20 years at Rockstar Games with Craig Conner

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Rockstar Games’ former audio mastermind Craig Conner speaks about his time with the company, his creative process and the Houser brothers

Craig Connor HeadshotSo how did you go about landing your job at DMA Design?

I owned a Tascam 16 track recording studio at the beginning of the Nineties and was living the dream, recording my own stuff, producing Scottish bands and working freelance in radio production, but the reality was that I wasn’t making that much money – I had to take on an office job to pay the bills. A colleague of mine at the time noticed an ad for DMA – they were looking for musicians. I thought what the hell, it’s a full-time job making music and noises. I got an interview and started a month later…

Right from the start of development, was the plan always to do in-game radio stations in Grand Theft Auto?

As far as I can remember, yes. We were all very concerned that it would involve the music stopping and starting when the player exits/enters a car, but that wasn’t the case; it wasn’t really an issue at all. It added to the experience I think. We didn’t really plan to have DJs; we only touched on that briefly in GTA1. The spoof commercials and idents didn’t really arrive until GTA2.

You composed the now classic rap theme song to GTA1, Gangster Friday among many others. Creatively, how do you successfully approach such a diverse array of genres?

I’m not sure if we successfully pulled off all the genres, but we gave it a good go. We just listened to music that was current at the time and tried to tap into that. I don’t know if that turned out to be a homage or a parody to each genre- you decide. I teamed up with rapper Johnny Wilson to produce the hip hop tracks. I wont mention his credited name as its probably not very PC these days… but diehard fans will know who I mean! When I wrote Gangster Friday I was in the studio in Dundee rapping into my Dictaphone trying to be all “gangster”. I was a raver at the time with bleached hair and enlarged pupils so I wasn’t very gangster. I wasn’t sure if it was even possible for me to write hip-hop beats as I’d never done it before, but thank fuck Johnny came into the studio at DMA. I quickly made up a vocal booth using some cheap duvets, chucked him in it and said “BRING IT” and he did. I laugh at the track when I hear it now. I much prefer the second hip hop track that we co-wrote This Life. The third hip hop track was pretty awful, it turned out like a ‘Snap – I’ve got the power’ rap, oh dear…

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From all the tracks that have been created in-house throughout the series, which one would you say was your favourite, and how did it come about?

I think it would have to be Train – it appeared on GTA Liberty City Stories. The whole track was literally written in ten minutes with my good friend Julie Wemyss. I love the energy in the chorus. Coincidently, Julie visited me in Edinburgh from Aberdeen and wrote the lyrics on the train journey down in around 20 minutes! I sent Julie some chords the night before and we managed to write the entire track, record the instruments and vocals in only five hours – we went out that night, had a bit too much to drink, then I mixed the whole track the following day in a few hours. Quick spontaneous music always turns out to be the best.

What’s your take on the original GTA1 controversy?

The controversy of GTA1 makes me laugh. It was a 2D top-down pixel-tastic fun game that was in no way replicating real life. During the development we didn’t really think that it was controversial – we simply wanted to make a game that was fun. One thing’s for sure, the press frenzy certainly got the game noticed… proving the point that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, I guess, unless of course you’re Katie Hopkins…

GTA III was the first in the series to utilise real world music. Were you always hoping the series would eventually move towards this?

Sam and I always wanted to bring real world tracks into GTA. It made complete sense to us. People assumed that I was against the idea and that I didn’t want this to happen, saying things like “But now you won’t get your own music in the game!” but I never viewed it like that at all, as I always looked at the bigger picture. The games were growing on such an unimaginable scale that I was spreading myself thinly with all the dialogue and sound design as well as music – we were also licensing tracks that no one could have produced in house i.e. Double Clef FM and Flashback 95.6 FM. As for Vice City, it would have been impossible to write an entire in-house soundtrack that would pay homage to the Eighties.

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More recently in the series there have been no fictional bands. From the point of view of both a composer and gamer, how do you feel about this?

By the time that GTA IV was in development, my role had changed quite considerably. As well as managing the music department at North, I was working on several other Rockstar titles. Mastering all the radio dialogue and music was a full-time job on its own so there simply wasn’t the time to write a score too. Also, the critical acclaim that the Vice City soundtrack received meant that it was obvious we had made the right move with licensed music. And how the fuck could we compete with those huge Eighties classic tracks? Anyway, how do you know that there aren’t any hidden fictional bands in IV and/or V…?

Unlike many gaming figureheads in our industry, Sam and Dan Houser keep to themselves quite a bit. From knowing them since the mid-Nineties, what’s your overall impression of them and what’s it like working with them?

I’m not sure that I would have stayed in the games industry if it weren’t for Sam and Dan to be honest. GTA is not only a success because of the gameplay, I think it’s their obsessive attention to detail that’s made it the phenomenal success that it is today. It’s all the cultural references, characters, music, fashion, media, art and pop culture that they tap into for each title that makes GTA what it is. That’s the kind of stuff that excites me too, so when they came on board it felt like we could really take GTA to the next level. There was no expense spared with research and that’s the shit that’s important to me. If you’re going to do something, do it right and make it as authentic as possible and to the best of your ability – that was a work ethic that we all shared.

Don’t get me wrong; making GTA nowadays is no easy gig. It’s a huge assault course that requires a team of hundreds. The Housers’ focus and vision never falls during the entire development from start to finish. I loved working with Sam, we were both really excited about all aspects of the game, and going through the music tracks was a real highlight of mine. It was so much fun spending time blaring out music together during the final selection of tracks for each GTA – to the point where our ears were almost bleeding. Sam’s musical knowledge is something I have a huge respect for.

