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Scotsman Games: reflections on Grand Theft Auto V

Picture: Rockstar

Picture: Rockstar

  • by Martyn McLaughlin
 

Martyn McLaughlin assesses the scale, impact, and reception of Grand Theft Auto V, hailed as the biggest Scottish cultural export of all time, but warns that while it represents a shot in the arm for the country’s games industry, Rockstar North’s business model is the exception, not the rule.

IT is an opportune time to be in the tourism trade in Los Santos. Over the past fortnight, the prodigious realised metropolis has enjoyed a sizeable spike in arrivals, as millions descend on its teeming urban sprawl for a city break, or venture to its northern hinterlands where the soaring peaks which frame boundless wilds of desert and scrub hold the promise of adventure. The sightseers have come away with keepsakes and mementoes: cash hauls from jewel heists, a buoyant property portfolio, or a collection of prized high-performance cars which make the Sultan of Brunei’s garage look like a second-hand Fiat dealership in a dilapidated Lanarkshire industrial estate. Yet the greatest souvenir Los Santos reserves for its visitors is not so brashly materialistic. Instead, it is an intangible illusion which dictates that each and every excursion into its realm appears a unique consequence of autonomous choice.

Amid the white noise which envelops every new Grand Theft Auto game, it is easy to forget the greatest trick Rockstar North ever pulled was convincing the world its algorithms don’t exist. In the two weeks that have passed since the release of Grand Theft Auto V - the seventh main iteration of the series, the 15th if you count the myriad expansion packs and portable versions - the individual experiences relayed by gamers have coalesced into a glowing testament to the the Edinburgh-based developer’s design and execution of its heterogeneous underbelly of Southern California. From evading an angered swarm of police helicopters through a forest of wind turbines as the caramelised vocals of Chicago’s Peter Cetera muffle the gunfire, to exploring the plentiful seabeds in search of bounty only to find one of the Pacific’s many finned predators, the stories are legion, and no two are identical. It has also brought about the curious meta phenomenon of the in-game self shot, as players capture their experiences and upload them to the likes of Twitter and Facebook, an example of what Rockstar North describe as “digital tourism.”

Already, a considerable minority of people have raced breathlessly through the trinity of interlinked narratives which propel events forward, greeted in the end with a credits roll so lengthy it makes Once Upon A Time In The West look like a Dogme production. After years of waiting, their impatience is understandable, but they would be best advised to follow a meandering route; it is a game which rewards those who ration the spectacle. In previous entries in the franchise - and rival open world titles which presume quantity to be an apt substitute for quality - diversionary activities were envisaged as antidotes for when the pace of the central story boiled over. In time, though, they were found to be disparate and ephemeral affairs which left a nagging disconnect. By contrast, the fare on offer in GTA V - in particular hunting and tennis - is so fully realised as to actively dissuade players from fulfilling their main objectives, absorbing them ever deeper into Los Santos - a paean to a hyperrealistic California pitched somewhere between Chinatown and Heat - as the sleight of hand takes hold.

Expanded game

While the backbone of the series - at its essence, a sequence of missions meshing driving and shooting - remains fundamentally unaltered in its latest iteration, its magnitude sets it apart from previous instalments. “The new game doesn’t seem to have changed Grand Theft Auto in any major way, it’s a bigger world than last time, but the basic idea of allowing you to do what you want in a city is still in place,” says Tristan Donovan, author of Replay: The History of Video Games. “You could say it hasn’t pushed the boundaries very much for that reason, but then the size and scale of the game, and what you can do it, is huge. While it’s not a great leap forward, it’s still super ambitious in terms of game design. The fact it’s taken five years to create speaks of how complex the production has been.”

Grand vistas and environments form an arresting basis for the game world, not least the beauty of the naturalistic lighting effects conjured by Aaron Garbut, the studio’s long-serving art director, and Owen Shepherd, its principal lighting director. Michael, Franklin, and Trevor may be the anti-heroes, but the sun is GTA V’s unsung protagonist, shooting shards of light across gleaming bonnets and hinting at the towering concrete monoliths of downtown piercing through slithers of smog. For the first time in a game, nightfall heralds a genuinely transformative effect, turning Los Santos into a glittering playground of possibilities just waiting to be bent to a player’s will. Against this bold canvas, countless little details which, in isolation, appear inconsequential. add shade and depth: the faint ticking of a car’s engine as it cools down; the way a radio station will segue from one station to another as you journey from city to country; the zapping of bugs on the external lights of ramshackle bars. During a recent outing, I found graffiti daubed on the isolated concrete support of a freeway. ‘Nothing here,’ it read, a wry reminder that even before your arrival in Los Santos, Rockstar North’s employees have lived and breathed every square foot of it since 2008.

