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Rockstar North Boss on GTA Online, Why the Time is Finally Right

In a rare interview with Leslie Benzies, Shaun McInnis learns about all the steps that led to this ambitious new GTA offering.


It's not often that Leslie Benzies talks to the media, but with nine Grand Theft Auto games under his belt, the president of Rockstar North certainly has a lot to open up about. Last month, we visited Rockstar North's Edinburgh office to chat with Benzies about all things Grand Theft Auto, including the recently announced GTA Online--by far the most ambitious multiplayer offering Rockstar has attempted to date. For the full context, be sure to check out our comprehensive GTA Online preview. Now read on for the full interview…

When Grand Theft Auto IV came out, what sort of creative trajectory did that game establish? What were you eager to do next?

I remember sitting down and chatting about what the [next] game was going to be with Aaron [Garbut], Sam [Houser], and Dan [Houser]. That's kind of when the whole idea of heists came about, opening up the missions and making them much larger. We also decided where it was going to be based, so some people got started on making the map because the map takes forever to make. But besides that, we didn't really do anything early on because we were working on Red Dead Redemption and then L.A. Noire. So it wouldn't have been until a year or so later that we could really get into the nuts and bolts of what the game was going to be.

Our goal was to simulate what's outside [in the real world], to make it feel good, and tidy up all the rough edges that we thought GTAIV had. It was to get it so the handling feels perfect, the gunplay feels perfect. And also the online side of it--that's been a goal for years. We've started it a few times before, but we've never finished it. That's what we wanted to do, basically. We wanted to push these consoles to their limit. I think we've squeezed every single ounce of power out of these boxes that we can.

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How conscious are you of what makes a Grand Theft Auto game a Grand Theft Auto game? Is that something you keep in the back of your minds?

Always. The one thing that dictates what will be in the game is the game. If you put something a bit too gonky in the game, it goes, "I'm not terribly happy with that. It's gonna have to go." You can feel it when you play it. And we're lucky, we've got some clever guys who have a real good feel for what works and what doesn't. So amongst all these people, we can get a feel for what's GTA and what's not. I think other people can tell as well because it's based on the real world; it's not superheroes. And we're lucky, we can always put some of the weirder stuff in because Dan's a genius when it comes to writing. He can write his way around anything. When we do need to go a little off the track, he can deal with it.

We wanted to push these consoles to their limit. I think we've squeezed every single ounce of power out of these boxes that we can.
What sorts of challenges are there in building a world like this? What's the hardest part about breathing life into this world beyond just the sheer manpower required?

Making it realistic. It's weird, because one tiny little animation can change the whole way something feels. The setting is based on Los Angeles, so it's warm and people walk slower so they don't sweat. It's a lot of tiny little things like that that can make a difference. If you see somebody rushing down the road, it'll look more New York because people walk faster in New York. So I guess it's noticing stuff like that. Which is why we've got a lot of guys who've spent a lot of time out there taking photographs, taking videos. California is very different to the rest of the world.

What tangible benefits are there in having such a deep well of experience creating these open worlds?

We kind of know what's going to work and what's not. We've experimented with a lot of ideas in the past that just haven't worked. But advantage-wise, it's always evolving. It always gets harder and harder. If it doesn't get harder, we're not doing our jobs properly. There's snippets of wisdom from these guys; they know things they didn't know before, so we've got this foundation of ideas. Alleys to take and alleys not to take. But there's always new challenges. We've got to keep pushing it into the unknown.

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How has your development process evolved over your last few games?

The core team's been the same now for a long time. We know who we are and who each other are. We've probably worked together in a closer fashion than most other game companies out there. I think that's one of the root levels of why we can continue to make these games. Obviously we've been working on our tools for a long time, and that helps. But we've also got good communication between all of our studios, the guys in New York and the guys in San Diego. We know who to communicate with to get what we need. But bottom line, we know who the boss is [points at the game]. The game gets what the game needs. As long as everyone understands that, we'll be fine.

A lot of people here are fans of the American culture. As much as we love it, there's a lot of wackiness to it--especially California.
It's interesting seeing the environment where you guys work here in Edinburgh, because so much of these games are about looking at American culture through the lens of the media. What's it like for you guys being this Scottish studio making all these games about America?

A lot of people here are fans of the American culture. As much as we love it, there's a lot of wackiness to it--especially California. Being the sarcastic British we are, we can have a laugh at it. The game, I think, is doing that. Not in a negative way, but funny stuff happens and we like to point it out. But yeah, it is weird. Edinburgh probably is the complete opposite in the world to California.

Is that what pulled you back to Los Santos? You felt like there was so much more ground to explore with that setting?

It was the logical next place to go. Things just felt right. It was Sam's call, and I think he's got a good feel for what's coming up. With the world economy collapsing in 2008, one of the most affluent places in the world was California, so one of the most affected places in the world was going to be California. So the timing was just right.

Is GTA Online the biggest risk you're taking with this game?

It's the nature of any creative business. You can have the number one album, and with your next album nobody's interested. It's all a risk. At Rockstar, we try to take risks. We don't want to make what everyone else is making. We want to make what we find fun, and chances are if we find it fun, then other people will find it fun. We like taking a little risk.

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What sorts of hurdles did you have to overcome to finally execute on the vision for Grand Theft Auto Online? Was there any breakthrough, or was it more just pushing that boulder up the hill until it finally reached a point where you were happy with it?

