MANHATTAN (CN) — A developer of “Grand Theft Auto” games and former president of Rockstar North sued Take-Two Interactive for $150 million in royalties, claiming it encouraged him to take a sabbatical and forced him out while he was away.
Leslie Benzies sued Take-Two Interactive Software, Rockstar Games, Rockstar North, and Rockstar principals Dan and Sam Houser, on Tuesday in New York County Supreme Court.
Benzies says he began programming at 11, and created his first video game when he was 12. He was working for video game developer DMA when it was acquired by Rockstar in 1999.
Rockstar had released “Grand Theft Auto” I and II, but the games received average reviews and unexceptional sales, Benzies says. He says he created the design plan and game flow chart for “Grand Theft Auto III”, “the game that revolutionized the video game industry.”
The game came out in 2001, and more than 14 million units had been sold 2008. Many popular games emulate its design, featuring a story: “a narrative into which the player inserts him or herself, becoming part of an active world that the player then manipulates through the game peripherals,” Benzies says in the complaint.
Benzies was named president of Rockstar North, the lead development studio for Rockstar Games, and worked on four subsequent versions of the game.
Given the blockbuster success, “defendants recognized the importance of retaining Mr. Benzies to produce and design future iterations of the GTA franchise,” he says in the complaint. “To ensure this, defendants offered Mr. Benzies the opportunity to be a ‘Rockstar Principal,’ an exclusive group of three with Sam Houser and Dan Houser, entitling him to share equally in the fortunes of company game creations through equal distributions of significant profit-sharing payments under the 2009 Royalty Plan.”
Benzies says “Grand Theft Auto” 5’s release broke seven Guinness World Records and generated $3 billion in sales.
After that release, he says, the defendants encouraged him to “take a six-month sabbatical to recharge his batteries. The defendants told Mr. Benzies that the sabbatical was a well-earned rest period, and that ‘they greatly appreciated his dedication to its business and products.'”
But while he was away, he ousted from Rockstar, and the Houser brothers allocated $93 million in profit-sharing payments to themselves, Benzies says in the complaint. He says $523 million in profits are unaccounted for.
He says that when he returned to work on April 1, 2015, his building access credentials were denied. A security guard recognized him and let him in, but the office managers ordered him to leave.
The 71-page lawsuit quotes numerous appreciative emails from Sam Houser to Benzies.
Benzies says he has not received any profit-sharing distributions since April 2014, and that “In explaining this abrupt withholding to Mr. Benzies, [Rockstar Vice-President Jennifer] Kolbe stated that ‘Sam [Houser] thinks you’ve had enough,’ a justification for which there is no authority anywhere, either in the Royalty Plan, related documents, or in the multitude of loving assurances Sam Houser provided Mr. Benzies.”
One day before Benzies sued it, Take-Two Interactive and Rockstar Games filed a complaint for declaratory judgment in Federal Court, saying it has no further obligation to Benzies under the royalty plan.
Rockstar says Benzies sent it a letter in March 2015 terminating his employment for good reason, and demanding “exact financial parity” with the Houser brothers.
The company denies that Benzies ended his employment with good reason.
“The Royalty Plan provides that since Benzies resigned without good reason, he is not entitled to any post-termination royalties,” Rockstar’s complaint states. “The Royalty Plan further provides that had Benzies been terminated without cause, or had he voluntarily terminated his own employment for good reason, he remained eligible to receive post-termination royalties for three years, but in an amount determined solely by Sam Houser, the President of Rockstar Games.
“Nowhere does the Royalty Plan provide that Benzies is entitled to parity or, indeed, to any minimum royalty allocation, either before or after termination.”
Rockstar said in a 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. … 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.”
Rockstar’s statement says Benzies claims too much credit “Grand Theft Auto,” and that credit belongs to the entire development team.
Benzies seeks damages for breach of fiduciary duty, fraudulent inducement, aiding and abetting, breach of contract, tortious interference, unjust enrichment, defamation and fraud.
He is represented by Allen Wasserman with Locke Lord.
Rockstar is represented by Michael Lynch with Kelly Drye & Warren.
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