In the final year of development on Red Dead Redemption 2, the upcoming Western game, the top directors decided to add black bars to the top and bottom of every non-interactive cutscene in hopes of making those scenes feel more cinematic, like an old-school cowboy film. Everyone agreed it was the right creative move, but there was a catch: It would add weeks of work to many people’s schedules.
“You can’t just slap black bars on the cinematics we’ve already shot,” said one person who worked on the game. “You have to reframe the camera so that the cinematics flow in a particular way, and you’re emphasizing what you weren’t emphasizing initially with that shot.”
With no hope of delaying the game any further—Red Dead Redemption 2 had already been bumped internally before it was announced, then publicly delayed twice—there was no way for the developers at Rockstar Games to add more time to their schedule. Instead, they would have to crunch, putting in extra nights and weekends in order to redo these scenes and deal with the rest of the massive workload that was ahead of them. Would the black bars prove to be worth it?
This has been a common occurrence in the last years of development on a Rockstar game. Dan and Sam Houser, the co-founders of Rockstar and creative leads on Red Dead Redemption 2, are renowned for rebooting, overhauling, and discarding large chunks of their games. Through eight years of development on Red Dead Redemption 2, the Housers and other directors have made a number of major changes to the story, the core gameplay mechanics, and the game’s overall presentation. It’s a process that some see as essential for making a game of this nature, but it’s also one that leads to a great deal of overtime, and has contributed to a culture of crunch at Rockstar Games that is impossible to deny, according to interviews with dozens of current and former employees. This isn’t crunch that came in a burst of a few weeks—it’s crunch that, those employees say, has lasted for months or even years.
Two Sundays ago, a glowing article in New York Magazine about the making of Red Dead Redemption 2 ignited controversy thanks to a quote, left unexamined and unexplained, in which Dan Houser described working “100-hour weeks” to get the game out the door. The following Monday, Houser said in an e-mailed statement to Kotaku that he was only referring to the writing team and only for a period of three weeks. On Wednesday the company lifted its social media policies, allowing employees to share thoughts on their own experiences with crunch.
The article and its fallout have led to widespread industry discussion of crunch and plenty of questions about work conditions at Rockstar. Does the company behind Grand Theft Auto V, the most lucrative video game of all time, overwork its employees? How much unpaid overtime went into Red Dead Redemption 2? Is crunch required to make games with the scope and scale of Red Dead Redemption and its sequel, which comes out on Friday and is likely to be a massive commercial success? What is Rockstar’s culture really like?
This account, a peek inside one of the most secretive companies in gaming, is based on interviews with 34 current and 43 former employees, over phone calls and e-mails and texts. Last Wednesday, Rockstar told current employees that they were allowed to speak to journalists (so long as they gave HR a heads up), but almost all of the people who spoke to me for this story requested anonymity. Some said they feared retaliation for being candid about their negative experiences at Rockstar, and some said they were worried about coming across as dishonest for sharing positive stories.
In addition, Rockstar provided us interviews with 12 current employees over group video chats as well as its head of publishing, Jennifer Kolbe, who oversees all of Rockstar’s studios.
The tale of Red Dead Redemption 2’s development is complicated and sometimes contradictory. For some people at Rockstar, it was a satisfying project, an ambitious game that took reasonable hours and far less crunch than the company’s previous games. Many current employees say they’re happy to work at Rockstar and love being able to help make some of the best games in the world. Others described Red Dead 2 as a difficult experience, one that cost them friendships, family time, and mental health. Nobody interviewed said they had worked 100-hour weeks—that would equate to seven 14-hour days—but many said their average weekly hours came close to 55 or 60, which would make for six 10-hour days. Most current and former Rockstar employees said they had been asked or felt compelled to work nights and weekends. Some were on hourly contracts and got paid for overtime, but many were salaried and did not receive any compensation for their extra hours. Those who are still at the company hope that their 2018 bonuses—expected to be significant if Red Dead 2 does well—will help make up for that.
Many of the most harrowing stories shared by current and former employees—anecdotes of damaged relationships, mental breakdowns, and heavy drinking at work—were impossible to print without risking that the individuals involved might be identified. Given Rockstar’s complex non-disclosure agreements and possible repercussions for violating them, we erred on the side of being as cautious as possible in this piece, which meant leaving out some of the roughest details we’d heard.
