Former GTA Producer: Why I'll Never Work On Violent Games Again

Jeremy Pope details his personal story and how he couldn't feel good telling people he worked on "that game"

Nearly a decade has passed since Jeremy Pope left Rockstar Games. Pope, who now runs a mobile startup he founded at the end of 2011 called Rally Games, has no regrets about leaving one of the best game developers in the world. He managed production and development of key titles like Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, and Max Payne, eventually leaving in the middle of the development of San Andreas. Something just wasn't sitting right in his gut, and he knew he had to make a career-altering decision.

Pope, who has vowed to never work on ultra-violent games again, explained to GamesIndustry International, "I think at the time it was really only an inkling that I had. I was still in my early to mid-20s, I had grown up playing all types of games, violent games included, and worked on Max Payne and Grand Theft Auto, etc. I would always kind of defend the games we were making and I was pretty proud of being involved, but then when I would visit my grandmother in highly religious Alabama and have to explain what I do for a living, I didn't feel so great about explaining to them that I was a part of 'that game' they've been hearing about. I think that's what sort of planted the seeds of me wanting to work on different types of games."

"I wouldn't be surprised if we see by the next generation some consolidation of some sort - it seems hard to fathom that we're going to have these three big players again"

While the decision was deeply personal for Pope at the time, it speaks to a larger trend in the development scene: more and more designers are coming to grips with the fact that over-the-top, gratuitous violence is not helping the industry advance itself. David Cage and Warren Spector have repeatedly touched upon this subject, and Pope also asserted that the industry needs to expand its genres and offer consumers games with more meaning.

"I do agree that we need to be pushing ourselves [as an industry]. With any storytelling medium or any medium at all, you want to have conflict because that's how you can generate interest, and oftentimes the simplest or most base way to do that is through violence that isn't necessarily tied into a deeper, more meaningful story. I think it's often easier to do violence than it is to generate meaningful, interesting conflict through nonviolent ways. I would agree in that sense that we need to push ourselves and get away from sequels and rehashing, and taking what technology affords us and using that as a primary means to justify another rehash; in other words, we're just souping up what's already been done," he said.

"What we're focused on at Rally is really trying to push things on the social end. I think about what it is I enjoy most about games and it's always interacting with other people, it's multiplayer. And I think about where games really come from - guys gathering around rolling dice together - it was really about interacting with each other and not so much about ingesting something on your own. That's what's interesting to me. On the whole, I agree with what David [Cage] is saying, but for me it's more a personal matter of wanting to work on projects that I can feel a bit better about."

While Pope had a sense of shame about making violent games at Rockstar, in no way is he trying to diminish Rockstar's incredible achievements in the industry, nor is he trying to say that developers should stop making those types of games. Furthermore, the media storm that ensued with the GTA games got under his skin too.

"I definitely want to make a point of saying that I actually love Rockstar's games and I think that it's unfortunate that their games were specifically called out and targeted by the media, because their games - and we all know this - are really masterworks. Grand Theft Auto just pushed the boundaries in almost every possible way... So it's a shame that those games have become a talking point. I worked on GTA, and the whole thing about being able to run over a stripper or a prostitute was something that we didn't even really... Well, I guess you could say we knew about it, but it was something that was so contrived that it was almost like off the radar - so absurd and such tiny fraction of what's possible in the game. I'm really proud of the work I did at Rockstar. For me, I guess it was just getting a little bit older, thinking a little bit more about what I want to do, looking at the long arc of my career, and possibly having just a little bit of a fill of working on a certain type of game as well," he continued.

"You're seeing the value expectation for consumers on iOS going up; it's a tremendous challenge for developers right now. There is a little bit of an arms race"

While some would argue that the mainstream media has changed its tone about video games since the "Hot Coffee" scandal, the recent gun violence debate has once again put virtual violence in the spotlight. The NRA, several politicians and certain members of the media have been quick to scapegoat games. So we have to ask, what's changed in a decade? Not that much, unfortunately, if you ask Pope.

