In 2009, onstage during Sony’s E3 press conference, Jack Tretton, then-CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, announced a game called Agent.
“For more than a decade, Rockstar Games have been delivering unrivaled interactive experiences to fans all over the world,” Tretton said. “Grand Theft Auto, Bully, Midnight Club, and Manhunt all began on PlayStation. Today, we’d like to announce a new property from Rockstar North. It’s called Agent. And it will be exclusive to PlayStation 3.”
It was to be, as Rockstar co-founder Sam Houser put it in a news release, the “ultimate action game.”
“The game, like anything from Rockstar North, is going to be very, very cool,” Ben Feder, then-CEO of Rockstar owner Take-Two Interactive, told GamesIndustry.biz. “It’s going to push the edge, it’s going to be genre-defining, and it’s going to be a whole new way of experiencing video games that we haven’t really seen before.”
And then, outside of Take-Two confirming in 2010 and 2011 that the game was still in development, Agent pretty much disappeared from the public eye. For the better part of a decade, many speculated if and/or when the game would see the light of day. Neither Rockstar nor Take-Two commented on its status, focusing instead on supporting their other blockbusters: 2013’s Grand Theft Auto 5 and 2018’s Red Dead Redemption 2.
An answer may have finally come on Nov. 19, 2018, when Take-Two abandoned the Agent trademark. While neither Rockstar nor Take-Two announced anything about the game’s status in conjunction with this, many saw it as proof that they’d never play Rockstar’s long-missing game.
Before Tretton got on stage, though, a different Rockstar studio, Rockstar San Diego, had its own version of Agent. A project that was full of ambition and differing philosophies. A PlayStation 2/Xbox-generation project that some at the studio thought would be the next big release from Rockstar. A project whose parts were partially repurposed in the first Red Dead Redemption.
Speaking to eight former Rockstar employees, we recently pieced together the story of Agent’s phase in San Diego. This is not the complete Agent story, and in many ways is the story of the early days of Rockstar San Diego as a studio. It’s a story that involves a workplace environment that some call toxic.
Every person we interviewed for this story, except one, spoke under the condition of anonymity, with some fearing repercussions from Rockstar. Rockstar declined to comment for this article.
Agent didn’t start like other projects at the studio. Team members describe it as a test.
According to former Angel Studios team members, founder Diego Angel originally ran his company like a family. They say they were compensated well, and given plenty of vacation time. On Fridays, Angel would pass out tequila shots to his employees.
Then the purchase happened, and many say the studio’s familial culture changed.
According to former employees speaking for this story, many on the team felt that Rockstar executives, including Sam Houser and Dan Houser, wanted the team in San Diego to prove its worth. And Rockstar approached the studio with a new game idea to give them that chance: Agent.
“If I understand it, there was a clash within Rockstar about purchasing Angel Studios,” a former artist on the team says. “The clash was mostly about how much they paid for Angel Studios, and was it worth it? I think the Agent project was: ‘Prove to us that you were worth all the money.’”
“I did hear that Agent was supposed to be the project for us to prove that we were a ‘Rockstar studio,’” a team member on the project says, echoing that Agent was a test for Rockstar’s newest studio.
Agent, under San Diego, was to be an open-world spy game in the vein of the British crime drama The Professionals, said to be a favorite of the Houser brothers, and James Bond films. The player would have a variety of weapons and gadgets at their disposal, such as a briefcase that would double as a rideable go-kart and “a camera drone type of a thing,” as one developer calls it, which players could throw and use to take pictures.
Rockstar tasked its newest studio with making a demo, a prototype of what the game could be, with producer Luis Gigliotti heading up the project. The game’s leads were made up of what one developer calls Gigliotti’s “team,” which had worked together on other projects, such as the 2001 action sports game Transworld Surf.
“We just basically dumped everything we were doing and we started on that,” a designer says, referring to a Justice League game that never got past the conceptual stage. But, as the developers soon found out, development on Agent wouldn’t be like what they were used to.
For Angel Studios, a typical game development cycle had the project’s leads meeting at the beginning, figuring out gameplay, technology, and schedules. From there, they would build a production crew as development went along, and staff up as needed to see the game through. But Agent wasn’t like that. From day one, the demo had what one developer calls a “full-size crew.”
Team size wasn’t the only thing atypical about Agent’s development; from the start, the team crunched on the demo. Rockstar told its newest studio that it had a small amount of time to get the project up and running, and that everyone needed to put all they had into it.
“Basically, everybody was expected to stay at work as long as possible,” a former artist says. “The idea was: ‘No matter what, you do not go home until it’s time to sleep.’”
