Rockstar’s acquisition of San Diego’s Angel Studios in 2002 did more than simply bring the crew behind Midnight Club and Smuggler’s Run in-house; it brought with it a variety of projects gestating within its walls.
“The one that always caught our eye was this cowboy game that looked very good,” Rockstar co-founder and former creative VP Dan Houser told IGN back in 2010. “For the time, it looked visually spectacular, but also speaking to the management guys there it was a complete mess. It didn’t really exist as a game.”
Beginning life as a Capcom venture, the original Red Dead Revolver was born in the wake of Angel’s work on the N64 version of Resident Evil 2. While the latter would eventually go down to be regarded as one of the most technically-impressive ports of all-time, something about Capcom and Angel’s collaboration on their subsequent cowboy project never managed to click. This so-called spiritual successor to Gun.Smoke simply wasn’t coming together – until Rockstar entered the picture.
“Capcom were prepared to walk away from it, so we said we’d finish it and all they ever wanted was the rights to publish it in Japan if we ever did finish it – which they never thought it could be,” said Houser, explaining the project was ultimately straightened out over the course of about 10 months. “It was an odd way of working and not one you’d normally do, but it was good business to get it done, and it was good for the transition of the studio to become a Rockstar studio to get it done and it made sense at the time and we were pleased with the results.”
“Is it what we’d do from day one? No, but were we pleased with where we got it? Absolutely, and I think it was a cool game.”
Red Dead Revolver was released on PlayStation 2 and Xbox in late 2004. There was a time – from the outside, perhaps – where it may have appeared it was destined for a fate similar to the likes of Oni, or Thrasher: Skate & Destroy: a fun little game with a lingering but limited legacy as a one-off curio from Rockstar’s early publishing days.
But those days didn’t last long. At E3 2005 Rockstar revealed the first glimpse of the game that would become Red Dead Redemption. Though it wouldn’t be officially announced until 2009, spurred by the success of its pioneering open-world blockbusters, Rockstar was going west again.
And this time it was going big.
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The Outlaw’s Return
It’s been 10 years this week since Rockstar released Red Dead Redemption on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3; the game hit North America on May 18, 2010 and arrived in PAL territories a few days later, on May 21. Unleashing Red Dead Revolver’s spaghetti Western shenanigans in a spectacular and vast Old West sandbox proved a masterstroke; Red Dead Redemption was universally acclaimed for its stunningly-realised open world, its dynamic pace, incredible atmosphere, and, of course, its sweeping story. With over 15 million copies sold and countless accolades holstered under its belt, Red Dead Redemption is more than a game that enjoyed immense critical and commercial success at the moment of its release; it’s gone on to cement itself a position amongst some of the most-esteemed video games of all time.
“We are always a little nervous about how a game is going to be received but we felt like the game was special,” says Rockstar North co-studio head, Rob Nelson. “It had a strong and distinct look that stood out from anything else available at the time, it had a powerful story with memorable characters and an open world that didn’t look or feel like anything else at the time, and it just felt incredible to spend time in.”
Nelson, who was one of the art directors on Red Dead Redemption before taking the helm at Rockstar North, explains the game truly connected with the team making it in the same way it ultimately connected with fans.
“There were moments while we worked on it where it started to feel really good just to play it, and it was just a world that you didn’t want to leave,” he says. “We did love it and we were proud of it.”
Rockstar San Diego co-studio head and art director Josh Bass also touches on the special connection the crew had with the game which, at the time, had left them wondering whether gamers would fall in love with it the same way.
“Throughout development, we would often hear from external sources that a Western game was never going to be a success, but that became the motivation to solve the challenges and create something new,” says Bass, who was also one of the art directors on Red Dead Redemption. “I knew in my heart that it was going to exceed those expectations but at the same time we had to ask ourselves if our fans would make the emotional connection with this experience that we all had. While the sales and accolades were equally incredible and humbling, what mattered most to me personally was that connection to the game, to Marston and his personal journey of redemption.”
“What surprised me was how Red Dead Redemption brought people into our medium who would otherwise never have given it a thought. We heard stories of consoles and games bought by people in their late 50s and 60s, not as gifts for their grandchildren but for themselves. For the generations of men and women who grew up watching western films and shows on television, Red Dead Redemption gave them an opportunity to live out those experiences. That sums up what makes RDR so special to me and what validated that the emotional connection was shared by others and far beyond our expectations.”
Old Friends, New Problems
According to Bass, much of Red Dead Redemption’s early development focused on maintaining the overall vision of what the team wanted the game to become, even if that couldn’t necessarily be seen in the world itself yet during those initial stages.
