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Criminal Mind
  • November 15, 2013 : 07:11
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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.”

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read more: entertainment, Gaming, video games, interview, issue december 2013

5 comments

  • Craig
    Craig
    The Housers love hip-hop?! They are now my personal heroes lol
  • Walter
    Walter
    We need a Grand Theft Lego game. I've sent Rockstar Games an email mentioning this. But I'm sure it was never read by a real person. But I think it would be an awesome game.
  • Terry
    Terry
    Incredible story! Awesome interview! Housers are icons.
  • meltron69
    meltron69
    This guy is a god. Long live Rockstar Games. Great article!
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