The gaming community is a tough crowd. Publishers struggle most of the time to keep them satisfied. In fact, they often end up giving birth to outrage, controversies and “gates” in the process. However, Rockstar Games, since their inception in 1998, has almost without exception managed to meet and even exceed gamers' expectations with every new release. This is an amazing feat, especially considering Rockstar's releases are very widely spaced and come with an enormous amount of hype. So, what really is the secret behind this insane level of quality and consistency?
A large part of the credit for Rockstar's success can be attributed to its parent company Take-Two Interactive and how it handles its IPs. They have a sharp eye for IPs that hold immense potential. The original Grand Theft Auto was quite problematic – the existing technology was barely enough to encapsulate the ambitious concept and there was vocal opposition from everywhere, including the British Parliament. Despite all of this, Take-Two acquired the developers DMA Design, which was renamed to Rockstar Games and continued to work on the franchise. In 2001, Take Two Interactive acquired the rights to the Max Payne IP following the success of the first game developed by Remedy. Red Dead Revolver was initially under Capcom's supervision, who failed to see much promise in the game and later cancelled it. Take Two proceeded to acquire the rights for this game as well and this became the stepping-stone for the Red Dead series. L.A. Noire was initially planned as a PS3 exclusive and was being funded by Sony. Later, Take Two Interactive acquired the rights to the game and brought it out of its problematic development cycle. Rockstar managed to come up with its own IPs over the years as well, most notably Manhunt and Bully. What's common between all these IPs is that all of them are unique and genre-defining. In an interview in 2011, Rockstar Games' President Dan Houser stated that they intentionally avoid making first-person shooters and that it is in their DNA to avoid doing what other companies are doing.
It goes without saying that all of Rockstar's games are very carefully written. The stories are crafted in a way that the players get immediately hooked to the game. Their games make you care about not just the protagonist but also the side characters – something most developers fail to achieve. Rockstar's writing team is truly versatile. They can cover the whole spectrum of emotions, be it tragedy or humor. The dialogues of Rockstar's games are impeccable and the shining example of this is GTA San Andreas. CJ's prologue helps you understand and relate to the game's story right in its beginning moments while Big Smoke's insanely large food order at the drive-through is bound to crack you up. Rockstar also incorporates political and social satire in their games, as exemplified by the presence of an in-game social media aptly named “LifeInvader” in the GTA universe.
Another one of Rockstar's greatest strengths is in world building. While the sandboxes in their last two games, GTA V and RDR2 are strong contenders for the best open worlds in video game history, Rockstar has been doing a good job in this department for quite some time. The PS1/2 era did not provide developers with enough technological prowess and yet somehow, the open worlds in Rockstar's games were just as fascinating during those days. In fact, most gamers would prefer fooling around in Vice City to doing the story missions. In order to re-create the atmosphere of 1940's Los Angeles for L.A. Noire, the development team spent years collecting photos of the city during that time period. Even in the “closed-world” games, the atmosphere manages to be breathtaking. I was mesmerised when I came across children playing football in the streets of the Brazilian shantytowns in Max Payne 3. Interactivity is also a key element of Rockstar's open worlds. The amount of interaction you can have with various people, animals and objects all across RDR2's huge map is fascinating.
The cherry on top for Rockstar's titles is the level of quality control they have in place. Rockstar does not hesitate to postpone a game if they do feel like it hasn't met their standards. L.A. Noire, Max Payne 3, GTA V, RDR2 – most of Rockstar's recent titles have had multiple delays in their launch. This is probably done in an attempt to accommodate the increased development time and attention to detail that current-gen games require. However, the wait generally proves to be worth it as fans and critics fall in love with their games as soon as they release. Rockstar's Games are not by any means bug-free but the additional development time is spent on departments such as writing or graphics, which more than make up for any flaws the games may have.
I am not necessarily saying all other companies should follow Rockstar's strategies because that would mean our consoles collecting dust for years until a game would release. However, the lesson to learn from Rockstar is that single-player games are by no means dead and are likely to succeed critically and commercially if enough care and attention is paid to their development.
Nony Khondaker is an introvert who complements his non-existent social life with video games, Netflix and a whole lot of ice-cream. Send him memes and cat videos to cheer him up at fb.com/NonyKhondaker