Pump. Pump. Sam Houser’s heart is pounding. The most reclusive man in video games and the mastermind behind the 150-million-selling Grand Theft Auto series is biking to work in the pouring rain. His custom pink Independent Fabrication racer weaves through New York City traffic, the type of chaotic gridlock Grand Theft Auto players love to career through in a stolen car. Houser has a heavy nest of a black beard he rarely cuts, one that provides him the anonymity he covets as he speeds through the streets from Brooklyn to the SoHo office of Rockstar Games. “I do this 365 days a year,” he says. “Sometimes the snow’s so deep I have to carry my bike over the bridge. But every day, every day.”
Houser, 42, counts on the bike ride to calm him down. “The bike is the best way for it. It’s very meditative.” Meditation is good; so is yoga, and Houser is an avid practitioner of both. When he really needs to chill, he’ll choose a ride from his enviable collection and pedal 60 miles to Bear Mountain, because creating the most popular—and controversial—video game series in history is fraught with tension. A relaxed Sam is a better Sam, as those around him know.
But not many know him. In fact, in the past five years, Houser hasn’t given a long interview to anyone but me, and that’s baffling, because what he has to say is sincere, compelling and complex. He can be both insightful and rebellious, embracing different cultures and at the same time full of a healthy paranoia in a kind of punk-rock, hip-hop sort of way. He is an astute student of human nature and, as president of Rockstar Games, a tough negotiator when contracts come up for renewal with parent company Take-Two Interactive.
Partly because of his reputation as a loner and recluse, everyone from journalists who can’t get interviews to a handful of disgruntled former employees has labeled Houser crazy. He is not. He can be intensely private, even avoiding a GTA voice actor when he comes in to record his voice-over work. Houser is a workaholic and he’s stubborn, clearly used to getting his way when he knows he’s right, but he’s definitely not crazy. In fact, there’s something about Sam Houser that is close to genius. If Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto is the Steven Spielberg of video games, Houser is the Martin Scorsese.
Of course, there is more to Houser than that, just as there is more to Grand Theft Auto than stealing cars. Much more, in fact. Behind the high-speed chases, shoot-outs and plot twists, Rockstar’s games are a virtual stylebook curated by Houser and his brother, Dan, Rockstar’s head writer and vice president of creative. Sly references to the coolest music, art and films pop up everywhere, from radio stations loaded with Rick Ross and Aphex Twin to art pieces that appear in the background, pulled directly from New York City galleries. These references are decoded by fans the way a Basquiat mention by Jay Z is googled by hip-hop kids or a dusty rock-and-roll song is resurrected after appearing in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
All this percolates through a world of brutal violence and black humor set in the grittiest of crime films and mashed up into a fictional New York or Los Angeles urban environment. Hollywood producers would die to make a film of the series. Houser and Rockstar have always said no. Houser says no to a lot of things: to being photographed, to participating in the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo game convention that takes place every summer in Los Angeles (“It’s like a big, sort of willy-waving exercise”) and to interviews. “More so than ever before, in a world where people are just out to be famous for being famous and want to be interviewed for being interviewed, it seems like a funny practice,” he says, shaking his head.
We are sitting in the Rockstar office’s media room, which is outfitted with a giant flatscreen TV and killer sound system. The room sits on the other side of a lobby complete with an ultra-rare Warrior arcade game and a vintage Defender cabinet. It’s a few weeks before the release of Grand Theft Auto V, and the stakes—and the stress—have never been higher. Grand Theft Auto IV, released in 2008, had a budget of more than $100 million. It made $500 million in its first week. This year’s Grand Theft Auto V, five years in the making, cost a reported $266 million and, a few weeks after our discussion, will bring in $800 million its first day. Three days later it will top $1 billion.
