This series of Top 10 lists focuses on several of the companies that have had the most significant impact on the video game industry through their development of many of the most influential and revolutionary video games ever created. More than just an overview of the companies, however, the goal of this list series is to be something of a step back into the shaping of the industry. This series will attempt to take us back through the evolution of the industry, as seen through the eyes of the companies that made that evolution happen. Console design is important, but at the end of the day, the video game industry is an industry of just that: games. The industry is driven by the companies that design the best games.

A few bits of housekeeping before I get started: first of all, game development is an inherently muddled process, and oftentimes it is difficult to draw lines around who developed which game. At times, this may lead to disagreement over who the developer of a particular game truly is; however, with how quickly the industry changes and the speed with which companies are bought, sold, and changed, there is never truly a black and white to what constitutes one developer's library. Secondly, there will be a lot of differentiation in the sizes of the libraries described in these lists. As such, in certain lists, I will refrain from including more than one game from one franchise and instead use one game as a stand-in for the series as a whole; in other lists, multiple games from the same franchise may be listed. Lastly, while I have a list of companies I plan to look at eventually, I am always looking for suggestions on what company to cover next; if you would like to make a suggestion, you can drop by the Top 10 List discussion board, contact me through my contributor profile, or visit either of my websites that cross-post these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com.

This week, I’ll be talking about Rockstar North.

When you hear the company name "Rockstar North", chances are your mind jumps straight to one franchise: Grand Theft Auto. While Rockstar is responsible for many of the best and best-selling games of the last couple generations, its Rockstar North studio is most recognized for its role in creating one of the most popular franchises active today. In reality, though, there is much more to Rockstar North than meets the eye. The studio was initially founded in 1988 in Scotland under the name DMA Design. Early in the company's history, they primarily focused on side-scrollers. By the end of the 1990s, however, the studio had gained industry attention with several strong releases (which we will discuss in a moment). This led to a series of transactions that saw DMA Design change hands from Gremlin Interactive to Infogrames to Take-Two Interactive, who eventually sold the group to Rockstar Games shortly after the revolutionary release of Grand Theft Auto III. The majority of the releases from the company now known as Rockstar North have come in the years since this name change, but the history of the company is filled with quality releases before the group had attained the recognition they enjoy now.

Released in 2003 shortly after the purchase by Rockstar Games, Manhunt was in many ways an experimental endeavor to determine just how far the hardware of new game consoles could be used to push a psychological horror game. At the time of its release, Manhunt was arguably the most graphically violent game ever created; although the fatalities from Mortal Kombat and content from some other games could rival Manhunt's violence in concept, the graphical realism of the Sony PlayStation 2 brought that violence to a new level of visceral impact. Perhaps most importantly, the violence in Manhunt is exacerbated because the connection between the player and the violence is closer: they aren't just watching the finishing moves performed by a character of the player's choosing, nor is the player the victim of the gruesome murders, but rather the player is actively participating in choosing the nature of the kills that they execute.

Received well by critics, the game spawned significant controversy upon its release, but perhaps the most interesting reflection on the game's controversy and content are the words of the game's creators themselves. Interviews with numerous programmers and designers who worked on Manhunt suggested that by the end of the project, the development team itself was disgusted with the product that they themselves created. The game went on to be banned in several countries, but in many ways that is itself a testimony to exactly what the game was created to find out: how far the envelope could be pushed on this new console hardware

The 1998 release Body Harvest might be seen as something of a precursor to Grand Theft Auto: not because the content is even remotely similar (Body Harvest is a third-person sci-fi shooter), but because it demonstrated DMA Design’s comfort with designing games whose content pushed the envelope of the industry with regards to violence. That dynamic got the company in trouble in the event of Body Harvest, however. Initially intended to be a launch title for the popular Nintendo 64, the game was developed with the agreement and expectation that Nintendo themselves would publish the eventual product. Citing concerns over the violent nature of the game, however, Nintendo dropped the title, leading to a significant delay before it was eventually picked up by Midway and released later in the console's lifespan. Some say that this divorce is partially why Rockstar North rarely releases games on Nintendo consoles.

