Killaz Interview with Jamie King

As teased on Twitter last week, YouTube channel KillazSpain has been keeping a secret; they managed to score an opportunity to sit down for an interview with ex-Rockstar Jamie King, and it is hot off the press as we post this article!

Hosted by Killaz, Nestor and Fabry, the 20 minute video revealed today features highlights from their almost-hour-long interview, and they inform us that they will be sharing the 50 minute unedited version in the coming days.

The raw footage was kindly sent to me a few days ago for an early preview so that I could type up this summary ready for the reveal, so big thanks to Nestor for setting that up for us! Our summary relates to the entire 50 minute video.

If you’re not brushed up on your Rockstar history, let’s quickly recap before you dive in – Jamie King is one of the founding members of Rockstar Games, alongside Sam & Dan Houser, Terry Donovan and Gary Foreman. After Take-Two Interactive acquired BMG Interactive (and thus the rights to GTA via DMA Design), the group formed Rockstar and Jamie held positions such as VP of Development and Executive Producer. He oversaw the production and publishing of many early Rockstar titles, before leaving the company in 2006.

With all that said, it’s best heard from the horse’s mouth, so sit back and enjoy.

Highlights of every answer below!

  • Since leaving Rockstar, Jamie has focused on creative/strategy/marketing roles. His most recent role in the gaming space centered around eSports
  • San Andreas was Jamie’s most enjoyable development experience
  • Vice City was the most “incredible cultural education experience” since it was made in only a year and included the music and film references, new dialogue and parody
  • As BMG began the transition into Take-Two, Jamie made the television spot for GTA 1
  • Take-Two had a QA and production base in Windsor UK but encouraged Sam (and the other founding members) to go to the head office in NYC [to explore more publishing opportunities]
  • Sam Houser asked Jamie to get a Thrasher magazine and The Warriors film licence [as he began to draw up ideas for a skating game and Warriors game]
  • The group began to realise that their ideas didn’t match the existing Take-Two portfolio of games – “everything was different to us”
  • The group would see the EA logo in Gamestop and discuss how you “would know what kind of gameplay quality you’re getting” no matter what kind of game you saw it on. They wanted their own label reflective of Grand Theft Auto – “we need our own identity”
  • The group were at a rollercoaster theme park when they came up with the name Rockstar Games
  • The Rockstar name was born from Sam Houser and his “love affair” with rock and roll music, and being able to easily name music producers, film directors, critical movies of the 70s and 80s, as well as his upbringing being surrounded by the music industry and his career at BMG
  • At first, the American press challenged the name as they were making games and not music, inspiring the team – “game on!”
  • The term Rockstar was reflective of their “cultural desire to show that games were for grown ups and not just kids” and a “superior form of entertainment and engagement than movies and music”
  • Jamie was 27 at the highlight of his career in NYC, the group all lived in the same big apartment that had no windows, they were very “driven and focused”, “we really believed in Grand Theft Auto”
  • Rockstar North, the original DMA Design team “really were amazing” [at what they were achieving] when the PS2 released. The code was “a mess but it worked”
  • Rockstar were so busy with projects they would “work 7 days a week”, they were “enjoying it but had no time to pat themselves on the back”
  • With more success came more marketing budget, they would always make “cool” and “wicked” clothing at Christmas for everyone that worked at Rockstar
  • They’d have fun at E3 and stay at the Chateau Marmont [hotel in Hollywood], and do “whatever we wanted” with their booth
  • They started as 12 people on the sixth floor [of their Broadway building] and then they were moved down to the third floor as they began work on GTA 3, expanding out with a marketing department and film department for mocap
  • With new consoles on the way, and EA buying Renderware, they knew they had go independent with their own engine
  • Jamie feels “lucky” to have worked on the beginnings of what would become RAGE – they brought together a core team of devs from Vienna, North, San Diego, including Wolfgang Engel who was the author of a collection of PC graphics essays, and integrated technologies they learned via devs from Nvidia and AMD, to create the cutting edge RAGE
  • They inherited Red Dead Revolver when they acquired Angel Studios [San Diego], Capcom had already been working on it 4 years, Sam Houser gave the team nine months to release it. They toned down some of the “wackier” characters, wanted to use bullet-time from Max Payne for duelling, collaborated between studios to fix up the gameplay and level design. They decided against making it an open world game, though Sam Houser’s vision for it was something more like what we see in the Redemption era of the games due to his “huge respect for the western movies”
  • They prioritised game design at all times – “day one, our QA team was really important”
  • Jamie loved working with Sam Houser as he always wanted to work hard to prove that they were better than just publishing or marketing people who didn’t know anything – “we have to earn the right to talk to the developers, we have to understand they are the power, they are the creatives”
  • Jamie scouted a weapon store in NYC that featured in the GTA 2 intro movie, they also took photos of the guns to send to Rockstar North for modelling
  • Jamie’s background in music videos from the BMG Interactive days got him connected to a team to set up motion capture, some of the publishing team would record the GTA fighting moves
  • Take-Two didn’t have influence on creative decisions, they weren’t allowed on the Rockstar floor unless it was the CEO
  • They had a good relationship with Take-Two as Rockstar helped them “clean up” and QA some of their third party publishing titles – “you are not gonna tell us how to do this, as long as we turn up the blockbuster hit, right?”
  • Jamie has no idea what Rockstar or Take-Two is like now, but thinks it must have changed as the companies are so “big” now – “they’re printing money!”
