Four Lessons from Rockstar Games: The Innovators Behind Grand Theft Auto Five



Would you believe me if I told you that Grand Theft Auto Five cost $250 million to create? In fact, it cost more to create this video game than The Avengers, Avatar and Toy Story 3. That’s right… A video game that costs more than an actual movie.

I know what you’re thinking, how are they going to make that much money? While at first, it seems like it would be a challenge, it starts to make more sense when you hear that 3 million copies were pre-ordered at $60 a pop. And it makes even more sense when you consider the fact that the last version of Grand Theft Auto sold $500 million worth of units during its first week.

The creators of Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar, are somewhat in fact, the Rockstars of the video game industry. In many ways, what they have done for video games should be compared to what Apple has done for music and computers. An organizational commitment to innovation, creativity and user experience has resulted in one of the most successful video games in history.

Rockstar Games was started in the late 90’s when they recognized the need for games that don’t solely tailor to kids and geeks. Early interviews with the founders of Rockstar games share this idea as they were dedicated to making  video games cool among the masses. In fact, they took inspiration from Hip Hop and Rock & Roll when developing Grand Theft Auto to keep the cool factor alive.

When a new Grand Theft Auto is released, the chances for another game to sell as many copies are slim to none. Rockstar knows how to deliver chart topping games and have done so release after release.

So why is there a worldwide fascination with GTAV (Grand Theft Auto Five)? Is it the violence? Is it the escapist fun? Is it the compelling story? Or is it the free world experience that leaves people lining up the night before release? I’d say it’s a combination of each, but more than anything, it’s the team. Rockstar has released a wide range of games that have truly shaped the video game industry. Here are some of the lessons we can take from their groundbreaking accomplishments:

Give The Customers What They Want


While the rest of the market was trying to create games that allowed you to save a princess in distress, the folks at Rockstar were building a franchise that let you shoot police officers and civilians. It’s this violence that places Rockstar Games on the naughty list among many baby boomers and grandparents. In fact, some have gone as far to sue Rockstar Games for creating such violent games and promoting them to children.

Of all the games that Rockstar has produced, the most violent game they’ve created has become somewhat of a cult classic among gamers. It’s a game called Manhunt. It’s a psychological horror game filled with beatings and gruesome murders that the gamer must take commit. Protestors and lawsuits came flying at Rockstar when the Chicago Tribune expressed that Manhunt was easily the most violent game ever made. Adding fuel to the fire, the game was banned in New Zealand, Germany and was almost banned in both Canada and Australia.

At the end of the day, Manhunt sold over 2 million copies around the world. Whether we like to admit it or not, violence is a fundamental aspect of our society. We spend hours on hours watching MMA fights, boxing matches, horror films, action movies and street fight videos. Rockstar simply took this knowledge and injected it into a video game where you could feel in control.

Another groundbreaking feature from Rockstar was the idea of giving gamers free will.  It’s the gamers’ choice to follow the storyline, take part in a mini mission or roam freely in the streets causing havoc. The “open world” is one of the most important aspects of the game. Yes, it’s violent, but the freedom to do bad things, take a joyride or get a burger is what makes their games great.

In an interview between the Guardian and Rockstar Games Co-Founder, Dan Houser, he was asked about the Rockstar creative process. When asked about the impact of games on modern culture and what Rockstar creates, he said:

‘It’s up to us to make the best stuff we can make – it’s not necessarily up to us to shout from the rooftops about how clever we are, how progressive we are, or how sophisticated we are. It’s our place to make stuff that’s as good as it can be.’

Now, you can clearly see that this is someone who is focused on their craft. He’s focused on creating something great and spends very little time thinking about how it’s important to be sophisticated or progressive. Instead, he just creates. He creates things that are clever, progressive and sophisticated all with the goal of creating something special.

When you focus on giving your customers what they want, the media and customers will do the talking for you. Creating an impact doesn’t happen by saying you’re going to make one. It happens from actually doing it.

Don’t Be Afraid To Break The Rules


Whether it’s violence, crime, sex or drugs, the team at Rockstar has dabbled in it all. When Rockstar first hit the public, what they were doing with violence and free will was something that had never been done before. It was a complete 360 from the traditional game developer rule book as they took on a new approach with new rules.

Rockstar Games has redefined many aspects of gaming. The music. The art. The violence. The storyline. Each of these has been revolutionized by Rockstar Games along the way. Whether it’s the casting of Samuel L Jackson for a voiceover or licensing rights to Michael Jacksons Beat It – the folks at Rockstar strived to do what other game producers that could never happen.