But that’s still weeks away, and on this afternoon an optimistic yet anxious Houser, wearing a black long-sleeve shirt, gray shorts and running shoes, sits on the edge of a couch. “Grand Theft Auto is a double-edged sword. The fans want bigger, better—you know, higher quality. It’s a privilege to have an audience that is demanding like that. But it’s also a challenge. You have to meet their expectations.” He crosses his arms. “I go to bed at night with the game there. I wake up, and that’s the first thing I see. At several points in the course of this game I’ve had to really calm myself down, because I’m at home playing with my kids, and all I can see is the fucking game, like, running in my mind. I’m like.…” He lets out a low, frustrated growl. “This isn’t ideal.”
There is no doubt Grand Theft Auto V is the magnum opus for Rockstar Games, a company with six development studios around the world and hundreds of employees, all of whom helped Scotland’s 300-strong Rockstar North build the game. All told, the team computer-generated more than 40 square miles of painstakingly designed forest, city, ocean and desert. “We went out to the Salton Sea and were absolutely gobsmacked by it,” Houser says, rocking back and forth on the black leather couch. “We made sure we were going to have a whole section that was dedicated to that sort of atmosphere, because we’d never seen anything like it before in our lives.” It’s within the creepily beautiful, fictionalized Salton Sea with its offbeat, sometimes nasty residents and haunting, starry nights that Trevor, the bat-shit craziest of the game’s three new characters, resides in a rusty single-wide trailer. Trevor, along with Michael and Franklin, is one of the trio of diverse criminals whose story lines weave through the game.
Houser feels he has a bit of each character in him. “You know, Michael is constrained and contained with his midlife crisis. As my brother says, we’ve been having midlife crises from about 12 years old. Franklin, the sort of street guy, I certainly fancy myself in that mode. However, for a privately educated Londoner, albeit an American citizen now, I think it’s a bit of a stretch—but somewhere inside me I do. And then Trevor’s a psychopath, and you can fill in the blanks there.” Truth be told, Houser explains, there’s a bit of each criminal in all of us.
On his BlackBerry, Houser shows off a photo of his mother, Geraldine Moffat, a fine actress who plays the gorgeous and often naked Glenda in Get Carter, the seminal 1971 British gangster film starring Michael Caine. Except here Mum is clad in the kind of sci-fi performance-capture suit computer animators use to manipulate the human form into games. “Dan hatched a really fun idea for our mum. The performance was fantastic. She came out here when she did the thing, and it was just so amazing, the energy that it gave her. She just loved it.”
The Housers’ actress mother and jazz musician father, Walter, are key to the Rockstar story. Sam, born in 1971 in London, and Dan, born two years later, weren’t exactly coddled as children. Geraldine and Walter demanded two things of the brothers: “Do your homework,” which Houser feels made him compulsive about work, and “Don’t do drugs,” which kept the brothers straight. (That doesn’t mean Sam didn’t experiment; he just didn’t overindulge.) They fought like brothers—Sam even broke his hand punching Dan—but they also looked out for each other. Like the time bullies stole Dan’s ball and Sam, a devoted rugby player and judo practitioner, sped off to Palewell Common park to confront four older kids. “The main guy came up to me and I sort of did a judo throw and threw him on the ground,” Sam says. “I thought I was like Jean-Claude Van Damme or Bruce Lee or something.” But Sam didn’t know anything more than throws. The bully got up, “smashed me in the face and knocked me out. Huge black eye. But I did get the ball back,” he says, laughing. “Periodically I’ll see that person, and I still hide from him.”
Although he was a lawyer by day, Walter was often seen playing jazz at Ronnie Scott’s, a club he helped run that’s a kind of London Birdland. Post-gig, the jazzmen would hang at the Housers’ home, people like Cream’s brilliant Ginger Baker, who was a mean bastard even then, according to Houser. Dan would occasionally act in school plays, and Sam took up the bass, studying twice weekly for years under the tutelage of well-known player Phil Bates, who worked with Sarah Vaughan and Judy Collins. Sam laments that he didn’t practice enough. “That expression, it’s like a language,” he says. “To have that outlet, to be able to socialize with other people like that, it’s really an amazing, profound thing.”