“What Rockstar North have done consistently is focus on the quality of the game, and not worry about the budget or how long it takes,” says Ian Baverstock, a veteran of the industry since 1989 who now works as a games consultant and analyst. “There are very few games companies who still adopt that model other than perhaps Nintendo, which produces high quality products.” Dr Richard Wilson, the chief executive of TIGA, the UK games industry’s trade association, agrees that Rockstar North is in a league of its own. The minutiae of GTA V, he suggests, is just as critical as the panoramas in making the game a success.

“It has set new heights in terms of attention to detail and the artistry of games development,” he reasons, recalling his own time whiled away in Los Santos. “It’s a very small point, but the fact you can pass by a character in the morning standing at a bus stop, then come back in the afternoon to see them out in their garden cutting the grass, is just incredible. Or then there are the clouds which cast moving shadows on the ground and buildings. These are tiny examples, but they demonstrate the vast scale of the game and importantly, how they help create an overall experience. It’s awe inspiring, really.”

Graphics

Significant attention has rightly been paid to the sumptuous graphical feast offered up by Rockstar North, thanks to its diligent under the hood work on the RAGE and Euphoria engines, which eke every last drop of processing power from a console generation creaking towards its eighth year. It is a game when seduces the eye with a technical prowess that will likely go unrivalled until the raw power of the PS4 and Xbox One can be harnessed by developers. But such progressive coding and use of memory only partly explains the reason GTA V is a beguiling experience; its most notable virtue is a simple one, and an enduring and vital commodity in gaming: in a word, fun.

Arguably more than any other developer, it is possible to chart the evolution of Rockstar North’s craft and confidence by scrutinising its back catalogue. Each entry bestows new concepts and mechanics to the next, such as the weapon wheel from Red Dead Redemption, the gunplay in Max Payne 3, or the vehicle handling honed by Rockstar San Diego in the Midnight Club: all these features have been refined and transplanted into GTA V, without compromising the title’s own longstanding motifs. Do not for a moment buy into the renegade identity of the studio carefully constructed down the years by the Houser brothers - such a studied process of assimilation shows that is success owes more to graft than genius.

The tireless advance has, however, met with stumbling, retrograde steps along the way, 2008’s Grand Theft Auto IV being a case in point. In the afterglow of a rhapsodic critical reception, there soon emerged murmurs of discontent over the title, a chorus which grew louder as the weeks and months passed. After the initial thrill of being let loose in a next-gen Liberty City - the Grand Theft Auto universe’s compressed, bustling likeness of New York - a growing minority of players became disenchanted and, worse still, disengaged. In its quest for authenticity, Rockstar North stood accused of tedium. Having stubbornly pursued a po-faced, solemn narrative at the expense of entertainment, gamers laid down their joypads. My own immigrant’s tale went unresolved; after only two or three weeks, I left Niko Bellic behind, condemning the him to an eternity of unanswered calls from his cousin, Roman, a character who most gamers would have gleefully maimed in a bowling alley pinsetter had the option been available.

Thankfully, in the five years that have passed, the team overseen by Leslie Benzies (Rockstar North’s Dufftown-born lead producer and president) on Edinburgh’s Greenside Row has not only looked to the future, but cast its magpie eye over their previous titles, especially Vice City and San Andreas, which offered plentiful helpings of merriment and distraction alongside the main story arc. In an article for Forbes, the writer Dave Thier hit upon the basic concept which sets GTA V apart from its predecessor. “Within a few minutes of booting up I had gone on a jet ski chase and chased down a hijacked yacht on the highway,” he explained. “This game is all about spectacle, and it does that better than I have almost ever seen.”