“For a long time, the in-game landscape was fairly barren and lacked the incredible vistas that Red Dead Redemption would later become so well respected for,” says Bass. “There wasn’t any grass, shrubs, or trees peppered throughout the world and our road network was almost non-existent. No ambient life or ecosystem to speak of; just wooden structures spread throughout the map forming only the most primitive reflections of towns and homesteads with nothing but dirt and dust between them.”
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“What carried us through to the end was a clear understanding of what it was all going to become. We had huge challenges to solve in terms of how to make a natural world feel as alive as one of our cities, but the atmosphere and feel and the idea behind Marston’s arc of redemption was in place from the beginning. Its meaning seemed to glue all the unknowns together in the context of both the narrative and the world long before the game itself was able to. Those unknowns were massive, but we moved forward dealing with each challenge as they presented themselves, and created something that, to us, truly felt special and ground-breaking.”
One of Nelson’s favourite early memories of development involves being involved with the first motion capture shoots.
“I was lucky enough to work with director Rod Edge and the team on the very first cutscene shoot with Rob Weithoff as Marston in LA, when Marston finds West Dickens injured out in the prairies,” he recalls. “We were figuring out how Marston would bend down to tell him, trying to work out the details of the scene.”
“What struck us then was what this game could be like.”
“Similarly, the first time I saw Marston walking in-game, he walked like such a cowboy and there was a lot of fidelity to his animation; it was amazing. I loved the way Marston looked and sounded; it felt like there was potential to create something really special.”
Ghyan Koehne, one of the senior ambient designers on Red Dead Redemption at the time, looks back and remembers a “small, very tight and excited team” during the early days.
“We constantly talked and pitched new ideas and then worked together to solve the inevitable challenges that arose,” he says. “Some of my earliest memories revolve around us trying to solve how to make huge areas of empty desert and wilderness fun. Hindsight is 20/20 and it seems obvious how to do it now, but at the time we were all looking at GTA – which was my favourite game and reason for joining Rockstar – and thinking, ‘How are we ever going to make this fun like that?’”
“GTA had fast cars, helicopters, rocket launchers and radio stations to listen to – all these elements that came together in this incredible way. We, on the other hand, had a guy on his horse and endless hills with close to nothing in the world. It was a fun design challenge to have in front of you, but it was pretty daunting at the time.”
Koehne notes the first time they put campfires out in Red Dead Redemption’s lonely wilderness was an especially potent moment.
“You came over this hill and there was a cooking pot hanging from a small triangle of sticks over a campfire with some other camping gear strewn around,” describes Koehne, “and I thought it was about the coolest thing I had ever seen.”
“Then we added a bunch more campfires all over the districts and got the ability to show fires and flickering light from long distances, and all of a sudden you would be riding around at night and see these little fires off in the distance. It suggested to the player that there was life over there and the possibility of an unknown encounter and you could feel that we were on to something.”
“I also recall talking to one of the other team members after we added some flying birds and it was, like, ‘Just about everyone is going to shoot a bird, right? Cool, let’s add some context and gameplay to that.’ So we decided to start tracking it and building gameplay around the ways the player could interact with the world. That was a nugget that started that chain of gameplay ideas that turned into Ambient Challenges and concepts like Treasure Hunting.”
Obstacles in Our Path
Arriving hot on the heels of Rockstar’s recently-rebuilt juggernaut Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption was always going to reflect a certain degree of that GTA DNA – after all, they were powered by the same proprietary technology. In most of the ways that matter, however, Red Dead Redemption is a hugely distinct experience from its sister series – and creating that experience came with some hefty challenges.
“The biggest challenge was in taking a classic Western landscape of open desert spaces and distant horizons and making that feel like it wasn’t just atmospheric, but that it was alive,” says Nelson. “It was finding our game in that world.”
“But that was the first time we had a lot of people from the company on a game that was too big for any one place to finish by itself. We brought in a lot of people with different experiences and viewpoints and the game benefited from that. As more people came on board, the game was using everyone’s experiences to evolve and we kept asking, what more can it be? Trying to take the experiences of every game we make and apply them to the next thing to evolve and improve is something we try to do every time.”
Red Dead Redemption lead mission designer Silas Morse agrees the setting itself presented a significant challenge, although believes the way the game was limited by its early 1900s setting is ultimately a crucial part of what sets it apart.
“Being grounded in the real world of that time period obviously meant we were drawing from material and tools that were not found in other genres,” says Morse. “The inherent limits on how we could travel, which weapons we could use, and the types of enemies we could use often forced us to rely more on using the world itself to compensate, which ultimately helped immerse the player.”
“The limitations became the aspects of the game that gave it real character.”
According to Bass it also took the team a long time to discover main protagonist John Marston’s look, and striking the right balance between a hero cut from the same cloth as all great Western icons and someone who would still “stand out on his own” took a while to nail down.
