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Interview: Rockstar North president Leslie Benzies on GTA Online

By Tim Weaver on Thursday 15th Aug 2013 at 2:00 PM UTC

He's President of Rockstar North, his games have sold more than 130 million copies, he's the mastermind behind September's GTA V and GTA Online - and he's given so few interviews since the release of GTA III, you probably don't need a hand to count them on.

Entering the fourth floor of Rockstar North's top secret Edinburgh bunker feels like charting undiscovered territory. And yet, for a man who prefers to shun the limelight, Benzies is affable, welcoming, and incredibly upbeat. He also looks surprisingly stress-free for someone four years into development on Rockstar's biggest ever game.

Maybe it's the two air conditioning units running simultaneously at either end of his XXL-sized office. Or the scented candle he's burning. Or the fact he's the owner of the World's Biggest iMac. Or maybe - as the wall full of vehicle printouts, idea-crammed whiteboards, and TVs showing live feeds of bug fixes, attest - maybe he's just really, really good at these things after eight successive Grand Theft Autos.

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More GTA: An exclusive first look at GTA Online | GTA V O'Clock: CVG's massive weekly GTA V show | Our preview of the GTA V single-player experience

"It's hard to understand what GTA Online is," he says when we ask him why he's decided to open up the doors to us now. "It's such a new development for us, I thought it best you got the info from the guys here who know."

But, the truth is, in forty-five minutes we covered a whole raft of subjects: GTA Online, GTA V, next gen, Cloud gaming, and much, much more. It's big. It's hugely interesting. It's exclusive. Oh, and if four-player tennis appears in the final game, you know who to thank...


When did you first start to think about GTA Online, and what was your vision for it?

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Rockstar North president Leslie Benzies

This started when we began making GTA III, and every single game we've said, "Right, now we're going to do it, now we're going to do it," and I guess we've never felt like we've had the manpower or the tech power to do it. Now the time is right. We had a great engine to work from, and we had the staff to do it.

On GTA V O'Clock, we've been speculating for a while that GTA Online would, in fact, be an MMO-style experience - and it's exciting to see that's definitely where it's headed. A by-product of that is that players will be able to create their own missions and reshape the world. Can you expand a little upon that?

Well, let's take the most simple example: a deathmatch. You open up the Creator, you place all your spawn points, place some props, place cars, place planes, place anything you want around the world. When you're happy you've playtested it, when you're happy to publish, hit the button, and it sends it up to the Cloud - our Social Club Cloud. That's then available for everyone else in the world to use.

So, when (your friend) boots their game up, they could pick you as a preferred creator, and then all your content will get sucked back into (their game). It's constantly evolving. Everybody creates things. You choose whose content you want to see. You set up a blue marker, and that's kind of the instigator of the mission. You walk in there, and then it triggers whatever you've created. And that will constantly be evolving, so we'll be creating content all the time - every day you'll boot up the game and there'll be new things coming in.

But the tools for the Creator won't be available at the start?

Initially, you'll be able to create races and deathmatches, which are probably the simplest. And then, over time, when we feel comfortable that people are ready to get the new creators, they will be released. So it'll be a trickle, but it'll be a constant release of new creators and new content. We don't want to overdo it. It's a complex system. That's another reason for the two week delay between single-player and Online. We want to give people an opportunity to actually get their heads around what's happened, because even single-player is a big advancement from the old games. There's a lot of new things to learn.

"Grand Theft Auto Online is a different entity, a separate thing. It's not part of GTA V. It'll grow on its own..."

So, you could, in theory, have launched at the same time?

We could, but we want it to be known as a different entity, a separate thing, and it'll grow on its own. It'll be GTA Online; it's not part of GTA V. Obviously it's set in the GTA V engine, but it's going to grow and evolve into its own thing.

And after two weeks, how will you get access to it?

When it launches, you'll have an extra character on your Switch Wheel. Instead of choosing Franklin, Michael or Trevor, you'll select your multiplayer character and you'll be sucked straight in there.

So your multiplayer avatar will appear after two weeks?

Yes.

There won't be any other download required?

There may be a tiny download, but it'll just be a code. We've just got to figure out how that will work with Sony and Microsoft.

When you first start playing Online, will you have anything to start with, any stats that will carry over from the single-player game?

There's a character creation system, so you'll create a new character to start with. But, no, none of your stats, as the three guys in GTA V, (will carry over). Again, this speaks to the difference between the two: the world of Grand Theft Auto Online is set slightly before the events of GTA V, and so while it shares some of its experiences and it shares characters, the stats are all separate. Each character has his own set of stats, and as you create your character, depending on what you're creating, your stats will be different.

