Modern video games are often made by huge groups of people, with hundreds of people working on a project and earning a place in the closing credits, but just how much comes down to one person–the creative mind leading these massive projects? The answer might surprise you.
Last month, Rockstar North, the studio behind Grand Theft Auto, announced that GTA V producer Leslie Benzies was no longer with the company. In fact, according to Patrick Klepek over at Kotaku (where the story originally broke in January), Benzies had left Rockstar on sabbatical shortly after the retail release of GTA V in 2014, and never returned to the company. To be fair, video game development is a high-pressure industry, and producers (and many others involved in game design) burn out, quit, change studios or even leave the industry altogether on a regular basis. What makes the situation around Benzies a bit different is that he has been an influential producer at Rockstar North for GTA since the 3D era began with GTA III. By the time Rockstar North was working on GTA V, Benzies had become one of the most influential producers in the company–allegedly acting as the creative architect behind GTA V’s storyline. But Benzies wasn’t just one of the lead producers at his studio, he was also held the executive office of President of Rockstar North, so his departure became a double-whammy of the loss of significant creative talent, as well as the loss of his administrative talent as president of the studio. Beyond all that, unlike many of the behind-the-scenes staffing and executive changes that occur on within the video game industry, Benzies’ departure seems to be having a measurable impact on Rockstar North.
Rumors have swirled around the bowels of the internet about GTA V single player DLC pretty much since the game was released, with Rockstar being typically silent or avoidant of the subject. But here we are in 2016 after several multiplayer-oriented updates for GTA Online, with barely a few weapons and cars added to the core singleplayer game. Rockstar can make as many statements as they want about wanting to focus on and build GTA Online, but before Benzies left the company, the story was slightly different. Back in April 2014, Rockstar suggested “exciting Story Mode DLC” some time “later [that] year.” Unless they meant the handful of weapons and vehicles added (which, again, doesn’t even include a lot of the stuff they added for Online), then something appears to have happened to delay or cancel the teased DLC. Could it have been something other than Benzies’ departure? Sure, but it’s also the most logical explanation. You know the old saying about if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck–it’s probably a duck, right? Right.
There is another factor here, which may have contributed either to Benzies’ departure as well as changes to GTA V’s DLC schedule: Gamergate. The purpose of this article is not to wade into the Gamergate debate (maybe another time), but the fact that there is a controversy is significant when taking into account that Benzies worked on GTA, a series which has been identified by feminist and ethnic studies critics as somewhat problematic in its depictions of women and non-white characters. Again, the timing adds up: Gamergate exploded in summer 2014, along with the scandals and critical approaches associated with it, right around the time Rockstar was teasing story DLC. We might not ever know whether or not Gamergate had anything to do with Benzies’ departure, and/or the void of single player DLC for GTA V, but it is quite possible that it did.
Beyond GTA V (and maybe Gamergate), Rockstar has other stuff to worry about. With or without Benzies, GTA VI is going to happen (and already in development, no doubt), but probably not for a few more years. But I can’t help but wonder how the tone and vision for the franchise will change without Benzies producing. Not to mention that Benzies also produced Red Read Redemption and executive produced L.A. Noire, two of the finest games ever made, and which many fans were hoping to see sequels to–something that is now even more in question with Benzies gone.