"I was reading another one of your articles on the site about how the industry doesn't represent itself as well as it could, and that feels like it's still the issue. We had the same problem 10 years ago and it still persists today. We don't really have a great ambassador, if you will. The ESRB does what it can, but it really shouldn't fall to the ESRB. And because it's such a large industry growing at an incredible rate, it's really difficult for any one body to emerge to become that [ambassador]. I feel like that's a large part of the issue. And then you see the NRA has one guy who goes up on a podium and gives a talk, and whether you agree with it or not there is a clear single voice and something to react to. I think that's a big challenge for us [as an industry] and I'm not sure how we get there," Pope commented.

Pope believes that the industry still has lots of maturing ahead of it. "The industry has really only begun to take off in the last 20 years. So we'll get there; you kind of see more and more developers exploring mature themes in a more creative and responsible way now that we have less of a distribution roadblock and we have more platforms where developers can kind of flex their creative muscle a little bit," he said. "You see it with iOS and Steam. So I think we will get there but there is a certain frustration that we're not getting there fast enough. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that video games are expensive; it takes a lot of time to make a video game and a lot of effort. Are you going to take a lot of creative chances when there's a lot at stake?"

Moving to the mobile games market appears to be the perfect move for Pope. Not only are the games more mass market, but they tend to be less violent. He pointed to Facebook games and the huge numbers those social titles produce as a comparison.

"I think what's been remarkable for me is seeing the number that comes out of Facebook games - they are almost hard to believe. It's like 'wow this game has 20 million monthly active users.' When we worked on GTA and the game sold several million copies that was record-breaking," he said. "What types of games are these 20 million people playing? They are usually really casual games that aren't too violent, that are just very broad in their appeal. I think the audience for gaming is expanding, so you have a lot of moms and people who aren't as interested or exposed to games as much who are now getting into it, and they aren't necessarily going to jump right into an FPS; they may start out with a town builder."

"We need to push ourselves and get away from sequels and rehashing. We're just souping up what's already been done"

"I think with gaming becoming more and more ubiquitous on all of our devices you're going to see a lot of money and energy going into games that have broad appeal. And that makes a lot of sense, and is sort of where our headspace is as well."

Rally Games' first title is Top Bot, a free-to-play, auto-moving racer with flying robots. Players can customize their characters and gain power-ups in the iOS side-scroller, which pits you asynchronously against friends or random opponents. Pope didn't have exact data to share on the game's market performance just yet, but he said it's been received well and Rally is looking to add features and enhancements while planning a couple different marketing promotions.

Coming from the console world, working in mobile has been quite different for Pope, but he believes he's learned what's necessary for a mobile game to succeed.

"It's an uphill battle if you take to tablet development with the same approach and mentality as you would a console, not only because of the way we use the devices - appointment gaming and things like that - but also the business model needs to be factored in to the design of the game. It's not something that can be done halfway through. For a successful mobile product, it really needs to be there from the get-go when you set out to design the game; and that's becoming even more critical for mobile games as the market becomes more crowded," he said.

"You're seeing the value expectation for consumers on iOS going up; it's a tremendous challenge for developers right now. There is a little bit of an arms race - 'what can we do to offer a value to compete with everyone else?' - and therefore you're seeing the prices drop all the way around. It's a very competitive market but I feel good about the approach we are taking because we've been very mindful about making a product that is 100 percent tailored to mobile. We're not porting something over with virtual joysticks."

While console and PC games will always have a place in the market, Pope definitely sees consolidation ahead in the console field.

"It's an uphill battle if you take to tablet development with the same approach and mentality as you would a console"

"I think it's a challenging time to be a console maker, or at least one of the big three. When I think about why they have arrived at the position they have, so much of it has to do with the developer ecosystem. This is why Apple has been successful, because they have an army of developers making apps for them, because they've made it easy to do that. You have so many people who have left console development because it's become so expensive, so time-consuming and only the major players can partake, which means you get projects that aren't as creative and projects where you aren't as involved because you're a smaller cog in the machine. I think that's going to be really hard for them to get those people back," he said.

That said, there are plenty of challenges for mobile developers, and because so many console developers have moved to the mobile sector, there's bound to be some pruning of the mobile games industry in the future as well.