Once it was finally released, Body Harvest received a fair amount of notoriety. It was particularly praised for being an innovative and unique title in the sometimes-homogenous Nintendo 64 release library. It also featured an interesting mix of gameplay styles and elements while also staying somewhat true to the third-person shooter and science fiction genres. Due in part to the development delay, by the time of its release Body Harvest had been surpassed by some other competing releases (especially in terms of graphics), further adding to the damage done to the game's potential by the earlier divorce from Nintendo as a publisher.

We'll be talking about Grand Theft Auto several times on this list, with special attention paid to the franchise's origins and revolution in 3D. In the midst of the franchise's three most significant titles, however, came a pair of titles built on the same engine referenced later in this list: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Build on top of Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City and San Andreas didn't need to provide as much revolutionary gameplay as their own immediate predecessor, but instead provided many of the improvements and enhancements that had been absent in the original. The games features new purchasable properties, new mission types, new stealth elements, and new RPG features, as well as iterative improvements on some of the older gameplay concepts. They also provide new cities to explore, with San Andreas being particularly notable in the removal of loading screens in favor of progressive loading.

Perhaps more importantly, however, Vice City and San Andreas put on display an interesting characteristic of Grand Theft Auto III that would generalize out to other similar open-world sandbox-esque games: when the framework and gameplay are themselves solid, what players want may not be more features, but rather they just might want more content to justify spending more time with an engine that they enjoy. The games might be iterative improvements on Grand Theft Auto III, but even if they were not, the engine that received so much attention itself was strong enough to warrant more content. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, for its own right, is considered by many the best game in the franchise.

Released in 1997, the original Grand Theft Auto was very different than the Grand Theft Auto that we see today. Initially released for PC rather than for home consoles, the game is rendered in classic 2D while giving a three-dimensional perspective on the game world. Many of the features that we have come to expect from the franchise got their start in this first release: like the future games, you play a criminal and are free to move around and do whatever you want within the game world. In order to progress through the game, you will undertake different missions of less-than-legal nature, including robberies, assassinations, and of course, grand theft auto. The game is particularly historically notable because at the time of its release, the open-world genre was still in its infancy; although the genre dominates parts of the gaming industry today, at the time the idea of a free world was still somewhat revolutionary.

The original Grand Theft Auto also gave us the locales that would be featured in the later 3D releases: Vice City, Liberty City, and San Andreas. Although the game spawned the hit franchise and reached its own commercial success, it was not well-praised critically at the time; in many ways, it was a game ahead of its time in both technology and content. With the world still adjusting to the existence of violent video games, putting the player in the role of criminal was not quickly embraced, and the primitive technological infrastructure available at the time struggled to support an open-world game.

Rockstar North, and its predecessor DMA Design, is largely famous for games like Body Harvest, Red Dead Redemption, and of course, Grand Theft Auto: violent, adult-oriented games. We’re reaching the point in this list, however, where we will start to see some games that you might be surprised to learn come from the Scottish company. The first among these is the 1998 Nintendo 64 release Space Station Silicon Valley. Contrary to the type of game we expect from DMA Design and Rockstar North, Space Station Silicon Valley is a 3D platformer with a heavy comedic twist. The game places the player on a space station filled with evolved animal-machine hybrids and task the player with reaching the control panel before the space station plummets to earth and kills everyone.

Upon its release, the game reached a significant level of critical acclaim. Many of the game mechanics, most notably the notion of possessing and controlling enemies in the field, were praised, and the level design was equally excellent. Departing significantly from DMA Design’s other recent releases, the game was also much more comically-flavored, featuring humorous playable characters, enemies, and dialogue. In fact, the only thing standing between the game and being revered as one of the greatest from the Nintendo 64 era was the abundance of bugs and glitches present upon release. The game freezes up more than just rarely, and the collision detection leaves a bit to be desired, permitting the player to pass through walls at their own peril. There is also a bug with in-game collectibles that would otherwise unlock the game's true ending, unarguably an early protest by games against the coming age of meaningless collectibles permeating every game available.