Rockstar consists of thousands of people in eight offices across five countries, so it’s no surprise that its employees would have a wide variety of experiences. Last week, Rockstar shared several statistics with Kotaku and other outlets, including the average reported weekly hours across all of its offices from January to September of this year. From January through March 2018, according to those statistics, Rockstar employees worked an average of 42.4 hours. From April through June, they hit 45.5 hours. And from July through September, 45.8 hours. The averages include people from all disciplines and working on all of the company’s projects, which helps explain the discrepancy between those numbers and the anecdotes we’ve heard. People whose work on Red Dead Redemption 2 was finished earlier, or who were working on different projects (like Grand Theft Auto Online) that weren’t in heavy crunch mode this year, may have worked far fewer hours. Those who have worked on Red Dead Redemption 2 describe the cinematics team, the design team, and especially the quality assurance team as facing some of the worst crunch.
In an e-mail on Monday, Kolbe offered another explanation for the discrepancy, saying that the “averages for Red Dead only would not be meaningfully different” and that days off were actually included in those averages, although weeks off were not. “However, the explanation for the discrepancy between the cross-company data and the individual anecdotes is just that: 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,” she said.
“There are absolutely people who, at various times, worked really long hours,” Kolbe added. “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, and we have offered to share the evidence of that with you if given permission from those people.”
(We could not discuss any individuals’ stories with Rockstar, as we had agreed to protect their identities.)
Even among those who said they crunched hard on Red Dead Redemption 2, accounts varied. Some said they left or were planning to leave because they felt mistreated, while others described Rockstar as a great place to work, aside from the long hours. Several current staff said they were infuriated by Houser’s comments implying that overtime at the company was voluntary. “I didn’t volunteer for it,” said one current developer. “I just know that’s the cost of working where I’m at.” We’ve heard the highest number of tough crunch stories from two offices in particular: Rockstar Lincoln in the United Kingdom and Rockstar’s main headquarters in New York City. From other Rockstar studios, we’ve heard a variety of positive and negative stories. (One studio we did not hear much from was Rockstar India, although those at other offices said they’d heard that overtime was bad there as well.)
Personal experiences may differ, but anecdotes from current and former employees paint a consistent picture: Rockstar Games is a complicated and sometimes difficult company, one where working “hard” is equated to working for as many hours as possible. Many told Kotaku they felt pressured to stay at the office at night and even come in on weekends if they wanted to succeed. Despite Dan Houser’s quote that “No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard,” people who have worked and currently work at Rockstar say that overtime is mandatory. In conversations, several used the phrase “culture of fear,” with some saying that they were worried about lawsuits or other retaliation for speaking up.
“The overall tone at Rockstar is that what the company values most is not the bugs you fix but the hours you put in,” said one current employee, echoing a view shared by most of the people interviewed for this article.
Rockstar’s Kolbe disagreed with this characterization but acknowledged that many members of her team have worked evenings and weekends in the lead up to Red Dead Redemption 2’s launch.
“In an ideal world, I’d like to think that we could have all of our work done so that we didn’t actually have to spend late nights here, but at the same time I think we do push ourselves really hard,” she said. “I think that’s across the board. It’s not just the games team, I think it’s the people involved in all aspects of what we’re creating here in that we will push ourselves to get the best piece, whether it’s the best piece of creative, whether that’s a television commercial, a trailer, whether that’s back-of-box copy… We care deeply about the games. I think that can sometimes result in a little bit of— You can become obsessive about certain things.”
Many video game studios crunch, and it’s rare to find a big game that didn’t require excessive overtime to make. But accounts from dozens of current and former Rockstar employees describe a company that appears to embrace crunch more than most, one where people have traditionally struggled to find success without working long hours. Rockstar makes some of the most impressive games in the world. The question is: What’s the cost?
Rockstar’s crunch culture first became public nearly nine years ago. On January 7, 2010, an anonymous author published a letter claiming to be from a group of “wives of Rockstar San Diego employees.” The account, which was well-publicized, criticized Rockstar’s California studio for forcing staff to work 12-hour days for six days a week in order to finish the first Red Dead Redemption, which would come out four months later, in May 2010. At the time, Rockstar waved it off as “a few anonymous posters on message boards,” but people who worked on the game say the letter accurately depicted what they went through.
