'Grand Theft Auto' Headed to iPads for First Time (Q&A)

Grand Theft Auto - Video Game Still - H - 2011

The co-founder of Rockstar Games also reveals why his company stopped using famous talent -- one stormed off because he "didn't like the fact that his character was gay" -- and why the "Auto" franchise has endured for 10 years.

In yet another sign that the booming tablet market is changing the videogame business, Rockstar Games is entering the portable space with Grand Theft Auto III. The company will also be adapting other key franchises, including Max Payne, for both Apple iPad and Android tablets.

According to market research firm Gartner, global tablet sales are expected to top 63.6 million this year, up from 17.6 million in 2010. GTA III marks a shift in the depth of games that will be available for tablets, which have focused on shorter arcade and casual games like Rovio’s Angry Birds and PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies thus far.

Grand Theft Auto is one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, selling more than 114 million copies worldwide since 1997. GTA III, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, played an important role in integrating Hollywood actors like Robert LoggiaKyle MacLachlanMichael RapaportJoe Pantoliano and Frank Vincent into the open world interactive entertainment experience.

Dan Houser, vp creative at Rockstar Games, tells The Hollywood Reporter in an exclusive interview why tablets are perfect for complex games like Grand Theft Auto III and how his company has worked with Hollywood talent to bring best-selling games like Red Dead Redemption, LA Noire and Max Payne to life.

What are the challenges of translating a game like Grand Theft Auto III to tablets?

Dan Houser: There are two sets of challenges. One is the technical side of getting it to run, which is the same challenge you face on porting any game anywhere. And the other is making it play in an interesting way. I think our guys are finding some interesting solutions. The key to overcoming the first challenge is just taking the time and having good people working on the game. And for the second challenge, it’s ensuring that the game is more than just a cheap port. I believe we’re finding some interesting solutions, but we’re still trimming all that stuff up properly. Making it play in a fun and interesting way on the tablet is key to it being interesting. People are getting better at it, but no one has fully nailed it yet. I think we’ll take a big step in that direction.

Grand Theft Auto III featured a cast of notable Hollywood actors. What are your thoughts on using well-known actors in games?

Houser: We got bored of that. It was really useful on PlayStation 2, where the animation and the fidelity and detail were fairly limited. We were trying to do stuff at a fairly broad brushstroke.  We recognized that actors sold the animation more and sold the characters more because you’d need them for a few minutes and that was it. We made the game, Bully, that we thought was a transitional game between PS2 and PS3 era stuff from old gen and current gen. From that moment on, particularly with GTA IV, we stayed away from top-tier famous actors.

Why have you stayed away from recognizable Hollywood actors?

Houser: There are two reasons we don’t use the famous talent anymore. One is the amount of time need for these guys from a development standpoint. Then from a purely greater standpoint, we came to think that once the characters look so good and the facial animation is getting so good, we’ve actually moved past wanting the game to feel like its own TV show or movie come to life. We want it to be like this world come to life. Bringing a famous person into that is distracting. It wasn’t just a practical issue, it was also a greater issue that meant we were no longer pursuing famous people playing themselves, which still is interesting in the right context and something we’d definitely look to do again.

Did you ever run into any issues with actors on your games?

Houser: On GTA: San Andreas, one of the famous actors got upset with the script and a minor comedian stormed off because he didn’t like the fact that his character was gay. We got the guy who’d done the mo-cap to do the part and he was better than any other people that auditioned. I was doing so much directing of these games and the process had been so slow and ponderous. And this other guy was nailing it in two takes. So I thought why don’t we just use the same people from mo-cap.

How has technology improved the performances you’re able to get from actors in games today?

Houser: Back with GTA IV, there still would be two separate performances, but by the same person. After GTA IV, we actually got some new tech from the people that do our facial animation, so we now do the mo-cap and the facial animation at the same time. That led to what we were after, which was a total integration of performance through physical acting and voice acting to make the characters really alive. When we went to high definition that became very important.

What impact has working with actors in your most recent games had on the storytelling experience?

Houser: We’re using what we believe is great quality, but not famous talent, and paying a very high union day rate to them. These actors end up working for weeks and sometimes months at a time for us, so it’s the same as working on a TV show to them. When they realize that the process might involve them wearing a scuba suit (for motion-capture), but otherwise is acting with hopefully good scripts and interesting flow; it’s really the same as anything else they work on in Hollywood.

Grand Theft Auto III is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What is it about this game, and this franchise, that has withstood the test of time?

Houser: There’s a real commitment to making these experiences that are unlike experiences other people are offering on games or even anywhere else. It’s a combination of unique videogame experience that allows players to explore these worlds that are full of a wide variety of interesting content. It’s not trying to be a movie. It’s a game, but it has cinema-level production values. These games have their own take on the world, which is a combination of gangsterness and cynicism. When combined, it gives this sense of this thing that’s alive and has its own perspective. I think that’s unique within these games. Not many games are dealing with the contemporary world in quite that same way.

Music has played an instrumental role in the Grand Theft Auto games. How have you seen the role of games grow when it comes to music?

Houser: Radio has become rather stale. It was never a place to hear classics, and we’re suddenly able to mine music that was classic when we were younger and introduce it to kids who have no way of hearing stuff from 40 years ago. That’s showing that games are a powerful medium for music, partly because you spend so long with a game. You’ll spend an hour and a half with a film and you’ll spend 100 hours with a game, so they really hear this music in a bunch of different ways while doing a lot of different things in the game. It showed that games, as with classic moments in film, essentially can become an interactive pop video in some ways. People experience the music while doing these outlandish things, or simply just cruising around the mountain while the sun sets. And whatever it might be, they really fall in love with the music and they learn about things they wouldn’t have otherwise learned about. That’s am enormous privilege for those of us that love music to introduce people to.