Rockstar North made Lemmings. Rockstar North, the studio behind Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, made Lemmings. I'm going to pause for a second and let that sink in. … Recovered? Alright, good. Technically, once again it was Rockstar North’s predecessor, DMA Design, that made Lemmings, but the connection is still too humorous to possibly understate. In case you are too young to be familiar with the game, Lemmings was a surprisingly popular puzzle game initially released in 1991 for the Commodore Amiga. In it, your goal was to successfully steer a legion of mindless Lemmings to safety by assigning them jobs to affect their landscape. The game was a surprise runaway success, outselling both of DMA Design’s previous releases (Menace and Blood Money) combined on its very first day. That success led to an enormous number of sequels, with new levels, new jobs, and improved graphics.

Lemmings was not just a runaway hit in and of itself, however; it has been praised by some as an early advancement for the video game industry as a whole. Many of the gameplay concepts were early predecessors of the modern real-time strategy genre: the game was among the first to allow the player to play the game without directly controlling a character on the screen. Today, the simple concept behind Lemmings has led it to be redeveloped in various forms, and freeware versions and reinterpretations of the original game are available all over the place. Arguably the biggest impact the game has had on the industry, however, is in putting DMA Design on the map. Without Lemmings, we might never have had Grand Theft Auto. Now there’s a sentence that I bet you never thought you'd read.

After the release of Lemmings, DMA Design’s next couple releases — Walker and Hired Guns — failed to find much of the following, leading the company to fall back on its flagship franchise, releasing five sequels a span of three years. That changed in 1994 with the release of DMA Design’s first real console game: Uniracers, for the SNES. Dubbed Unirally outside of the United States, Uniracers is an interesting game in that it was created with a particular showcase in mind: following from the extremely fast-paced gameplay in competitor Sega's Sonic games, Nintendo was eager to show that its console could handle similarly fast-paced gameplay. The game was codeveloped with Nintendo for the SNES, and received significant notoriety upon release. The game easily kept up with the play speed made popular by Sonic, and featured arguably the most advanced graphics ever shown on the SNES, including early examples of 3D rendering.

The game was well on its way to becoming a hit when Pixar, under the leadership of the notoriously copyright-obsessed Steve Jobs, decided to crush it. Apparently, Pixar had created a short film in 1987 featuring unicycles, and now believed that that entitled them to ownership of any animated unicycles ever produced again. An extremely misguided justice system ruled in Pixar's favor, prohibiting Nintendo for manufacturing any more Uniracers cartridges, limiting its run to only the initial 300,000 sales. Without the case, Uniracers would have likely gone on to be recognized as one of the best SNES games ever released.

Released in 2008, I was tempted to bump Grand Theft Auto IV even higher on this list because in my opinion it achieved something even more difficult than its revolutionary predecessor: it lived up to the hype. In my opinion, it is more difficult for a sequel to live up to the expectations of a revolutionary predecessor than for a game to be revolutionary in the first place. The profile for the failure is much larger, the financial obligations are much greater, and the level of scrutiny is much finer: unknown games become breakout hits every year, but worthy sequels to revolutionary games are rare sights.

The game was nothing short of masterful; since its release it has gone on to receive considerable consideration for the title of greatest game of all time. The leap to the latest generation of consoles enabled Grand Theft Auto IV to create an even more realistic world than ever before, not only meeting expectations but surpassing them. The world that it created was undeniably the largest and most thoroughly-developed the genre had ever seen, a fitting achievement considering it was a genre that the franchise itself arguably created on its own. The game nearly swept Game of the Year awards for 2008, despite such worthy competition as LittleBigPlanet, Metal Gear Solid 4, Super Mario Galaxy, and Fallout 3. All of that success has set up the upcoming Grand Theft Auto V with some of the largest expectations the industry has ever seen. Only time will tell whether the next release can carry on the franchise's reputation.