“If you left early on a weekday or weekend, you’d get dirty looks,” said one former employee of Rockstar San Diego who told me they worked an average of 70 hours a week during Red Dead Redemption. “You’d feel the stare down, and sometimes you’d see it as you were leaving. There was this culture of, if you don’t put in the hours, you’re not worth working here.”
In the thick of this crunch, Rockstar San Diego began offering laundry service, according to two people who worked there, which as another former employee pointed out left some people feeling uncomfortable—they wouldn’t even have enough spare time to do their own laundry?
“The temperament from these guys has always been: It should be a privilege to serve in this organization,” said a person who was there. “And if you don’t agree with that, there’s a long line of people waiting to take your place.”
That’s a common sentiment from those who have had negative experiences at Rockstar, especially those who were there during the first Red Dead. “I would normally never speak about my time at Rockstar—it’s not my style,” said another person who worked at Rockstar San Diego during that game’s development, “but we absolutely were forced to work six-day weeks in the six to nine months leading to launch.”
Even Rockstar’s management now admits that it was a problematic time for the company, despite originally dismissing the anonymous letter.
“We certainly looked at Red Dead 1 and what came out of that, and knew we did not want to have a situation like that again,” said Rockstar’s Jennifer Kolbe. “I think naturally as the team has grown in its working practices together, we have made improvements into how the teams are run.”
Rockstar’s next project after Red Dead Redemption was L.A. Noire (2011), which went through a rough production under the Australian studio Team Bondi, and then came Max Payne 3 (2012), a third-person shooter about an alcoholic vigilante. People who worked on Max Payne 3 have described it as a “death march,” a brutal period of time for the company that involved long nights and plenty of mandatory crunch.
“I’m gonna be honest, a lot of the details of my life during that time are pretty blank,” said one person who worked on Max Payne 3 at Rockstar’s New England office in Massachusetts. “It was a lot of getting into the office at 9 or 10 AM and leaving at 10 or 11 at night.”
That person, who was salaried, did not get paid for their extra hours. Instead, they had to hope that the game would sell well enough to net everyone on staff a healthy bonus.
Bonuses are a big deal at Rockstar Games. The standard compensation package for a Rockstar employee includes an annual bonus, one that grows substantially during years when the company ships a game. It’s tied to a number of factors, Rockstar says, including the sales of that game and individual employee performance. Some former Rockstar employees described receiving hefty bonuses after the first Red Dead Redemption, sometimes reaching the mid-five digits. But Max Payne 3 did not sell well, according to the former Rockstar employee, so bonuses in 2012 were significantly lower than expected.
Then came 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V, which required crunch from many who worked across Rockstar’s studios. One former employee at Rockstar’s Toronto office shared documents showing how many hours one team had worked during a week in the months leading up to GTA V’s release. Those who had worked fewer than 60 hours were marked with the word “Under” in red letters. One person who worked at one of Rockstar’s offices in the United Kingdom said that the stress of constant overtime for nearly a decade had cost them their relationship and their mental health, although the person also insisted that it was one of the best places they’d ever worked. “They were—are—one of the best companies going,” the person said. “But the thing is, for the people who work for them, it’s not just a job, it’s an absolute way of life.”
It’s not uncommon to hear current and former employees describe Rockstar as a family—or, less charitably, as a “cult.” Some have shared stories of the company going out of its way to help them out during hard times, like family deaths or serious illnesses. Some said they saw Rockstar as a sort of trial by fire: Work there for a few years, put in the extra hours, and your resume will be armed with a Grand Theft Auto or a Red Dead Redemption, giving you the prestige to get hired by any game development studio you’d like.
During the development of Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar began formally shifting to a new policy. Instead of different studios or clusters of studios working on each project, as they had for Red Dead 1 and Max Payne 3, all of Rockstar’s offices would combine forces. For some departments, that helped alleviate the workload.
Others said they still had it rough, however. Three people who worked at Rockstar San Diego between 2011 and 2016 recall a period where they were told that overtime wasn’t optional. “It was mandatory 80 hours for basically the whole studio,” said one person who was there. “If you don’t have any work to do on Red Dead 2, just test GTA V for another eight hours.” Said a second: “Maybe they didn’t tell anyone 100 hours, but they definitely told us 80. Concept artists were sitting there being glorified QA.”
