Grand Theft Auto 5’s Unseen Mastermind
Sam and Dan Houser are synonymous with Grand Theft Auto. The brothers, born in London in the ’70s, turned a passion for American crime movies and spaghetti westerns into some of the biggest gaming franchises on the planet in GTA and Red Dead Redemption. But although the Housers are the visible creative forces of Rockstar, there’s one man who’s worked tirelessly in the shadows on Grand Theft Auto since GTA III – Leslie Benzies. He’s been the producer on the series since it exploded into 3D in 2001, and as the head of Edinburgh development studio Rockstar North, he’s overseen no less than nine GTA games, not to mention Red Dead, LA Noire and Max Payne 3.
Despite a glittering development history he rarely talks to the press – the last time was over four years ago. But with a deluge of Grand Theft Auto V information beginning to materialise, he took the time to discuss with IGN what the next game has in store, and how the development process has changed since GTA III.
“When we were working on GTA III we were a much smaller team doing something new and experimental,” he explains. “We had no idea how the game would be received, just a belief that what we were working on was really special. Since then we have grown in to a much larger team and our games have much higher expectations. It's not just our own faith in each project we've had to repay, but our fans' too. We could easily have churned out a new version year after year without really progressing as a franchise but if we did that eventually the fans would lose interest. We want every one of our games to meet and exceed the players' expectations so they always want more, and as such GTA V feels like our most ambitious project yet.”
From what we’ve seen so far, Grand Theft Auto V is certainly ambitious. In terms of size we already know that it’s possible to fit the maps for San Andreas, GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption into GTA V’s map, but how does creating something this vast impact the development process? “The scale of GTA is very different to LA Noire and even to RDR, so managing the team and keeping a clear creative direction becomes more difficult,” explains Benzies. “We had a lot of the North team working on RDR and LA Noire, which allowed us to gain experience of other projects and how to solve problems and use them within the new game engine we've created for V.”
Aside from the epic scale of the game, GTA V’s other new feature is real-time switching between three characters. It’s a bold step in a new direction, which opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities. “The ability to switch between three characters gives the player more freedom and allows us to create some truly mind-blowing missions,” enthuses Benzies. “However, to make this as seamless as possible we've had to overcome many problems. Off-mission, players aren't forced to switch characters, they make the choice themselves – so it is important to ensure each character brings a unique aspect to the game.” This opens up an entirely new set of potential problems, as Benzies’ explains: “The player needs to want to switch between them and see each of their stories develop. If each character doesn't have this appeal the player would find a favourite and try to only play as them, missing out on the bigger picture.”
It’s not the first time a GTA game has characters whose stories cross over, as Benzies points out: “In previous games we had distinct sections of interplay between the main protagonist and other characters - you did a few missions for a character and then you moved on.” In GTA V, however, the proposition is entirely different. “Here we have three protagonists interacting throughout the game. This is something we touched upon with the intersecting stories of Nico, Johnny and Luis in GTA IV but we have now made this integral to the structure of the gameplay as well as the narrative.”
The narrative is once again key in this Grand Theft Auto, but the challenge this time around was keeping it focused while enabling the player to have control over their destiny. “As with all of our games, we have tried to make the central narrative and each character's individual story arc an epic and cinematic journey, and this wouldn't be possible without a degree of linearity. However, as they progress, the player will be making constant decisions. While they will make choices that will affect the narrative of the game, it is the more tactical and organic choices that will truly shape the player's experience. Whether planning how best to execute a heist or the on-the-fly, instinctive choice of switching characters, these decisions made by the player will change the shape of the game they play.”
While the strength of the story and characters has always been a Grand Theft Auto hallmark, giving the player freedom to experiment is an equally important trait of the game. That’s never been truer than it is in GTA V, but sometimes it’s not always planned, as Benzies reveals: “Players are always finding ways of tackling missions that we hadn't considered and we don't want to restrict that. If a solution feels like it should work the player should be able to try it - we don't want to restrict creativity.
“We do have a bunch of missions in GTA V that are far more freeform than anything we have done before,” he continues. “We tell you to go get something and the player decides how to do it - what characters they need on the job and what tools they need for those characters.”
Naturally, having three characters at your disposal creates more choices too. “Having multiple characters gives the player more options for the way they play the game”, agrees Benzies. “In particular missions, characters will perform certain roles. A player who hangs back and plays as a sniper for an entire mission will have a very different experience to a player who stays close to the action or to a player who switches between them on the fly.”
