spend as much ammo as we wanted. I shot this massive sniper rifle which left a hole in the car on the range the size of a fucking tennis ball.

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That’s Dan Houser. The dude who has written all of Rockstar’s games since Vice City. I spent hours with him on the beach in front of the Delano hotel talking about Rockstar, his career, life. Single most inspiring discussion I have ever had.

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So, while still waiting, I spent half of another day going to Monument island near downtown Miami. We got to hang out in this huge boat with my fellow journos, getting to know them and the Rockstar folks. I think we all got a crush on the blonde Rockstar PR girl who melted my heart with her sexiness and coolness. We got to drive jet skis and just swim around for a few hours.

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Final night at the Mynt Lounge. It was like walking into a million dollar hip hop video. Everybody looking crazy good, the ladies were hot, the fellas doing they thing and me looking around in amazement. I’ve since gone back to the club on vacations and it’s always been incredible. The restaurant we went out to eat, Joia,  was towards the end of South Beach

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Me, when I didnt know how to dress properly (most game journos still have that problem) and was still so young and innocent.

Max Payne 3 impressions upon completing the game and some history and speculation on the development process

Some disclaimers.

These are my personal opinions, not of my current employer or the previous.

Also, I’m a huge fan of Rockstar Games, but I keep it real.

This is not a review.This is a collection of thoughts on the game, stream of consciousness if you will.

Also, useless bit of trivia: Remedy used my PlayStation 2 debug to play the release candidate version of  Max Payne 2 (PS2) and okay it for manufacturing.

Screens taken from from Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 website.

Also, read the legendary UK-journo Keith Stuart’s review of the game at the Guardian here if you want quality writing.

This is a game that has had a very long gestation period, which is becoming the norm for Rockstar who takes their time to make games that really stand out. However, very few put the kind of love and effort into their games as Rockstar does. It takes a lot of time and a lot of money.

The very first iteration of Max Payne 3 was developed by Rockstar Vienna many years ago and at least some parts of the game were apparently set in Moscow. At least this is what I’ve read online. Nothing ever came of that game as Rockstar Vienna was shutdown and the game put on the back burner until Rockstar Vancouver started working on it after completing the most excellent Bully in 2006. Of course, six years later, the Max Payne 3 we have, has been built by Rockstars: Toronto, Vancouver, New England, San Diego and London. Even the original creators of Max Payne, Remedy here in Finland, have been involved in the later stages of development by giving feedback to Rockstar. One could say that this was good PR move from Rockstar, as they made Remedy’s involvement public, a good way to get the fans and doubters on your side. However, Rockstar has always been cool with Remedy and their contribution is definitely a lot more than just lip service. The fact that Sam Lake and Dan Houser wrote a whole prequel comic for the new game, is a pretty good indication of that. It’s nice to know that Rockstar has involved Remedy in Max Payne 3 much more than it really would have had to. It’s a sign of respect and I have to say I never expected less, so fuck all the haters who thought Rockstar would somehow ruin this franchise.

The writers

The original Max Payne got a lot of plaudits for it’s tech and mood, but the quirky writing surely was one of the building blocks as well. It definitely is in the third game.

One of the reasons Rockstar’s games take a long time is that the games really are what the Houser brothers, the founders of Rockstar, want them to be. There’s only so many games they can work on at the same time.

I would speculate that the key reason why it takes a long time for a Rockstar game to get done and why there’s sometimes issues in the development process (there always is, at every studio, you just dont know about it), when the Houser’s are concentrating on game X, game Z is development based on some loose ideas and concepts. Then game X ships and suddenly the spotlight is on game Z and re-writes and new direction is in order after years of working under a preliminary premise.

Rockstar tends to credit three writers in all it’s recent games: Dan Houser, Michael Unsworth and Rupert Humphries. Now think how much dialogue there usually is in a Rockstar game. These three are credited as the sole writers in Grand Theft Auto IV, Read Dead Redemption (with the lad Christian Cantamessa), GTA: IV Lost and Damned and Ballad of Gay Tony. Then you have Max Payne 3 and of course, Grand Theft Auto V has been in the works for years while the aforementioned games were being done. That is an simply insane amount of story, characters, setting and dialogue to work out and write. I dont know how they do it. Let’s not forget Lazlow too!

By the way, wouldn’t it be awesome to read an interview with messrs Humphries and Unsworth one of these days? Who are they? Where did they come from? What kind of working hours and methods do they have? How do they come up with all this stuff? Houser too, but they hate talking to the media.

Max Payne 3 was influenced by the movie City of God, so I think the style and tone were set quite many years ago, but it’s taken a long time to nail down the story of the third game.

Graphics

The level of visual detail in every enviroment in the game is incredible. It’s on the level of what we expect from the Uncharted franchise. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s all probably been researched to death by Rockstar as usual. Everything from the graffiti in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, to the music, to the dialects, architecture, clothing, everything…it’s been well researched. There’s just so much detail in every scene, every area is so richly modelled that this alone has taken years and years. In most cases, you just run past these area’s never to return, which is kind of a problem in videogames. Things like props in the boats and interiors you visit, creating all that is slow work.  There’s so much detail per square meter, it’s crazy. If you have a wall, it doesn’t simply have a single graffiti and some grey rock texture;  it has cracks in the plaster, graffiti, paint peeling off, broken bricks , signs of wear and tear etc.

