Alongside ground-breaking, award-winning games, the one thing you can rely upon Rockstar Games for is drama. Once more, the company has delivered…
News broke overnight that Rockstar Games and Sam and Dan Houser are facing a lawsuit from Leslie Benzies, the former head of the Rockstar North studio, the powerhouse behind the Grand Theft Auto franchise.
Benzies was one of the key members of the Rockstar North team from the days of GTA III and has played a leading role in the studio and the GTA series since then. The last news from Rockstar in January 2016 indicated that he would not be returning to the company after taking a sabbatical.
The emerging story suggests that this was not the case and that upon his return, Benzies was stopped from entering the Rockstar North building and then informed that he had to leave the premises.
The lawsuit alleges that the Houser brothers engaged in ‘numerous deceptions’ to remove Benzies from the company and avoid paying $150M in royalty payments. From GamesIndustry.biz:
The lawsuit also accuses the Houser brothers of trying to force Benzies from the company and unjustly terminating $150 million in royalty payments “based upon arbitrary actions by the company’s royalty Allocation Committee, a committee that may or may not have actually ever met.” Benzies’ complaints also were personal in nature, accusing Sam Houser specifically of “mounting resentment” that Benzies received the same compensation from Take-Two as the Houser brothers.
The company was apparently in mediation with Benzies over the unpaid royalties at the time Rockstar claimed he decided not to return. Bakes is claiming that “out-of-bounds and inaccurate press statement” represents a breach of its mediation obligations.
Further revelations from the legal documents highlight that the Houser brothers and Benzies set up a company called Another Games Company in 2009, to handle royalty payments for the founders, but which would also allow them to leave Take Two but continue working on the publisher’s intellectual property:
AGC was created by the Rockstar Principals to allow them to be able to leave Take-Two, and collectively launch a new independent company, with favorable economic and IP-based rights stemming in large part from Take-Two and Rockstar. The Rockstar Principals would collectively enjoy royalty-free rights to use certain Rockstar and Take-Two intellectual property, and financing arising from the Royalty Plan.
GamesIndustry further reports that the value of the royalty payments was significant:
The suit says that just in the time since he took a sabbatical in 2014, the royalty plan the three developers struck with Take-Two had already paid out $93 million to the Housers, with up to $523 million in additional money as yet unaccounted for.
Eurogamer states that the sabbatical itself was instigated by Rockstar:
Benzies also claimed that the sabbatical wasn’t even his idea, but his partners encouraged him to go on walkabout. “The Defendants flew Mr. Benzies to New York and encouraged him to take a six-month sabbatical to recharge his batteries,” the lawsuit explained.
When confronted with his unexpected dismissal Benzies enlisted legal counsel and Notified Rockstar that they had breached their legal obligations to him. The company’s response, as reported by GamesIndustry, was savage:
Take-Two and Rockstar responded by making scurrilous allegations, a revenge tactic they had used before with other respected employees, this time deploying it against Mr. Benzies in an attempt to concoct false grounds for termination for Cause and to intimidate him into not pursuing his royalty claims,” the suit claims. “Take-Two and Rockstar threatened to use these false charges against Mr. Benzies if he continued to assert his rights. This was a shocking development given that Sam Houser himself had orchestrated and encouraged a company culture involving strip clubs, personal photography of employees in sexually compromising positions, and other conduct grossly in violation of standard workplace norms.
Since the initial news stories appeared, Rockstar has now responded to the lawsuit, releasing the following statement:
Leslie Benzies was a valued employee of our company for many years. Sadly, the events that culminated in his resignation ultimately stem from his significant performance and conduct issues. Despite our repeated efforts to address and resolve these issues amicably both before and after his departure, Leslie has chosen to take this route in an attempt to set aside contract terms to which he previously agreed on multiple occasions,” Rockstar Games commented.
His claims are entirely without merit and in many instances downright bizarre, and we are very confident this matter will be resolved in our favor. A core ethos since Rockstar’s inception has been the concept of ‘the team’. It is deeply disappointing and simply wrong for Leslie to attempt to take personal credit for what has always been the tremendous efforts of the entire Rockstar team, who remain hard at work delivering the most immersive and engaging entertainment experiences we can for our fans.
The company further stated that it will not be commenting any further upon the case.
Rockstar has also lodged a counter suit against Benzies seeking:
“compensatory damages against Benzies in an amount to be determined at trial,” and they expect to be awarded “their costs, expenses, disbursements, and reasonable counsel fees in an amount to be determined at trial.
You can read the entire Take Two/Rockstar Games counter suit here.
The press statement from Locke Lord, acting for Leslie Benzies is here.
Following the nearly two decades of silence, rumour and allegations surrounding Rockstar and its colourful leaders, this promises to be a fascinating insight into one of the most successful publishers in the world today.
Whatever the outcome, there are 300+ Rockstar north employees hard at work in Edinburgh who want to be sure their future is secure and that they can continue to design and develop the world’s most successful games franchise.
We will, of course, keep you posted…