Some developers from the Angel Studios days say they found the shift in cultures to be abrupt. Prior to the acquisition, after launching a project, the studio typically gave developers a week or two off. So if they were crunching with long hours to get something out the door, they were rewarded with time away from the office.
“Rockstar ended all of that,” a former developer says. “Even after milestones, you know, we’d all crunch and then [the studio would] give us the next day or two off to breathe. [Rockstar] never did that. We’d crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, and they would expect us in sometimes the next day — even if it was a weekend — to facilitate things.”
Despite these pressures, many on the team were excited about the demo; it was more cinematic than other Rockstar games at that time, with an emphasis on set-pieces and historical accuracy. The demo had a level where the player was chased by a helicopter, with buildings exploding, rocket launchers blowing doors off of structures, and hang gliders landing on the roof of the White House.
“[Our demo] was a very highly polished, full-fledged game level with a full-fledged mission,” an artist from the team says. “It was much more than what you would expect from a prototype.”
Team members say the demo impressed the Housers, who gave the studio the green light to go into full production.
Building the game
Initially, the idea was to make, as an artist on the team tells it, “at least three” levels for Agent. The only two the team ended up working on, though, were an open-world Washington hub and a smaller, more linear level set in Cairo. To gain a level of authenticity, team members from San Diego visited both cities and took reference photos.
Along the way, staff were detained for taking pictures in both D.C. and Cairo.
In D.C., the event passed quickly, while in Cairo the situation became a complicated ordeal between Rockstar staff and the police, which worried some back home.
“It was really tense in the studio for a long time,” one developer says.
Once the teams made it home safe from each trip, photos in hand, developers at Rockstar San Diego got to work building levels from the reference material.
Combining the photos from the trips with historical images of Washington from the 1970s, the team built the open-world level, then the largest open area the team had worked on. It was the only level the team got close to completing.
“Basically the core of D.C. was fully modeled,” the artist says about the level. “It was all pretty accurate — and it was even pretty accurate to the 1970s time period.”
The idea was for Washington to serve as a main hub area for the player, with other cities around the world serving as linear, set-piece-oriented levels the player would fly to throughout the game’s campaign.
Building an ambitious open-world game was a struggle for Rockstar San Diego, developers tell Polygon. The team had done smaller open-world games before, such as the racing games Midtown Madness and Midnight Club, but none with the scope of Agent, an open-world action game. It required major changes to the company’s engine. And as the studio was trying to iron out the tech and gameplay, sources say Rockstar’s New York City headquarters continually requested that the team work on the game’s story, adding to the team’s stress.
“Designers came in as level designers were having to tweak the suspension on vehicles, because none of that stuff really existed,” one designer says, adding that the team was working on levels at the same time that fundamental gameplay mechanics, such as hand-to-hand combat, were still in the conceptual stage. “We were just building this engine, we were building this fighting engine, we were building this combat engine. And in the meantime, the guys in New York are like, ‘When’s the story gonna be done?’ It was just kinda chaotic.”
According to those speaking for this story, Rockstar New York continually shifted gears with what it wanted from the game and its story. And despite the extensive crunch for many team members, some in San Diego didn’t always have much to work on as things shifted and changed, since the game had been a fully staffed project from the start.
Developers we spoke to say the New York office’s constantly changing wants for Agent led to a lot of issues for the project. As they tell it, the Housers were asking for changes more quickly than the team could keep up with. The team didn’t have the story nailed down, it didn’t have the gameplay nailed down, and progress began to stall. Nevertheless, everyone at the studio kept crunching.
“They were just not giving us enough time,” one developer says. “We were working really hard on it, there was basically a full crew on it, and, even staying up all day and all night, we couldn’t get the changes in fast enough.”
“We were just doing so much,” another says. “I mean, like, every day, we were working weekends and 16-hour days. We were just spread so thin.”
Health issues persisted at Rockstar San Diego at this time, too, sources tell Polygon, with some unable to continue working due to stress.
According to developers we spoke to, working at Rockstar San Diego in those days meant buying into Rockstar’s culture, regardless of whether you wanted to.
One developer speaking for this story messaged us the day before his interview to ask if he should be worried about any legal ramifications that might come from talking about the project.
When asked why he was concerned, he replied, “[They] frighten me a bit.”
“I would say there was definitely a culture of fear,” one former Rockstar higher-up says. “If you have leadership that thinks that everyone is replaceable except for them and everyone’s lives should revolve around work, it’s not a good way for modern first-world people to live.”