“It took quite a while for us to land on his final look and feel but, in the process, the emotional connections that we had to him as a character were unlike any others we had worked on,” says Bass. “By the end of development, I felt that I had lifelong memories of him that felt different to other video game characters. I could remember what he looked like and how he behaved – at times being adolescent, then towards the middle of production him feeling overly dynamic and macho before finally settling into his own skin towards the end.”
Bass explains that tuning the correct cadence was also tricky, with Red Dead Redemption’s action generally sauntering along at a much slower pace than the regularly frantic GTA series.
“Finding RDR’s tempo might have been one of the most difficult aspects of the game to dial in as well as one of the biggest differences between it and the GTA series,” says Bass. “But this kind of attention to the connective tissue of the games is something that Rockstar as a team has continued to refine from game to game.”
“One key concept that runs through both the GTA series and Red Dead Redemption is the idea that the world is truly alive, regardless of the protagonist instead of for them. One of the ways we tried to push this forward in Red Dead Redemption was by creating deeper schedules for other characters into the world. Walking into the Chuparosa market and watching a man chopping fish wasn’t just a looped animation that seem to never end. He would basket the fish and once full, carried it off to be used for meals.”
“People worked on schedules and started their day early and make their way to work and when the job was done, they’d make their way back home – or for some, a quick stop in the cantina to drink or gamble away their hard-earned wages. The player could follow any one of the ambient characters that brought Chuparosa to life. This became the benchmark for the rest of the towns and homesteads in the game, and something that we tried to push to new levels in the world of Red Dead Redemption 2.”
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Red Dead Redemption’s online component was also a true change of pace from GTAIV, with Bass noting it was the first time Rockstar had decided to use the game’s open world as the lobby.
“Deathmatch and Capture the flag type modes were the bread and butter of multiplayer experiences at the time,” says Bass. “We wanted to step back and allow players to explore that entire world together. Early on we made what seemed like a bold choice – instead of a menu system, we would use the world itself as a lobby and many design choices followed from that.”
“We pulled as many elements of the single-player experience in as we could: an ambient population with schedules and complex world interactions, traffic systems with stagecoaches, law response tweaked to allow for multiple protagonists, hideouts that scaled with player counts. While we made strides at the time, it laid the foundation for ideas for us to explore well into the future.”
“There was something about being able to roam freely around that world, riding your horse with a posse of people and feeling vulnerable when’s somebody riding up that felt unique,” adds Nelson. “We have tried to take that as far as we could with Red Dead Online and bring as much of the single-player experience as can into the world.”
By Sweat and Toil
Red Dead Redemption is rightfully revered for a lot of things, from its dazzling vistas to its haunting soundtrack, but there are a number of subtler features that the team feels are also crucial to the game’s greatness, even if they weren’t necessarily noticed.
“While we wanted the world to be alive, Red Dead Redemption was not designed to be a heavily populated world,” explains Bass. “We wanted to replicate what it would have felt like to be living in the West at the turn of the century. The sense of loneliness was extremely important, both to Marston’s story but also to allow the landscape to take its proper place narratively.”
“We wanted to ensure that the player could put a sunrise to their back and just ride until it set in front of them, set up camp for the night, wake up the next morning and do it all over the next day if they wanted to without ever seeing another soul. We wanted to create anticipation and tension in hoping to see and sometimes fearing what might be another lone rider off in the distance. Would that be too much for the player? Would they seek out others, searching for a homestead or a town or would they just continue to ride?”
“Regardless, we had to make those encounters matter and one of the ways we tackled that was that outside of big gang or army fights, every character you could come across was unique. Since these characters were a long way from the cities in the East, fashion remained simple and palettes were limited. Throw a cowboy hat on, add a thick coat of regionally specific dust on top of whatever else they might have on and from even mid-distance everyone looked the same! But if you did get close enough, you would have realized that these individual characters also had bespoke dialogue, so that each encounter would feel fresh in subtle ways.”
Koehne attributes an important part of that “underlying Red Dead Redemption feel” to organic systems that weren’t “super tightly scripted.”
“When initially placing wildlife it felt really fake, really quickly if you saw the same groups of animals in the same places,” he says. “In the end we had to scrap that and find a solution where the animals had rules and behaviours but where they were way less controlled in where they could appear. It made for a more unpredictable and natural feeling experience.”
“We were tweaking and tuning that balance for years, making sure it was fun and there was enough life in the world but not making it feel like an amusement park with too much stuff everywhere.”
Morse and Nelson are keen to point out the way Red Dead Redemption seamlessly transitions from scripted moments to gameplay, noting that was a new experiment for Rockstar games at the time.
