Next week, Rockstar Games, masters of the narratively-driven, singularly-focused offline game, tries once more to expand their reach into meaningful online gaming.
GTA Online, a free, but separate component of Grand Theft Auto 5, arrives for everyone who purchased the game in an attempt to expand the game's reach and lifespan.
I sat down with Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser recently to talk to him about the art of game creation, the power of GTA 5's triple protagonist approach and if single player games can still attract a big audience.
That last point, answered easily by GTA 5's record $1 billion sales pace, presents a more meaningful question as well: If single player games are so popular and Rockstar is so good at making them, why bother with online?
But first Houser addresses the question of the value of single player, offline games in an increasingly multiplayer, online-obsessed world.
"I think the well executed multiplayer game clearly attracts a big audience, but it doesn't attract as big an audience as in a single player game," he said. "It just doesn't do that yet."
Barring games like World of Warcraft and a few others, Houser says that even the most successful of onlinegames, like Call of Duty, has an important single player element.
"Not everybody, not even with Call of Duty, not everyone is playing the multiplayer," he said. "There's a huge audience for people who love single-player adventures. And I think what we make is action adventure-games. Games with ever stronger mechanics and an ever stronger adventure component. They're not quite RPG's but it's getting harder and harder to say what the difference is between an RPG and what we do. The space between the two has in the past few years has gotten smaller and smaller.
"I think a short single player game struggles. That's what's happened. But a big single player adventure can do well if it's a good game. Just as a focused multiplayer game can do well if it's a big game. The only area where it's become tough is for a short single player campaign without multiplayer. That's become a tough market, I believe. The rest of it, everything is just moved in one direction without moving away from the other direction."
Then why make an online component for Grand Theft Auto, I ask.
"Because I think we feel passionately about open world games," he said. "What we like about open world games is that a lot of the qualities of it are not unique to single player."
While the essence of a Grand Theft Auto game may include a heavy narrative, Houser said that's not all there is to their games. The rest of it, the ability to roam, to create your own experiences, are things that can be made better when shared with friends online.
The goal for GTA Online was to take that ability to travel around the world, to play death matches, to race, to create your own challenges and bring them together into a cohesive package, he said.
It was a challenge, but Houser feels that they might be there.
"It has been a hard challenge to get right," he said.
The game is meant to be an experience that can deliver everything, anything to its players.
"So the people that like death matches, there are still death match, there are still races," he said. "But we are trying to glue the whole thing together by bringing the free roam component to life, which would give us the stuff that we really like from open world."
The reason that the open world experience is so important to Houser is that he believes it is an illustration of what separates video games from other media.
"What we like about the open world games and where we think they are unique or uniquely good at doing something compared to all other media, is that you can be somewhere," he said. "That you can be in this world that we built, this sort of digital tourism idea.
"Even the best fantasy movies or any set in a movie that builds a world beautifully, any book that puts you in a world in a beautiful way, can't do it with the same power that games have to actually put you in that world and explore it at your speed, in your way, doing the things you want to do."
That concept, Houser said, translated as much to multiplayer games as it does to single player ones.
"So, to give people a chance to do multiple mechanics in any way they want in a game is potentially as rewarding in a multiplayer game as it is in a single player game," he said. "We had many technical hurdles to overcome, which, is why when you think about maybe, four games from when you first started doing it, to getting it close to being right. I don't want to say it's right until people played and loved it, but we believe it is right for this game."
While Houser sounds convinced that the team has nailed online this time around, that hasn't stopped the developer from separating the release of the two portions of the game with one hitting on Sept. 17 and the other Oct. 1. Part of that decision was driven out of necessity: Developers worked on the online component, continue to work on the online component, up until its release.
"On the practical reasons it was simply on the scale of: ‘Why not simply get these two enormous things done completely at the same time, finished completely seamlessly and in a box?,'" he said. "Well, because its nearly impossible. To make games on this scale is very, very hard and anyone you speak to who works on those big games will, if they're honest, admit that there are a lot of moving parts. So, we were concerned that trying to finish them both for the same day would lead to a compromise in quality. On a practical level, it was very important that they each get a period when they can be really focused on by large numbers of the team to iron out as many problems as possible."
Houser said another reason that GTA Online didn't ship with GTA 5 is because they want to make sure gamers are prepared to invest a bit more time in their initial plunge into Rockstar's online world.
"I think we were concerned that some of our previous games, while they still had a very fun multiplayer component to them, it was almost like it was being cannibalized by the enormity of the single player game," he said. "People were just not focusing on it. So by moving it, we really wanted to go all in and make this much bigger, much more encompassing, a stand-alone product essentially.
"By making it separate you give people a reason to look at it as a different thing."
The gap between single-player and online also means that most players will have had enough time to develop a level of proficiency with both the game's controllers and its world before diving into the online elements.
"GTA Online could evolve in many crazy directions."
"You can play single player," he said. "You can really learn how the game works, learn the mechanics. You can start multiplayer after two weeks and it will really give them a real focus on where to look at the thing. I think that separating it out will just help people look at it as different products in their own mind a bit more and really give it a good chance to try and play it and enjoy it.
"Otherwise, you try it for two minutes, it's hard to connect because it's day one, and back you go to the single player, play that and never go back into playing online."
And when it hits on Oct. 1, it will give both players and developers a chance to perhaps evolve the series in ways that could never be done in an offline, narratively-focused game.
"GTA Online could evolve in many crazy directions," he said. "We have lots of really neat ideas of how that might evolve and we will work with the audience to see what directions they want to go."
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