So Michael, Trevor and Franklin don't exist within GTA Online?

We've got to be careful for story spoilers. (Laughs)

Okay. When you start GTA Online, you presumably begin with no money. So what are your first steps in the game to get things moving?

In traditional GTA style, you'll be taken on a journey through the first few missions of the game, just to give you a feel for it. We'll have the usual Rockstar help, to keep you on the straight and narrow all the way through. So, it'll be a nice, hopefully well-paced introduction to the game. There's a lot for people to learn, so we don't want to just throw you into the world. You're not just going in and playing deathmatches.

Characters from GTA V will introduce you to the experiences of GTA Online. You'll meet characters from single-player, who'll introduce you to things in the same way as they do in single-player. So, for example, someone will say to you, "Here's Ammunation, here's where you can get weapons..." It's got a flow like a single-player has a flow, so there is a progression through some things - not a story, but a progression through Online. It's a different type of flow.

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At the end of the demo, you mentioned that players are ranked on performance and everything is tracked. What kinds of things will players be ranked on?

It depends on the type of mission. A deathmatch will score differently to a race, which will score differently from what we saw today, which will score differently from any other mode, so it just depends what mode it is. But we do have an internal score that we hold, that can rank people. It encompasses shooting, driving, flying, parachuting, so we can tell where people exist within the leaderboard.

And is that just for internal use - or will players be able to see that information?

There's enough data for people to know exactly where they stand within all their skills.

Do you have any plans for people to gain access to that data when they're not necessarily tied to those consoles? For example, on an iPad or phone?

Everything's available through the Social Club. Social Club pages will all work through iPhones and iPads.

So no plans for specific apps?

I think if (the Social Club pages) are written well, you don't really need to. They'll be written specifically so they work on Android and iOS. You'll be able to get all your stats. It's a little bit finicky on an iPhone, but it's all available.

As you complete missions, you also showed that you can share your winnings. Have you found, as you've played it, that certain types of personality have developed because of that; that people are willing to become the bad guy?

Yeah, of course. Even in a race, you've got the (people) who will happily clip your back end as you start a race to get you out - or some guys will help you. So, definitely, there's going to be a lot of different types of players. I guess the tricky thing with Online is keeping all these players in the same world, and not having them mess with each other too much. So, we've got some good cheater management, some bad sport management, to make sure everybody's behaving themselves.

"We've got some cheater management, some good bad sport management, to make sure everybody's behaving..."

We were going to ask how you prevent it becoming like Lord of the Flies...

With a lot of these things, we don't see the problems until we actually sit in a big session and play. We've got a thing called Passive mode. If you're spawning and being killed immediately, go to Passive mode - it means you can't shoot people, but they can't shoot you. So you can just kind of hang around and get to grips with the game.

A lot of what we saw in the demo today appeared to be team-based or versus AI. Will there be much direct, head-to-head player combat?

Yes. They were kind of tricky to show in this format, and I think we all know what kind of style they come in. So, yes, all the traditional stuff is there, plus a bunch of new modes.

You also showed how, if you're carrying a lot of cash, and then die, that money then spills onto the streets, so there's a big risk carrying cash around...

Yeah. You want to be visiting the bank a lot. So, do I want to do this job with fifty grand on me, or do I want to go to the bank and take five with me? It's another little gameplay element.

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You can also insure cars now, so that - if someone steals it, or blows it up - you can get that same car back for a premium. You can also leave your cars somewhere in the world, and come back to that place and they're still there...

We don't let anyone steal your personal vehicle. If we were in a personal vehicle, and I jumped out as the owner, you could take it. But if it's locked, it's locked. You could blow it up, if you're that way (inclined), but anything that's going to annoy other players, we will punish by giving you what we call a Bad Sport stat. We store how you behave in there. If you're too bad, you will be punished.

Can other players see when someone has a Bad Sport stat?

Yeah. They'll be able to check it out, and think "I'm not playing with that guy."

So going back to the vehicles - are you almost more encouraged to buy them than to steal them?

You can buy cars, just like you can (in the real world). Or you can steal them if the mod shops are prepared to dabble with them. If they are, you can spray them and change the plates. If they're not prepared to do that, when the cops spot you in a stolen car, you'll get a Wanted level.

Is that why you'd want to employ the $50-a-day man to mod your stolen cars?

He won't deal with stolen cars. All he does is repair busted-up vehicles, and deliver your car. So, if you're out in the countryside without transport, you can give him a phone and he'll come out and drop the car off for you.

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