I think we knew where we wanted to be but didn't know if we could get there. It's brutal hard work from a lot of people to just keep going and going until it feels right. To do something that's different from what we've always done, there's a lot of risks. Some things didn't work, but we're prepared to try it and see where it goes. There's always a point where something clicks or it doesn't. So we either try it again or we give up. Luckily, pretty much everything we've done with Online has clicked. With GTA, there's probably not a better platform to build a multiplayer game onto.

Why was it important for you to create Grand Theft Auto Online as its own stand-alone thing rather than take those social elements and weave them into a story campaign?

We want it to grow into its own world. We want it to be its own master. We can bolt things and add things and change things in the online world--because it's separate--that we maybe couldn't have done if it was tied in more closely with the single-player. It gives us freedom to do what we want to do. We have a lot of plans for it in the future, and this breaks it off so we can take it anywhere.

How do you approach the idea of structure in an online environment? It's such a delicate balance between catering to players who want to be told what to do versus those who prefer the open, emergent stuff.

It's an issue that we need to figure out on every individual mission. A lot of people think, "Oh, let's just let them get on with it." But when you do that, some people just stand and don't do anything. So we give you in the initial description the premise of the job, and we'll suggest some avenues you can take--but you don't have to do it that way. What we do see is people playing the missions over and over again to perfect them exactly as you do in a single-player mission. Perfect your strategy over two, three, four attempts with other people. So you might be the gunner the first time and I'll be the driver, and then we swap over. But it's definitely a balance that we're still working on.

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What sort of potential is there for adversarial behavior between players? What happens if I want to steal another guy's car, or he doesn't give me my cut of the heist profits?

This kind of goes down two paths. One is the fun battling between players, and the other is, "This guy's just a pain in the arse." We've spent a lot of time on what we call "bad sports." Anyone that's misbehaving, whether it's blowing up someone's car or shouting abuse--anything that pisses people off--we can track that. The game can track that, and you can report them. If anybody's a bad sport, then we deal with them.

The other side of it, where it's just the fun gameplay, we want that to happen. We want you to run off with the cash and me to come and chase you. Or you run off with the cash and I'll phone up one of my contacts and set a bounty on you. Then somebody will kill you, you'll drop the cash, and I'll get it all. We'll track that as well. So if we always battle with each other, the game will remind us, "Oh, it's that guy. He pissed you off a couple weeks ago. Maybe you should deal with him." It remembers who your enemies are and reminds you to pay them special attention.

We want GTA Online to grow into its own world. We have a lot of plans for it in the future, and this breaks it off so we can take it anywhere.
How much of the world design was influenced by knowing that you wanted to do this online component?

We don't really build our worlds around the game. Obviously we do, but we don't say we're going to have this mission so we're going to have to build this bit of the world. We start by building a city, which I think is the right way to do it. Then you get a bunch of mission ideas and see how they fit into the city and where your contacts are going to live. You can't really do that until the map's been built. So the map gets built first, and then we see how things fit into the world. That works for us. It seems to help. And it helps with the design; you can find a nice-looking location for a cutscene or nice interior for a shootout. Obviously there's going to be a building that you build specifically for a mission, but the map always comes first. The location is always the first thing that we work on.

It seems like you've put a lot of effort into getting the matchmaking as painless as possible, like when players automatically surface in the same space or you invite a player to join you on a mission and they immediately show up next to you. What was your approach to make that happen?

It was a huge thing for us. The process is: you do it and you test it. If that doesn't work, you do it again until it's perfect. We went through a few iterations where it was good, but it just wasn't good enough. One thing I like is when you hit a button and it does it for you. The game knows all the information about you, what you like to do, who you like to play with. So our concept of a lobby is where you go and press a button. There won't be any pings or hosts or sessions. You just hit a button, and you get what you asked for. I hate games where you sit there and you spend more time waiting for everyone to ready up than you do playing the game. This will be a quick process.

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With heists playing such a big role in multiplayer missions and all the things you can buy with your cash, it looks like money is a big part of GTA Online. What are you doing to ensure that this economy stays meaningful throughout the player progression?

It's just a case of balancing. Balance it, play it, tweak it. One of the things we've found with Online is that you've got to keep playing it and keep an eye on it. And we'll be doing that once it's released. We've got a fairly complex backend watching exactly what people are doing, how the economy is running. So we can make little tweaks here and there to make sure everything is fair and balanced.

How are you planning to make sure the multiplayer still feels fresh a year down the line? Especially for those power players who are going to be sinking huge amounts of time into this thing?

We're going to be continually creating content. The speed that we can create content is pretty unbelievable. From booting the game up, you can create your own deathmatch from scratch and have it published and people playing it within 20 minutes. It's super simple. Everybody has the ability to create content. And we've got a voting system for all the missions. If people like a mission, they'll vote for it, and the creator will be higher-ranked. You won't just be playing shit that people have made; you can be playing the good stuff people have made.

Have you fully braced yourselves for the fact that as much effort as you've put into the multiplayer, you're going to learn so much more once it finally goes live?

We're ready. It is a nightmare; we've not done anything on this scale before. But we're very respectful of the process. When you release single-player, you're kind of done. But this is going to be an ongoing thing. There's not going to be any rest.


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