It’s important to note how the level design supports the gameplay. Combined with pretty good and aggressive AI, it feels like there’s quite a few ways you can tackle most of the combat scenarios. Sure, there’s scene’s where it seems they play the same almost every time, but you also have lot of opportunity to do combat in differing ways and there’s quite a few weapons to use.

Another awesome feature is how seamless the game is, as there are no load screens per say, loading happens during cutscenes. The way a cutscene segues into gameplay, you can always sort of see Max getting into “game mode” by his changing stance and the camera’s positioning: you k now the action is about to kick off. This is really well done and you almost dont notice it at first because things happen so seamlessly. The problem I had with this is in the beginning of the game where there’s a lot of cutscenes that break up the action. The balance is great after the first two chapters, but it’s stop and go in the beginning.

I dig the whole splitting the screen in 24/comic book style to emphasize certain story beats, but I really did not  like the scanline type of visual element that appears a lot of the time because it reminds of my migraines.

Some of the scripted scene’s (a rooftop sequence comes to mind…) feature superbly animated explosions and just mayhem. Again, a lot of polish and care has been taken.

Animation

I’d say Max Payne 3 has the best animation in an action game on par with Uncharted, probably better. Most people wont even realize this. Look at how Max carries the rifle in one hand when using a pistol in the other. The weapons dont magically warp onto your back – if you use dual-wielding, you are going to have to drop your two handed weapon. Did you know I was in the army, so I’m handy with the steel naamean? When you run against a wall, Max puts his hands/guns up and when you push against a door he tries to barge through it. When you are on your back, you have different weapon loading animations for all weapons of course, when you jump over objects, guns dont disappear. All this takes a lot of work. Just think in how many games does the character actually pick up weapons instead of having it warp into your hands.

Many worried that the heavy and clunky feel of GTAIV and Red Read Redemption due to the Euphoria engine would be problematic in Max Payne 3, but  the controls are superbl, so no worries there.

Polish

In some ways, I think, gamers who played the previous games, will realize just how much Max Payne 3 is the same, yet modern. I think think is a perfect update of the formula.

To me, how Max Payne 3 keeps it real to it’s PC roots is in features like Free Aim and some really tough difficulty levels where using Free Aim is a must as is the very well planned use of Bullet Time. You are not going to survive otherwise. I felt the game was quite tough on Normal in some spots, frustratingly so. So for those who don’t like dumbed down action games, Max Payne 3 seems to offer all the hardcore’dness you’d want – you can really change around the controls, their responsiveness etc to your liking. I played with Soft Lock, which means the targeting reticule tends to lock onto enemies which is what I like. I dont really like free aim, that’s too hard to use. I know how some of you hate that I even said that! Go back to your mouse and keyboard then.

Also, the framerate is rock solid even with a lot of destructable props and and a good amount of characters on screen at the same time.

Overall

I gotta admit that I never got super-into the Max Payne games mostly due to the fact that you had to have a great PC to play them on back in the day when I still was young and believed in the world. The console versions were understandably subpar since the hardware performance gap between the PC and consoles back then was significant. I also never mastered the bullet time –  I’d jump in the air and usually hit some wall or land before I managed to get off accurate shots. That’s more lack of skill on my part than anything else. I never really knew if I was supposed to play really using the bullet time or more like a regular shooter. I sort of have the same issue with Max Payne 3. I played it more like a cover-based shooter, but towards the very end I really made an effort to use bullet time and it did result in some pretty damn cool sequences.

The narrative flows well – Rockstar did a great job on the writing of Max’s inner monologue which often is funny and so very, very dry. The voice acting is absolutely superb throughout the game – James McCaffrey does some superb work here bringing the dialogue to life and the rest of the actor’s are good too.

Collectibles have been integrated into the story that if you want to find them, they give you bits of background information on the characters and proceedings. Still, the plot falters towards the end. I think it would have helped if the game was a bit shorter and introduced a few less characters.

I remember the original games being pretty grimy and the further you get into Max Payne 3, the more grimy and really, despicable it gets. Most of the people you meet are scum of the earth and the visuals just get more and more dilapitated and despairing. I think these are important elements of Max Payne. Of course, so is the New York setting and the few levels set in the Big Apple are pretty damn awesome, especially a scene set in a graveyard.

The difficulty spikes are compouned by some haphazard checkpoint placement. I can hear Rockstar thinking how “we are pushing the envelope in games in so many ways, so you shouldn’t care about that” , but in a videogame things like that do matter. I did scream a few times, but as my co-workers can attest, I tend to suddenly scream in the office for no reason sometimes. It aint too bad, like so often in Rockstar’s games, the few problems really dont bother the overall picture. I did get a bit annoyed how at times I had full health, would stand out of cover to take a shot, then die when the first bullet his me. I just used my health pills to get 100%  health, yet a single shot kills me?

Still, this is an incredibly accomplished action game with the kind of superb production values and attention to detail that Rockstar is known for. You get your money’s worth several times over and really, if you have it this good, you cant accept any less from other action games.

Also, this game has the best “funky chicken” animations ever!

I’ve played very little of the multiplayer, so I’ll get back to you on that.

Thanks for your time and I apologize for the rushed writing – feel free to comment, I’d appreciate that.


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