By Develop’s reckoning, Rockstar Leeds is one of the most profitable studios on the planet.
Since 2005 it has created six games for its headline-dominating parent company Rockstar Games – with its Grand Theft Auto Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories titles being bestsellers on PSP and PS2.
When you look at the amount of games sold versus number of staff (the headcount currently stands at 70 having grown steadily since its founding in 1997 and acquisition by Rockstar in 2004), its staff probably have a higher per capita value of any other third-party studio from around the world.
But how did a team of upstarts that at one point worked on a Barbie Horse Adventures GBA game become one of the world’s most profitable studios working on the most recognised contemporary games franchise?
Co-founder and studio head Gordon Hall knows the answer – so we caught up with him at the Develop conference, just a day after Rockstar Leeds took home the Develop Award for best handheld studio, to find out.
So it’s the studio’s tenth birthday this year – run us through how you got to where you are now.
Well, I started out creating games when I was quite young at 14 or 15, but I left the games industry as someone told me ‘don’t bother with that, go and get a proper job’. I was tempted back when a friend I had made games as a youngster started a company called Twilight which then became Hookstone. I started as a programmer with an eye on the business side, but it soon turned out when I joined that the business didn’t have long left to live.
So I teamed up with some of the other guys to form Mobius – and it wasn’t easy trying to prove ourselves at that time. We went about 16 months without a salary until we signed a game and realised that we worked well as a small team, and that best suited handheld games, so we made sure we did some different titles to establish our name.
At the same time, we wanted to think ahead, so we sectioned a group of the team off and looked at the market to see what would happen in a few years time. About five years ago we thought it would be a ‘GameCube in your hand’-style machine and that Nintendo would be first with the high-powered handheld, so we wrote an engine for it before it ever existed, in order to make sure we were there first – but of course it never happened.
What happened instead was Sony announced the PSP and we had everything ready for those comparable tech specs and just went from there. Things went ballistic going from a studio comfortably turning over about a million pounds a year to, pretty much overnight, a studio being offered every franchise on the planet, and three publishers suddenly wanted to acquire us, and another two wanted to team up to keep us independent.
Rockstar were one of the ones who wanted to acquire us – we had just been working on Max Payne GBA for them, and that introduced us to a model of gaming that we had never seen before - a ‘balls to the wall, work your tits off because it’s worth it if you get it right, gameplay first’ approach where everyone at Rockstar from your senior producer right up to Sam Houser were looking at your game, playing it and commenting on it. That was really unique for us and compared to how the rest of the industry handles itself, it just felt right.
It must have been a pretty easy decision?
Well, when it came to the crunch, we let the staff decide – we had 37 or so guys at that time and we laid out what the possibilities were and asked what we should do. Although, in all honestly, I did lay it on a bit thicker on the Rockstar side because the idea of working on a smaller number of games with those guys really appealed and meant we could focus on quality.
Plus, out of all those interested in us, Rockstar didn’t want us to expand to 200 quickly – one of the deals we were being offered was for eight PSP games a year for one publisher, which is great on paper, but means less love from the publisher and a bloody hard slog to get those games done. So we joined Rockstar.
The big surprise came when Sam said he wanted us to do GTA. The game had never been done outside of Rockstar North, and I remember a pause in the meeting when, for a second he thought we weren’t interested – we were so stunned he thought the silence meant we didn’t care. Of course: we did care!
Did you feel you had to prove yourselves as newcomers to a set of studios that already had a strong reputation?
Absolutely. Games take a long time to make – when you make one you give up 18 months of your life, and that’s a long time. Some games now are being made on a four-year life cycle – that frightens the fuck out of me because that’s a huge chunk of your life. So one thing we’d always had done, before Rockstar, was always take a step back and play our games to make sure they remain fun to play.
When we were given GTA we realised we had to do the same, but just take it to the next level. So the big thing for us was multiplayer. GTA never did multiplayer on a console, and our team lives and dies on the calibre of our guys, and we realised that if we could get a prototype of multiple players in three months, then we could offer something fresh to the series. We really pushed that hard – and it didn’t work for some time, it was a struggle – but the minute we had a breakthrough, and half the studio is sat there playing the game’s ‘defend the base’ mode, enjoying the new idea we have brought to this amazing series, we knew we’d made it.
In terms of it being a ‘struggle’ and having only that short period of time to get that feature working – did it put much pressure on the team?
Well on the first game, I admit we worked some long hours. It wasn’t imposed – it was self-inflicted because we wanted to make a big name for ourselves. But the truth is there is only a small difference between working your balls off to make a good game, and working your balls off to make the best game in the world – that extra bit of effort can really pay off. Luckily, Rockstar understands that and recompenses its staff accordingly.
Is that the Rockstar ethos then?
Totally, it’s very much ‘prove yourself, make it count, don’t leave anything on the table – and, by God, you will be looked after if you do that’. When you hear him [Sam Houser] say it, you know it’s from the heart. And we know it’s an attitude that works as Rockstar games do well. I’ve heard some people say Rockstar’s success lies in sales and marketing, and promotion - it’s not just those things: the core is making games that people give a fuck about playing.
