Red Dead Redemption 10 Years On: How Rockstar Won the West

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

“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.”

2004's Red Dead Revolver.

2004’s Red Dead Revolver.

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

“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.”

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

“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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