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Grand Theft Auto devs planned to leave Take-Two

Leslie Benzies lawsuit says he and the Houser brothers set up an independent company that would still work on publisher's IP

Leslie Benzies' 71-page lawsuit filed against Take-Two, Rockstar, and Sam and Dan Houser today includes a number of revelations, among them that Benzies and the Housers had once planned to go indie (sort of).

The suit describes the formation of Another Game Company in 2009, originally a business entity consisting of Benzies and the Housers that was established with the help of Take-Two to handle distribution of royalty payments to the trio. However, the suit details another purpose to the company.

"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."

That's no small amount of financing. 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.

Benzies' suit says Sam Houser handled the establishment of AGC and all business matters surrounding it, allowing Benzies to be more heads down in development work. The suit claims Houser cultivated Benzies' trust, repeatedly telling him in emails that they were "partners forever," and ending messages with, "Love, Sam."

The arrangement seemed to work out fine until 2014, when Benzies started his six-month sabbatical and his royalty payments stopped. When Benzies asked a Rockstar executive about the issue, the lawsuit claims he was told, "Sam thinks you've had enough."

As for where the relationship soured, a potential source of friction between Sam Houser and Benzies came in late 2013 with the launch of GTA Online. The lawsuit noted that previous GTA games always had Sam Houser's name last, indicating him to be the most significant contributor. For GTA Online, which the suit says "the Houser brothers had little interest in," Benzies put his name last in the credits. A Rockstar executive acting as an intermediary between the two men allegedly told Benzies that Sam Houser was unhappy with the move, suggesting that Benzies "wanted to take over the company."

After Benzies tried to return to work at Rockstar North in April of 2015 and was turned away by the building's office manager, he enlisted legal counsel and sent Take-Two and Rockstar notice that they had breached their legal obligations to him.

"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."

The criticism of Sam Houser's role in the company culture isn't the only attack on the developer within the suit. It also depicted the Houser brothers as "incapable of completing large and complex games without Mr. Benzies' oversight, management and skill..."

"For example, Sam and Dan Houser took the lead on the development of Rockstar's game Red Dead Redemption. Mr. Benzies had no assigned position on the game. As the game's delivery date grew near, Sam Houser urgently reached out to Mr. Benzies in an October 22, 2009 e-mail, writing, 'The ups and downs are VERY extreme. We have to fix this. Quickly. Help! I'm freaking!'

"As Sam Houser reviewed more of the game that he had overseen for many years, he became more desperate writing to Mr. Benzies the very next day, 'This [RDR] is a (recurring) nightmare. But one i/we need to get out of. I have problems with the camera all over the place. So much so, that I can't be rational or specific about it. The darkness!!!' As reflected in his October 24, 2009 e-mail to Mr. Benzies, Sam Houser's desperation was escalating, 'PLEASE help me/us get rdr [Read Dead Redemption] into shape. I am a jabbering wreck right now. I need The Benz!'

"Once Mr. Benzies intervened, the game was finished within a few months, complete and ready for presentation to external publishers such as Sony and Microsoft."

As of this writing, Take-Two had not responded to a request for comment on the suit.