It wasn’t such a great leap, then, for Sam to move from an appreciation of jazz to a love of hip-hop, a head-over-heels affection that would inform his future work at Rockstar Games. He worshipped what Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons pioneered as they built Def Jam into a legendary record label that melded the best of rock, metal and rap into records by LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and Run-DMC. He made his mother sew Def Jam patches onto his clothes, and when his father finally took him to Manhattan in 1988, Houser made a beeline for the Lower East Side’s Orchard Street, a bastion of Air Jordans and leather puffer jackets. He loved England, but in New York it was as if he’d come home and home was an urban, hip-hop heaven.
Also on this trip, at a dinner with his father and BMG record executive Heinz Henn, Houser unabashedly told the old pro exactly how to make his record company better. “He’s a lunatic,” Henn confided to Walter. “But he has some good ideas.”
Still in college, Houser became an intern at BMG and worked for an as yet unknown Simon Cowell. Houser was eventually hired for £120 a week to help make videos for Cowell’s boy bands. “Cowell was always super charming and very nice with me,” says Houser. “That’s what I hear about him today. But as a lover of music, I’m not thrilled with where he’s taken us with American Idol.”
Houser had always been an ardent fan of video game culture. He felt games, like music, were true expressions of popular art. After getting a bagful of pirated games at school, he’d sit at a little Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer and play Underwurlde or Elite (an early attempt at the kind of open-world game Rockstar would make so popular). Games rocketed Houser to another world, and at BMG he gravitated toward creating interactive technology, including a meticulously curated CD-ROM about the Louvre museum and a not so hot one featuring David Bowie videos, called Jump. But games and their artfulness were always on his mind.
At the time, BMG owned a woefully mismanaged video game division. The company worked with DMA Design, fronted by the droll David Jones, but DMA had a hard time meeting deadlines for the four games it was contracted to make. After firing a series of producers, BMG hired Houser to oversee Jones. In 1997, just as the games were being finished, the decision was made to shutter BMG’s games division. Houser was stunned. How could they shut down the division when gaming culture was just getting started? He convinced BMG to send him out with a team of suits to try to sell the games division.
Ryan Brant, the son of a brash publishing magnate, was the young CEO of a small company called Take-Two Interactive. Brant said Take-Two would buy BMG’s games division for $9.5 million, with one condition—that Houser would run the company in the U.S. Although fascinated by New York, Houser found it difficult to assimilate. He wasn’t prepared for the stinking rat race of hustlers, jerks and drug dealers, the circus of personalities that can bewilder a newcomer to the world’s greatest city.
“What the fuck am I doing here?” he asked Dan. Take-Two was mainly a group of businessmen and accountants. Its lineup of games, including Star Crusader, was middling at best. Houser, who never felt he fit in with the guys he endured when trying to sell BMG’s games unit, was stuck outside even though he was inside. It didn’t stop him. By the time his brother joined him in New York, Houser was already building Take-Two’s publishing infrastructure and game-development teams. He oversaw even the least commendable games with zeal. But as he worked and as the games industry grew, he saw companies issuing loads of shovelware—garbage games cranked out to bring in a quick buck. Houser quickly realized gaming wasn’t serving the people who were growing up in the 1990s, the hip-hop generation, the Nirvana generation.
The brothers wanted to create something with attitude, something that could rock the world the way music had rocked them. And they wanted to do it hard and sweaty like one of Houser’s heroes, Pete Townshend, windmilling his guitar on “Baba O’Riley.” They wanted a name with attitude. They tried Grudge, but it sounded too much like “grunge,” an already fading alt-rock movement. Driving around London, Sam suddenly said, “How about Rockstar?” He got shivers and thought of Keith Richards “dealing with the dream of stardom and the nightmare as well.” Rockstar said in one word everything Sam and Dan wanted to say—about the sneering punk stance, the hip-hop rebel bravado, the edgy, play-till-you-drop worldview.
