Rockstar Games have been described as the Apple of the games industry and their founder, Sam Houser, likened to Steven Spielberg (by John Riccitiello, the former CEO of EA). In a sector of multi-million dollar development budgets and marketing spends, their titles are the highest rated (with the top 2 rated games in history according to Metacritic), and best performing in terms of sales. The imminent launch of Grand Theft Auto V is set to be the biggest entertainment release of all time, eclipsing anything that the movie and music industries have to offer, and is certainly one of the most anticipated. And yet Rockstar are widely regarded as a very insular business who don’t openly talk about their practices and methods – preferring to focus their dialogue on the games! I was fortunate to work for Rockstar leading their international marketing for nearly 2 years, working on brands including GTA (IV and V), Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne and L.A. Noire. This provided me with a compelling perspective on their inner workings and direct access to their secret sauce. Having been in this environment first hand, there are a number of insights and lessons that can be taken and applied to startups across all technologies and sectors. They won’t necessarily mean that you’ll be as successful as Rockstar, but they’ll certainly stand you in good stead:
1. Feel the vibe
Internally, people refer to the ‘vibe’ of Rockstar. This goes much beyond culture and company values to a deeper tone and philosophy that joins and connects the ‘talent’ (as employees are referred to) across the business. Creativity and expression in all forms are encouraged and fostered, not just in games development. It’s no coincidence or surprise that many Rockstar employees have moved from fields including music, fashion and the arts. People freely share their wider interests and tastes, generating an underlying community of association. The vibe doesn’t exclude, but rather welcomes all-comers, as long as you share the passion, creativity and vision.
2. Be your own best customer
Sam and his brother Dan, another founder and the VP of Creativity, share the belief that first and foremost they’re creating the games that they want to play and experience themselves, and that this sets a benchmark of quality and originality that will more than satisfy the end customer. As Dan stated in an interview with Famitsu in 2011: “If we make the sort of games we want to play, then we believe people are going to buy them.” This approach transcends the development teams and creates an internal standard of excellence. It also makes the production process personal, so people feel a greater sense of ownership towards the end deliverable.
3. Focus on the details of the details
Attention to detail is a hallmark not only of the games themselves created by Rockstar, but of every aspect of the production and marketing processes that go into them. Each component is questioned, checked and understood as to its relation to the overall experience. No stone is left un-turned. Each plan is repeatedly reviewed and iterated until it meets the requirements and standards set. Nothing is left to chance and each scenario is considered. The quality and performance of Rockstar’s games does not happen purely by the innovation that goes into them, but through every minute detail that is perfected.
4. Don’t accept the accepted
“It’s in our DNA to avoid doing what other companies are doing. You have to have originality in your games; you have to have some kind of interesting message. You could say that the goal of Rockstar is to have the players really feel what we’re trying to do. (Rockstar has) made new genres by ourselves with games like the GTA series. We didn’t rely on testimonials in a business textbook to do what we’ve done.” Dan Houser.
One of the defining principles of Rockstar is that they aren’t beholden to industry norms or expectations. In fact, they don’t even see themselves as a games company, rather a cultural brand. Sam’s original model for the business was DefJam records, the pioneering hip-hop label that launched the likes of Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. This has remained true with Rockstar operating to this day more like a music label than a ‘traditional’ games developer and publisher.
5. Presentation is everything
The way that the product (game) is presented and portrayed through all channels and media is paramount and regarded as a critical part of the overall customer experience (pre, during and post launch). Central to this is how Rockstar demonstrate new games to journalists, retailers and other key influencers. Having worked for a number of other games publishers, the general method for showing new titles is to bring people into an office, sit them in a boardroom, give them a ‘corporate’ PowerPoint presentation before a game demonstration shown on a standard TV or even overhead projector. Rackspace though create an experience…a context. They have rooms in each key location that are kitted out as the definitive gamer’s pad – leather sofas, drinks fridge, designer lamps, and the very latest and greatest audio-visual tech. Put it this way, journalists are blown away as they enter the room, even before they’ve seen a single frame of the game. That’s a great place to start! They also don’t show slides and let the games speak for themselves – having the utmost confidence in what they’re delivering. Each demo is (very) tightly scripted – approved personally by Sam and Dan – and rehearsed over and over and over again by dedicated teams with one narrator to tell the story, and one player who can focus on what he or she is doing rather than what they’re supposed to be saying. They know every move, every pixel of that piece of gameplay whenever it is presented. In a market driven by reviews, Rockstar average the highest ratings of any games developer.
6. Control your brand
Rockstar retain tight control over the use and expression of their master and franchise brands, or as much as is possible in the social age. They strictly manage the flow of assets to partners to ensure that only quality materials are ever used, and only when they specifically want them to be. If people break curfews, they are restricted for future use and don’t feel the ‘love’. When Rockstar’s assets are so anticipated and desired, you want to be on side. They also attempt to ‘police’ the brand where possible – they actively listen to commentary through press and social channels, and where they discover negative reviews or sentiment they act to address. There are stories of threats and ‘black ball’ techniques that are all part of the Rockstar mythology – in my experience it’s more a practice of engagement where they try to present their perspectives and arguments to bring the individual or outlet to a more positive stance in a constructive manner. Invariably it works.
7. Leverage the power of PR
I’ve never come across an industry or sector where PR plays such a pivotal role to a product’s success as games. Sure, it’s always important, but games launches are made or broken on the scale and quality of the PR that they generate. And none make PR such a focal point, and gain as much traction through it, as Rockstar. They’re experts at identifying the key influencers and building collaborative, value-add relationships over time; such that they can call on these as and when they’re required. And, as outlined above, they’ve made the demo’ing process an art.
Rockstar as a company and brand has often courted controversy, yet they are always genuine and never act to be controversial for the sake of it. In that respect they retain an edge that gives them an awareness beyond the gaming space that, in turn, makes them more of a cultural brand and phenomenon.
8. Think local, act global
So Rockstar try to see and do things differently; and that extends to their local-global balance. Part of this stems from their questioning of the status quo – just because cultural nuances and norms are generally accepted, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re correct and always hold. Often, companies act because “that’s the way things are done”…why?
I experienced this whilst working on the launch of Red Dead Redemption. The feedback we’d received from certain international territories was that the established media markets were based on 20 seconds TV commercial spot lengths and if we used anything different we’d be severely penalized and lose prime positions. Despite this, we challenged these norms by insisting on running a minimum of 60 seconds lengths as this allowed us to really show the depth and beauty of the game. The result was that we created unprecedented anticipation and demand for a new games brand that consequently generated a smash hit in every market, part of which was due to the impact of the TV campaign.
9. Think of every product as a best seller
The Rockstar team believe that every game will be a best seller and approach them as such. In this respect, they never give second best. They treat what are externally classed as ‘second tier’ titles internally as if they’re all GTA; as such, the benchmark is raised for all. This creates equity for the master brand and a stamp of quality that elevates the sales and success for each franchise in turn.
Rockstar are certainly no strangers to controversy, whether with the games that they produce, or their commented upon internal work practices. Yet that’s what you get for living on the edge. If you’re not there, you’re not pushing the boundaries of creativity and business, and you can certainly say that Rockstar have done that!