Rockstar Devs Describe “Culture of Fear” and Long Hours, Company Says Reports Exaggerated

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Oct 23
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Red Dead Redemption 2 finally launches later this week, and while most gamers are excited to get their hands on Rockstar’s latest sandbox, there’s growing debate online about working conditions at company’s various worldwide studios. The controversy began when Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser let slip that he and others have been working 100-hour weeks to get the game out the door. Houser would later say only the senior writing team was working those kind of hours, but by then, the horse was out of the barn. Last week, Rockstar relaxed their usually stringent social media policy, and allowed employees to talk freely about their experiences on Twitter, and most of the testimonials were positive. Of course, many questioned whether these employees were truly free to speak their minds.

Well, a new very in-depth behind-the-scenes report paints a less rosy picture of Rockstar crunch culture. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier independently interviewed 34 current and 43 former Rockstar employees, as well as dozen more under Rockstar supervision, and the picture that emerges is an often creatively-satisfying workplace where long, sometimes punishing, hours are more or less an expectation.

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Now, according to Rockstar themselves, their employees only worked, on average, 42 to 46 hours a week in 2018, but that number includes all employees from all studios. So, for instance, the receptionist who would have no reason to stay late, or teams working on smaller, less-urgent projects are lumped in. That said, Kotaku spoke to their share of happy Rockstar employees who deny having to work excessive overtime.

Then there’s the other side of the coin. While nobody Kotaku talked to was working 100-hour weeks, a number did report working 55 to 80 hour weeks. Some devs receive overtime for these extra hours, but many salaried employees, do not. An 80-hour week is tough, no doubt about it, but it sounds like the true pressing issue is the length of time crunch is allowed to continue at Rockstar. Word is, crunch on Red Dead Redemption 2 started as early as 2016, and has been pretty much a constant force ever since. A 60 or 70-hour workweek here or there is survivable, but for years on end? That’s when lives start to get ruined.

Per the negative testimonials, there’s heavy social pressure at Rockstar to work overtime and weekends, with the hours you put in being valued more than the results you produce. One former employee went so far as to describe an “abject culture of fear” at the studio…

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“There is a lot of fear at Rockstar. Fear of getting fired, fear of under-performing, fear of getting yelled at, fear of delivering a shitty game. For some people fear is a great motivator, for others it just incites rebellion.”

Apparently, the crunch situation is roughest for those working on Rockstar’s cinematics, design, and Q&A teams. The testers, mostly located at Rockstar Lincoln in the UK, get the worst of it, with employees reporting having to work mandatory overtime since 2017. Rockstar higher-ups blame individual managers at Rockstar Lincoln for the mandatory overtime, insisting it’s not official policy.

For her part, Rockstar head of publishing Jennifer Kolbe chalks a lot of negative stories up to “self-selection” (the angriest people tend to be the loudest) and exaggeration…

“You are hearing individual anecdotes which are usually self-selecting both for the most extreme ends of the scale as well as for people who clearly have issues with our process. There are absolutely people who, at various times, worked really long hours. There are also individuals who are exaggerating what their actual hours were, as we have confirmed their self-reported numbers at the time as substantially lower from what they recall having done in their online postings.

As I said before, the issue of crunch in video game development is complicated. On the one hand, video games are an industry, a product, and those who make them deserve fair treatment. On the other hand, video games are also an artistic medium, and sometimes creativity doesn’t happen on a strict Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 schedule. It’s also almost impossible perfectly plan out a project as complex as RDR2 – things go wrong and have to be fixed on tight deadlines.

If you’re looking for a silver lining in all of this, it does sound like conditions at Rockstar have significantly improved since the GTA IV/Red Dead 1 era, when crunch was more punishing and widespread. Hopefully, they continue to get better. Also, those feeling guilty about picking up RDR2, should know the vast majority of those Kotaku spoke to, even those who had bad experiences, don’t support a boycott of the game – they want people to experience their work, and they want their bonuses, which are tied to game sales. So, don’t feel too bad.

If you have a free half-hour to spare, I suggest you check out Kotaku’s full piece, as it includes way more detail than I can get into here (it is, no joke, nearly 10,000 words long).

What are your thoughts on the video game crunch? Is it a major issue or just the cost of working in a creative industry? What can/should developers do to make the job more livable?

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