Incessantly hopeful, the way people are in their 20s, they put together a kind of manifesto. Says Houser, “It was to make, quote unquote, culturally relevant games, which now seems obvious. But in a world of Sonic the Hedgehog and everything else at the time, it was not obvious.” Just as important, when the Rockstar logo was printed on a box, “irrespective of whether people did or didn’t like the game, they couldn’t question the love, passion and commitment that had gone into that product they’d parted with their money for.”
Even their website had the Rockstar vibe. When they launched the online destination in 1998, it was with a photograph of Sam and Dan’s mom, naked in a still from Get Carter.
The original Grand Theft Auto, released in 1997, was ingenious, a fearless template for what was to come. After throwing out a cops-chasing-robbers version, Jones and DMA Design created an open-world game, one in which you could do anything. Sure, it was from an awkward top-down perspective, as if you were a bird looking down in a predatory effort to steal cars and evade cops, but the framework of GTA’s greatness was already in place. Tough gang leaders such as 130-year-old Uncle Fu were there to give you crazy drug-pickup assignments. Seven radio stations were there for you to rock out to, with wryly titled songs such as Stikki Fingers’ “4 Letter Love.”
Although the original GTA sold more than 2 million copies, Jones was dissatisfied. His company had been sold twice, and it was about to be sold again. Just before Houser brokered a deal with Take-Two for DMA Design to be bought for $11 million, Jones left to form a new development house. “I was very upset about that, because I really looked up to him,” Houser says. He tried to keep Jones satisfied, telling him, “Dave, we are gonna have a good time here together. And you know I’m a straight shooter. We could make it work.”
According to Houser, after Jones split he tried to raid the rest of DMA’s staff for his new venture. Houser was angered by what he viewed as backstabbing, personally offended “because I’d never done anything to him, above being supportive of him and a fan of his. I’m a young guy. What do you want to take food off my plate for, bro? You could have had your food here. It was just as good, would have been good for you here. What’s the problem?” To stop the bleeding, Houser turned to Leslie Benzies, who oversaw a DMA team that had worked on an underrated Nintendo 64 spoof called Space Station Silicon Valley. Houser offered Benzies and his top people a better deal than Jones had, including a stake in the company. “I’m like then and there, kind of without the authority, saying, ‘We’ll get you there.’” Behind the scenes, Houser needled Take-Two’s executives to make sure the deal got done. It worked, making DMA Design—and GTA—a part of Rockstar Games.
Today, Rockstar is run, he says, like a family, “organically and idiosyncratically.” That’s unusual with big-budget games. Talk to, say, the writerly Ken Levine of Irrational Games, maker of the best-selling BioShock series, and he’ll tell you he doesn’t get too close to his employees. Houser is different, certainly with those at the top such as producer Benzies and art director Aaron Garbut. With brother Dan leading a team of writers, the satirical, artful, misunderstood and maligned series that pokes fun at the American dream has earned billions. Houser is overly conscious about crediting the entire Rockstar team, which is also part of his logic for avoiding interviews. But even he knows it all begins at the top.
“I’ve been in this job more than 20 years. You say, well, Rockstar’s 15 years old, but I’ve never left BMG as an intern. I sit here today talking to you having never left that job. I just worked it, maneuvered it and finagled it. At each turn, things worked out.”
Part of Rockstar’s success is due to technology. By the time the company released the landmark Grand Theft Auto III in 2001, the PlayStation 2’s speedier graphics processor meant Rockstar would be able to construct a grand landscape, the equivalent of three square miles. The results were astonishing. You could be the swaggering Sopranos–meets–Mean Streets mobster of mobsters in a world you reigned over. When you stole a car, it had a radio that played tons of music because Rockstar had made deals for the Giorgio Moroder Scarface soundtrack. And that was just one station. There were rocket launchers, micro Uzis. And there was this drug cartel leader, Catalina. Even though she talked too much, you knew you’d fall for her if you ever met her real-life counterpart. *GTA III *unveiled an entire new world, a place of sweet, lawless release, of feisty urban insanity, that you could really live in.
