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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: John Diaz – Ex-Rockstar San Diego Developer

By In RSU On September 11, 2014

I’m a huge fan of Rockstar Games, just like you are too. Every time I play a game created by the company I always wonder and imagine what it was like to be the guy in the seat at a Rockstar Studio creating such fantastic games. On my personal Twitter account I’ve been following an ex-Rockstar San Diego developer for some time, this ex-Rockstar San Diego developer is John Diaz. After launching Rockstar Universe I told people I wanted to do some special stuff, make it unique, so, I organised an interview with him. 


John (on the very left in the red shorts) joined Rockstar San Diego in June 2009 and then departed from the studio earlier this year in May 2014. Knowing John had worked for a Rockstar Games Studio, I approached him and asked him if he would be willing to let me interview him about his time at the Rockstar Studio and some of his opinions on GTA content. 

As an ex-Rockstar Games Developer, John is still under a NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) contract, or as I like to call it, a ‘shush contract’. This basically means, even though he isn’t part of the company anymore, he is still by law contracted to not share certain information with the general public, which is why you’ll notice none of the questions say; “When are Heists out” or “When is GTAV on PS4 releasing?”. You can find the interview below and if you want, can check out John’s LinkedIn profile here.

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‘I first off want to say a big thanks for doing this interview, John. Very humbling to have you on Rockstar Universe to talk about your work at Rockstar San Diego and some of your opinions on GTA V/GTA Online’

“Thank you Lewis for reaching out to me and giving me the honor of being on your site.”

Question 1). So John, for anyone who doesn’t know, can you explain what Rockstar studio you are previously from and the job role you played?

– Hey Rockstar Universe fans/readers. I’m a fan who had the privilege of fulfilling my dream to work at Rockstar and be part of the amazing team at the San Diego studio for the past 5 years, working as a Game Designer. In those 5 years I got to work on Red Dead Redemption’s missions and online hunting grounds. I gave feedback on L.A.Noire and Max Payne 3. Lastly, I worked on the Oddjobs and Mini Games both for GTA V and GTA Online.

Question 2). You worked on both Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V, what was it like developing both games and did you face any challenging tasks?

– To work on back to back game of the years, thanks to the most die-hard and passionate fans a team can ask for, was simply a blessing. Those games, even though they are open world, are just so vastly different from one another, that transitioning from one to the other from a design standpoint was the greatest challenge. For instance, in Red Dead Redemption the player mostly relied on his horse to get around, and fortunately horses could only go so fast and access certain areas. This coupled with the openness of the Wild West allowed us to make the player have that feeling of desolation where the musical score was so prominent and important to capturing that. Also the Marstons are the most talented gunslingers and as such everyone could be taken out with one headshot. As a designer I enjoy a finite rule set that I can leverage when creating memorable missions for the player. Compare that to the modern day in Grand Theft Auto V. Everything is about excess. As opposed to a horse that moves maybe 30 kph, you have cars that go 5 times as fast, or better yet, jets and helicopters to worry about. 20+ different radio stations, deadlier weapons, that naturally require tougher enemies with body armour and deadlier weapons of their own. Imagine getting all that to play with? We were all kids in a toy shop, but knew the challenges of accounting for all the crazy mayhem you guys can throw at the world. Plus accounting for the player being not just one character, but 3 simultaneously. One huge saving grace for communicating important info to the player was the cellphone. A luxury we didn’t have on RDR. Everything was given to you from your companions. One of my favorite moments working on GTA V was taking Trevor to Michael’s house and opening fire with my RPG, to have him text me seconds later.

Question 3). What was life like at Rockstar San Diego? For example, what would you usually do after you pulled up in the studio’s car park?

–  I wouldn’t be doing San Diego justice if I didn’t mention that the weather out here is 2nd only to Hawaii. Traffic out here is also much better than busier cities like San Francisco, or NYC. Which unfortunately means our public transportation is lacking. I got to park amongst a bunch of full electric cars and hybrids like a Tesla Model S, a truly amazing machine, as California has great tax incentives for driving electric. I lived close enough to the studio that I biked in every other morning (gotta keep your cardio up when you work a desk job). 

The studio is very discreet, you could easily miss it if you didn’t know it was there. I actually did on the day of my in face interview. Walking into Rockstar, you have all amenities you need, a fully stocked kitchen, a full crossfit style gym, a game room with foosball, table tennis, a mame cabinet, and a console station. All played key roles when needing a break from figuring out how our testers did some insane feat like get a tank inside of a warehouse with Franklin that only Michael and Trevor had access to. At my desk, I was well taken care of with a window and a view of the beautiful outdoors reminding me of the importance to get out. Our workstations are fully equipped with state of the art machines. If I wasn’t stopped in the hallway by a producer, programmer, artist, or animator I’d be checking emails and checking the bug database for hot issues for the day, such as the one mentioned above. Some days it would already be lunch time by the time I made it to my desk because an another colleague had just finished working on a building interior that we got to test and iterate on. After lunch is when I hit my creative stride typically and would get in the zone writing, designing, scripting, and playing the content so that one day I fearfully pass off to you guys to experience.

