While Rockstar Games is known best for the Grand Theft Auto series, Bully – its game about a juvenile delinquent student named James “Jimmy” Hopkins rising through the ranks of Bullworth Academy – is just as highly regarded by some. Many had hoped a sequel would be on its way, and although it has yet to happen, former Rockstar developers have revealed the details of the time they tried to make that dream come true.
Game Informer spoke to five of these former employees from Rockstar’s New England studio – the team that was actually working on Bully 2 in the late 2000s – and they shared why this game never… well… graduated and made its way into the world.
Rockstar Vancouver was the team behind the original Bully, but Rockstar New England was entrusted to work on this sequel. They were excited to prove themselves worthy as Rockstar had recently purchased them when they were still known as Mad Doc Software.
While they wanted to be the “golden child in the Rockstar thing,” it was hard to escape the shadow of Rockstar North – the main studio behind the Grand Theft Auto games.
“[Rockstar New England] wanted to be sort of the golden child in the Rockstar thing, but it’s really hard when Rockstar North was the one that was producing all the golden eggs at that time,” one developer says. “Living in the shadows of someone who casts a big shadow like Rockstar North, and trying to usurp that role, it’s really difficult and nearly impossible. But man, did they try. Oh, did they try.”
Prior to Rockstar’s acquisition of Mad Doc, the studio was approached to work on Bully: Scholarship Edition, which was a remaster of the original with new missions, characters, and items. Following their successful partnership, Rockstar purchased them in April 2008. The team was ecstatic.
“Rockstar itself […] you say, ‘I work at Rockstar,’ people were really in awe of that,” one former developer says. “It was nice to have some clout to a job. You know? I was excited to work on anything that they had, because most of the games that they’d churned out [had] been pretty golden.”
Unfortunately, the honeymoon period did not last long and the studio’s culture quickly changed. Not long after they became Rockstar New England, Rockstar’s vice president of development Jeronimo Barrera visited the studio and left some feeling a bit worried.
“One of the first red flags was when someone asked about hours and weekends and stuff like that,” the developer recalls. “Jeronimo’s answer was something to the effect of, ‘Well, we don’t work every weekend.’ He’s like, ‘For example, I’m not working this Saturday.’ The emphasis on the word ‘every,’ and then ‘this,’ were a little disquieting in their effect.”
In 2019, a report came out from Kotaku and revealed Barrera was described as “abrasive” and “volatile,” and one employee accused him of sexual assault. Barrera denied all the allegations.
Following that meeting, the studio was hard at work on finishing the PC version of Bully: Scholarship Edition, assisting with Grand Theft Auto IV’s two story expansions and Red Dead Redemption, and beginning work on a sequel to Bully. Despite some of the red flags, they couldn’t be more excited.
Bully 2 was positioned to “sit alongside Rockstar games of the time, such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption.”
“There was a lot of focus on character, very deep systems, seeing how far we could push that, and putting it up there alongside a GTA,” one developer on the project says.
Bully 2 was to be “bigger and deeper than that of the original game,” and there were roughly 50-70 people working on the project. While the game’s open-world map would not have been as large as GTA IV, its planned scope was to range “from the size of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’s open world to ‘three times’ the size of the original Bully’s school map.”
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To make up for the size, Rockstar New England was planning on making every building in the game enterable, “either by normal means or forced entry.” As one developer put it, “if you could see it, you could go into it.”
“[The player] was not going to be driving a car anywhere, so the total playable space [and] land size [was] definitely going to be smaller,” another developer says. “Mostly because kids – he’s not going to be driving – and also because we wanted these very deep systems. Like, if you can go into every building, that’s a lot of work. We’d rather not have a really massive world; maybe scale that back a little bit just so that we can make sure that we have all these meaningful things in there.”
Rockstar New England was exceptional in the field of artificial intelligence and wanted to leverage that knowledge to “make the player’s actions more meaningful than in previous Rockstar games.”
“We really wanted to make sure that people remembered what you did, so if you pulled a prank on your neighbor, they’d remember it,” says one developer. “That your actions had more meaning beyond a 20-foot radius and the five-second memories of the [non-playable characters] near you.”
While Bully 2 was obviously never released, some of its ideas – including this one – made it into other Rockstar games like Red Dead Redemption II.
“Players see changes in protagonist Arthur Morgan’s behavior based on his honor,” Game Informer writes. “If Morgan has high honor, he’s a more compassionate character. If Morgan has low honor, he’s driven by greed and apathy. Similarly, if Morgan robs a store, he can’t just walk back into it a few minutes later as if nothing happened. The store clerk remembers Morgan and denies him service, asking him to leave.”
“The way that you interact with other characters in the world, more than just with your gun or with your fist, they have some sense of memory – a lot of that stuff [originated in Bully 2],” one developer says.
“From what I remember reading [in] some of the design docs and my conversations with people is that you could build relationships with characters in the world,” he says about Bully 2. “You’d be, like, best friends with the chef in the mansion or whatever, or the chef could really hate you or something, and that would open up different options. I don’t know to the extent of where that ended up – if that got pared down into a general ‘you’re good Jimmy’ versus ‘you’re bad Jimmy’ or what – but I know in some of the early ideas being thrown around, you would have that fine-grained level of relationships to other characters in the world.”