Can you give us an insight into the process of taking a collection of tracks and audio and incorporating them into the final product?

The first stage in the process would always be to identify the style of each station. We would always have a few tracks that would be definite keepers, so would just build on that. We would add, remove, snog marry and avoid tracks right up until the very last minute, literally the day before final submission – it was pretty exciting.

We’d always go to huge lengths to make a station as authentic as possible by really  researching the genre, respecting it and getting advice from people in the know. Most of the people that we got advice from would be a star in that genre – they’d usually end up being the DJ for that station. Thinking back, we were lucky to have had some amazing DJs throughout the series.

Once the station was refined, Sam would name it himself, then the DJ and idents were recorded and that’s what brought it all together. When that was complete, I’d begin the mastering process. This would always be a mammoth task as the main job was to make all of the radio sound consistent (like mastering a compilation album but x 30 with lots of different styles of music) at the same time each station needed to maintain it’s authenticity. In real world radio, every station sounds unique depending on budget, profile and audience numbers. I would obsess over this and try to recreate the real world radio sound in our game.

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The biggest controversy Rockstar has faced has been with Manhunt series. How do you view the media backlash?

I don’t really want to get tangled up in the Manhunt controversy. All I’ll say is that a lot of very talented people worked very hard to make Manhunt what it was. It was such a shame that the controversy overshadowed what we’d created – a great horror/slasher game in my opinion. I think I can speak for most of my friends at Rockstar when saying that our main focus was always to make great games that we wanted to play – if that’s controversial, then so be it!

After almost 20 years, why leave Rockstar now?

Grand Theft Auto V’s success was phenomenal and the amount of awards that it received was unbelievable. I’m so proud of all our achievements at Rockstar so it was far from an easy decision to leave, but it was definitely the right one. From a creative point of view I needed to make a change and try new things. There are so many other things that I still want to do and explore with Solid Audioworks, all of which wouldn’t be possible if I committed to any future Rockstar titles.

I do miss the music team from North though [Lindsay, Fraser, Becky and Keith]. We worked very well together and managed to have a lot of fun at the same time. Laughing on the job, and at ourselves is really important to me, especially whilst working on a challenging project. I’m a great believer in one of Richard Branson’s work ethic quotes “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” By having a good working environment, you get the best out of people – the music team at North are a very talented bunch individually as well as collectively.

So your new venture is Solid Audioworks, an audio company you set up with fellow ex-Rockstar audio designer Will Morton…

Game development constantly evolves.Technology changes all the time; games get more complex with each new platform. Will and I have over 30 years experience in game audio and we’ve worked on pretty much every platform over the last two decades. Between us we’ve gained a wealth of knowledge and expertise both technically and creatively. To add to that we also have a large team of talented audio designers, VO artists, programmers and composers we can pull in to work on bigger titles with us.

How does working as a freelancer differ from working with Rockstar?

The biggest change for us has been the spectrum of the projects that we’re now working on. We’re lucky to be in a position where people in the industry know who we are. We’ve done the triple-A thing for years, but are changing that right now by doing Lost Ember. We will return to do an triple-A soon, but to be completely honest, the size of a game, whether its large or small, doesn’t phase us, as long as it’s a game we want to play, then we’re in.

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What’s your dream project?

My dream/fantasy project would be working on a next-gen psychological ultra-violent dark horror game (based on true events of course!) – co-writing the soundtrack with Kate Bush and Nick Cave, making all the gory SFX using fruit and meat (as we did on Manhunt) to get disgusting fleshy sounds that make your skin crawl. Having the lead characters voiced by Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Mark Wootton and Vicki Pepperdine. I’d have the story penned by Julia Davis, Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker. The art concept would be by Ian McQue and directed by James Wan. Not too big an ask, I think…

Which Rockstar game did you have the most fun working on?

It has to be Vice City – it was so exciting researching the soundtrack and hearing all those amazing Eighties tracks that I’d grown up listening to actually getting cleared/licensed to appear in our game. No developer had ever had the privilege of having access to artists like Michael Jackson, Dave Lee Roth, Herbie Hancock Roxy Music, Kate Bush, Blondie, Hall & Oates, Sigue Sigue Sputnik to name just a few. If that wasn’t enough, the cast of actors that we managed to get was pretty amazing at the time too – we really felt like we were the dog’s bollocks! At the time it was still a very small development team – it was a great close-knit vibe in a tiny studio – the energy and excitement after the success of GTA III was amazing. We managed to deliver VC in just nine months, from start to finish – and about eight of those months we spent in the pub, legless most nights, designing the game. Happy days!

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And what game are you currently working on?

As Solid Audioworks, Will Morton and I wanted to focus on the fundamentals – something fresh with a small team, a great idea, brilliant story and most important of all, great gameplay.

We’ve been fortunate enough to meet the perfect team who are doing just that – a bunch of young, eager and very talented folks at Mooneye Studios in Hamburg. The game that the team at Mooneye is working on is Lost Ember – an episodic exploration adventure set in a Mayan-like world. Lost Ember tells the story of a lone wolf with the mysterious skill to control other animals to rekindle the beauty of a forgotten culture’s monumental relics, all set in vibrant beautifully crafted forests and jungles.

This is a whole new world to us, quite literally. Our art director Maximilian Jasionowski’s  vision has created something rather unique, and we are so happy to bring our experience to this energetic new team. We’re already exploring some new technology for handling surround sound – to complement this we’ll write an all-together very unusual interactive score.

Since we set up Solid Audioworks we’ve spent a lot of time making our own bespoke SFX library, it will be great to implement all the natural sounds we’ve developed in to Lost Ember. Watch this space.

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