Working under these conditions raises the question: Why stay? Some developers we talked to said it came down to loving making games and being married to their work. One developer also adds that they felt a desire to feel like a part of Rockstar, even when it didn’t work out: “We just loved what we did and wanted to be accepted.”
It was at this time, as the studio worked on Red Dead Revolver and Agent, that some developers say the working environment at Rockstar San Diego became toxic — in part due to the issues mentioned above, and in part due to the untimely deaths of three people who had worked at the studio.
In the mid-2000s, three people with close ties to Rockstar San Diego passed away in short succession: one, Mike Haynes, while working there, and two, Carlos Hernandez and Bill Purvis, after departing the company. While the circumstances varied for each, it’s something, even today, that’s hard to talk about for some developers interviewed for this story.
In Haynes’ case, he was riding a motorcycle to work when he was hit by a bus. Rockstar dedicated its 2006 game Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis to his memory.
For Hernandez, his passing came approximately two months after leaving Rockstar. After a year or so working on Agent, the game’s producer, Luis Gigliotti, left Rockstar to start a new studio with THQ, Concrete Games. The day after he left, 11 of the leads who had worked on Agent — Gigliotti’s team — joined him. Sources close to the team say the group worked closely together, was frustrated with Rockstar’s working conditions and wanted to see what it could do on its own. Hernandez was part of that group and died unexpectedly one day in the Concrete Games office, leaving team members at the new studio and former coworkers back at Rockstar devastated.
To compensate for the staff departures to Concrete, Rockstar moved many of the leads from Red Dead Revolver, which launched on May 4, 2004, onto Agent.
House of cards
When the new leads took over Agent in San Diego, some say the game wasn’t as far along in development as it had appeared. They say the demo that initially impressed the Housers looked good, but used too many “smoke and mirrors” development tricks to be a stable starting point for a complete game.
One source from the team disagrees with this assessment, saying that the demo was rough around the edges but a good start. But ultimately, the team ended up spending the next year focusing largely on the game’s engine, improving the tools it needed to create an open-world action game, while working a bit on the game itself.
Under this new direction, Rockstar San Diego worked on Agent for about another year. One source on the project says it was a struggle for the new leads, though, who didn’t “get” what the Houser brothers wanted from the game. After going back and forth with Sam Houser about his vision for Agent, they just weren’t grasping it, he says.
“You know, The Professionals was a U.K. show,” a team member on the project says. “It’s very British. It’s, like, late-’70s, ’80s Britain. None of us were really connecting to it. [Rockstar’s headquarters in] New York was getting frustrated that we weren’t getting it. The technology was good. That part we got, and it was going well, but the game part we weren’t really getting.”
After a year of work, getting the game’s engine to a place where it could do open-world games, Agent as a Rockstar San Diego game became less and less of a reality. But the game’s under-the-hood technology wouldn’t be scrapped. It was still used — just for something different. The sequel to Red Dead Revolver: Red Dead Redemption.
“I don’t know how much of it was us trying to convince them or Sam knew he wanted to do Red Dead anyway, but somehow the decision was made to just shelve Agent and take all the work that we’d done and start Red Dead Redemption,” a team member says. “Because, you know, the tech was usable [on] either project — and probably maybe even more suitable for Red Dead Redemption.”
The transition between the two games was immediate, according to a developer. “We got the word, ‘Hey, we’re going to be a Western. Collect all assets, bundle them up. Start creating the Western stuff now, immediately,’” the person says.
For some people lower in the studio hierarchy, the news came as a shock. A lot at the team felt Agent was going to be the next big Rockstar property. They were told, according to one developer, that in addition to supporting Red Dead Redemption with Rockstar San Diego’s technology, Rockstar Games would use some of the tech for future Grand Theft Auto games.
Work on Redemption began in 2005, with the game being released in 2010. It went on to be considered one of the greatest games of all time. But that game’s development wouldn’t be without its challenges, either.
What happened next
Tough working conditions proved to be a constant issue across both of Rockstar San Diego’s early projects. After the work on Agent ended, Red Dead Redemption also proved to be a demanding project for the studio.
This became public in two ways. First, a group of anonymous employees and family members started speaking out about the company’s demanding schedules.
On Jan. 7, 2010, a collective claiming to be “Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees” posted a blog on game industry news site Gamasutra chastising Rockstar for its extreme working conditions, saying that the worst crunch began in March 2009, a little over a year before the San Diego studio launched Redemption.
“Till present, the working conditions persists [sic] to deteriorate as employees are manipulated by certain hands that wield the reigns [sic] of power in Rockstar San Diego,” the post reads. “Furthermore, the extent of degradation employees have suffered extends to their quality of life and their family members.”
