On the outskirts of Edinburgh, the beautiful, historic Scottish capital, is the port town of Leith. And clinging to the edge of Leith — surrounded by towering dockyards, huge new developments of apartment blocks, and a tangle of fenced-off roadworks as the tracks of a new tram system are laid — is a building that used to be a casino. Inside, another kind of construction project is taking place. The man who used to get Grand Theft Auto games made is realizing his own vision of gaming’s future.
The man is Leslie Benzies, once Rockstar Games’ production supremo at its core Rockstar North studio in Edinburgh. With the Houser brothers, Dan and Sam, he formed a triumvirate that led development of the GTA games up to the initial versions of Grand Theft Auto 5 and Grand Theft Auto Online. Then, after a dramatic and acrimonious split with the Housers, which ended with Benzies suing Rockstar for what he claimed were unpaid royalties, he set up this new studio, now called Build A Rocket Boy.
In Leith, as well as in ancillary studios in Budapest and Montpellier, Build A Rocket Boy is making an ambitious, open-ended online world called Everywhere. This, it turns out, is a kind of futuristic, casual massively multiplayer game with shooting and racing elements. But it also comes with game-making tools that, Benzies hopes, will turn it into the next Roblox: not just a game, but a platform in its own right, where players can build and publish their own user-generated content.
That’s not all Build A Rocket Boy is building, though. The surprise is that the studio is also making MindsEye, which it describes as “an original triple-A action-adventure game.” MindsEye has realistic visuals, performance-captured cutscenes, a near-future conspiracy storyline, and, going by its initial trailer, driving and shooting gameplay. In short, it looks very much like the next game from the guy who made Grand Theft Auto, give or take an episodic release schedule that will see each installment vary considerably in style. And it will be published exclusively within Everywhere.
It’s a head-spinning concept, although it has a relevant precedent. In court documents, Benzies claimed that the Housers had little interest in the development of Grand Theft Auto Online and left him to it, but were then affronted when he put his own name in pride of place in the game’s credits. GTA Online launched within GTA 5, and eventually — after Benzies’ enforced departure — became a massive, persistent world that arguably eclipsed and sustained its parent game. Now Benzies (whose title at Build A Rocket Boy is game director) has flipped the script, and he’s launching the single-player game inside the online one.
At the Leith studio, enthusiastic assistant game director Adam Whiting walks Polygon and other assembled press through a live demo of Everywhere. The studio is adamant the game, which has backing from Chinese gaming giant NetEase, will launch in beta on PC this year, with console versions coming later. It’s easy enough to believe; it seems slick, and stable enough. The world is bright and colorful, full of sweeping sci-fi architecture in the social hub Utropia, and with huge wilderness areas (forest, lava, canyon, and so on) to explore. The art style is a mildly more refined and realistic Fortnite.
The hubs in Utropia probably give the clearest idea of what you’ll actually be doing here: There’s a Combat District, where you can access cheerfully chaotic, Quake-influenced laser deathmatches; a Racing District, for initiating arcade racing in futuristic buggies; an Entertainment District, where you can access curated player creations and other experiences (including, eventually, MindsEye); and The Collection, where you can customize, build, and browse. Another key concept is Portals, which can be placed anywhere and will jump your character to any experience or space — they’re essentially Everywhere’s version of hyperlinks.
Everywhere seems like a pleasant place to be, although Build A Rocket Boy’s mission to create a blank slate for players to draw on, rather than a distinctive game in its own right, has left the art style looking rather bland. Likewise, and more worryingly, the core gameplay seems basic, and not that much fun. Much more intriguing was a demonstration of ARC-adia, the tool which players can use to build game content without coding skills, using a graphical interface to craft assets and set game logic. It seemed simple but relatively powerful, not unlike Sony’s Dreams, and we saw how it could be used to create a mission with combat, platforming, puzzles, and a boss fight in a Portal-style lab-like environment.
MindsEye looks very different, and in a much less finished state. We were shown a dialogue cutscene and the briefest bit of on-foot exploration of a highly detailed interior. Even though it’s a more familiar proposition than Everywhere, it raises just as many questions, and the studio was vague about most of the answers. How will it be sold? To what extent does it interface with Everywhere’s tools, and can players expect to be able to craft their own games on this level? Apparently, assets from MindsEye will be made available to use in the Everywhere creator after release.
During a question-and-answer session with press, Benzies also lets slip that MindsEye will be released episodically, and that episodes might differ radically from each other; the second will, apparently, be multiplayer-focused.