"I do think there will be a contraction in the mobile industry because there have been so many people jumping into it, but I think a lot of those people are sort of gone for good; they are going to put some of their time and energy into other things like Ouya or Steam Box... It's going to be very challenging for Microsoft Sony and Nintendo. I wouldn't be surprised if we see by the next generation some consolidation of some sort - it seems hard to fathom that we're going to have these three big players again and again with the way everything is shaking out," Pope said.

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Latest comments (21)

Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 9 years ago
"more and more designers are coming to grips with the fact that over-the-top, gratuitous violence is not helping the industry advance itself. "
Violent or not , a game needs to be well designed, period. Its not about the game being violent or not. And unless a game is like a puzzle game, there will be a degree of violence in them. Games like F-Zero, Mario Bros, Rayman Origens have a level of violence in them even if in F-Zero your pushing a car off the track, in mario you stomp on turtle or in rayman your avoiding being burned in a lava pit.

And yes apple has an army of people making apps, but which of those are actually games and which of those is actually good?

And this is my personal expirience with social games, in the beginning it was cool, but i quickly lost interest in them because the formula grew stagnent. And so many games followed the same formula and so many clones.

And the probability of playing with people you actually know is higher on a console than on a mobile device.

And also playing real time with a person is actually better on a console then on a mobile device.

Most mobile games are good to kill a few minutes a bus stop, but thats it.

I mean Rally Games, I searched fr it and couldnt even find a website, clicked on the link here and saw the page on the apple webstore featuring some games I would have never heard of in my life had it not been for this article.

This shows how uphill making games for mobile devices is, and that its not any better than making a game on a console. And fine It offers different opportunities as a game developer, but not necessarily better one.

I mean I do understand that we dont want a world with just first person shooters. But when it comes to violence I think in any game of competitive nature, there will be some degree of violence even if its minimal. And the fact that a game is violent it dosnt make it a bad game. Ithink its not about violent games. But the lack of any original ideas. I think the industry has stagnated not because of the pool of violent games, but lack of ideas. When everybody is out to be the next call of duty or recive a metascore of 10, or trying to rake in the millions of dollers another game has made, then those things make the industry stagnent.

It takes a developer to come up with an idea, take risks and regardless if the game is the next call of duty, regardless if it hits a meta score of 10 or regardless if it makes millions (as long as its profitable).... the developer will still go ahead with creating the game. This has led to games like Mirrors edge, beyond good and evil, Journey, unfinished swan, guacamoli, darksiders, Rayman Legends and even the upcoming Saints Row IV is doing its own thing. Games like these keep the industry from growing stagnent.

Most games to a degree will have some sort of violence in them, especially if they are competitive in nature.

However you gotta admire the guy for sticking to his beliefs.

Anyway, im just rambling.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 20th May 2013 4:56pm

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Gordon Rennie writer 9 years ago
So he left R* and stopped making violent games almost ten years ago.....

.....but he's waited until now when he's got a game out to tell us about his moral indignation.
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Ruud Van De Moosdijk VP of Development, Engine Software9 years ago
Good point Gordon. Not only that, basically Jeremy had a change of heart because he did not want to explain to his highly religious family that he was working on a game where you could have sex with a hooker, then kill her. This is of course completely up to Jeremy, but hardly gives anyone else a motivation to work with. In that regard Warren and David actually make a case with arguments, Jeremy doesn't. I've been ashamed of games I worked on too, not because of their content but well...just because they were not that good. At least the games he worked on are incredibly well made (which he mentions in the article too) so after finishing reading it I still don't know if he was appalled by the design decisions, or proud of them...
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Show all comments (21)
Rob Evans CEO & Lead Developer, Isogenic Engine9 years ago
Exactly. +1

Edit: Hmm, these messages aren't threaded, but I'm agreeing with the first comment #1

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rob Evans on 20th May 2013 4:55pm

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Mark Dygert Lead Character Animator, Her Interactive9 years ago
I'm not so sure we need less violent games, but I think we need a larger library of more diverse games.