The only reason that Grand Theft Auto IV had any hype to live up to is because of the incredibly high bar set by its direct predecessor, Grand Theft Auto III, as well as its in-generation sequels. Released in 2001 shortly before DMA Design would become Rockstar North, Grand Theft Auto III was the game that changed everything. On its own merits, the game was incredible, despite being something of a sleeper hit; considering the success of the game and franchise since then, is almost humorous to imagine a day when a Grand Theft Auto game could be considered a sleeper of any sort, but at the time the game was not expected to even succeed by some of its developers. It was considered too violent, too adult, too mature for a mainstream audience; instead of failing, Grand Theft Auto III changed the expectations and succeeded in reaching the market is itself created.

Grand Theft Auto III was not just a high-quality release on its own right, however; the game changed the industry. The other day, I was thinking of how it seems that a huge number of modern games incorporate the open-world layout; among recent games, the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, Sleeping Dogs, and Rockstar North’s own Red Dead Redemption are among the acclaimed releases in the past few years to use the same layout that Grand Theft Auto III pioneered. Grand Theft Auto III is for the open-world genre what Goldeneye 007 is for first-person shooters, or what Super Mario 64 is for 3D platformers.

It might be something of a surprise that I am choosing Red Dead Redemption (codeveloped with Rockstar San Diego) as the top game on this list. Choosing the best Rockstar North game is something like choosing the best Pixar movie: various people will have different opinions and fight for them adamantly, but in the end, we all know that there is a legitimate argument for several to each be considered the best of the best. Still, in a poll that I just now took (seriously, right now as I’m writing this), Red Dead Redemption ranks middling in the pack for best Rockstar North game, far behind the popular choice of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (which also guarantees I’ll get lots of flak for featuring that one alongside Vice City all the way down in 8th).

Red Dead Redemption still built on the same open-world layout that the Grand Theft Auto franchise pioneered, but in my opinion, elevated the open-world genre to an art form. From the meticulous creation of an old West period civilization to the magnificent storytelling, both in terms of story content and story presentation, Red Dead Redemption took the open-world concept and used it to create one of the best stories and worlds in video gaming history, and it did all of this without sacrificing any element of the gameplay satisfaction that Rockstar North is famous for. It, too, nearly swept Game of the Year awards for 2010, despite stiff competition from Batman: Arkham Asylum, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and Mass Effect 2, showing that Rockstar North is one of the strongest studios in the industry, not just the studio lucky enough to be behind one of the industry’s biggest franchises.

Honorable Mentions: Menace, Ballistix, Blood Money, Wild Metal Country, Manhunt 2.

With its recent success and the hype surrounding Grand Theft Auto V, it would appear that Rockstar North is well-positioned to remain a major player in the industry for a very long time to come. Its structure as a subsidiary of the broader Rockstar Games also puts it in an interesting position regarding expansion; most studios responsible for creating a half-dozen games of the year winners in a single decade would expand and start to create even more releases, diluting the company brand. With the backing of the broader Rockstar Games, however, Rockstar North can focus on maintaining the quality of a relatively small number of releases as they always have. There is, however, a danger innate to that: if one or two of Rockstar North's releases flop, the reflection on the company will be much more negative given the lighter release schedule. It’s a classic example of a high-risk high-reward situation: the Rockstar North brand is so strong that any new release bearing its logo will immediately receive enormous attention, but that attention can quickly turn against the company if the new game is perceived as failing to live up to the company's own high standards. Our perception of Rockstar North could be very different after the next Grand Theft Auto game is released.

If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!

List by DDJGames (08/22/2012)

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