GTA V, it should be stressed, is not without its flaws. Despite the tightened mechanics and physics concocted through the Euphoria engine, controlling characters on foot still lacks the verve and fluidity exhibited in Sleeping Dogs. The plot, which starts with a flourish and benefits from fine voice acting - especially Gerald ‘Slink’ Johnson, the alter ego of Lamar - loses momentum around two thirds of the way through. Some side missions, such as Tonya’s tow truck, are exercises in banality which pale in comparison to the sleekly choreographed heists. And save for the acute and biting barbs aimed at Apple and Facebook in the form of iFruit and LifeInvader, swaths of the satirical reference points which permeates every aspect of the game are often redundant, scattergun or puerile. Was it not always thus?

Controversy

That other lynchpin of any Grand Theft Auto game - controversy - is present and correct, with spirited debate focusing on its lack of fully-formed female characters and treatment of women in general, along with a torture scene which proves genuinely unsettling. Such features have attracted a flurry of headlines, but refreshingly, the wider media – a many-headed beast often responsible for the perpetuity of its own indignation - has for the most part resisted seizing upon the most contentious elements of the production. As a national news reporter to trade, I have found the coverage given to GTA V by such press and broadcasters significant, spanning magazine spreads in quality newspapers like the Sunday Times, The Independent and the Sunday Telegraph, which ordinarily ignore the sector, or exhibit a gnawing schizophrenia by commissioning knowledgeable freelancers to pen an adroit dissection of a major release, only to counter it with a hastily concocted news story used as a vehicle to denounce the very same game as some harbinger of iniquity or moral decline.

The most convincing evidence of this fledgling shift in perspective - a process for which The Guardian in particular is to be lauded - is the fact a nuanced analysis of the influence of games design and the medium’s economic impact has at long last breached the mainstream, with slews of newsprint being given over to figures like the Houser brothers and Benzies to discuss their oeuvre. A generation ago, the very notion that peripheral cultural heroes like Naoto Oshima or Toru Iwatani would have been interviewed by such publications was unthinkable. Gaming may have endured an awkward adolescence, but such coverage offers hope that where the form was once regarded as parasitic, it now flows seamlessly into the aorta of modern entertainment.

“The way the game has been received is very interesting,” muses Wilson, who has been called on to give several radio and newspaper interviews of late in his capacity as the cheerleader for the British industry. “In the trade press, it’s been praised to the rafters, and even more encouragingly, mainstream outlets in print, online, radio and television have given it a lot of coverage, and very positive coverage as well. I think that’s significant for two reasons: firstly it shows how well embedded video games are culturally in our society when the level of coverage is on a par with big film releases. Secondly, it demonstrates a widespread recognition that games are impressive economically.

“When a new television series airs, the press is interested in the creative process of how it came about, and I think this is probably the first time a major video game, certainly a UK game, has received such this kind of detailed attention, focusing not just on the story, but the artistic process, the programming, the budget that was involved and the length of time it’s taken to produce. It’s a massive and successful undertaking which displays an innate creativity and imagination.”

Another observer, Paul Durrant, director of business development at the University of Abertay Dundee, said the “generally positive” coverage in the media has met with only “a few exceptions of negativity,” an indication that it is finally comfortable with the long-established status of games as mainstream entertainment and “cultural influencers.” He says: “Coverage and exploration of the content of the game has been much more focused on the style of film and literacy criticism, where critics tend to be less judgemental of specific content. There were a number of examples of this - it was interesting to see how the Sunday Times took the GTA V graphic and used it ‘with apologies to Rockstar’ for two other news stories. The fact that they assumed recognition of the graphic by their broad readership shows the level of cultural awareness that is out there.”

Donovan rightly points out that GTA V is hardly Year Zero when it comes to serious gaming coverage in the traditional media. The previous game, for instance, merited a lengthy feature in the Sunday Times Culture supplement. But the issues addressed, he says, have changed in the five years that have passed. “The tone does seem slightly different this time around,” he explains. “It’s less about the controversy or the idea the game is seeking to simulate a city, and more about the fact it’s not a murder simulator, but a satire. It might be clumsy in some ways and not always hit the mark, but it’s a bit deeper than simply causing mayhem, although of course, that’s always going to be large part of it.”