As an industry we have done a good job so far of growing one section of the library and it has helped keep the lights on and the doors open but its time to expand the library to include other things. If expansion comes at the cost of demolishing the first wing, I think we do ourselves a great disservice.

So expand, grow and include more types of content but don't feel bad about creating violent content, it has its place, it is responsible for a lot of things, mostly keeping the industry going in a direction that allows us the space and freedom to explore new things. People might hate "Modern-Battle-Call-of-Grand-Theft-Tank-Front-Warfare 12" but because of those successes we can push on and do other things.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Mark Dygert on 20th May 2013 5:32pm

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Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus9 years ago
Different strokes for different folks. Good for Jeremy; I don't necessarily agree with the reasons listed, but they're not mine; they're his, and I don't feel like judging someone for a personal decision.
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Oliver Jones Software Developer 9 years ago
We humans make visual entertainment in many genres. Including Horror, Slasher, Thriller, Action, Comedy, Sci-Fi, Romance, Porn, Reality, Documentary, Mockumentary, News, Current Events, Parody, and Satire. Little of it good.

I note that Hollywood seems to stick pretty much exclusively to violent comic book action adventures during the (northern) summer months. Why should it be any different for games?

People (even industry types) being all sanctimonious about this or that "horrible violent video game" is getting pretty tired. Sure the variety of games could probably be broader but then I imagine loads of movie industry people bemoan the violent brainless trash that earns Hollywood billions of dollars on a yearly basis too.

Literary types moan about how poorly written trash from authors like Dan Brown earn millions and get on the best seller lists, and hipsters moan about how many albums Nickelback sell while dying to tell you about some shit local band you've probably never heard of.

Tell me something new...
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David Serrano Freelancer 9 years ago
I think its great that unlike so many who currently make high profile AAA games, Jeremy sees the bigger picture. He understands the behavior of one developer can impact how the entire medium will be viewed. But he's also being a little hard on himself because as GI reported last year, the controversy surrounding GTA was not accidental:
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Good for him for understanding a good deal of who and what you are is what you put back out into the world

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 20th May 2013 7:10pm

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Ashley Gutierrez Animator 9 years ago
All of those games having amazing story arcs. They all are pretty far from 'brainless gore/violence.'
I can't believe how far the mental manipulation has gone in this one.
His reason for quitting is based around an outdated and highly oppressive view of the world; RELIGION.
Hardcore religious people will make you feel guilty for using toilet paper- and you're going to actually LISTEN to them??
These are the same nuts that think women shouldn't have any rights, gays should all be stoned to death and there is an invisible man in the sky who sent himself down to 'die.'

And does anyone else see the irony here?
Christianity is the single most violent and blood-soaked religion IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND.
And they have problems with violent media???

Again. Violent media DOES NOT make people kill other people.
There is no evidence to suggest that.

For the love of everything that is good, PLEASE stop giving into the religious indoctrination.
Ignore the idiots who say that we should censor ourselves in anything.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Ashley Gutierrez on 20th May 2013 7:20pm

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Max Kaftanati President, Galaxy Gaming9 years ago
What a loser. But look, he's getting some attention!
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Al Nelson Producer, Tripwire Interactive9 years ago
Well, whatever works for him. I imagine that the non-gamie press will like this angle.
OTOH, we're releasing an extremely violent game soon, with another queued up behind that.
The Penny Arcade previewer seemed to understand that it allows you to experience the grim lessons of violence, without confusing the game world with the real world, which would be a ludic fallacy. Game guns are not guns.
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David Serrano Freelancer 9 years ago
@Oliver Jones

"I note that Hollywood seems to stick pretty much exclusively to violent comic book action adventures during the (northern) summer months. Why should it be any different for games?"

