'Grand Theft Auto' and the power of games

U.S. sales of the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise exceed 44.7 million games.

Story highlights

  • "Grand Theft Auto" franchise has sold over 114 million copies worldwide
  • Gamers flocked to stores to explore the open world game universe
  • "GTA III" will be coming to iPad 2 and Android tablets this fall
It's been 10 years since Rockstar Games released "Grand Theft Auto III" on PlayStation 2.
While mainstream media outlets and other groups took issue with the Mature-rated game's violence and language -- the same type of content R-rated Hollywood movies incorporated into storytelling -- gamers flocked to stores to explore the open world game universe.
To date, the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise has sold more than 114 million copies worldwide. According to the NPD Group, U.S. sales of the franchise exceed 44.7 million games. While Rockstar Games is developing the next installment of the franchise, the game publisher is entering the booming tablet market by introducing "GTA III" to a potentially new audience of iPad 2 and Android tablet owners this fall.
Dan Houser co-founded Rockstar Games with his brother Sam, Terry Donovan, Jamie King and Gary Foreman in 1998. He serves as a vice president at the game studio, which has branched beyond the "GTA" franchise over the years to introduce acclaimed titles like "Bully," "Red Dead Redemption" and "L.A. Noire."
Next up is "Max Payne 3," which continues to evolve the interactive storytelling process that Rockstar introduced with "GTA III."
In this exclusive interview, Houser talks about the impact "GTA III" has had on the gaming industry and how games, and gamers, have evolved over the past decade.
Gaudiosi: What impact do you feel that the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise has had on the game industry as a whole?
Houser: It's perhaps not really for me to say, but hopefully what we tried to show was that quality and ambition and doing your own thing was what was really important. Obviously, it's one of the largest blockbusters, so it pushed quality levels up for games. For better or for worse, it introduced awful phrases like "tent pole" into the games industry. It also maybe made some people chase dollars because there's a bigger discrepancy between very successful and not-so-successful games in terms of performance, which wasn't there before. Hopefully, we've shown that games can be influenced by previous media, in particular cinema, whilst they were being resolutely games and doing things that are unique to games and showing off the strength of games.
Gaudiosi: How have you seen the acceptance of violence and language in video games evolve since "GTA III" came out a decade ago?
Houser: Our position is very straightforward in that regard. It's the same now. I don't think we've remotely overhauled it. We wanted to make games that were like the films that we like watching. We saw games as a very powerful medium that could do lots of interesting things, but the content needed to feel like it was part of someone's overall entertainment content that they consume on TV or in a books or in movies. Why should games be significantly different? Why should they be made purely for kids and a particular kind of cliché nerd? The industry was shorting a different audience and that audience was clearly watching, reading, and listening to stuff in a certain way. We thought that our games were not for everybody, just as certain movies are not for everybody. We weren't ever trying to make games for children. We were making games we wanted to play. And that position has remained unchanged since then.
Gaudiosi: What are the challenges, as a game developer, of upping the ante with each "Grand Theft Auto" game that comes out?
Houser: Oh, it's terrifying. It has to appeal to the audience, blow the previous one out of the water and be new and innovative by doing new and interesting things. We're always looking for things the previous one didn't do and expanding on them. But the game is so big, you can't get to do everything the previous ones did as well. Above all, though, our challenge is to try and put the right things into the game for the place we've chosen, the characters we've chosen, the mechanics we want to show off, and to make those combine into a coherent package. We don't want you going through it thinking, "I like the game, but the driving was crap" or "I like the game, but the story was crap." It should feel like a coherent package, even though it's a whole world. And that's an enormous challenge trying to make that tighter and tighter each time. We take it very seriously, getting them to feel totally consistent and coherent. It's something we learned as we went along with "GTA III" and we've tried to refine ever since.
Gaudiosi: What do you feel separates games from traditional Hollywood entertainment?
Houser: "GTA" is obviously trying to be cinematic and trying to be a game at the same time. It does things that show off the way you can explore the world, which you couldn't do in a movie. And that's very powerful. It's not just an interactive movie, it's more than that. That has shown the potential power of games. All media have strengths and weaknesses, and I think the great strength of games is its ability to transport you to a place and put you in that place and let you explore that place and experience in your own way. "GTA" shows that off spectacularly.
Gaudiosi: What surprises you about where the video game industry is today?
Houser: I suppose from a standpoint of someone who is at a company that tries to make stuff that we believe in, there's a general movement toward high-quality games. And that's a good thing. That's probably the most noticeable pattern in the console world. Good stuff is flourishing, and bad stuff is struggling. It's somewhat surprising it took that long. There used to be a big market for stuff that wasn't that good. I never understood why that was.
Gaudiosi: What role do you feel the "GTA" games have played for Rockstar Games to introduce other original titles?
Houser: It's been completely instrumental in that it taught us how to make games properly with very good guys doing it, using the expertise, the knowledge base and the processes to make those games in the first place. It's simply the art of making them. The first one, "Bully," really was based on a "GTA"-type of experience. That was a tough game to launch for all kinds of reasons. It probably came out on the wrong platform at that time. Then we did significantly better with "Red Dead Redemption," and we did very well with "L.A. Noire." Now people are starting to realize Rockstar isn't "GTA" and a bunch of other stuff.
Gaudiosi: Why do you think we've seen a revival of the Western in Hollywood with films like "True Grit" and in games like Rockstar's "Red Dead Redemption"?
Houser: People had lost sight of the fact that what made Westerns interesting was finding something that spoke to an audience either historically or using the prism of history to speak to a modern audience. That's how we approached "Redemption." I think that Westerns that are successful today will do the same thing, ones that aren't won't do the same thing. We love them, and we loved working on that game. It was a great experience, and we always have, and always will love watching good Westerns. I hope people keep making them.