As Red Dead Redemption 2 nears release, Rockstar Games is under fire for employees' extreme overtime
Studio co-founder Dan Houser says 100-hour weeks were limited to himself and 3 key writers
Fresh out of university in the late '90s, Adam Boyes and his colleagues proved their dedication to a video game developer by tracking how many hours they worked.
It was a competition. "I got third place with 118 hours in one week," Boyes, CEO of Iron Galaxy Studios, told Day 6. "I think the person who won it had about 124 hours."
Workers in the industry call it "crunch": the period of long hours before a game's launch — or the extreme overtime aspiring programmers and artists voluntarily put in to show their skills.
Boyes, who started his career at a leading developer in British Columbia, recalls once bringing clothes and food to a colleague who spent nine straight days at the office, despite having a newborn at home.
"His wife would bring him his daughter to visit," Boyes said. "That was just sad, but it was his commitment to the company."
Rockstar Games, known for their blockbuster series Grand Theft Auto, is the latest major studio to attract scrutiny for its working practices.
Co-founder and lead writer Dan Houser told Vulture that employees clocked 100-hour work weeks ahead of next week's hotly anticipated game Red Dead Redemption 2.
Houser later told gaming site Kotaku that only a core group of four writers — himself included — worked such gruelling shifts over three weeks. Some Rockstar employees backed him up on social media on Wednesday, and recounted positive experiences working for the company.
Still, critics say Houser's admission highlights a pervasive standard at video game studios — and that it doesn't come from the higher ups alone.
"It wasn't a mandate … the interesting thing is that it was self-imposed," Boyes said of his experience with crunch.
"Now, I feel like a jackass for having supported it so early in my career."
A long history
Speaking to the Guardian this week, co-studio head Rob Nelson said that the company's work-life balance is "something that we're always striving to get better at," while acknowledging "overtime and extra effort" is common for short periods.
According to the studio, the average working week from January to September 2018, based on self-reported figures, was between 42.4 and 45.8 hours.
It's not the first time Rockstar has been criticized for its work cullture.
A former Rockstar developer, Job Stauffer, tweeted this week that working on 2008's Grand Theft Auto IV, "was like working seven days a week with a gun to your head."
It's been nearly a decade since I parted from Rockstar, but I can assure you that during the GTA IV era, it was like working with a gun to your head 7 days a week. "Be here Saturday & Sunday too, just in case Sam or Dan come in, they want to see everyone working as hard as them." <a href="https://t.co/TaQS5LnaAa">https://t.co/TaQS5LnaAa</a>—@jobjstauffer
In 2010, a group of Rockstar employees' spouses penned an open letter to the company's San Diego division alleging mandatory 12-hour days and six-day weeks as the first Red Dead Redemption neared its final stages.
"Managers were told to get people to rush until the deadline, and then [managers would] just push the deadline back so that they [developers] would be in a permanent period of crunch time," said Brendan Sinclair, North America editor for website Games Industry.
The letter caused uproar online, but didn't stop the game from becoming a critical success.
"It got great reviews [and] sold millions and millions of copies. Everyone bought it," said Sinclair.
Sinclair says that the company downplayed the letter's claims, but that they suggested changes needed to be made to ensure employees felt valued.
Employees back company
Many of the employees who went to bat on social media for Rockstar acknowledged they worked extra hours in the lead up to Red Dead Redemption 2's release, but the long weeks were occasional as deadlines loomed — and not the 100-hour weeks mentioned by Houser.
"I sometimes worked 50 hours during the week. This was on and off for a few months," tweeted Wesley Mackinder, an artist at Rockstar North in Edinburgh.
"Some weeks I just worked a flat 40 and there was zero issues with this," he continued, adding he has never worked — or been asked to work — 100 hours in a week.
I have been at Rockstar for two years, and worked on RDR2. I have never worked anywhere close to 100 hrs a week. There was some crunch sure but nothing ridiculous. We worked hard on the game but we weren’t being abused. I think the most I did on RDR2 was 60 for one week.—@BeardyDan3D
But according to Sinclair, it's typically more subtle than a request from a manager.
Developers and artists voluntarily put in extra hours to show their chops and, in a competitive industry, others try to keep up.
Often these workers are "fresh-faced people out of college" without families who can put in the hours, he added.
I have never worked more than maybe 50 hours a week (and that's a rare occurrence), but I generally work about 2-6 hours of paid overtime per week.—@viiviicat
Like Boyes early in his career, many junior developers are excited to be in an "awesome" industry, building games that they love, and are willing to do whatever it takes.
"I believe that while crunch is common throughout game development, some of it happens because well-meaning people are overly passionate and perhaps a little oblivious to the impact that has on their workers," Sinclair said.
Change is happening
Despite the positive statements from Rockstar employees on social media this week, Sinclair is skeptical of the company's mea culpa.
"When you read between the lines of the corporate statements, it does become clear that they have a culture that definitely values people putting in those long hours as a matter of passion and dedication to the project," he said.
But as the industry reckons with reports of pressure to work long hours, a movement is taking hold.
In March, advocates for gaming industry employees founded Game Workers Unite, an organization that hopes to connect "exploited workers" with pro-union activists with the goal of starting unions in some markets by the end of the year.
The developers themselves are changing as well. "There's a new generation of game developers that are more aware that there is such a thing as work-life balance," said Sinclair.
Boyes, however, believes change should start from the top.
"If the managers and directors and executives in the company are going home and having time with their families ... you'll usually find that people in a team then will see that and they'll try to sort of copy that," he said.
Until then, Sinclair says that he will boycott Red Dead Redemption 2 when it comes out later this month.
"I don't think the 35 hours enjoyment that I would get out of that game is worth the months and years of excessive burnout."