Mastermind behind one of the world’s most popular video games honoured by RGU

A BAFTA recognised computer game producer widely credited with shaking up the industry with the development of Grand Theft Auto III has received an honorary doctorate from Robert Gordon University (RGU).

Leslie Benzies and Richard LaingLeslie Benzies, who heads up Edinburgh based games company Rockstar North, received an Honorary Doctor of Design (Hon DDes) from the university on Friday, July 17.

He oversaw the production of the third in the series of Grand Theft Auto, marking a shift in the games franchise with the introduction of a 3D game engine for the first time.

Born in Aberdeen, Leslie’s interest in computers was sparked after his parents purchased one of the first home computers - a Dragon 32. At the age of 11, he started teaching himself how to program and, after becoming obsessed with early computer games, he wrote his first game whilst still at school and began to win competitions around Britain for his designs.  

After Leslie left school, he used his programming skills to build software for businesses around the world.  In the evenings and in his spare time, he would continue to develop games, which he would send around to British video game developers in the hopes of starting a career in the gaming industry.

In 1996, DMA Design took notice of his talents and offered Leslie a one-week trial. Within six weeks of his trial period, he was appointed head of programming for the Nintendo 64 ‘dream team’ game ‘Space Station Silicon Valley’, which received widespread critical acclaim upon release in 1998. DMA rewarded Leslie’s innovative talents for game design and allowed him to form his own team for future projects.

Working next on a prototype ‘Godzilla’ game, Leslie realised that the core of this game was better suited for the next generation of the pre-existing Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series. 

Leslie’s team took over Grand Theft Auto the following year and originated technology and game design that would impact the history of the gaming industry. Under Leslie’s leadership, GTA III was released in 2001 and is considered a landmark in game design and development. 

GTA has gone on to become one of the biggest selling franchises across all media, with GTA V being the fastest selling entertainment product in history. In 2003 Leslie was named WIRED Game Designer of the Year and in 2005 he was given a special BAFTA award for his lifetime contributions to the video gaming industry. 2005 also marked the year Leslie took over as President of Rockstar North.

Leslie has since overseen technological innovation and development of gaming systems across all Rockstar North platforms. In 2014, the Scottish Businessman Association awarded Leslie as CEO of the year for his leadership skills and that same year he was given a BAFTA fellowship.

Leslie gives much of his free time to the Benzies Foundation, which sponsors children in sports and promotes nutrition education. The foundation provides scholarships to individuals or teams who are enthusiastic but financially unable to participate in their chosen sports. It also provides funding to develop sporting facilities in Scottish communities, encouraging and supporting participation in sport.

Leslie is a major investor and shareholder in Elgin City Football Club, the town where he spent many of his school days. Given the financial challenges in Scottish football, and the emotional and physical challenges of life in the Scottish league, this must surely be regarded as a true labour of love.

During 2014, Leslie purchased St Stephen’s Church in Edinburgh, through an entirely philanthropic venture. An 1827 Grade ‘A’ listed building designed by William Playfair, the building has been used as a community centre and arts venue for two decades, and will now be preserved for use as a community centre. 

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Jenny RushCommunications Officer | Design and Technology