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Question 4). You’ve been departed from Rockstar San Diego for a few months now, if a position came back up, whether it be at San Diego or another Rockstar Studio, would you return back?

– Hell yes! The strength of Rockstar is that they recruit the most talented and passionate people out there. Not only that, but everyone is well rounded and fun to hang out with outside of the office. An invaluable trait to have when you’re working for years making these open world games. I’ll admit that once I left, I’ve become hungry for change and something different. If I did have the opportunity to work with those guys I would, but it would have to be at Rockstar NYC or Rockstar North, only because I know a bunch of the people at those studios.

Question 5). What would you like added most in GTAOnline? Liberty City or Vice City? Also, If you could have any DLC for GTA V / GTAOnline, what would you come up with?

 Choices like that are tough. It has been over 10 years since we were all presented with Vice City, I think it’s definitely time to revisit. However, me being a NYC native, I’m eager to see Liberty City brought alive on next-gen and seeing how Michael, Franklin, and Trevor engage with the 5 boroughs. If I had free range over DLC, and didn’t have to worry about the implications of developing it, what would I want? That’s a great question. I’d fly in Luis Lopez, CJ, and Niko for their own side story in Los Santos for single player. As for multiplayer, I think fans will agree we all need a jetpack or some sort of transforming all-terrain vehicle for land/air/water, that you can summon from your cellphone that talked to you with programmable personalities such as Luis Lopez, Tommy Vercetti, John Marston, Landon Ricketts, or Herbert Moon. I’ve got to give a nod to the guys, those GTA Online Heist missions took a bunch of work to get to where they are today, and are the crowning achievement GTA Online in my opinion. I don’t think you can top that.

Question 6). If you could create your own GTA game (e.g GTA6) where would you set it, what would the plot be and what would your ideal protagonist(s) be?

 While working at Rockstar, I’ve seen Los Angeles, Brazil, and the Wild West beautifully recaptured. Naturally I’d love to see someplace I rarely get to see in Europe. I’d like to see it set in Spain. As for the plot and ideal protagonist, I’m going to hold on to that gem for the next game I work on. Remember folks, don’t give away your good ideas for free. 😉

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Question 7). For anyone interested in going into a game development career, are there any tips you can suggest to people which can help them along their journey?

– You guys are already halfway there. Be a fan, play games, watch movies, write stories, create characters and worlds, live life, see what’s been done, try to predict what’s coming, and then figure out what you would do to take it to the next level.

I went to school to get my chops up in programming, not having any idea I would come in and be a professional game designer. Meaning be ready for anything, read a bunch, write a bunch, learn different software, be flexible, and most of all keep creating, until you get to do it professionally. The skills necessary for the job. Be it audio, programming, modeling, etc. You can’t fake that, and no amount of talent will help you if you don’t know how to do the job. So if you want to program, download Unity, Visual Studio, or X-Code, and get to coding. If you want to model or do environments, get your hands on ZBrush and get to modeling. These are the skills of the trade. Keep your work in an easy place to get to maybe a public dropbox or your own website. The best candidates to refer are the ones that have all their works on a website, or those who even run their own website. The most popular question you will get asked on an interview is usually , if you had an unlimited budget and resources, what game would you make. This shows your creative thinking. AN important lesson I learned once I got to professional game development, was how to give/receive CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. These games are a product of hundreds of people, made for millions of other people. There’s no way one guy can make something perfect the first time. It takes iteration, feedback, sharing your work, and opening it up to criticism, to make it better, to get that fine diamond that will last the test of time, or at least until the next chapter comes out. To sum it up:

1) Skills

2) Creative thinking

3) Collaborative Spirit
Please allow me to share that I once applied to Rockstar to be a tester when I was in high school. Ultimately trying again after I had experience in the industry, I got in. Never give up, never take rejection as anything more then motivation to keep working harder for the things you want.

Question 8). Is there anything in GTA V that fans found that you didn’t expect them to or vice versa?

– There is something that I put in at just as we were about to ship that was written by our writers, that I haven’t seen or heard anyone report online yet. There are a certain number of prostitutes that have a unique backstory that they let you in on every time you use their services after the first time. You just have to find the same hooker again with the same character, Michael, Franklin, Trevor. That’s all I’m going to say.

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I hope you enjoyed the interview with John and have learned more about life as a developer and in a Rockstar Studio. I want to give a big thanks to John Diaz for doing this interview, I personally have learned alot from it, especially about tips and guidance for future gaming careers. Hopefully John enjoyed doing the interview and who knows, he may even come back for another one. If you did enjoy the interview and would like to hear from John Diaz again, leave a comment below or tweet the Rockstar Universe Twitter account here or even John’s Twitter here.

About the Author

Lewis - Owner

I'm the owner and founder of Rockstar Universe, but also a huge Rockstar fan. I love gaming, music (particularly the 80s), photography and computing.

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