And it almost wasn’t published.
As the finishing touches were being put on this crazy pastiche masterpiece and crunch time for Rockstar’s hoped-for 2001 launch ramped up, 9/11 happened. The World Trade Center towers were attacked, and all things precious in every New Yorker’s world, including Sam Houser’s, would never be the same. The brothers witnessed the horrors from an apartment in Greenwich Village. Fear of the unknown bubbled up into sheer paranoia. As the towers collapsed on that sunny September morning, Houser thought buildings north of ground zero might be affected, maybe from a domino effect. He told Dan, “This beautiful city has been attacked, and now we’re making a violent crime drama set in a city that’s not unlike New York. My God, I’m terrorized where I live, and on top of that, we’ve got this crazy fucking game that is not exactly where people’s heads are at right now.”
Not where people’s heads are at. Movies released at the time were tanking. A Jackie Chan film was scrubbed, and films that featured bombings (such as Collateral Damage) were delayed. Houser and Rockstar considered bagging the project, but the game was released, amid a fair amount of staff concern, on October 22. It featured a transformed Big Apple called Liberty City. The Twin Towers and blue-and-white police cars, too similar to those of the NYPD, were eliminated.
GTA III sold more than 15 million copies. It was a phenomenon. The game was also violent—bloody, beat-you-to-a-pulp violent—and too much for certain pundits to accept as fiction. Activist lawyer Jack Thompson and Senator Joe Lieberman fiercely condemned the violence in GTA III, railing on TV that it was hurting the youth of America and claiming that the mere act of playing could lead to real-life murders.
Former employees with axes to grind got together to tell tales in a book. A group called Wives of Rockstar said their spouses were made to work excessive hours, to the point of illness, at Rockstar’s San Diego studio. Houser, who is known to depart family getaways for the office to work on Sundays, admits toiling at Rockstar is “obscenely hard. Working on these is very taxing. It takes a toll on me, it takes a toll on my family. It is hard going, because we’re putting ourselves into it. We’re pouring as much passion and energy as we can conceivably muster into it.”
The long hours had paid off, and the Housers and Rockstar were suddenly very, very rich. Even before the cash flowed they were known to throw fabulous parties, including one in a giant Chelsea loft. The women were drop-dead beautiful, dancing to the beats of a DJ who was flown in from Paris. And as the music swirled and the booze flowed, everyone from New York City hipsters to nerds partied hard. “There was plenty of crazy stuff that went on at those things,” says Houser. “But I was too busy, too geeky. I was ready to get back in and work on Sunday morning. I was never really that sort of wild man, you know, Scarface and the champagne—not really.”
By May 2003 Sam had settled down with Anouchka, a beautiful young woman from England who understood his intense ways. They even had kids together. Years later, Dan Houser and his wife would buy a 9,000-square-foot mansion previously owned by Truman Capote. The $12.5 million purchase price was the most expensive home sale in Brooklyn history. A British tabloid called it a “gangster’s paradise.”
In June 2005 a Dutch hacker found an odd packet of data hidden in Rockstar’s latest game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Once unlocked, the file—a piece of leftover code—revealed a mini-game featuring CJ, the game’s smooth urban-gangster protagonist who, after a night of clubbing, has sex with a girl. Players tapped buttons to control the rhythm or change positions in crudely rendered scenes. News of the hidden material, dubbed Hot Coffee, exploded.
“This content was never approved,” Houser announced. “It was nixed and supposed to be taken out completely.” But there it was—for the world to see. Really, the content was too unfinished, too rough, to have been part of what was a very polished San Andreas game. Houser believed that, had it made the final game, CJ would have been more loving with the virtual woman in question.
