Making games the Rockstar way (without their budgets!)

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Edited by Erica L. Howard.

 

Everyone in the gaming world is playing, it seems, Rockstar Games’ newest opus, Red Dead Redemption 2. Understandably, much of the focus has been on the enormous team size and resources of this outstanding developer and publisher.  Is it true that what makes Rockstar Games special is only possible when given enormous amounts of time and resources? In my view, there are at least three important attributes that can scale to studios of any size, including very small indies. So how can your team make games the Rockstar way?

First, let’s identify three key elements that make Rockstar’s games special. These are:

  1. High-quality voice acting.
  2. Verisimilitude.
  3. Courage.

Let’s talk about how each of these can be achieved by everyone, not just a publisher capable of $100 million budgets!

Voice acting on the cheap

The difference between text and vocal performances is big. Many gamers don’t even read game text, so you can’t count on anyone understanding your narrative without vocal performances.

 

The first step to having outstanding voice acting is, obviously, hiring outstanding voice talent! However, that isn’t always going to be the reality for smaller projects. In addition, you probably won’t have a person dedicated to only directing your voice actors; you’ll have to do it yourself.

 

On Lost Within, a game I worked on during my time at Human Head Studios, we had wonderful voice talent. Yet the job of directing that largely fell to myself and Ted Halsted, the lead narrative designer on the project. While I wasn’t unfamiliar with the job, this was going to require directing many actors saying many lines, as Lost Within was a narrative-heavy game.

 

The biggest mistake most novice directors make when recording actors is, frankly, not knowing what they want. Having a rough archetype for your character is not going to be enough. Beware of “studio syndrome,” where everything sounds awesome when you record it, only to be found wanting later!

 

Fortunately, this is easily avoided. We started doing table reads, in which we go through the script before the session, each one of us trying out different affectations and emotions for the character. No, we aren’t voice actors, and these performances would have sounded pretty bad if we had recorded them! But the act of doing so informed us greatly. We now understood what we wanted, and would come in with stronger notes and direction. I highly recommend this to anyone recording voice actors. I can assure you, no matter if you are using Hollywood talent or folks from your local theater, you will get much better results if you do this!

 

Verisimilitude: The art of making your world real.

As a world and game designer, one of my favorite properties of a truly great game is its “realness,” or to use the fancy word I prefer, verisimilitude. Part of the magic of great game-making is taking a series of 1’s and 0’s and making you buy into it as a real place. And of course, Rockstar’s games do this better than most.

More than the other ingredients I’ve talked about, verisimilitude can seem tied only to high budgets and large teams. However, I think some degree of this can be included in any project, if only this phrase is obeyed: say yes to the player.

I can’t quite place where I heard this for the first time, but I think it was at Irrational Games, while working on Bioshock Infinite.

One of my favorite game industry anecdotes, one I’ll probably bore people with at parties forever, is just a tiny bit of verisimilitude that I was responsible for. The middle portion of the game, Finkton, had barrel-fires around which various homeless folk would huddle around. These homespun firepits were everywhere in that environment!

One day, I noticed that if I jumped on top of one, I did not take any damage. This seemed odd to me, since the player was standing on top of fire. So what did I do about this?

I attached damage volumes to all of these barrels, so that a tiny amount of damage occurred if you stood atop one. Once I left the project – I was actually working for Human Head Studios, which in turn was contracted to help with the game – I was certain somebody would notice this and take it out of the game (just a little bit of game developer paranoia!). However, I was extremely pleased to see this made it into the shipped product.

Whenever I play Bioshock Infinite, I always like to stand on a barrel with fire in it, take that tiny bit of damage, and smile!

The point of that anecdote, however, is that this bit of realness was done by one level designer in a few minutes. It wasn’t some crazy big simulation system that had characters going on routines, sleeping, and walking to jobs! It was just taking that extra time to make sure a game reacted to you the way you would like it to. That can be done by anyone on any project!

Courage – Doing what nobody else is doing.

Nothing makes me happier as a professional game developer than standing in a long line at Gamestop on release day for a game about the American West set in 1890! Games like Red Dead Redemption 2, as well as other Rockstar titles such as L.A. Noire and Bully, handle topics and settings that aren’t typically approached by other developers. Let’s face it: there is nothing wrong with using fantasy, military or science fiction as your setting. It’s fun! But Rockstar’s courage in pursuing different themes for their games is to be admired, and certainly costs nothing to try yourself.

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