Leslie Benzies may not have the name recognition among video game fans of a Hideo Kojima or a John Romero. But during a career of a decade and a half at Rockstar North, he served as one of the principal producers on some of the best-selling video games ever made: Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto series. Then, about a year ago, he departed the studio amid an acrimonious feud with his longtime colleagues — a dispute he soon laid out in a lawsuit against Rockstar asking for $150 million in unpaid royalties.
The legal dispute is ongoing, but in the meantime, Benzies and two other ex-Rockstar North leads — Matthew Smith, former audio director at the studio, and Colin Entwistle, former lead programmer — are starting their own team for a new video game project. Their unnamed company currently has offices in Edinburgh, Scotland, the hometown of Rockstar North, as well as Los Angeles. Their game, which has the working title of “Everywhere,” is in development on Amazon Lumberyard, the retail giant’s free game engine.
Prior to today’s announcement, before we knew anything about Benzies’ team or its project, we sent over some general questions. Here’s our full email interview with Benzies and Smith.
What are you working on — is it a game, movie, book, interactive transmedia experience?
Leslie Benzies: We’re building a video game. Our working title is “Everywhere.” While it’ll have many established gaming elements, we’re also including features that games haven’t touched on yet. I’d like to tell you all the stuff we’re excited about, but I have to keep the specifics under wraps for now. I can say this. We want this game to be less restrictive than other games. While the game has multiple narratives, we also want players to create their own narratives that include characters with a real personality. If we do this right, we’re going to give players the chance to really live out their fantasies, not just the limited fantasies that most games set up for them, and do so in a deeply immersive way.
The potential of games is so vast — they’re already incorporating many other forms of entertainment and technology. Furthering that process is what’s inspired us to make this game.
Matthew Smith: It’s a game at heart — but not one that fits comfortably into any existing genre, and it definitely breaks out of the existing boundaries of what are typically classed as games. Every five years or so something comes along that significantly widens who’s interested in games, gaming culture, and what we even think of as a game — the launch of the original PlayStation, [Grand Theft Auto 3], online-multiplayer, the explosion of mobile gaming. We have something in mind that is classical gaming through and through, but with some really interesting extra layers that we hope can both immerse existing gamers like never before, and bring in whole new sections of society who’ve never considered themselves gamers.
How long have you been working on it? How big is the team? Is there a team?
Benzies: We began thinking about this game during the second half of 2016. A couple of great gaming minds joined me, and we’ve been putting together a team for the past few months. We’re using Amazon’s Lumberyard which takes a lot of the grunt work out of making games and leaves our team to concentrate on the creative process. We’re able to move production forward in a far more elegant and speedy way than we were able to in the past.
Smith: We started by stepping away from everything done previously, and looked with fresh eyes at what the entertainment industry is crying out for and not currently doing a great job of making. It’s very hard when you’re up to your neck in deadlines and existing IP to take that step back, and see what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong, and how the world has changed since you started — a full reboot and a blank page was incredibly liberating and inspiring. We’ve grown from a core team of just a few to a team of around 30 now, and are currently hiring at both studios – we filled that blank page pretty quickly and now need to make it all!
How is this project going to be different from what you worked on at Rockstar? Do you want to set up a studio with a culture that’s different from Rockstar's?
Smith: We’re a start-up, and that will naturally create a slightly different culture — we’re prototyping new ideas every day, rather than working on something that’s already very well understood, and I think that brings a different type of energy and buzz to the company.
Benzies: “Everywhere” is ambitious and ambition always gets the best out of people.
Do you feel that your legal dispute with Rockstar is affecting this project at all — hanging over it in any way?
Benzies: Not at all, this project is incredibly exciting for us and does not share any brain space with the dispute.
The Grand Theft Auto games have always been about sending up American pop culture with puerile humor and a healthy dose of cynicism. Is that something you’re interested in?
Benzies: “Everywhere” is very different from GTA. There may be parts of our game that include satire but the tone will be very different and at times our players will be in control of how the tone is set.
Smith: We’ll have a distinctive style and tone, and plenty of story and characters — but what I find more interesting is letting players create their own stories, their own personalities. To a degree, more like a social network — where what’s being commented on or ridiculed isn’t written three years in advance, but can change hour by hour. And if a future President chose to make policy announcements in “Everywhere,” that’s something I’d certainly find interesting!
What do you think was your biggest contribution to Rockstar over the years, and do you want to bring that same thing to this new project?
Benzies: I think I brought order to the chaos of making video games. Having a clear idea of the big picture was very useful when designing. I enjoyed the challenge of making many complicated parts fit neatly together. There is a lot of psychology in design. Everything I did ultimately focused on how players would feel or react to a mechanic in the game. I hope to do that with “Everywhere.”
Smith: I always strived to make sure my team was creatively empowered, and not held back in making the most detailed, characterful, artistic content possible — and with a leaner team and huge ambitions, I expect that to be more important than ever.
GTA Online turned out to be a huge success. Is that something you anticipated? How important do you think online multiplayer is to AAA games these days?
Benzies: I had a hunch that online was the future and hoped that we could make it a success. I’m proud that the foundations we laid worked and are still working so successfully. I see a future where we don’t reference single or multiplayer — we just choose when we play and if we want to hang out with others or we want to be alone. Just like real life — sometimes I want to be with people, sometimes I don’t, or I want them around but I don’t want to interact with them. We’re making “Everywhere” as seamless as possible so players won’t have to think about jumping from mode to mode — except when it helps the gameplay.
What are your influences? What games or types of games do you enjoy that might be outside the scope of GTA?
Benzies: For “Everywhere” most of the influences are coming from the outside world. Every day I see or hear something and think, we need to have that in the game. I’ve played a huge number of games in the past couple of years. One that really resonated with me was Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid — he has a great eye for detail.
Smith: Many and varied! I love impossibly detailed, personal games like Inside or Firewatch, but am equally drawn to expansive open worlds — the original Elite in the 1980s probably had the biggest single influence on me. I’m also fascinated by the social effects of technology — the way products like smartphones, Facebook, Uber, are changing the fabric of society — I don’t think we’ve seen gaming really live up to its potential yet in terms of social impact.
Are you staying in Edinburgh for this project?
Benzies: We have a studio in Edinburgh, and in Los Angeles, and we’ll have some news on another studio soon. With current technology, it’s possible to work anywhere in the world and we’ll go wherever the best people are. We want to have the best talent come and help us create this beast.
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