“I think in the past, the media have been stuck in a 1980s mentality which regarded video games as silly entertainment for geeky boys, and if they were to be reported on at all, it would be in a negative way. But now, something like two out of three people in the UK play games, whether it’s Grand Theft Auto or Candy Crush. I think the media’s caught up with that, and realised when it slags off games, it’s slagging off its audience. Let’s remember we even have a chancellor who plays games, there’s been a major demographic shift. The people who played Spectrums in the 1980s are middle aged now.”

It has, though, been telling to see the context in which the latest triumphs of gaming culture has been presented. Time and again since its release on 17 September, GTA V has been hailed as one of the “biggest entertainment launches of all time.” It is a clumsy and empty parlance never applied to film, and rather than helping define the many qualities of the game to the uninitiated, raises the question of whether a general audience can only appreciate the impact of the few remaining triple A game franchises if they are compared, qualified and validated against traditional forms of media. Grand Theft Auto itself, having once courted stars such as Ray Liotta, James Woods, Samuel L Jackson and Peter Fonda, has steered away from celebrity of late, an indication of its increased confidence in its products and the medium in which it operates.

Donavan, however, absolves the press of whipping up the phenomenon which inextricably bonds gaming to cinema. It is, he feels, the doing of developers and publishers themselves. “It’s the one encouraging these comparisons,” he says. “The gaming business has a bit of a small man syndrome. I think the there’s still an attitude from when historically, games were not seen as worthy of any serious coverage. It worries that it’s inferior in some way, and uses financial comparisons with film. I think it’s borne out of paranoia and it’s not necessary - no one is going to start playing Grand Theft Auto V because it made more money in a few days than Pirates of the Caribbean. The industry needs to move on, it’s a mainstream form of entertainment, and people will play games and watch films. It’s not an either or.”

Striking a different note, Wilson believes there is ample reason not to demarcate the gaming sector from the film industry. In fact, there are millions of them. “I think film is a useful term of reference,” insists the former head of business policy at the Institute of Directors. “It was the major cultural medium of the 20th century, and the games industry will be the Hollywood of the 21st century. But TIGA has consciously compared GTA and other games to film for an important political and cultural reason, because in the European Union, film, television and animation are treated as cultural and audio-visual products, and as a consequence, receive favourable tax agreements and support schemes. Video games, although they have been around for decades, are treated as the new kids on the block, and are not perceived in the same way. As a result, it’s much, much harder for national governments, regional governments, and local authorities to support the industry or invest in it.”

By highlighting the fiscal might of the two mediums, Wilson believes, is a key weapon in TIGA’s fight to convince the European Commission that the British gaming industry should enjoy the same kind of tax relief as is in place in France in Canada. In the latter country, research indicates that some studios receive as much as 23% of their turnover in the form of public subsidies. Under the proposed British system, the credit would offer 25% tax relief on up to 80% of the production budget of a game, similar to an existing credit for the film industry. Only time will tell if Brussels acquiesces to such wishes. With the lion’s share of creatives denied the exorbitant resources of Rockstar North - around half of the nation’s developers were formed in the last four years, according to TIGA - such an initiative would be seen by some as a major boon. However, the proposal is not universally regarded as a panacea to the adversity facing the industry. The head of one prominent developer, who wished to remain anonymous, told me: “A tax relief is all fine and well if you’re operating on a certain scale with big budgets, but it’s not going to do a great deal to encourage new IPs, which is the way we have to go in Scotland if we’re looking to thrive. There’s also the very real danger that a company could enjoy the benefits of tax relief, and in a few years sod off somewhere else. We’ve seen it in other businesses with Regional Selective Assistance funding.”

Made in Scotland

With word increasingly getting out that GTA V was created in Scotland – albeit with assistance from Rockstar’s other studios - the game has been a resoundingly positive public relations campaign for the games industry in this country. Yet in a moment of rare publicity for the sector, it is vital to realise that rather than being representative of all Scottish developers, in terms of size and resources Rockstar North is a totem, a flagship in a sea of sailboats charting their own diligent path. If there is such a thing as an atypical Scottish game developer in a industry characterised by its diversity, resilience, and sense of community, chances are it is an innovative, recently-formed microstudio which in some way emerged from the rubble of Realtime Worlds, and is now focused on free-to-play titles or games for iOS and Android, as well as opportunities in education and other sectors.

