The great Grand Theft Auto lawsuit explained

Leslie Benzies and Dan Houser in a rare picture together
Developer attack reveals inside stories about the secretive Houser empire

If you're looking to read a dark tale of deception, greed, betrayal and intimidation, then you should get stuck into Leslie Benzies' lawsuit against former partners Dan Houser and Sam Houser, the bosses of Grand Theft Auto house Rockstar Games.

His lurid allegations are like something out of Game of Thrones.

Benzies was part of a three-man leadership team that steered the Grand Theft Auto franchise from 16-bit obscurity to global multimillion-dollar success. Together, he and the Housers became close pals and enjoyed fabulous wealth and power. GTA publisher Take-Two lavished profit shares and bonuses on the three men.

All was going well for Benzies, until (he claims) the Housers kicked him to the curb and denied him his share of ongoing profits. Rockstar's lawyers have responded by claiming that Benzies' lawsuit is "bizarre." The company yesterday filed a countersuit claiming that Benzies left the company, fair and square, and as such he's no longer due a share of anything.

But the litany of anecdotes and horror stories in Benzies' lawsuit paints a picture of corporate treachery. For anyone who enjoys looking into how video game companies really operate — outside the bland corporate statements, awards evening love-ins and carefully managed interviews — it's full of revealing insights.

Leslie Benzies in an official shot, some years ago.

Ordered off the premises

Benzies says he was persuaded to take a nice sabbatical for six months, but while he was away, Rockstar fired his own son as well as a bunch of his best pals, while cutting off his access to company emails.

When he tried to return to work at his offices at Rockstar North in Scotland, after completing his sabbatical, he found himself ordered off the premises by the office manager.

Benzies says that Rockstar threatened him by "making scurrilous allegations" about his actions while at the company, "a revenge tactic they had used before with other respected employees … in an attempt to concoct false grounds for termination."

In response to that, Benzies makes an eye-popping allegation. "Sam Houser … orchestrated and encouraged a company culture involving strip clubs, personal photography of employees in sexually compromising positions, and other conduct grossly in violation of standard workplace norms."

"It's like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory."

Of course, Rockstar and the Housers have been acquainted with controversy for many years.

In 2004, they left a piece of code containing sexually graphic content inside GTA: San Andreas, which (once revealed) resulted in lawsuits, congressional debate, a media frenzy and an ESRB re-rating of the game, from Mature to Adults Only. The so-called Hot Coffee episode was so outrageous, it spawned a BBC movie and a book.

In 2010, spouses of Rockstar employees published an open blog condemning working conditions at the company, which they described as "horrendous" and "unacceptable" while complaining about cuts to benefits. Rockstar's management responded with a bland statement, essentially waving its employees' concerns away.

GTA 5, the company's last game, featured grotesquely violent scenes against some of society's most vulnerable women, which publisher Take-Two then defended callously, stating that "if you don't like it, you don't have to buy it."

The Housers are generally reticent about talking to the media, only giving interviews upon major launches. There are few photographs of them. Their rare appearances are at industry awards events. Partly, this makes Benzies' legal suit so interesting. It gives us an insight into one of gaming's most secretive companies.

Anyone interested in the inner workings of Rockstar should take a look at Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, a revealing book by the journalist David Kushner.

In an interview with Polygon, Kushner said that when he was researching the book, he was only able to speak to former employees.

"It's like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory there," he said. "People go in and they don't come out. And you never get to see how the chocolate gets made.

"You have to rely on former employees to talk. People who work there are afraid to talk," he added.


A jabbering wreck

Benzies' lawsuit begins by claiming that Sam Houser's work on the early Grand Theft Auto games yielded distinctly mediocre results. It was only when he, Benzies, took over production for GTA 3 that the series really took off, he says.

"While expert in their respective contributions, Sam Houser and Dan Houser did not help invent, create, or develop any of the paradigm-shifting game development, design, and artistic innovations in GTA 3 that so dramatically elevated the GTA franchise," states the lawsuit.

There's also a reference to the writing in GTA and its borrowing from TV and movies. "From GTA Vice City onward, Sam Houser's and Dan Houser's roles were limited to developing the story and characters in the games and blending thematic elements from film and television aimed at mature audiences, such as Miami Vice, Carlito's Way, and Heat," it says.

"He had not played or even viewed the game pre-release."

If the lawsuit is to be believed, Benzies was the one who understood process, programming and production. The Housers knew how to write characters and cut business deals.

When Red Dead Redemption was in production, the Housers were in charge. Benzies had no role in its making until, he says, things started to fall apart

Benzies alleges that Sam Houser sent him the following email message. "PLEASE help me/us get [Read Dead Redemption] into shape. I am a jabbering wreck right now. I need The Benz!" The way he tells it, 'the Benz' stepped in and saved the day.

The relationship seems to have broken down in the wake of GTA Online, a multiplayer component of GTA 5, released just after that game's launch.

"The Houser brothers had little interest in GTA Online, and did not focus on its development," according to Benzies. Even so, when Benzies placed his name in the prize spot at the end in the opening credits, a place usually taken by Sam Houser, it caused friction.

Benzies alleges that Sam Houser was unhappy about this. "He claimed to have noticed it only after it had already been released," says the lawsuit. "If true, this would mean that he had not played or even viewed the game pre-release, or else he would have seen the opening credits."

The suit claims that Jennifer Kolbe, a Rockstar executive, reported Sam Houser's unhappiness to Benzies, quoting him as saying that Benzies "wanted to take over the company."

sam houser
Sam Houser, 10 years ago, shot taken from an unknown video interview.

