When I arrive at the luxurious Soho apartment that's been rented for the demo of new game Grand Theft Auto V and my interview with Dan Houser, co-founder and creative director of Rockstar Games, I'm told Houser won't answer any questions about his personal life. I should especially avoid any mention of his recent purchase of a Brooklyn Heights mansion formerly owned by Truman Capote, which made news in New York as the most expensive non-Manhattan real-estate purchase in the city's history.
Houser's Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series of crime-focused titles is now the foundation of Rockstar Games, and as well regarded by gamers as it is hated by religious groups. GTA IV, released in 2008 for a new generation of consoles (PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360), told the story of Niko Bellic, a veteran of an unspecified Eastern European war who comes to the US to eliminate a rival soldier living in a crime-filled version of New York called Liberty City. In the first week of its release it generated more revenue than any entertainment product, ever - and everyone assumed a sequel would quickly follow. But Rockstar and its two principals, brothers Dan and Sam Houser (38 and 41, respectively), have a reputation for doing things differently.
On November 2 last year, a trailer countdown appeared on the Rockstar website, accompanied by a GTA V logo. When the countdown was exhausted a week later, 90 seconds of gameplay footage ensued. In the first 24 hours, the trailer was viewed eight million times on YouTube. The next day, it was on the front page of every gaming site worldwide, with shot-by-shot breakdowns of plots, themes, characters, storylines and game mechanics. For gamers - lapsed, casual or hard-core - this was An Event, an introduction to a world that would likely consume them for hundreds of hours.
This world is the product of the imaginations of two quiet Englishmen with a penchant for the mischievous. They are the sons of actress Geraldine Moffat and lawyer Walter Houser and they got their first taste of the entertainment business at Ronnie Scott's, the legendary London jazz club, part-owned by their father, which has hosted the likes of Nina Simone and the Who. (Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie once asked a young Sam what he'd like to be when he grew up. His reply? "A bank robber.")
While working their way along the British academic golden path (Colet Court, St Paul's, Oxford), the brothers took a keen interest in what was happening over the pond, specifically skateboarding, hip-hop and schlock cinema. School chum Patrick Neate, the Whitbread Prize-winning writer, recalls Sam as subversive and cool, Dan as more straight-laced and into football.
The brothers enjoyed outrageous films such as Class of 1984 and The Warriors and Bruce Li in New Guinea, a "Bruceploitation" martial arts flick. They loved video games, playing whatever was current at the local coin-op arcade and whatever else they could find for the home PC. Dan favoured the puzzle game Tetris, Sam the space-trading game Elite.
In 1990 Sam Houser got a job at BMG Music in London, then one of the "big four" music companies, working closely with Pop Idol creator Simon Fuller. He directed in-house music videos for bands such as Take That and the Spice Girls before settling at BMG Interactive Entertainment, an arm of the business that had been established in 1994 to hitch the company wagon to the video-game boom.
When Dan graduated from university with a degree in geography, he joined him there. "My brother offered me a job testing CD-ROMs," he tells me. "Virtual tours were big at the time and I did a virtual of the Musée d'Orsay. I wanted to be a writer and a job came up on a trivia game and they had joke questions, and they needed someone to write that. Then they wanted to do a soccer game and they needed someone who knew about soccer, so I did that. And then all of sudden I had a full-time job in video games, which I didn't really mean to have. I always thought I'd do something serious."
By 1998, BMG hadn't made much impact in the interactive space and the decision was made to sell BMG Interactive to Take-Two Interactive, a burgeoning American gaming company owned by the then 24-year-old publishing heir Ryan Brant, for a little over $14 million. During the negotiations, Sam and Dan convinced Brant to let them keep the company alive as a largely independent imprint that would work as an outlier in the games industry.
Neither brother had any coding experience, but they perceived a gap in the gaming market for "cool titles". They envisioned gaming products informed by music-industry attitude, featuring protagonists who resembled movie heroes. While Take-Two was producing cut-priced games in volume, the new imprint planned to produce high-end offerings for young-adult gamers.
The pair moved from London to New York to set up the new imprint, Rockstar Games - a name its new president, Sam Houser, believed to be representative of what the company would be all about: "High-end, glamorous games that we wanted to play," summarises Dan.
Certainly, the location of our meeting today - a $20,000-a-night SoHo apartment filled with Japanese food and stylishly dressed employees - is very "rock star". Dan Houser, though, in his jeans, T-shirt and cap, looks like an overgrown British teenager. Slightly overweight, he has a youthful face and talks quickly and concisely, with a slight lisp.
Grand Theft Auto started life in 1994 as race'n'chase, a cops-and-robbers game developed by a team of Scots in Dundee called DMA Design. Initially, it was a police simulator, with the player controlling a squad car tasked with chasing criminals around two-dimensional American cities filled with traffic and pedestrians. Deadening the game somewhat, though, was the fact that the player had to observe road rules and avoid hitting pedestrians. Then a version of the game was developed where such rules didn't apply. In fact, in the new version points were awarded if the player did hit a pedestrian (who'd explode into a smear of red with a satisfying "pop") or committed other crimes, such as carjackings.
In 1995, the company presented the game to Sam Houser, then working in a commissioning role at BMG Interactive. Not only was he enamoured of the fuzzy morality of the game, he also loved that play wasn't bound by the normal gaming parameters: if one task was too hard, the player didn't see a "game over" screen. Instead, he had the option of going somewhere else within the game. This freedom, coupled with its unabashed criminality, made the title unique.
"Graphically, it wasn't nearly as sharp as Tomb Raider, but it was deeply immersive," Sam Houser recalled in a Rolling Stone interview in 2006. "Once we made it possible to kill policemen, we knew we had something that would turn heads."
