Inside Rockstar North - Part 1: The Vision

Inside Rockstar North - Part 1: The Vision
Michael French

By Michael French

October 3rd 2013 at 12:20PM

Studio president Leslie Benzies looks back on GTA and how the team shaped a blockbuster IP

For more on our behind the scenes look at Rockstar North, read parts two, three and four.

Leslie Benzies had always dreamt of being a rockstar.

But a talent in coding led him not to headline Glastonbury, but to secure a job on a bigger, global stage. He started as a coder at DMA Design, then the man running the GTA III team, and now, fittingly, a Rockstar – president of its prized North studio in Edinburgh.

Today, Benzies is one of the four-piece present when a Grand Theft Auto is initially conceived. It’s him who sits down with his partners at Rockstar Games, co-founders Sam and Dan Houser, plus Rockstar North art lead Aaron Garbut, to flesh out the initial idea.

While Rockstar hit the big time, that core process remains unchanged game after game. It’s part of the reason why these blockbusters have kept their flavour through each instalment.

For GTA V, that discussion started as GTA IV was wrapping up – almost five years ago – although the latest game has been in full production for just three years.

“It comes from the idea first,” Benzies tells us in his office at the studio.

“Where is it going to be set is the first question. Then that defines the missions; you’re doing different things in LA than in New York or Miami. The map and story get worked up together, and the story is a basic flow of how it works out so you can layer the missions in.

“For this one we were down in London and the idea of the three characters popped up again. We’d actually considered it for San Andreas because there were three cities, but it didn’t work from a tech point of view because the three characters need three times as much memory, three types of animation, and so on.

“We throw stuff in the pot, and the good stuff stays and the bad stuff disappears – there are a lot of gatekeepers at the studio, who ensure not much of the chaff makes it through. Some of the good ideas, like the three characters, stick around.”

Rockstar North

ROCK STAR THINKING

Everyone likens GTA to the movies by virtue of its cinematic qualities, but Benzies tells us it isn’t a movie, it’s more like an album.

Each GTA is produced by the same set of lead band members – visionaries, auteurs, extremists – who are in turn supported by some of the best technicians in the business.

When Benzies recounts the GTA story briefly, it almost sounds like a poetic rock ‘n’ roll blur.

The studio was formed in Edinburgh after Rockstar Games bought DMA Design, built as a team dedicated to making GTA III. The game was taking the series into unknown 3D open world territory, with a vivid interactive city to seamlessly explore.

Everyone here, we sat at home aged 11 playing these games obsessively, we dreamt about making them, and here we are. I do this every day and it’s my job. A dream job.

- Leslie Benzies, president of Rockstar North


We all know the broad strokes of what happened next: a global phenomenon, a super-franchise with a string of lucrative sequels, a studio with the most enviable hit-machine reputation on the planet.

But it didn’t seem like any success was assured at one point, says Benzies.

“GTA III was good, but… it was unexpected. Being able to actually make it was a bit of a shock to us. The fact it all works and was good fun was a surprise. A lot of people in the studio at the time said we couldn’t do it.”

Vice City swiftly followed, published just a year later. “It was over so quickly,” recalls Benzies. “It was a nine month production. Forget the ‘experience’ – it just happened. We were on such a high from III we just ran through it.”

San Andreas came next. It was the most successful single-platform game ever, and the most praised. “It was good, it combined all the stuff we had done so far. It felt the most cohesive and the scale was huge,” says Benzies.

Then GTA IV… “GTA IV was dark times,” Benzies confides, switching tone. “We’d been Hot Coffee-d. We were thinking ‘We make video games, and [the US authorities are] doing this to us?!’”

Grand Theft Auto IV

Meanwhile, the transition to the then next-generation meant calling in help from other Rockstar studios to help finish the PS3 version of the game. Rockstar North rose to the challenge, though – and IV was another smash hit, another commercial juggernaut.

“Our darkness showed in IV, and we realised that,” says Benzies. “So the DLC lightened it up a bit. Gay Tony especially was more flamboyant and bigger. The expansions added more energy.”

Each signature Rockstar North game has been a reflection of its teams’ emotions and experiences; an innovative debut, a swift follow-up, a third game gorging on excess, then a difficult fourth album, and so on.

“Yes, it is a reflection of us, like music,” says Benzies. “Or a book, or a film – for some of us some parts are more reflective than others, maybe,” he says.

GTA IV’s saga of two brothers who move to America and clash head on with its agonising culture might speak to how Sam and Dan Houser felt as GTA came under fire, perhaps.

Letting the games do the talking like this is partly why Rockstar’s prize studio has a bit of a mystique.

Although the studio has done more interviews and press than ever this year, Develop’s intrusion into the studio – they never have press actually visit – is a rarity. But really the team is just too busy making its creation to be on a constant PR trail for it, says Benzies.

GTA III was good, but… it was unexpected. Being able to actually make it was a bit of a shock to us. The fact it all works and was good fun was a surprise. A lot of people in the studio at the time said we couldn’t do it.

- Leslie Benzies, president of Rockstar North

“The game always comes first,” he says. The dream of screaming fans at Wembley when playing in a band during his youth is one thing, but Benzies doesn’t seem to be in the job for personal media exposure. “And anyway, Dan [Houser] does a lot of it because he’s funny and articulate. We’re not. We write the other story – the code story.”