In business, it’s more important than ever to push boundaries. To be successful, you need to do things that other people question but you know is going to be right for your clients, partners, employees or customers. As the world gets smaller, the importance of pushing boundaries and striving for greatness is at an all-time high.

When you’re thinking about how your business can generate some additional press or how you could win new business – think differently. Don’t be traditional in your approach and look for trends you can take advantage  to get closer to your goal. As soon as you realize that the majority of “the rules” in your industry are created by others, you can start to create your own. You can start getting away from the traditional line of thinking and start making efforts that will make an impact.

Grand Theft Auto pushed the limits with their product but also with their approach to advertising. Prior to the launch of any of their tier one games, you can expect to see a beautiful mural painted on the side of a building in Manhattan. Additionally, you can expect to find a tactic that was once limited to music festivals and musicians being used to promote their games. The distribution of paper posters on poles, subway walls and stations is another approach that has helped establish a sense of street-cred and creativity for the brand.

Don’t Be Afraid To Kill Your Bad Puppies


People love puppies. We love puppies so much that American society is obsessed with the idea that a dog is a man’s best friend. Thus, when you read the title of this point about not being afraid to kill your bad puppies, it might make you feel uncomfortable. It’s the idea of killing something that is at the core of what makes you feel uncomfortable. Yet, it’s this exact feeling that the Rockstar team has embraced.

You see, when you look at Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption or LA Noire, some of their most popular games, we often only appreciate the final product. We love the gameplay, the new features and we talk about the captivating stories with our friends. What we don’t think about is the creative process that goes into creating a complex story in the dynamics surrounding various features and user experience. The development process for building a game is complex, filled with late nights and some serious research.

In business, the initial stages of customer research and product development are just one part of the puzzle. As you build your business and establish a client base, you’re required to make more decisions as new opportunities arise with your business growth. Decision making quickly becomes a key part of your job as you’re forced to make choices on a daily basis. Whether we’re talking about the products that go on the shelves of your corner store or  features that are included in your new startup – these decisions can make or break your business.

It’s something that Dan Houser talks about when discussing the creative process behind GTAV, he says:

‘We always have missions that get cut out for whatever reason. We either have to rejig bits of the story to make it all tie together or we have to cut that bit of story onto a different mission…..But everyone approaches them in the spirit of, ‘How do we fix it?”

When you’re facing a difficult decision, it’s important to come at it with an unbiased thought process. It’s our obsession with the past and our own creations that hold our businesses back from continuing to evolve and grow. If you look at companies like Kodak, it was their obsession with disposable cameras that held them back from succeeding in the digital camera space. You cannot be afraid to kill your puppies. You have to be okay with killing old ideas, old business models all in the name of progress.

Take Pride In The Entire Experience


A great business is one that sweats the little things. It’s a business that focuses on the minor details and ensures that their entire business is built on the idea of an experience. It’s an experience to get home and open a new MacBook Pro the same way it’s an experience to sit down at a Hard Rock Cafe. Both of these businesses focus on giving their customers a truly different experience than their competitors, and they sweat the details.

Rockstar Games has been sweating the details for years. It’s gone above and beyond the typical gaming expectations when it comes to everything from facial details to hidden missions. In their most recent game, GTAV, they’ve built the game on with 1,000 page script, 8 production studios, months of voice and motion capture along with years of research and development. All in all, they’ve sweated the little stuff to create an awesome experience. When asked how they do research, the founder said:

Out and about, all night long with weird people, strange cops showing us around, a lot of first-hand research. We spoke to FBI agents that have been undercover, experts in the Mafia, street gangsters who know the slang – we even went to see a proper prison.

It’s this effort that allows Rockstar Games to create truly amazing game experiences. It’s an unapologetic commitment to sweating the little stuff and getting it right that pushes their team to produce games that rival movies in comparison to the overall quality.

Our goal as a company isn’t for people to say that Rockstar has got a good game design but shit stories, or good stories and shit game design; we want them to say Rockstar make good games. Ideally, they can’t think about anything except, ‘I love the whole experience’.

That’s how Dan Houser explains the goal of Rockstar. That’s how a true innovator sees their work. It’s not that Rockstar sees themselves as a company that builds games. Rockstar strives to create a form of entertainment that removes us from our day to day life and places us in the heart of some place new.

At the end of the day, you can get excited about using Instagram for a new promotion or work relentlessly on developing a great content marketing strategy but if your product sucks, you’ll fail. The key for business success is to be mindful of these four lessons as you build your business and strive to make it grow. It’s the combination of each of these lessons that allowed for two brothers with a passion for gaming to disrupt an industry and become industry legends, better yet, Rockstars.