While it was the visionaries behind Pong and Space Invaders that set the ball rolling and the genius of Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros. that took the market a giant step forward, video games have since matured into an entertainment medium that can offer not just knockabout arcade fun, but intelligent, thought-provoking interactive experiences aimed at ‘proper’ grown-ups.
Rockstar Games’ output has perhaps done more than any other to make gaming credible. And the recently-released fourth iteration of its world-famous Grand Theft Auto series has set the highest possible standards for Sam Houser and Rockstar North’s contemporaries to try and usurp.
But it has been a long journey between his towering industry presence now and his formative years in London, when in 1989 Houser left school in London with what he terms “bad A-Level results”.
“I was – and am – a manic consumer of all entertainment: games, films, music, TV, comics, magazines, toys and so on from a very young age,” he tells MCV. “We grew up in the early days of VHS video and Sinclair Spectrums, and those experiences definitely shaped what we have wanted to achieve as a company – to make games that captivate people in the same way as entertainment captivated us then.”
Landing a job working on pop videos and VHS releases at BMG proved to be the springboard for Houser’s impressive career trajectory. He moved over to the firm’s interactive division in 1994, choosing video games over more established art forms like music and film. But why?
“I always felt it represented the future of entertainment, and the future it suggests is one of limitless opportunities,” says Houser.
“I worked briefly in the music industry and transferred into the games division of the same company because it had a creative vibrancy that was unlike anything I had ever encountered. Each year, the future gets more exciting as technology evolves.”
Today’s Rockstar Games may be famed for its forthright attitude and its Daily Mail-baiting content, but Houser reveals that what drives him in quite the opposite direction to the rock star bravado that one might imagine – it is instead “an intense fear of failure.”
But that’s not all, adds Houser. “The list of heroes and inspirations is very long, but can be summarised as anyone who did their own thing, and did it beautifully, in rock music, film directing or games development – anything from a game like Elite to a director like Peckinpah or a record label like Motown or Def Jam can inspire or teach you something.
“These and the every day, amazing talent and humbling genius of the people I work with. The talent in the industry is truly astonishing; it’s a real privilege to be part of this movement.”
Rockstar’s rise to the astonishing success it is today has not come without challenges. Houser says that “surviving in an environment in which large numbers of powerful people want to put you out of business for their own political or economic capital” has been the biggest challenge of his career.
Power, politics and economics are clearly not why Houser is in this business; despite Rockstar’s worth and corporate clout, Houser remains far more concerned with his company’s creative output than balancing the books or building an empire. And for a man who has achieved so much already, he still feels there’s plenty more Rockstar can do to continue gaming’s development as an art form.
“What have I got left to achieve? Everything,” he adds. “We are only scratching at the surface of games’ potential as a creative medium.”
As a creative force, Houser believes that Rockstar Games is just getting started. If we’ve only just scratched the surface of what could be achieved with a title like GTA IV, it’s likely Houser and his team will continue to re-define interactive entertainment space for many years to come.