Because the core game industry has yet to prove to the mainstream that it is s capable of creating anything else. Hollywood can get away with mindless summer movies because for every movie like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter Hollywood produces, it consistently counters with movies like Lincoln. And movies like Lincoln define Hollywood for the wider audience, not the highly profitable but vapid summer blockbusters. It's the opposite with core games. Highly profitable, controversial and frequently vapid games continue to define core games for the wider audience. And until this changes, the medium will have little to no appeal to wider audiences and demographics.
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Gareth Eckley Commercial Analyst 9 years ago
Why would you want to appeal to wider audiences? Who wants to be Dr Pepper when you can be Coke?
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Gilberto Najera Cloud Consultant, Sm4rt Security Services9 years ago
Always the same with game developers. "I could have been wrong in the past, I'm right now" or "I used to work on X, but it's bad. Now I'm working on Y so it's good". Say X is violent, console, pc, whatever and Y is social, mobile, f2p, you name it. If some body is making social games, social games are the future for the industry, if is working on mobile, then mobile is. Everybody trying to validate their decisions.
IMO, games should have variety like movies, there are documentary, drama, action, scifi, comedy, gore... All with children, teen and adult options. We should have similar options with games
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Trevor Sayre Interaction Designer, Gradient Studios, LLC9 years ago
The juvenile power fantasy game is heavily present because the juvenile power fantasy has been around for centuries upon centuries. It speaks to people, young and old. It isn't necessarily the most intelligent or positive of pursuits, but there are opportunities to use the theme responsibly. We really need to work hard to move away from the instinctual drive to build juvenile power fantasies into games, it's a difficult task to think outside of that paradigm.

The film industry is rife with blockbusters based on juvenile power fantasies. As the film industry matured, it diversified. But even with that diversification, you still have juvenile power fantasies in most film genres. It isn't going away. It will always be a powerful card. But there is plenty of room for games, books, and films outside of that paradigm.
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Shane Sweeney Academic 9 years ago
If he was making Saints Row I could maybe understand....

But GTA? It's often pretty sophisticated stuff and he should feel pretty damn proud for his contribution to world culture.

That's not to say people who worked on Saints Row shouldn't feel proud, just that I would (under my worldview) understand how someone might not want to continue making such games.
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Anthony Chan9 years ago
more and more designers are coming to grips with the fact that over-the-top, gratuitous violence is not helping the industry advance itself.
This article is flawed. It presents a view from one developer and tries to make the above hypothesis that gratuitous violence is counter-evolutionary. I feel Mr. Pope has been blind-sided in a way because he may not actually share the same opinion in the above statement.

Gaming to many is entertainment, and to some may even be art. Both entertainment and art are broad enough to actually accommodate gratuitous violence as one of it's facets. Nobody in the movie industry would say ridiculous slashers, movies containing rape, or any other highly controversial issue for that matter, prevents their industry from advancing. So it is ridiculous for this "journalist" to make such assumptions for the gaming industry.

There is space for all types of games. I agree, we do need more variety, and maybe publishers might need to take more risks to introduce for genres (that are non-violent) but violent ones unfortunately sell. Which games get published and which games sell is not rocket science. It's not like R* brainwashed us that GTA is the best game to play. Consumer demand drives what genres of games essentially make the final cutting block.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Anthony Chan on 21st May 2013 4:03pm

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Tomis programmer 9 years ago
So when his Alabama grandma passes away (God bless her soul) everything will be okay with "ultra-violent" games, right? ... right?
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 9 years ago
A lot of people here seem to be reacting to what they expect to see in the article rather than what it actually says. Jeremy Pope doesn't express any personal moral views on violent games, just that he was uncomfortable making them given his family's views. He's pretty clear that he loves Rockstar's games.

I do agree, however, that the industry could do with broadening its themic spectrum - not getting rid of violent games but making more other material available, so that not every game is Battlefield in the same way that not every movie is Resevoir Dogs. Not just because it would make for easier PR and provide entry points for more kinds of gamers, but because I am really bored with soldier and cop games (except LA Noire which was fun because it wasn't mostly about shouting "HUA! HUA! MOVE MOVE MOVE!").
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Stephen McGlinchey Principal Programmer, Codemasters9 years ago
Much respect to you Jeremy!

Ashley - you seem to assume that his grandmother is Christian. There is more than one kind of religion in Alabama! Moreover, your hateful rant is uniformed and simply untrue!
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