The game was bought by BMG Interactive, which released it as Grand Theft Auto (it soon became known just as GTA), a title deemed to be more in keeping with its adult content. It became a minor hit in 1997. Take-Two also bought DMA Design, which was then rebranded as Rockstar North.
After moving to New York, Rockstar started work on GTA II, released in 1999. It was only a minimal improvement on its prequel, though, and sales were disappointing. It wasn't until the development of GTA III began for the then very powerful PlayStation 2 console that the Housers saw the opportunity to make the high-end, technologically advanced adult game they'd always envisioned.
GTA III, released in 2001, sold more than 14 million copies and became one of the most successful titles of all time. It wasn't the first ever open-world game (meaning the player can work his way around the game world as he chooses, rather than being "funnelled" through it), but it was the first to feel so real.
The game had you playing as Claude, a criminal who'd moved to Liberty City, where famous American brands and icons had been replaced with crass and absurd in-game copies, while its citizens were highly stylised versions of characters you see in B-grade films. "GTA isn't really about America, it's about Americana," says Houser. "It's the America that was sold to the world." The player could choose to go "on mission" when he liked. Or he could go on a rampage of destruction that would culminate, ultimately, in his own imprisonment or death.
"Grand Theft Auto offers up the subversive opportunity to undermine every social compact, from traffic laws to wanton killing," says Adam Sessler, a pop-culture commentator specialising in video games and host of the TV show X-Play. "It resonates in a way that the pure artifice of a fantasy or sci-fi setting cannot. It's a world of stereotypes that highlights our modern obsession with criminality and transgression, made possible only through the collusion of the player. I find it ... Brechtian."
Built around the software framework of GTA III, two successful sequels were released. In 2002 came GTA: Vice City, a neon-tinted story of cocaine-fuelled madness in Miami, and, in 2004, GTA: San Andreas, set in the gang neighbourhoods of Los Angeles and parts of southern California.
The new sequel, GTA V, adds further layers, presenting three characters living in Los Santos - a fictional version of LA and a game world bigger than all its GTA forerunners combined - for the player to control. There's Michael, a retired mobster; Trevor, a psychopathic drug dealer; and Franklin, a young black man who works as muscle for a group of Armenian gangsters.
"Michael is ego gone wild, Franklin is naked ambition, and with Trevor you've got the id," says Houser, describing three characters from different socio-economic areas of one of the most stratified cities in the US. Also, for the first time in a GTA game, money is a primary concern.
That said, the demo I saw didn't end with a town hall meeting about tax policy but rather with the kidnapping - by Michael, Trevor and Franklin - of a man from a heavily defended skyscraper in downtown Los Santos. The trio kill black-suited federal agents, cause helicopters to explode and plunge the city into chaos.
"The job is to present action," says Houser. "Everything else is on top of that. Your first job is to make the game fun."
Even if that means inviting controversy. In GTA III, the player could make use of the services of a prostitute to bolster his health - and then kill her afterwards to get his money back. There was an immediate chorus of disapproval from concerned groups, but Rockstar refused to engage them after pointing out that its games are for adults, not children. The company had a point - last year, a report from Bond University in Queensland found that the average age of gamers in Australia is 32.
"We were always an easy target," says Houser. "Even when our most violent and antisocial game, Manhunt [where the player has to commit a series of increasingly gruesome murders], came out in 2003, the film Saw 3, which is far more violent, was being lauded as a slasher classic.
"Interacting with a system, as one does in a game, is no better or worse than looking at pictures or reading words in a book. I don't think society is in great shape, but I don't think video games have caused the problems."
In Australia, GTA III was refused an MA15+ classification due to its "sexualised violence"; with no R18+ rating for video games available here, copies were pulled from shelves.
Rockstar also became the specific target of proposed US legislation to limit the actions of video-game characters, with Hillary Clinton calling for a probe on video-game violence. "[Children are] playing a game that encourages them to have sex with prostitutes and then murder them. That's kind of hard to digest," she said in a 2005 speech.
Lawsuits followed, many brought before the courts by Florida attorney and religious crusader Jack Thompson, who claimed he wouldn't be happy until Rockstar was out of business. When GTA: Vice City was released, it immediately became obvious that Rockstar had no intention of tempering the brashness of the series. But it was with the release of GTA: San Andreas two years later that the company would face its most famous - and most expensive - controversy.
Although GTA: San Andreas was awash with gang violence, the game was eventually banned in a number of countries, including Australia, because of a hidden piece of code, accessible to just a handful of particularly technologically adept gamers. Almost a year after its release, a Dutch hacker
released a patch for the PC version of the game which unlocked a piece of code that allowed the player to have sex, albeit dressed, with his in-game girlfriend - and thus gain health - by pressing a series of buttons.
The lawsuits kept coming, this time with claimants accusing Rockstar of having misrepresented the game's content. The presence of sexualised content on the disc meant the game would need reclassifying. The cost of amending and rebranding GTA: San Andreas, and settling class-action suits, ended up in the tens of millions of dollars.
The new sequel is due out early next year and Houser calls its central protagonist, Trevor, "the most psychopathic in GTA history". He adds: "If people don't like it they are always free to not play it."
I ask Houser if he feels he can plead the artist's defence. "We're in an evolving, very exciting medium [and we're at] some point on a continuum from product to art," he replies. "It's difficult for us to sit here and say we're artists. We're making stuff, and if you like it and we've taken you on some kind of journey, good. You define it."
Ben Mckelvey travelled to the US courtesy of Rockstar Games.
The story Crime pays: meet the brains behind Grand Theft Auto first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.