It’s almost humble to the point of stubbornness. As the creator of the world’s most prominent, most adored, most notorious game franchise, we expect or demand some arrogance.

But there is none when Develop visits Rockstar North. It is early August and the game is nearly done, and the studio is peaceful but busy. There is a monitor on every desk with GTA V running. Benzies’ office has three of them on the go, plus a fast-moving screen tracking the proprietary BugStar QA tech the studio uses.

As many people in the studio as possible are playing and checking the game when we visit. These are the rehearsals, if you will, before the game takes to the stage, before GTA V is handed over to the tens of millions of people that bought the game in its first 24 hours on sale.

Rockstar North dedicates an almost unnatural level of time to the details, and refines the gameplay experience constantly.

“I don’t know if people know this or not, but there’s a huge amount of psychology behind the entire thing,” says Benzies.

“We don’t just go ‘Here’s a mission, off you go’. We spend a lot of time, make a lot of graphs and work out how difficult something is, what the reward is, how you might be feeling after that mission.”

Rockstar North

GRAND THEFT AUTEURS

Those efforts have shown in the work itself, and the results, be that revenues or plaudits. Rockstar North hasn’t had two encores, but three, four, five… And while GTA has stayed successful and of its type, the games market has changed around it dramatically. Lowercase R rockstars are a dying breed. Does Benzies ever have any concern that all that success may fade? Or that the console business, where most of North’s success lies, is vanishing?

“Of course, we think about it. But you have to just reign it back in.” More humility, more focus on the end result.

Benzies says there is one hunger that will never vanish amongst the world’s consumers: “a demand for quality entertainment”.

“People want to be entertained. Just look at TV. Game of Thrones – people love it. It’s good, but not brilliant. But to some people it’s the only thing on TV.

“Same goes when you’re sat on your iPhone twiddling around looking for apps, and there’s lots of rubbish on there. And they’ve stopped taking risks in Hollywood. Just look at film now, a lot of it is mediocre because they’ve stopped taking risks.”

That last five to ten per cent of work on the game makes a huge difference. This level of perfection is not seen or understood in the majority of the industry. We can all make a car drive down a street in a game, but can you do it in style?.

- Leslie Benzies, president of Rockstar North


Benzies says the launch period for the GTA games are so enjoyable because the team gets to see how involved the audience gets.

“The excitement I get when I would buy a new album from my favourite band and place the speakers at either side of my head and have it blast into my ears… that’s the enjoyment I hope others get. To be immersed, and to help people indulge in that escapism, that’s what I look forward to.”

‘STAR POWER

Rockstar North, and Rockstar Games in general, has always fought for a level of autonomy and freedom from its owner Take-Two. The studio sets its schedule, “whatever is right to make the game we want to make” says Benzies. It’s something that we point out is quite different from any other publisher-owned games team.

“We will never ever go ‘Ooh, there’s an avenue for revenue!’. If any of us say that… we’ll go do something else. Everyone here, we sat at home aged 11 playing these games obsessively, we dreamt about making them, and here we are. I do this every day and it’s my job. A dream job.”

Rockstar’s virtual independence, he adds, is what gives it the freedom to spend so long on polishing its games.

“That last five to ten per cent of work on the game makes a huge difference. This level of perfection is not seen or understood in the majority of the industry. We can all make a car drive down a street in a game, but can you do it in style? Everyone’s got characters that are walking around but can they walk?

“We won’t be doing things every year in a cycle. A year just isn’t long enough to do this job. It might have been on the old consoles, but not on this.”

Rockstar North

There’s some interfacing with publisher types, but only to inform Rockstar’s bigger decisions – there’s no production by accounting here. “Obviously money is in there somewhere. There is a guy who tells us our download stuff makes this much and our disc stuff makes this much. But that’s the depth of it. That helps us decide if we’ll do download packs to rerelease on disc.

“But really… we’ll make what we want. No, wait, don’t print that: we’ll make what people want, and that’s the truth.”

What happens now that GTA V is finished? “GTA Online.”

The innovative new mode – debuting weeks after the main game – is being released as we go to press. If the game is an album, Online takes the music on tour.

Benzies says the studio will be reorganised to support it, with a core team operating Online. Some staff will take well-earned holidays. Others will carry on with other work.

And when will Benzies, the Housers and Garbut reform to talk GTA VI? Is there even a GTA VI yet?

“We’ve got about 45 years worth of ideas we want to do,” Benzies laughs. “We don’t know what GTA VI will be, but we’ve got some ideas. GTA Online is the focus right now. There ain’t no rest between finishing V and then Online. Plus we have some other things – stuff, DLC, I don’t know how to describe it exactly – that we’d like to do, and we’ll pick the right ones.”

There seems little doubt that, when the team get ready to storm the stage again, history will repeat itself.

This is the first instalment of a four-part look inside Rockstar North, which was originally published in the October issue of Develop, out now with subscribers. You can purchase the issue to view through your browser or on iPad right now.

The second part, talking further with Rockstar North president Leslie Benzies plus studio management insight from operations director Andy Semple, is available here.

You can also view parts three and four.