“I have always been proud of our transitions into and out of our performance captured scenes, avoiding fades and avoiding abrupt transitions,” says Morse. “For example, when the Marston is exiting a scene he continues to walk after the scene ends for a short bit of time if the player does not input anything. It is a small thing, but I’ve always found it odd when a scene ends with a character saying something like, ‘Let’s go over there,’ and the actors begin to walk that way, only to stop abruptly as the cutscene ends. Overall, we were able to implement a level of seamless transitions into and out of those scenes that some games still haven’t tried or don’t do to this day.”
Nelson is equally enthusiastic about the technique.
“Up until that point, the GTA games had always had a fade to black between a cinematic cutscene and when we handed control back to the character,” he explains. “Red Dead Redemption was the first time we started getting rid of these fades, so that you would smoothly walk into cutscenes or transition out of them, as well as trying to be extra careful about how and when we took control away from the player with cutscenes and how we brought you back into gameplay, all of which had a big impact on how the game would flow.”
“A good example of that in practice is late in the game, seeing Marston in the barn for the first time, when he puts Abigail on the horse and she takes off with Jack. And then John peeks through the barn door and sees what he’s up against – I get goosebumps thinking about it. That transition from cutscene to gameplay was one of the first times we fully implemented this idea, and it felt amazing. We felt the moment could be a really emotional one for players if we could pull it off in the right way.”
“The work that went into making [these transitions] possible was tremendous,” adds Bass, “but the results were incredible, and I feel that was such a key part of why the game’s more relaxed pace ultimately worked.”
The Gunslinger’s Tragedy
Bass regards the bloody crescendo to John Marston’s tale of redemption as his personal favourite moment of the game.
“It’s hard to not mention Marston’s ride to Mexico or finally hunting down Dutch but, for me, my favourite moment in the game is also the most heart wrenching,” he says. “Finally making back to Beecher’s Hope and attempting to be the man Abigail wanted and Jack needed, all leading up to the final showdown at the barn door with Ross and his army of agents.”
“That moment alone still renders chills up and down my neck, not just because of the scene and how it played out narratively but also because of how carefully and painstakingly we all worked on it.”
“It’s not just the most memorable moment for me in Red Dead Redemption, but maybe of my career so far.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, Koehne, Morse, and Nelson all pick Marston’s aforementioned arrival in Mexico as their memorable moment of choice (Koehne is also a big fan of the end credits roll, set to the strains of Ashtar Command’s ‘Deadman’s Gun’: “It just hits in a really meaningful way,” he explains, noting the track left him in tears in the office at the time). But mixing the magical and melancholy arpeggios of José González’s ‘Far Away’ with Marston’s first steps beyond the border remains a moment of almost unrivalled musical genius, and it still resonates just as profoundly with those behind the scenes as it did for players when they first encountered it.
“It’s likely most everyone’s,” begins Morse, “but hearing ‘Far Away’ when entering Mexico continues to be my favourite moment. Even knowing it was coming, I still sat there and listened to the whole thing the first time that I played it at home after we had shipped the game.
Nelson confesses he didn’t know it was coming, declaring he “freaked out.”
“I had never heard or experienced anything like that before in a game,” says Nelson. “It was so unexpected, and it just captured the moment. It did something that you wanted games to do but didn’t know you wanted them to do. It was one of those moments where something you didn’t know about happens and it makes you feel like a kid, like you’re experiencing the magic of games for the first time. And when it happens on your own game, that you know a lot about, you just feel really proud and lucky to be part of such an incredible team.”
And You Will Know the Truth
“The success of Red Dead Redemption was a huge surprise to me because when you are so close to your part of it, it is hard to see the big picture,” admits Koehne. “But there was a point at the end when I realised how special it was. Once I played it and saw how the story, missions, music, open world, art, and graphics all came together I was blown away.”
Perhaps the clearest measure of the strength of Red Dead Redemption’s legacy, however, is the stunning speed of success that was enjoyed by its 2018 follow-up. Red Dead Redemption 2 sold more copies in eight days than the original did in eight years. That figure now sits at over 29 million, making it one of the best-selling video games of all time.
But take nothing away from its show stopping 2010 forebear. A decade ago, on the big screen, Westerns were beginning to transform into box office poison – despite the best efforts of John Hillcoat (The Proposition), James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma), and the Coen Brothers (True Grit). Following Red Dead Redemption’s release, Hollywood would go on to bounce from flaccid failure to outright flop with Jonah Hex, Cowboys & Aliens, and The Lone Ranger, all while Rockstar’s Wild West opus topped charts and scooped awards all over the globe. Why? Obviously Rockstar had nailed the rootin’, tootin’ formula in a way fans craved, and Hollywood was not.
But perhaps there’s an even simpler explanation.
Maybe the town just wasn’t big enough for the two of them.
Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. You can find him on Twitter sporadically @MrLukeReilly.