Dan Houser has spent nearly a year on what his company, Rockstar Games, describes as an “extended break.” It’s apparently the longest period Houser has been away since starting the video game label with his brother in 1998 and co-creating two of the industry’s most valuable—and controversial—franchises, Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. Some of his colleagues at Rockstar and parent company Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. have kept up with his family’s adventures through updates to his wife’s Instagram: a visit to the Roman Colosseum at dawn, green drinks on the beach in Turks & Caicos and a horse-drawn carriage ride through the snow-thick landscape of Deer Valley, Utah.
The sabbatical officially comes to an end Wednesday, when Rockstar will part ways with Houser, the co-founder, vice president of creative and the primary plot designer for its games. During his career at Rockstar, Houser became to gaming what Martin Scorsese is to film. Grand Theft Auto V, his biggest hit, brought in more revenue than the last 10 James Bond films combined and is still a moneymaker almost seven years later thanks in part to online sales. Houser’s final game, Red Dead Redemption 2, generated $725 million during its opening weekend in 2018, exceeding the debut of the Avengers movie that came out that year.
Dan Houser’s storytelling craft was complemented by the technical and business acumen of his brother, Sam. With Rockstar, the Houser brothers set out to make games that appeal to adults, by adapting aspects of their favorite films and pop culture for an interactive medium. “Their mission was to completely transform video games and make them cool, to make games that could be discussed in the same breath as Goodfellas and The Sopranos,” said David Kushner, author of the 2012 book Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto. And they succeeded.
A byproduct of their accomplishment was a corporate culture described in news reports and court records as all-consuming and destructive. Rockstar has long been a symbol of game development’s dark side, where employees are expected to work nights and weekends without reprieve in the final months or year before release. Houser told New York magazine in 2018 that he and a few others were working 100-hour weeks in the final stretch on Red Dead Redemption 2. The video game website Kotaku reported that long shifts were mandatory and took a significant toll on workers’ mental and physical health.
This culture of crunch that Houser helped promote may have ultimately defeated him, according to several analysts and journalists who have followed the brothers’ careers. In multiple profiles over the years, there’s a recurring description of the enthusiastic, Coca-Cola-addicted game maker: “He also looks tired.” Neither Houser nor his company have explained the reasons for his extended time off or his departure. But Houser, 46, perhaps couldn’t face the prospect of another development cycle. “It’s an industry which has always been built on this idea of crunch time,” said Kushner. “That’s a larger challenge that the industry as a whole has to reckon with.”
Houser declined to comment through a spokesman, as did Take-Two. His brother will remain president of Rockstar, and the company has said it doesn’t expect additional defections. In a securities filing announcing Dan Houser’s departure last month, Take-Two wrote: “We are extremely grateful for his contributions. Rockstar Games has built some of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful game worlds, a global community of passionate fans and an incredibly talented team, which remains focused on current and future projects.”
The Housers grew up in South West London, where their father was a lawyer and worked for a famous jazz club. Their mother, Geraldine Moffat, is a former actress who appeared alongside Michael Caine in the 1971 crime drama Get Carter. Sam became an Americanophile obsessed with hip-hop music. Dan went to Oxford University and learned to appreciate a good story. He wrote much of the expletive-laced dialogue found throughout their games. “His role was rolling up his sleeves and bringing these worlds to life,” Kushner said.
Part of Houser’s management style was making coders and designers feel like rock stars—true to the publisher’s name—and celebrating their individual contributions, said David Cole, head of digital entertainment research firm DFC Intelligence. Houser frequently pushed back against the parent company’s demands for tighter deadlines and set extremely high bars for quality, said Cole, who has met with Houser in the past. “He created this vision that others can follow,” Cole said.
In 2008, Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto IV, a gritty, modern crime drama that lets players roam freely through a funhouse-mirror version of New York City. “The challenge is to tone down the real world because the real world is so ridiculous,” Houser said in an interview with Businessweek to promote the game’s release. He then sidestepped a straightforward question about whether he considered the product to be a success. He laughed and said, “We’ve created a tight, beautiful piece of interactive experience.” According to the review aggregator Metacritic, Grand Theft Auto IV is tied for the second-best video game of all time.
The founders’ high standards and grueling pace prompted pushback from their employees. During development of Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar workers in San Diego sued for unpaid overtime. In 2009, Take-Two settled with 100 people in the class-action suit for $2.75 million and denied the allegations. But accusations of an untenable work environment persisted. A letter purportedly written by spouses of Rockstar employees was published by the website Gamasutra in 2010 and went viral. It said workers were driven to depression and physical illness from the extended hours and canceled vacations. In a statement at the time, Rockstar called the authors’ authenticity into question and said the company valued and supported employees.
By 2012, Houser was beginning to express dread about undertaking a new game. “We don’t start until the very end of a project,” Houser told the Guardian a few months before completing work on Grand Theft Auto V. “At the moment, the thought of even doing another Grand Theft Auto is so appalling—we’ve got so much work left to do to finish this one. It’s overwhelming!”
But each new game brought mountains of wealth. Houser spent $12.5 million in 2012 on a townhouse in Brooklyn that once belonged to Truman Capote. The Housers’ royalties from Grand Theft Auto V during a period from late 2014 to early 2015 were estimated to be at least $93 million, and perhaps much more, according to a lawsuit from Leslie Benzies, a former Rockstar executive who claimed he had been improperly cut out of the royalty pool. The lawsuit was settled last year, and the terms weren’t disclosed. Take-Two has said the Housers don’t receive the majority of royalties and that many employees share in the profits.
For his last completed project, Houser was holed up in an office wallpapered with Post-it Notes containing the names of people, places and story elements, according to the New York magazine article. At one point, they completely obscured the windows. The resulting game, Red Dead Redemption 2, is a Western brought to life. It puts players in the boots of an outlaw who starts gunfights and performs locomotive heists on horseback as the world’s frontiersmen go about their unique daily routines. “If we’d known how much work it was going to be, then maybe we’d have backed off,” Houser told GQ in 2018, “but once we committed, we were like, ‘We’ve got to make this work.’” Game critics rate it among the 10 best video games, along with the last two Grand Theft Autos.
Before Red Dead Redemption 2’s release, Houser told GQ he was thankful to be working on a period piece rather than another Grand Theft Auto set in today’s divisive social and political climate. “It’s really unclear what we would even do with it, let alone how upset people would get with whatever we did,” he said. “Some of the stuff you see is straightforwardly beyond satire. It would be out of date within two minutes. Everything is changing so fast.”