One question the inclusion of multiple characters raises is how players will experience the journey from start to end - if you’re constantly flitting from one part of the map to the other, does this restrict how much you’re able to explore the world? Apparently not, says Benzies: “This is where having the three playable characters, all living in very different parts of the world, and a world that's completely open to the player from the beginning really becomes an advantage. While the character switching helps keep the missions exciting and fresh, being able to switch between playable characters while off mission makes it a lot easier for the players to explore, especially when combined with the dynamic events system that was used to populate the wide open spaces of Red Dead Redemption.”
This means that, no matter where you are on the map, there will always be something to do, whether you’re in the middle of downtown Los Santos or stranded out in the sticks.
Importantly, Rockstar has also addressed criticism aimed at San Andreas, where often you’d be in the countryside only to find you had to get back into town, which could be a 10-minute drive away. That won’t happen in GTA V. “One character might have an ambient activity that takes them out in to the countryside; if the player decides that they want to do something different they can switch to another character and be back in the city ready to start their next mission,” says Benzies. “Having three characters allows players to explore the whole map without having to worry about the long drive back to their next objective. Also, while the countryside might be more chilled than the city there are plenty of things out there to keep curious players occupied.”
Ah yes, the countryside. The surrounding areas of Los Santos and beyond were some of my favourite bits of San Andreas, and in GTA V it looks like Rockstar has learned a lot from Red Dead Redemption in bringing them to life, not only with dynamic events to experience but in terms of the wildlife you’ll discover there. “The setting of Red Dead Redemption meant that animals were a necessity for the ambient world - something we hadn't required in GTA previously”, says Benzies. “But because of the scale of the map [in GTA V] and the different kinds of areas involved, a countryside without animals would feel quite hollow. At the same time, animals aren't just a backdrop - you can expect to see dogs guarding areas and causing the player trouble when they try to sneak past them.”
While the sheer size of the map is a first for GTA, the fact it’s completely open from the start is something we’ve not experienced in the series before. But such a move throws yet another handful of new questions into the mix – is the player restricted in any way, and how to do prevent someone near the beginning of the game getting their hands on the coolest stuff? “All vehicles will be present in the world from the start of the game, but they won't all be driving through the city waiting to be stolen,” says Benzies, continuing, “If the player wants to get their hands on one of the more ‘high end’ vehicles early in the game they'll have to work for it. For instance, airport security won't let you just wander in and steal a jet, they'll give you some serious opposition.”
Discovery of weapons is slightly different though, as the GTA producer explains: “Weapons are slightly different since we have to find a balance between giving the player freedom and giving them a challenge. Letting players have any weapon they want, whenever they want it, would make earlier missions less of a challenge and less satisfying. That being said, as the player makes progress through the game they will build up a satisfying arsenal.”
Grand Theft Auto V isn’t just about the guns, though. If the heat gets a bit much there are still a handful mini-games to enjoy, from golf to tennis to the triathlon, which makes a welcome return. But are these merely a distraction or has serious development time been invested into each one? “Not everyone enjoys fully fledged tennis and golf simulators so we try to offer a mix of accessibility and depth - we don't want to make the player spend four hours learning an intricate control system but we don't want the player to feel that these are throwaway distractions,” says Leslie. “These aren't a huge part of the game but offer a change of pace from car chases and shootouts and add to the life of the city.”
Then of course there’s multiplayer, which has become increasingly prevalent in Rockstar’s games from GTA IV through Red Dead Redemption to Max Payne 3. Will GTA V innovate in the multiplayer space, too? “That's what we're working on, but we're not ready to talk about it just yet,” teases Benzies. “Refining open world multiplayer into something really special has been a huge focus of development and we are very excited to share more information with people soon.”
However you feel about the Grand Theft Auto games, you’ve got to give Rockstar credit for attempting something new, which is especially rare when it’s experimenting with such an established franchise. The player-switching and dynamic missions are genuinely innovative for an open-world game. That said, does Benzies think that the innovations GTA V makes will revolutionise the genre in the same way GTA III did all those years ago? “We hope so,” he says. “GTA III was a technical revolution when new technology allowed us to break away from the norm and create something special. We consider subsequent refinements of the series to be revolutionary in their own way, in terms of playability, scale and narrative. For GTA V we want to push all of these to a new level while incorporating new gameplay elements that would not have been possible before. The ability to switch between different characters allows the player to do things that wouldn't have been possible in any other GTA game, and on the multiplayer side we hope that GTA V will do for multiplayer open world games what GTA 3 did for open world single-player games.”
Whether Grand Theft Auto V achieves it’s lofty amibitions remains to be seen, but with someone like Benzies – who has over a decade at the helm of the GTA series – in charge of keeping such a behemoth on track, the early signs are certainly promising.