  • Jamie appreciates Rockstar brand must have evolved since he left, it has “matured”
  • Jamie thinks Take-Two have done a really good job on building their other labels and “diversifying their portfolio”
  • It was a “very interesting” time for Rockstar during the discussions surrounding sex and violence in video games, and the conversation about it not being just children playing games – “there were times when we got so much criticism like we’re ruining the moral fabric of society” – which tested their moral compass as they realised Manhunt was “a little intense”, though they will always be proud of triggering these debates
  • They never lost sight of caring about making excellent content, they wanted “freedom of speech in entertainment, but not actually encouraging anti-social behaviour”
  • Even though Claude was named in GTA 3, they didn’t think about adding a voice for him, as “you’re the protagonist, you’re the hero” of the game
  • They first met Ray Liotta in a steakhouse in NYC, it took two years to get him to say yes to voicing Tommy
  • One of Jamie’s funniest moments of working at Rockstar was when he purposely made friends in the illegal street racing scene in Washington [as they were developing Midnight Club], he went to illegal street races and brought the cars to New York to film footage even though they didn’t have permits
  • Jamie couldn’t name some of the craziest times at Rockstar, but the ones he could say included filming the illegal street racing, hanging out with Tom Sizemore during Vice City recordings, having meetings with “gnarly” Thrasher magazine execs
  • Dan Houser and some marketing people were in an almost-fatal helicopter crash during the Midnight Club press tour in Paris
  • Regarding the book Jacked and the BBC movie – “no one will ever be able to tell the stories the right way”
  • There was a lot of misreporting about his departure – “I was really tired, we [Sam] were really close friends and it just stopped working for me”
  • He loved making the promotional items that included paraphernalia that couldn’t even be sent out to people in the mail, such as knuckle dusters, baseball bats, razor blades for chopping up cocaine
  • It was a lot of work for Jamie and Terry to get licences for songs, it was a lot of effort as they had key target songs for Vice City and San Andreas, and some artists were really hard to work with like Courtney Love and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but it was worth the time
  • They decided against real licences for vehicles as it was too expensive with royalties and a “tremendous effort” to try and work with the companies
  • Rockstar avoided leaks by having “FBI, CIA level of approach to cyber security” – internally and online they would be watching and were “very sensitive” to even discs being manufactured – they would personally drive a submission to the airport to hand it to a courier
  • Due to all the MMOs entering the market at the time, they were well aware of players wanting multiplayer in GTA, Sam Houser wanted it as he was “very smart, very astute and forward thinking” about the markets, but they just couldn’t get it right in the time they had, especially on the PS2 system
  • Hot Coffee was a “very big distraction to our focus” – he believes it was the pinnacle of the debate around video game content, they thought it was funniest thing to have in the game, but ESRB said no as it would change the rating and this would impact sales, and they agreed it needed to be taken out
  • When Hot Coffee was discovered, Jamie feels they “passed the buck” by saying it was the modding community at fault – but “it wasn’t a good feeling” being investigated as “the FCC were trying to prove we were marketing a mature title to kids”
  • Jamie received fan letters from 11 year olds that were “really well written”
  • Jamie thinks Rockstar are doing an “amazing job” at how they have embraced online versions with continuing to add fresh content and monetisation
  • He thinks Rockstar have proved they aren’t a “one trick pony” of GTA titles through Red Dead
  • He thinks Take-Two have done a great job diversifying their portfolio enough that they can keep the stock market happy with annual releases while Rockstar focus on their mega franchises
  • Jamie feels everyone is happy [with the business], and he’ll never forget his amazing time there
  • Jamie is no longer in contact with either of the Housers, they are part of “very different worlds” now
  • Jamie thinks the lawsuit with Leslie Benzies was “sad” though he is not surprised – he read the lawsuit documents, none of it surprises him from both sides, though it is a “shame” and “unfortunate”
  • Leslie Benzies was “dynamite” and “instrumental” to growing DMA Design into Rockstar North, he “really delivered” on the code side with Vice City
  • The group flew to Anguilla after finishing Vice City to plan San Andreas
  • Jamie appreciates the “old days can’t stay the same” – Rockstar has “beautiful systems” and they know what they are doing with them – “they’re bigger than any one of us”
  • Regarding Dan Houser’s departure, Jamie would do the same if he had his money – to travel and write – he wouldn’t be surprised if Dan published a book – “he’s an amazing writer with tone and wit”
  • Regarding departures of other original devs – Jamie wouldn’t be surprised if the “tone and content” changes in the future – if it’s not as “edgy or as funny”, as there’s now opportunity for them to release something “cheesy” unlike before
  • He doesn’t think gameplay mechanics will ever be affected by changing content, as they use the same core engine and beautiful machine as when he worked there [RAGE]
  • He thinks there will be a internal culture difference without Leslie Benzies and Dan Houser, but it would be really hard to screw up what they have built through GTA and Red Dead, and Rockstar will be “fine, period”
  • Lastly, Jamie reaffirms he left Rockstar as it became a “one way situation”, a “different way” than he wanted and it took all of the excitement out of it for him, he was working 7 days a week and sacrificing everything for it, and he started to feel “life is too short” and there was other things he wanted to achieve in his life. He feels lucky for everything he managed to work on during his time at Rockstar – it was a personal decision and he understood the terrain he was in – “if I don’t like it, I need to be the one that moves on”

And that’s all, folks!

Once again thanks go to Killaz, Nestor and Fabry, and to Jamie himself, for the interview.