Every week we look at the game and ask ourselves ‘is it fun? is it playable?’ it’s a very rinse and repeat approach – the team has to keep replaying it to know the game, make sure it is fun, know what needs to be done to make it even better. The idea is to make a game so good that someone would want to steal it if they couldn’t afford it, not care about milestones.
The worst thing to hear another developer say is ‘Oh, I’m working towards our latest milestone’. Fuck milestones! What you want to care about is the end result; ask if your average consumer, who is only going to be buying a handful of games a year, will want to play it.
Make a game your own, and forget thinking what the guys who signs the milestone cheques thinks, focus on the game and what the person playing it at the end will think. It’s not worth thinking about games development any other way.
I know I’m privileged, and that our team is lucky enough to have the best franchise in the world to riff on, but I think it’s a rule for everyone – I think it’s worked for us given how we’ve used the Stories label to create a subtly different slant on the Grand Theft Auto franchise.
So what’s next for the studio?
We’re currently at 70 guys, but are now growing. Until now we’ve been very focused and quite closed off, rarely interviewing and hiring – we have a very slow hire process, because we look for the right people and want those that fit with the culture and the team. But are expanding: we’re going to take up more space in the office block we are based in. There’s the capacity to have 40 more staff, but I only want to take on about 25 at most.
What about new games?
We’re just finishing off Table Tennis, which is a lovely product to work on – I think it’s really found its home on Wii.
After that we’re going to be branching out further into next-gen – we’ve done original work on an existing franchise, but now we want to work on new IPs, and are looking at what we can do on Xbox 360 and PS3 for original products. But to succeed on those formats you’ve got to put everything into it or step away – we’re already lucky to have a really committed team, so I think from that we will step up to become an established Rockstar studio known for original projects. It’s not over for handheld for us – there’s more coming there – but our new focus will be on the new formats. I’m also very inspired by PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade – it’s currently untapped for us, and is a field the whole world overall has overlooked.
One idea we are talking about that I can’t talk too much about is something we’ve discussed with Sam Houser a lot, and when we talk about the concept – which is just a postage stamp sized idea at the moment, it’s not in production yet – just makes us crack up laughing. It’s an idea that the New York team came up with and which then evolved as we discussed it with them; it’s a short development cycle, just 18 months, and it really excites me. But you know what we’re like – we don’t say anything concrete about a game until a few months before release, so that’s all I can say.
Has that gameplay-focused production method surprised any of those newcomers?
Yes. One of the things we’re trying to teach people is that, yes, next-gen gives you more polys to play with, more processing powers for physics, and it means more staff – if you want it to – but more polygons, better resolution, better physics can’t guarantee good gameplay. Good gameplay comes from the joypad.
One of the things I notice with new staff when they join us is that they feel they have to spend ages sat at their desk adding content, but not playing the game at all. I’m much happier if someone sat at their desk with their feet up replaying a small piece of code over and over for six hours rather than continually working and not playing, because that iterative experience reveals so many things that a polished but untested game can’t show you. For me, the best position for my guys to be is with their hands on a joypad rather than on a keyboard. If they play the game as much as they work, I’m happy as I know that will mean a good game. But none of our new starters ever think like that when they first arrive.
Why do you think that is?
The culture in the industry for too long has been a horrendous ‘Why aren’t you working? Why are you on the internet?’ attitude - but behaving like that stamps out creativity. I think it is an attitude slowly changing, however, because ten years ago the people at the top didn’t play games – now people that play and understanding playing are getting to the top, this is one of the things I really like about Rockstar.
Looking back over the past few years, Leeds has worked on games for the teams at Rockstar North, San Diego, Toronto – you seem to be a bit of a hub for all the other studios. Is that a fair assumption?
Yes, and I think what has put us in that position is our great team, and their ability to develop initial concepts quickly. They’re amazing guys - they got the code from GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas up and running on the PSP in just weeks. It’s phenomenal. As I’ve said, we work hard and fast – the guys like to get code and get it running, without tarting it up, just to prove things are possible, and that’s what’s put us in such a good position. You can polish once the thing is fun.
From that vantage point, and given that the studio has contributed to Rockstar’s slate of 18-rated games, did the recent action over Manhunt 2 effected how Leeds and the other Rockstar studios go about producing their games?
Well, on that point, I’ve got to say I really feel for the London team – they’ve done a cracking job and made a great game.
I like the game for what it is – and I was a big fan of Manhunt before we joined Rockstar, and I was actually a bigger fan of it more than I was of GTA – I like where it placed you in the world and the questions it asked of the world. Manhunt 2 is no different to the first in terms of content, it’s just that times seem to have changed and they’ve changed against this type of game. But if you look at a film like Man Bites Dog, it makes Manhunt look tame in comparison, but that film can be bought by anyone aged 18.
Was there a feeling amongst the Rockstar studios that the company was being singled out?
I don’t think Rockstar specifically has been picked on, but I do think that the wider issue attacks our entire industry. We need to teach people that games are an art form – they are more artistic than film.
I think the games industry should rally behind us, because there will come a time when we’ll all have an idea that’s a little edgy, and we need to have the freedoms to express it.
We are an adult entertainment industry – we may have started out with child-like technology making games solely for a younger audience, but it’s just not like that anymore. It might take legislature a little while to catch up, but if the industry sticks together hopefully we can change people’s attitudes quicker.