A current Rockstar San Diego employee also confirmed that they had been asked to work 80-hour weeks for periods back then. That’d be an average of 11-hour work days—10am to 9pm—for all seven days of the week.
In order to keep track of hours, Rockstar asks many employees to log into the company’s proprietary bug-tracking software, BugStar, every day when they get into work, then log out when they leave. (Some Rockstar offices use other software to track their hours.) Employees are also told to log their individual tasks, which Rockstar says is for project management purposes, so the company can know how long it takes to fix bugs or implement features. It’s an environment that has made some staff feel as if they’re constantly being watched, and several current employees have shared stories of being called into their manager’s office and asked why they aren’t working more than 40 or 45 hours a week.
“The idea that Rockstar cares about its employees and their health is laughable,” said one former San Diego employee who left during production of Red Dead Redemption 2. “I was pushed further into depression and anxiety than I had ever been while I worked there. My body was exhausted, I did not feel as though I was able to have any friends outside of work, I felt like I was going insane for much of my time there and I started drinking heavily… Now, I have heard from some friends that are still working there that some improvements have been made, but Dan’s statement about crunch being optional is ridiculous. It is optional if you want to lose your job or never move forward in your career.”
When Red Dead Redemption came out in May 2010, it was a massive critical and commercial success. It was widely seen as one of the greatest games of all time, and it was no surprise that Rockstar greenlit a sequel.
Red Dead Redemption 2, announced in October 2016, has been in some form of development since the beginning of 2011. Those who have worked on the game over the past seven years have expressed nothing but positivity about it, and even those who feel bitterly about how Rockstar treated them acknowledge that working on the sequel to Red Dead was creatively satisfying. “The work I did there was the most fun, most interesting work I’ve ever done,” said one former Rockstar employee who otherwise had nothing but negative things to say about his experiences with crunch, management, and the company as a whole. “I think I enjoyed the actual work more than I have doing really anything.”
Current and former employees use high praise when talking about Red Dead Redemption 2, describing it as unlike anything anyone has played before. It’s poised to be one of the most technically impressive games of all time. It was also developed under a great deal of crunch.
The word “crunch” is something of a misnomer. It implies a short period of time toward the end of a project—crunch time, the final opportunity for everyone to make the game as good as possible. But in the video game industry, crunch can happen any time, for a variety of reasons. Whether there’s a big publisher milestone coming up, some executives are coming to town, or the creative director wants to look at a new demo, there are many periods when game developers might have to work nights and weekends to finish big tasks.
For some people working on Red Dead Redemption 2, crunch started as early as 2016. For others at Rockstar, crunch periods started in the fall of 2017, a year before the game’s release date. Even when the company wasn’t in official crunch mode, dozens of current and former employees say they’ve felt compelled to stay late for a variety of reasons. “Rockstar pressures employees to put in overtime in several direct and indirect ways,” said one current Rockstar developer. “Coming in on weekends is perhaps the only way to show you are dedicated and care. So you can be very efficient and hard-working during the week, but if you don’t show up on the weekend, you’re accused of not doing your share and will be constantly harassed.”
In conversations and e-mails, six current and former employees all independently used the term “culture of fear” to describe their experiences at Rockstar, in large part because of that overtime pressure. “There is a lot of fear at Rockstar,” said a former employee, “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.” Some current employees, when asked, said they’d experienced nothing like this, noting that it would all be dependent on their department and individual manager. But those who have worked in several of Rockstar’s offices have described feeling like they had to be in the office as much as possible out of fear of getting yelled at, having their bonuses docked, or losing their jobs.
Even over the past week, as Rockstar’s management sent multiple messages to employees telling them that they were welcome to talk about their experiences, some current staff said they were terrified of being open. Last weekend, Rockstar North co-studio head Rob Nelson sent an e-mail to everyone at the company acknowledging that management was looking to improve “the way we approach development at this scale” and promising that nobody would be targeted for sharing feedback. “He reiterated an offer he made last week that if any of us wants to talk to him, he’s happy to do so,” said a current employee, “but everyone I’ve spoken with is still afraid to open up.”