But media outrage surrounding the content turned into a political frenzy that swept the country. Smelling an opportunity, hard-charging New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer (now disgraced after a prostitution scandal) lashed out at the game. New York senator Hillary Clinton called for a Federal Trade Commission investigation. Was the game too violent? Had Rockstar intentionally planned to subvert the morals of American youth? Should Houser and Rockstar be stopped from making games?
The U.S. government requested all of Houser’s and Rockstar’s e-mails, thousands of them. Houser freaked out. While he (and everyone else at Rockstar) believed they were giving the world a new form of popular art, the height of dark comedy, Houser “lived in a world of fear.” Games rife with adult content were being scapegoated just as other forms of misunderstood culture had been in the past, from comic books in the 1950s to hip-hop in the 1990s.
In January 2006 Houser traveled to Washington, D.C. to appear before the FTC. He was grilled for nine hours as three committee members perused a two-foot-high stack of documents, raising their eyebrows as they questioned him about his profanity-laden e-mails. In the end, they found nothing. Houser was exhausted, admitting, “I was a fucking wreck. I’m still probably traumatized by it.”
When the investigation concluded, Houser went into what he dubs his “black dog” period, a desperate need to drop out, to hide, to run away. He’s had others since, but this episode was particularly devastating. As he was traveling from Scotland to London by train, he picked up his cell phone to hear that Manhattan’s district attorney was considering his own investigation into Rockstar. Not again. “That was a dark time,” he says, adding that friends and colleagues kept him together. “Otherwise I think I definitely unraveled. I did unravel, but I raveled back up, if you know what I mean.”
To aid the comeback, Houser immersed himself in work on Grand Theft Auto IV. Compounding matters in 2007 was a hostile takeover of Take-Two Interactive by its shareholders. Not only were things tough on the outside, on the inside no one quite knew whether Rockstar would remain a fiercely independent studio where the suits let Houser do what he needed to do, both creatively and financially. “These were very uncomfortable, nerve-racking times. And it was, you know, a lot of the time I thought about, you know, packing it in kind of a thing.” He glances around. “Bloody glad I didn’t.”
In the annals of video game history, Grand Theft Auto V may well be seen as Houser’s and Rockstar’s crowning achievement, a shining gift of 100 play hours that builds on what Rockstar has learned from its recent games. The lifelike faces from puzzle-filled L.A. Noire. The awe-inspiring expanses of big country from the gritty Western Red Dead Redemption. The powerful firefights from Max Payne 3. They’ve also added a massive multiplayer functionality (“the hardest part”) that may grow as large as a World of Warcraft game—except for now it’s free. The soundtrack’s 240 songs make it more eclectic and indie than ever, and there’s a score by Tangerine Dream electronic master Edgar Froese in collaboration with hip-hop DJ-producer Alchemist (among others). Clearly the Housers are at the top of their game. Why not cash out now? Certainly Hollywood would find a Sam and Dan Houser film-production company compelling. But Sam revealed that the team has signed multi-year deals with Take-Two Interactive. Whatever’s next—probably a new Red Dead game—will have that signature Rockstar feel. “There are other games that have a sort of artistic, noble appeal and cross over,” says Houser, “but does that speak to a mass market audience that is otherwise consuming superhero movies and more lighthearted stuff?” That’s where Rockstar succeeds in spades, because Grand Theft Auto has both a coarse and an elegant magic. “One thing we’re not going to run out of is ideas for the kinds of things we want to make. We’ve got a lot of ideas.”
It’s night now, and Houser is preparing for his bike ride back to Brooklyn. He seems relieved the interview is over.
“You know what? You take me out of context, and I can be ridiculous. I don’t want that. The work is the work. I haven’t spoken in an interview for quite a long time. It’s lovely to sit here and talk to you about it, and it’s enjoyable to talk about something I’m passionate about. But for my taste, too many people are too quick to rush out there right now and talk. They’re not necessarily for me.”
He speeds into a sea of traffic, disappearing into the darkness of downtown Manhattan.