“They’re connected, but not,” he says. “So there’s one overarching story for the whole thing, but they take place in lots of different time periods and parts of the universe. Everywhere is for players; MindsEye is kind of for us, for our egos. And what we don’t want for this company is to turn into a sequel company… because just from experience, building the same thing bigger and better all the time is — you know, it’s exciting. But you need to keep your team engaged. You need to have new gameplay for them, and new gameplay for players.”
And so to the inevitable question: How will players pay for this? Or to put it another way, how will Everywhere and MindsEye make money?
“Don’t know. Well, we do know. But we’re not telling anyone,” Benzies jokes at the Q&A. A trim, middle-aged man with dark hair and a soft Scottish accent, he comes across as relaxed and thoughtful — far from the flamboyant hardcase one might have expected to run things at Rockstar. Build A Rocket Boy vaguely describes the business model for Everywhere and MindsEye as “free-to-play and premium;” it seems that Everywhere will be free, with a marketplace for customizations, and MindsEye will be sold, but the studio wouldn’t outright say so. There will certainly be a free currency for trading player creations (called ARCs for full creations, and Stamps for individual assets), among other things. Build A Rocket Boy is also certainly hoping to build a market for advergaming and marketing within Everywhere, similar to those which are so lucrative for Fortnite and Roblox.
Two things can be ruled out, though: Pay-to-win and NFTs.
“We’re highly opposed to any form of pay-to-win,” Whiting says. “But we think maybe pay-to-look-cool is probably the best place to be.”
Everywhere’s initial trailer last year caused widespread suspicion that it would be some kind of blockchain game — a fad in game investment at the time — but this gets dismissed by chief development officer Mick Hocking.
“We don’t need it. That’s the basic point,” he says. “The blockchain and NFTs are useful when you want to take content outside of your walled garden and go on to an exchange or to go between products. We don’t need that — everything is within our world.”
Benzies also demurs when confronted with another 2022 investment fad: the metaverse. You can imagine Everywhere being pitched as one, and it fits the description in some ways, but Benzies screws his face up at the term.
“We don’t really call ourselves a metaverse. And I think if you were to — I think games have been metaverses for a long time, if that’s the definition. We try and shy away from it,” he says. But he goes on to describe a very metaverse-like ambition for Everywhere as a ubiquitous online entertainment and social space. “To me, the word ‘game,’ it’s kind of a bit underwhelming for what this, what we’re all here doing, has become.” He talks of a scenario where someone is juggling watching TV, chatting to friends, and playing games simultaneously. “One of the thoughts with this is, let’s just pull that all in one place, so you’re not jumping around multiple pieces of hardware. I guess like the mobile phone did. You know, we would speak on the phone and now, on that, we’re doing everything.”
Benzies and Hocking are much less shy of 2023’s tech controversy du jour: AI. Though they have no concrete plans yet, they’re enthusiastic about AI as a potentially useful tool for both content moderation and content creation.
“It’s mind-blowing, what’s possible,” Benzies says. “I didn’t think that we had the tech to do some of the stuff that is now happening. And so if we can leverage that, and especially in the [user-generated content] tools, to, you know, just talk to it: ‘I want this. Build it.’ Absolutely! I’m a huge fan of tools to make things easy. There’s nothing worse than reinventing the wheel with video games. Let’s not bother; let’s do the fun stuff. I don’t see it as taking jobs away, I think it allows you to be more creative.”
“They’re tools, at the end of the day,” Hocking says. “And you need creative people to use the tools in a full way to make content still. And I think once we can put them in the hands of players, they’ll do incredible things.”
Build A Rocket Boy is open about what it wants Everywhere to be. As Whiting says: “For a lot of people now, their first gaming experience is Minecraft, or Roblox: innately creative, expressive games… I think, ultimately, they need to graduate on to something that’s a bit more grown-up, something that’s a bit more robust, something that’s a bit more cool.”
The trouble for the studio is that truly successful launches of user-generated content platforms in gaming are vanishingly few, and those that have reached the kind of scale Benzies aspires to have tended to grow organically around something else that had another reason to exist. Dreams is a boutique vanity project. Microsoft’s Project Spark is already forgotten. Minecraft is, it’s easy to forget, a minimalist survival game first, content-creation game second. Roblox grew gradually from a tiny kernel over 15 years. Fortnite has morphed over time from a co-op game into a battle royale, then into a youth marketing metaverse, and is only now entering the UGC arena with the launch of the Unreal Editor (probably the biggest threat Everywhere faces).
Can you really engineer one of these things at scale, from scratch, and on purpose? I have my doubts, and I also have doubts that Everywhere has enough personality to draw a community on its own merits. Perhaps that’s what MindsEye will do for it, when it eventually reveals its true form. If that happens, Benzies, one of the architects of Grand Theft Auto Online — perhaps the most successful Trojan horse in the history of gaming — will have done his great smuggling trick again.