“Recently, with the amount of stress that has been built up, there have been physical manifestations caused by stress making health a concern,” the post continues. “It is known that some employees have been diagnosed with depression symptoms and at least one among them is acknowledged to have suicidal tendencies. These will not be ameliorated with a full time masseuse and will only worsen if no change to improve conditions take [sic] place and managers continue with their dishonesty of deadlines.”
Former employees speaking for this story back up these claims, with one noting, “I remember days where I wouldn’t go home — nor would the bulk of the team — and we’d just ride through to the next workday then complete that workday before going home. I was young back then so I didn’t care as much.”
In 2006, Rockstar also ran into a $2.75 million lawsuit filed by former employees Garrett Flynn and Terri-Kim Chuckry on behalf of more than 100 then-current and former employees of Rockstar San Diego, accusing Rockstar Games of unpaid overtime, both when the company was contracting with Angel Studios and after the acquisition.
The suit remained unresolved for more than two years, until Rockstar agreed to settle for the full $2.75 million in November 2008, though the company denied any wrongdoing in the settlement. According to the agreement, the company “concluded ongoing litigation would be protracted and expensive for all parties and that settlement is desirable.”
Since late 2018, Rockstar’s relationship with long working hours has been scrutinized under a new microscope, due in part to comments made by Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser in a Vulture interview, and to an investigation into the company’s “culture of crunch” by Kotaku.
In the Vulture interview, Houser mentioned there were times when team members worked “100-hour weeks” on the company’s latest game, Red Dead Redemption 2. He later added that he was speaking specifically about his four-person writing team over a short period of time, and not the entire team for longer stretches. But the discussion surrounding the issue brought forward various current and former Rockstar employees, some of whom painted a less-than-ideal picture of the pressure the company had put on employees.
For the Kotaku report, some current and former employees told the outlet they found their work on Red Dead Redemption 2 rewarding and that they were “happy to work at Rockstar,” while others said development was a “difficult experience, one that cost them friendships, family time, and mental health.”
As part of Rockstar’s response to the claims in the Kotaku story, head of publishing Jennifer Kolbe referenced the early days of Rockstar San Diego as a particularly rough time for the company’s problems with crunch, saying she believes the company has since improved in this respect.
“We certainly looked at Red Dead 1 and what came out of that, and knew we did not want to have a situation like that again,” she said. “I think naturally as the team has grown in its working practices together, we have made improvements into how the teams are run.”
The state of Agent
We don’t know the current state of Agent.
Following the game’s time in San Diego, Jack Tretton’s E3 2009 announcement revealed that Agent was in development at Rockstar North. At that point in Rockstar’s history, though, the company was making a push to spread the development of its games across multiple studios, and we don’t know to what degree Agent became a Rockstar North project specifically.
One source says that Rockstar Leeds in the U.K. also worked on Agent, picking up the baton when Rockstar North pulled people in to work on Grand Theft Auto 5.
Another source says that Rockstar North took San Diego’s Agent assets, but worked on the game with a different engine. He recalls seeing a demo from North around the time of the transition between Agent and Red Dead Redemption that he says greatly overshadowed what San Diego had worked on.
“Rockstar North got a hold of some ideas and stuff. They did a little test demo that blew anything that we had done out of the water,” he says. “Once we saw the demo from Rockstar North — I think they had a car that turned into a submarine or something like that, and some other stuff — we were like, ‘Holy smokes!’”
And two sources say that certain aspects of Rockstar North’s work on Agent — specific locations and missions — ended up in Grand Theft Auto 5.
Take-Two Interactive renewed Agent’s trademark on Dec. 5, 2016, allowing the publisher to retain rights to the game’s name and logo for three and a half years. But, just short of two years after renewing the trademark, Take-Two officially abandoned it on Nov. 19, 2018. Agent is still listed on Rockstar’s website, and the game’s official website remains online. Both mention the game coming to PlayStation 3.
It is now nearly 15 years after Rockstar San Diego began work on the project, and almost a decade after Tretton took the E3 stage to announce the game. Rockstar hasn’t said anything publicly about Agent in years. Following periods of ambition and struggle and speculation, the closest anyone may get to actually playing Agent may just be booting up Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto 5.
Update (Mar. 6): We have edited two paragraphs and added a third in “Building the game” to clarify that Gigliotti and the team at Concrete Games left Rockstar as a group, and to offer additional details on the passing of Mike Haynes and Carlos Hernandez.
If you have more information on Agent, or have other tips, we would love to hear from you. Feel free to reach out for secure contact details at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks: Aron Garst