Rockstar New England’s new glass fragmentation system was another example of tech making it to future Rockstar games. In this particular case, it would be seen in Max Payne 3.
“If you’ve played Max Payne 3 and you shot some glass, instead of just the glass breaking the same way every time, we had built this whole system so that this chunk right near the impact of the first bullet would break out, and you would see a little spiderweb of glass,” one developer says. “Then if you shot some more of the glass, little individual chunks near where you actually shot would fall out. [It made] it look realistic.”
AI and glass fragmentation weren’t the only tech they were excited about working with for Bully 2, as grass growing was another highlight. Yes, you read that right.
“You could go and mow the lawn, and then it would actually be lower,” one former developer says. “You could actually do a good job, go back and forth, and create lines on people’s lawns, that kind of thing.”
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“It sounds so silly, but it was something that we were all excited about because [of] the technology behind it,” another developer says of the grass-growing mechanic, in which you could actually see individual blades.
Climbing was also a focus, as it would help expand the world as Jimmy could explore much more of it and just generally cause even more chaos.
“Trees were obviously a big one; we wanted the player to be able to climb up the tree to hide or do some hijinks with all sorts of things like paintball guns or water balloons, all of that sort of stuff,” a former developer says.
All of these ideas could be seen in a vertical slice of Bully 2 that was playable at Rockstar New England. Devs could “run around the world and interact with objects and non-player characters, and there were some missions – such as one involving go-karts, another with a beekeeper, a Kamp Krusty-style mission, and one that had Jimmy in his underwear, even featuring a crotch bulge.”
“It was definitely going to be a little risqué,” a former developer says.
“There were a lot of ’80s-kids-on-bikes movies, like Goonies, that came up as reference. Porky’s was another commonly used movie for reference,” he says. “We [looked] at a lot of those kinds of things. It’s definitely in that style.”
“The game was at least six to eight hours playable,” says Marc Anthony Rodriguez, a former game analyst for Rockstar’s New York City headquarters and one of the project leads on Bully: Scholarship Edition. “So, fully rendered, fully realized.”
At that point, Bully 2 was still a few years away. Unfortunately, Rockstar would begin to pull people off the project to help other in-development games that were in need of assistance, like Max Payne 3, and “once anyone got pulled off of Bully 2, they never returned.”
Also at this time, the developers recalled months-long crunch that would have certain members of the staff working 12- and 16-hour days and working weekends. One former developer used the word “endless” to describe the crunch at the studio.
“I mean, it was just ridiculous,” one former developer says, describing the development of Red Dead Redemption. “I know that it won game of the year, and that was great and satisfying, but the approach to development was just – it was ridiculous. It took no one’s life outside of work into account.”
That crunch was one factor in the change of the studio’s culture, which was a far cry from what it was like during the days as Mac Doc Software.
“The culture just – it just changed,” another former developer says. “I saw people that previously I really liked become just sycophantic. And then there was the whole ‘bodies in chairs’ thing, you know? You don’t have work to do, but you’re going to be here on the weekend, because there’s some studio head that’s going to be walking around. This doesn’t even get into the off-work hours stuff where it was just – it was like a hardworking frat house. There is an age and a person that is really drawn to that. Rockstar, in my opinion, is well aware of this.”
All of these factors and more have led to the fact that we still don’t have Bully 2 in our lives, but the true fate of the game still very much remains up in the air.
Over the years, there have been rumors and reports of Bully 2, like in 2009 when Bully’s composer Shawn Lee said, “it looks like I will be doing the soundtrack for Bully 2 in the not so distant future.”
In 2011, Dan Houser told Gamasutra that Rockstar may work on the sequel after Max Payne 3, which was released in 2012.
In 2017, the Twitter account Bully 2 Info posted some supposed concept art and in-game screenshots, and Game Informer’s contacts confirmed that a lot of what was leaked was legitimate.
In 2019, YouTuber SWEGTA uploaded a video with a former Rockstar New England employee who spoke about Bully 2 and “Rockstar’s decision to shelve the project in 2009.”
Also in 2019, VGC published a report that said Bully 2 was in development at Rockstar New England for “between 12 and 18 months before fizzling out” and that the development of the project took place between 2010-2013. This all “roughly lines up” with what Game Informer heard, but the developers they spoke to said they remember it being worked on between 2008-2010.
Game Informer was unable to confirm if Rockstar New England or another Rockstar studio is currently working on Bully 2, but one developer did share that “a build of the game still existed at Rockstar New England as recently as a few years ago, parts of which were used as reference material for later projects.
While it remains to be seen if we will ever play Bully 2, it’s clear its influence has been seen in other Rockstar projects. Even still, these former developers still look back fondly on what could have been.
“It was going to be really cool,” one former developer says. “What we had was pretty amazing, especially given the very short amount of time that we were working on it. […] It certainly would’ve been very unique, very interesting, certainly a lot of fun. A lot of cool and interesting mechanics that we were working on that still aren’t in other games.”
“It’s still a concept, in my opinion, worth exploring,” another says, “and I think that it would be a missed opportunity for them to let it go forever.”
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Adam Bankhurst is a news writer for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamBankhurst and on Twitch.