Explains Wilson: “The industry is polarised in many respects between companies like Rockstar North which can spend millions, and the many, many other firms who are making mobile or tablet games with 10 or fewer employees. It is those types of studios we want to encourage and support, and ensure the industry in Scotland can prosper, grow and create extraordinarily successful games on a par with Grand Theft Auto in the future, but we need change to address that.”

Baverstock, a founder partner at Teshni Ventures, agrees. He said: “It’s obviously fantastic for Scotland to the extent that more people know such an iconic piece of American culture is made in Scotland. That’s a great testament to the ability of people in the industry in this country. But Rockstar North are doing something which would never come about today from scratch in the British games industry. You won’t see many more studios with that kind of reputation, history and scale, because the new games aren’t made in the same way. I don’t think people in the industry necessarily look at Rockstar and think, ‘We are trying to get there’. They’re not following that commercial route.”

Durrant, whose university is a leading light in educating and supporting the next generation of developers, suggests the emergence of Grand Theft Auto from its roots at DMA Design to the juggernaut that is GTA V should, if nothing else, be encouraging for other companies. He says: “In terms of the lessons for development peers in the Scottish industry I think GTA V still sends out a highly positive message. Firstly this is in terms of the superb level of production quality and creativity but secondly in terms of the potential for new games IPs to grow into global brands. The BBC juxtaposition of Rory Cellan Jones’ 90’s docu-slot film at DMA with today’s coverage will inspire all small Scottish teams to keep developing new IP. As a country, operating in this non-demand, hit driven business we need hundreds and hundreds of new games IPs to be developed in order to have one or two successes.”

Abertay’s prototype fund has helped support over 70 Scottish and UK SMEs by helping to bankroll the creation of new IPs, but Durrant concedes that “only a very small proportion of those companies will have a hit and an even smaller group will end up like Rockstar.”

The university sector aside, there exists a broad support for the work being done by Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International, while the Scottish Government is increasingly making positive noises about the industry’s importance. Even so, wounds are still fresh from last year’s Economic Contribution Study of the creative fields – commissioned by Creative Scotland and Scottish Enterprise - which remarkably claimed the games sector brought a Gross Value Added (GVA) of £0.

Durrant also serves a timely reminder that while we should be proud of Rockstar North’s achievements as a Scottish firm, it is a subsidiary of New York headquartered Take Two Interactive, who stand to reap the all-important financial rewards of GTA V. He adds: “Neither the Scottish or UK Government has yet managed to generate the level of access to finance needed to stimulate a higher level of this activity, but working with the prototype fund portfolio we are presently making the case in Westminster. Of course, this argument might be easier if all of the tax dollars from GTA V were flowing into UK coffers. Scotland and the UK really misses out on having publishers of scale to capitalise on games IP in the way that Take Two has done with Rockstar. Whilst it’s great to have the hundreds of talented individuals working in Edinburgh on the GTA franchise it would be even better if the gross sales represented a Scottish export.”

Donovan, who is appreciative of the paucity of resources available to nearly every Scottish developer other than Rockstar North, also believes it will not be emulated any time soon, but indicates there are “attitudinal” lessons to be learned from Benzies et al. “When they made Grand Theft Auto III, it took years for them to find a way for the 3D world to work properly. Very few developers have their luxury of budget and time, of course, but they were determined to make it happen and only release it when it was great.”

With development cycles decreasing inversely to rising production costs, and a wearisome reliance upon festive sequels to behemoths like Call of Duty which offer just a few cursory tweaks to a time-honoured formula of compulsion, the pressures which actively discourage innovation and the genesis of new IPs on the leading platforms are unlikely to lift any time soon. Only a few days before GTA V’s release, the industry saw the demise of Blitz, one of Britain’s most celebrated studios, swallowed by the shifting teutonic plates of the mobile gaming economy. “Nobody is angry,” said Philip Oliver, its co-founder. “Everybody’s just very sad. We have tried everything.” In more ways than one, Los Santos occupies a different world. But as we approach the cusp of a new generation of consoles, it should be a shining example of what games can achieve when patience, trust and investment is melded to a dizzying, imaginative ambition.

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