Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the most highly anticipated games of next year, and for good reason: It’s being developed by Rockstar Games. The studio’s history is one of innovation; nearly every Rockstar game since the release of Grand Theft Auto III has been important in its own way, surpassing and redefining our expectations of what is possible in video games in terms of technology, game design, and subject matter. We take a look at five areas in which Rockstar has made, and continues to make, large waves in the games industry.
Popularizing The Sandbox Open World
Rockstar didn’t invent the 3D open world, but Grand Theft Auto III became the benchmark example for how to structure one outside of the RPG genre.
Rockstar took the traditional errand-boy mission structure and surrounded it with optional side content. You were free to tackle the storyline at your own pace, and outside of the narrative there were a variety of jobs you could take on, like taxi driving or firefighting. If structured missions weren’t your thing, exploring the world, finding collectibles, and causing mayhem was just as, if not more, fun. There was nothing else out there like Liberty City.
Another fun element of Rockstar's sandbox was the comprehensive stats screen that constantly reminded you of your completion percentage. This gave players even more of an incentive to drive around looking for stunt jumps and was a great way to make players reflect on and admire the chaos they had caused in their hours with the game.
It’s hard to overstate how much of an impact this nonlinear game design had at the time. Rockstar gave players the powerful sensation of freedom, and to this day the company strives to give players even more freedom in its open worlds. In subsequent releases, the developers added more things to do outside of the main storyline, such as random encounters, Strangers and Freaks missions, and the ability to go and hang out with other characters in the game.
The influence of these developments can be felt in many of the open-world games out there today. You can clearly see the same sandbox-style of game design in franchises like Saints Row and Just Cause, and the emphasis on completion percentages can be seen in most of Ubisoft’s open-world games. All of these games have their roots in the massive success of Grand Theft Auto III.
Building Believable Game Worlds
Rockstar realized that, in order to keep players immersed its sandboxes, the worlds must feel real and alive. As such, the company always assigns importance to the setting. The developers are no strangers to research trips, and they often spend time in real world locations, taking photos and getting a feel for the location and its people. This due diligence helped the stuido capture the energy of New York City, the zaniness of Las Vegas, and the grit of Sao Paolo’s favelas, just to name a few.
A similar amount of effort goes into researching locations when the studio creates a historical setting. When Rockstar worked with Team Bondi on L.A. Noire, the developers pored over aerial photos of 1940’s Los Angeles to accurately represent streets and places as they were at the time. For Red Dead Redemption, they visited American landmarks and dissected classic Western films to portray the American Southwest as best they could.
Rockstar goes beyond the surface level of visually representing these places and creates stories and characters that feel like they belong. Red Dead Redemption captured the tumult at the turn of the 20th century as new inventions swept the nation and the untamed Wild West began to die. In Grand Theft Auto V, many of the side characters are ridiculous parodies of Los Angeles personalities, but also feel authentic.
Another way that Rockstar fleshes out their worlds is by including a variety of side activities that match the setting. Playing around at the carnival in Bully, sitting down for a game of Liar’s Dice in Red Dead, and going out for darts and drinks in GTA IV reinforce the sense of place. Rockstar's worlds feel like unique entities that have a history and are lived in by characters other than your own.
Rockstar was an early proponent of incorporating diegetic, licensed music in their games. The radio in the Grand Theft Auto series is consistently impressive, including hours of music and entertaining talk shows and personalities for you to listen to as you drive around. The fact that the radio is audible in other people’s cars is a smart touch that makes the world feel larger than your immediate in-game surroundings. It’s also another way that Rockstar creates a sense of time and place; the curated soundtracks in San Andreas, Vice City, and L.A. Noire immerse you in the era every time you get in a car.
Design focused on making believable settings wasn’t anything new; world-building was a significant element of tabletop RPGs and had already made its way into a number of games by the time Grand Theft Auto III had released. What Rockstar did was double down on a philosophy that was present in Shenmue. Game worlds tend to either immerse or alienate, so to make a virtual setting feel like the real world, developers need to be thorough. The success of GTA III made many developers rethink how they could make their own worlds feel less like playsets and more like places. Assassin’s Creed, Sleeping Dogs, and Mafia are just a few examples of games that have built and expanded on Rockstar’s example to craft highly detailed settings in different places and times.
Rockstar games are meticulously presented, with high attention to detail and minimal recycling of assets. Each successive game from the studio has stripped away more and more of the cookie-cutter location designs to make every part of the world feel unique. These efforts go a long way toward keeping players immersed in the settings the developers have so carefully crafted.
The animation details that Rockstar adds to its games can go unnoticed, but the company goes to great lengths to make the world more believable. One of the most impressive examples comes from Red Dead Redemption. Horses are difficult to animate, but the developers knew that having realistic horses was crucial, so they glued a bunch of markers on a real-life horse and collected motion capture data.
The attention to detail in animation also extends to human characters. Since Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar has made use of the Euphoria animation engine, which gives cinematic physics to everyone in the game. This technology was on full display in Max Payne 3, where every shootout ended with a graphic slow-motion kill that looked straight out of an action movie. Euphoria makes every gunfight feel unique and organic, and is a much better alternative to reusing scripted death animations.
Rockstar’s technical prowess is on clear display in its cutscenes as well. With L.A. Noire in particular, Rockstar and Team Bondi made use of MotionScan technology, which used 32 cameras to capture the most nuanced facial performances seen in video games at the time.
Spending as much time as Rockstar does on perfecting the presentation of their video games is a luxury many developers can’t afford, but the company has proven time and again that it’s worthwhile.
Next Up: Learn about the way Rockstar has revolutionized multiplayer and made video games a more diverse medium.