Leslie Benzies was one of the leads on Grand Theft Auto V and one of the custodians of the Grand Theft Auto franchise for years. But after the game shipped in 2013, Benzies got in a dispute with Sam Houser, one of the cofounders of Rockstar Games, a label of Take-Two Interactive.
Now Benzies, the former president of Rockstar North, has formed his own studio to make a game with the working title of Everywhere. Benzies is still in litigation with Rockstar Games, so he couldn’t talk about that. But he disclosed his inspiration for Everywhere and what the team is trying to do.
Benzies agreed to do an email Q&A with GamesBeat. His partner, Matthew Smith, is also a Grand Theft Auto veteran and former Rockstar North developer, and he chimed in as well.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: What are you doing?
Leslie Benzies: We’re making a video game. The working title is Everywhere. It’s ambitious and different from anything I’ve worked on before.
GamesBeat: Where are you based?
Benzies: We have offices in Edinburgh and Los Angeles, and we’ll announce a new location soon. To develop all of the different components of the game, we’ll need to work with exceptional people all over the world.
GamesBeat: How many are on your team now?
Benzies: A few months ago, I was joined by a couple of brilliant game minds who are now heading up our Edinburgh studio. Shortly after they came we began taking on more people. We have about 30 now, and we’re actively hiring.
GamesBeat: Can you tell us what the game is about?
Benzies: Everywhere has a lot of traditional game mechanics but we’re going for something more that draws inspiration from, well, everywhere. Players are getting smarter and require more from their games, and we want players to have the real freedom to live in our worlds in the ways they want to. We’re aiming to offer a huge variety of game modes and styles that not only tell our stories but also enable players to live in the identities and adventures they most want to explore.
Matthew Smith: We’ll be keeping the actual story and overall setting to ourselves for now. But more broadly the game is about giving the player an enormous amount of freedom, with enough possibilities and just enough constraints to keep you constantly entertained and at the same time feel like you’re actively shaping the world around you, and living in a genuinely alternate reality. Games can often give either so much freedom and openness that you quickly get bored, or so much heavily-scripted content that you’re very aware you’re seeing the exact same content as everyone else, with just the illusion of free will. It’s a very hard problem—but we’re going to face it head-on and try to make an engaging experience that feels incredibly real.
GamesBeat: What is your target platform? PlayStation 4 and Xbox One? PC? Mobile?
Benzies: To begin with, Everywhere will run on consoles and PC. And you’ll be able to engage with the game through other means, too.
GamesBeat: Why did you leave Rockstar?
Benzies: As you know, litigation is pending and I cannot really talk about it. I’m looking forward to it being resolved.
GamesBeat: Why did you want to start a new game project?
Benzies: Building great games with great people is exciting. And now we have the tools and technology to create pretty much whatever we can imagine. Using Amazon’s Lumberyard is really helping us to push beyond the boundaries of what’s been done to discover what’s possible.
Smith: The potential of gaming is just so huge—it’s easy to look at how photorealistic graphics are becoming, and imagine we’re somehow getting close to the end-point of games, and I couldn’t disagree more, I think we’re just at the beginning. I try to imagine what the world will look like in 30, 40 years, what could make it a better place, and I can’t think of an area of technology with more potential than what we currently call “games.”
GamesBeat: What inspired you?
Benzies: What’s inspiring me most is our world. I’m constantly seeing things and thinking, oh, this has to be in our game. The lines between reality and simulation are becoming blurry and blurring them more inspires us.
Smith: Open worlds like the original 1980s Elite, or The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, first opened my eyes to how ‘real’ a world you could build in a videogame—how powerful it was to be transported to an alternate reality—albeit ones with that didn’t have much in common with ours. Years of working on the massively more realistic Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption only reinforced that, and when I look at how far the industry has come, I find it inspiring to think where we can go next.
GamesBeat: What do you want to accomplish with the game?
Benzies: Since we’re living in simulation anyway, as proven by the documentary The Matrix, we thought we’d add another layer to the experience.
We are in the very early days of gaming, and there are some developers who are taking risks and really pushing the medium forward – we hope to be pioneers.
Smith: First and foremost, we need to make a game that people find entertaining enough to choose over the myriad of other options competing for their time. We have huge ambitions for what we can build—but today people have an almost endless supply of high-quality entertainment available on demand—and we’re under no illusions that it will be easy to compete with that. We need to make a game that a lot of people find immediately fun and engaging—and then take it from there.
GamesBeat: Are you competing in the same genre as Rockstar?
Benzies: We’re competing with everything for people’s attention.
GamesBeat: What is your view of the state of the game industry?
Benzies: The games industry has never been in such a strong position as it is today. Platforms will always come and go but the key details are the number of players and their engagement—or even better, players feeling good when they play—and that’s continually growing. At some point in the future, gaming will encompass every form of entertainment, and all of us in the industry are lucky to be a part of it.
Smith: I think like a lot of industries it’s changing more quickly than ever, and that’s naturally unnerving for people. But overall I look at the games I played in 2016 and I don’t recall a better year in terms of quality. My biggest takeaway is a bright one—for a great many industries and products, it’s debatable if they’ll even exist in anything like their current form in 10 years—but I have zero doubt that games will be even more widespread and influential than they are now.
GamesBeat: Does that affect some of the choices you’re making in your new project?
Benzies: It affects every choice we make.
Smith: It emphasizes the need for flexibility and adaptability. We have a ten-year plan for Everywhere, but things change so fast there’s no point pretending you know exactly what you need to be making in six months even. So we’re building a game that can adapt and morph as its players and the world around them change.