The story of the Red Dead series, one of the biggest and most renowned in gaming, starts long before its current home at Rockstar Games. In fact, it starts in the ’80s in Carlsbad, California, at Angel Studios — a company initially not known for video games, but for 3D work in films and music videos.
It’s a story with a lot of steps, business negotiations and meetings. It’s a story about a company with less of a strategy, and more of a keen eye for opportunities. And it’s a story that — even in its early days — leaves some people burned out, taking time away from the game industry in its wake.
With Red Dead Redemption 2 set to be released next week, we recently looked back at how this mammoth of the industry came to be. We tracked down seven former developers and executives involved with the series at Capcom, Angel Studios and Rockstar to discuss the first Red Dead game, Red Dead Revolver, and how it built the foundation for one of Rockstar’s most valuable intellectual properties.
It starts with a businessman named Diego Angel. A man with an ability to strike deals and bridge geographical divides. A man who loves to party.
Six bottles of tequila
Diego Angel founded Angel Studios in 1984 as a work-for-hire studio producing 3D graphics. The company found success in its first several years working on the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man and Peter Gabriel’s “Kiss That Frog” music video — the latter of which won an award for Best Special Effects in a Video at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards.
According to Angel, he founded the company around a philosophy of “three P’s” — passion, patience and perseverance. It wasn’t about taking on everything offered his way, he says, but rather, projects that showcased his team, its technology and the caliber of both.
“Money was not the first thing that went through my mind,” Angel tells Polygon during his first interview in several years. “I wanted to build a company as an entrepreneur based on the know-how — based on what we [could] give. I knew that money [would] come.”
Those working for Angel in the studio’s early days describe him as a character, and as someone who took care of his employees. He ran his company like a family, they say. He also loved to have a good time.
“Always, Friday evenings around 5, he would start getting people together and offer a shot of tequila or something,” says Red Dead Revolver lead artist Carlos Pedroza, who was Angel Studios’ 90th employee. “‘Everybody relax. It’s 5 on Friday. Everybody chill out. It’s time to start winding down.’ And then the parties would begin, and all sorts of stuff.”
“On a Friday afternoon, he was like, ‘OK everybody, time for Sippy Wippy,’ and he’d break out his Patrón tequila and we’d all just hang out in the office and drink tequila shots,” says Revolver art director Daren Bader. “It was a really fun time.”
Angel Studios’ transition into game development came about more or less thanks to a chance meeting. In the early ’90s, the company was working with tech giant Silicon Graphics, making demos for its high-end computers in exchange for, well, its high-end computers. It was this work that turned the tables for the company, then a decade old.
“Mr. Takeda, that did the technology [for] Nintendo, [saw our demos],” Angel says. “He said, ‘Fuck. Who are these guys?’ They said, ‘A little company called Angel Studios in San Diego.’ He called me right away. He said, ‘Can I be there at 9 in the morning the following day?’ I said, ‘Yeah, come over.’ He came, and three days later, Nintendo signed us as their technical partners for the launching of the N64.”q">
>“We were the first — at least as I was told — the first developer outside of Japan to work directly with Capcom Japan”
In February 1995, Nintendo announced Angel Studios would be part of a “Dream Team” group of development studios for its then-upcoming Nintendo “Ultra 64” console — 10 third-party studios that Nintendo chose to make games for the system. Coincidentally, DMA Design was also part of this group — the studio that would later become Rockstar North.
“Angel Studios is recognized around the world as a leading creator of amazing three-dimensional graphics and real-time environments,” Howard Lincoln, chairman of Nintendo of America, said in a news release at the time. “Their award-winning work in music videos, motion pictures and commercials will transfer nicely to the video game industry — in particular to our powerful 64-bit system.”
“We’ve waited patiently to enter the video game industry until a vehicle was developed that allowed us to fully display our talents — Nintendo Ultra 64 is that vehicle,” Angel said in the same release. “The creative energy being committed to this game by the staff at Angel Studios, coupled with the capability to render ‘on-the-fly’ in real time as built into the powerful Nintendo Ultra 64 system, will produce a video game for Nintendo Ultra 64 unmatched in its graphics quality and interactive game play enjoyment.”
Using Nintendo’s deal as an impetus, Angel Studios shifted to making video games, though it didn’t limit itself to just Nintendo or the Nintendo 64. First, it worked on the 1996 Sega Saturn game Mr. Bones, contributing to the art and cutscenes. For Nintendo, the team developed the entirety of the 1998 sports game Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. and its 1999 sequel, Ken Griffey Jr.’s Slugfest. It also worked for Microsoft on the 1999 racing game Midtown Madness.
One key to the studio’s success, says Angel, was working well with Japanese publishers. At the time, he says, studios in the East didn’t trust studios in the West — and vice versa. “I was the only company in video games, the only [American] studio in those days, that was working and getting along with the Japanese,” he says, adding that not being American himself probably helped because “Americans are kind of closed [off]. [...] When you’re outside the United States, you’re open to other cultures than the Americans.”
His other key to success: alcohol.
“I used to go every month to Japan and just bring six bottles of tequila,” he adds, laughing. “They loved it.”
This ability to bridge divides, to work with high-profile Japanese companies, secured Angel Studios a contract gig that changed the course of the company forever, he says: the Nintendo 64 port of Resident Evil 2, which was released in 1999.
“We were the first — at least as I was told — the first developer outside of Japan to work directly with Capcom Japan,” says Stewart Spilkin, producer on both Resident Evil 2 and Red Dead Revolver at Angel Studios.
A team of nine developers at Angel was able to get all of Resident Evil 2 — which originally shipped on two discs when it debuted on Sony’s PlayStation — as well as new features, onto a 64-bit cartridge.
Capcom was impressed with Angel Studios’ work and later approached the developer about something different. A new game. A new IP. No one knew that it would eventually lead to one of the most popular series in games.
‘We know Westerns’
Capcom had an idea.
According to former Angel Studios team members, Yoshiki Okamoto, then Capcom’s chief operating officer, approached the team about wanting do a single-player game called S.W.A.T., a third-person shooter where the player controlled different tactical team members, each with unique abilities, switching between them as they wished. Okamoto, speaking to Polygon, says he doesn’t remember the project starting this way, though he admits that his memory of the time is faulty given how long ago it was.
One way or another, though, the team at Angel Studios worked on the idea for approximately three months, building a prototype.
“The original concept was: There’s a single building, and you have a S.W.A.T. team of seven different characters with different abilities and equipment. And you kind of go through the same scenario over and over in different ways,” says Spilkin. “So we went with that for a little while, but then [Okamoto’s] idea shifted. At one point it was supposed to be, like, a carnival on an island that has been taken over by robots. It’s sort of the same S.W.A.T. team concept, but you have to go in and kill all the robots. We never actually did anything with that — I think that was just an idea that was talked about.”