Remotely Disabled Device

The most complicated and contentious issues, as always, are about money and who gets what. Along with Take-Two, Rockstar's three bosses created a document called the Royalty Plan that outlined how profit bonuses would be shared. As Rockstar's top dogs, the Housers and Benzies were the principal beneficiaries of the bonus schemes, raking in millions of dollars every quarter.

Benzies' lawsuit spends a long time talking about this, but the upshot is that he left all the negotiating to the Housers. He trusted them to look after his interest, he says. He quotes an email allegedly from Sam Houser: "It's always a pleasure to look out for you. Love Sam."

"The haste with which Mr. Benzies was asked to sign these agreements reflects a comprehensive deception"

But when it came time to sign the documents, Benzies claims he was tricked. Senior exec Rowan Hajaj flew from New York to Scotland to have Benzies sign the documents. Benzies says he only had 45 minutes to inspect the documents. But he trusted his teammates. He signed the documents. Only later did he understand, he says, that the documents included a clause about an "Allocation Committee" that might (and indeed did) eventually exclude him from what he sees as his fair share.

"The haste with which Mr. Benzies was asked to sign these agreements reflects a comprehensive deception," claims the lawsuit.

Benzies says he's been deprived of royalties worth more than $150 million. In one section, he claims that Sam Houser said Benzies shouldn't get any more money. In a conversation with Kolbe, during his sabbatical and when he noticed that the checks had stopped arriving, she allegedly told him that "Sam thinks you've had enough."

Benzies says that after completing GTA 5 and GTA Online, he went to the company's New York offices and was offered a six-month paid sabbatical, which he accepted. But during that time, the warmth that had once existed between him and the Housers, as well as his secure position at the company, evaporated.

"It soon became clear to Mr. Benzies that the 'sabbatical' was actually an expulsion," states the lawsuit. Sam Houser ceased all communications with Benzies, whose company Blackberry "was remotely disabled without notice and his company email account was locked, over Mr. Benzies' objections. Mr. Benzies requested access to the account during the sabbatical, which was wholly rejected."

Benzies began a back-and-forth with Kolbe about his employment status, which was unclear to him. When he tried go back to work, to the office where he had been the boss for years, his keys did not work. When he finally talked his way in, he was told to return home by the office manager. His time at Rockstar was over, and so were the royalty payments.

Rockstar's lawsuit argues that since Benzies no longer works at Rockstar, he isn't entitled to any share of its profits. But it does not address the particulars of his departure.


Downright bizarre

In January, Rockstar issued a press statement announcing that Benzies had departed and praising his work. Benzies says he never approved the statement.

Now that the lawsuit is out in the open, Rockstar says Benzies' performance was not up to par.

"Leslie Benzies was a valued employee of our company for many years," a representative for Rockstar Games told Polygon in an email. "Sadly, the events that culminated in his resignation ultimately stem from his significant performance and conduct issues. Despite our repeated efforts to address and resolve these issues amicably both before and after his departure, Leslie has chosen to take this route in an attempt to set aside contract terms to which he previously agreed on multiple occasions.

"His claims are entirely without merit and in many instances downright bizarre, and we are very confident this matter will be resolved in our favor. [...] It is deeply disappointing and simply wrong for Leslie to attempt to take personal credit for what has always been the tremendous efforts of the entire Rockstar team, who remain hard at work delivering the most immersive and engaging entertainment experiences we can for our fans."

Polygon contacted Benzies' lawyers for a response to the Rockstar lawsuit. Here's what they said:

Leslie Benzies' lawsuit, filed after six months of unproductive mediation, resulted from his discovery that a 'sabbatical' offered him by the company as a perk was actually a scheme to oust him, after years of company and public praise due to his unrivaled leadership of teams that brought video-gaming and Take-Two into the 21st century.

Take-Two's lawsuit in response says he doesn't even have the right to sue, since Sam Houser and the secretive "Allocation Committee" could set royalties any way they liked. However, publicly-traded companies have higher obligations than that, and secretive committee whims are not a standard.

For six years, the so-called "Allocation Committee" set royalties in equal shares between Sam Houser, Dan Houser, and Leslie Benzies, the only three 'Rockstar Principals' under the royalty plan. This stopped after Mr. Benzies went on sabbatical. The Housers excluded him from royalty distributions, despite the sabbatical agreement's statement that all pay and benefits would continue.

At the agreed end of the sabbatical, Mr. Benzies found his return to work blocked. The company made no claims about performance or conduct. Letters show the company wouldn't even say he was terminated. Though company attorneys far later raised vague 'performance issues,' we rejected these as unconvincing and false, a late tactic often used where no actual defense exists.

Mr. Benzies' goal is to seek justice. The complaint he filed is thorough and complete.

Over to the psycho

The lawsuit reveals an apparent affection and long-standing bonds that existed between the Housers and Benzies, prior to his expulsion. Again and again, the lawsuit references the "love" and "trust" that existed between them, including quotes from numerous emails.

"Hey man, All cool with the Hajaj? How do you feel???," wrote Sam Houser in one email after the Royalty Agreement was completed. "Just signed your life over to the psycho for another few years? Or excited about total domination? Or both? I'm excited, and scared.

"Time to stick the hammer down on it all and destroy!!! We have a lot to do. On so many levels. Let's do this. Partners for real this time!!! I think this is incredible. We've spoken about it for so long, but now we've made it happen. Awesome!!! True family. So unique and special. We'll never look back. Let's make sure of it. Fingers crossed. Love, Sam."

No doubt, if this gets to court, more revelations will be forthcoming, though further declarations of familial love are unlikely.

"Controversy is nothing new at Rockstar," says Kushner. "But they keep making these great products that millions of people want to buy. I think that's why they always have the last laugh." Babykayak