One common fear at Rockstar is that if you leave during a game’s production, your name won’t be in the credits, no matter how much work you put in. Several former Rockstar employees lamented this fact, and Rockstar confirmed it when I asked. “That has been a consistent policy because we have always felt that we want the team to get to the finish line,” said Jennifer Kolbe. “And so a very long time ago, we decided that if you didn’t actually finish the game, then you wouldn’t be in the credits.”
Kolbe later told me that for Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar was “planning to recognize many people who made a contribution, including many former employees,” which turned out to be a list of their names on the company’s website. That list includes those who worked on Red Dead Redemption 2 for years but left before the game shipped, leading Rockstar to exclude their names from the in-game credits. This appears to be the first time Rockstar has credited former employees in a fashion like this.
For some, crunching on Red Dead Redemption 2 was a choice, one that several proud current employees told me they made because they wanted to help ensure that the game was as good as possible. Many have argued about the ethics of voluntary crunch—and the pressures it creates on one’s co-workers—but quite a few Rockstar staff insisted that their overtime had not been mandatory. They were workaholics, they told me. They wanted to put in that extra push to make Red Dead 2 great.
For others, crunch emerged for other reasons. During development of Red Dead Redemption 2, several sources say, there were many points where the Houser brothers weren’t pleased with how the game was shaping up. They made major changes to the map and the camp system, a core part of Red Dead Redemption 2 that involves protagonist Arthur Morgan’s gang of fellow criminals moving around the world. “There was a point where the Houser bros. were extremely disappointed at how the game was turning out,” said a former Rockstar employee. “They didn’t like the gameplay, didn’t find it fun or interesting, and this triggered an overhaul on a lot of different things.”
Even something as simple as changing the name of a city could lead to tons of extra work. At one point, Red Dead Redemption 2’s biggest city was called New Bordeaux, two sources confirmed, but when Rockstar found out that the open-world game Mafia III (developed by 2K, which is also owned by Rockstar parent company Take-Two Interactive) had used that name, they changed it to Saint Denis. That meant taking voice actors into the dialogue booth for a whole lot of re-recording, which meant a whole lot of extra work for anyone involved with cinematics—not to mention all the artwork and interface changes.
Ask any game developer what the most important part of making games is and they’ll likely give you a single-word answer: Iteration. What that means is experimenting and prototyping and changing your game until you learn what works best. Inevitably, that means throwing out work that’s already done, and even more inevitably, that means that an entire team will have to put extra hours into a game. Many game developers see this as one of the reasons that crunch is unavoidable, especially for those at the end of the pipeline. The audio team, for example, can’t work until other parts of the game are finalized.
“You cannot possibly accurately plan out a project as complicated as RDR2,” said a current Rockstar employee. “There are always going to be unexpected problems or dependencies that arise that generate bottlenecks which are going to require somebody get some work done quickly, otherwise 20 other people are held up. If someone is looking for an absolute 9-5 no surprises type job, then there are plenty of those jobs available in different industries that someone who works in games is more than qualified to do.”
Yet Rockstar’s crunch feels different than that of other studios. For years, whispers have circulated in industry circles about crunch at the company behind Red Dead Redemption 2, and there are plenty of people with stories to tell.
Over the course of reporting for this article, I heard a wide range of varying and often contradictory opinions and anecdotes. Even within the same office, one team might be going through brutal crunch while another team works standard nine-hour days. One current employee at Rockstar NYC, for example, told me that they’d been working 60- to 70-hour weeks for the past two years. They said that they can’t see themselves doing this kind of work for that much longer. But they also said they didn’t see how else a game like Red Dead Redemption 2 could be made.
“I think one of the big misunderstandings that I see a lot in comments and articles is that this isn’t number crunching,” said the employee. “We have an understanding that we’re trying to make a work of art more than just churning out a product. If I was just churning out a product, [at] 5 p.m. I’m heading out. But we’re making something you’ve never seen before.”
The employee said they’d reached out because of Dan Houser’s comments implying that crunch was limited and voluntary at Rockstar—comments that the employee said were infuriating to them and others in their office. “We got a few e-mails where they were like, ‘Look, guys, we need to be hitting these deadlines, doing this—I don’t see any butts in the seats on Saturdays,’” they said. They added that their crunch had “100 percent had long-term ramifications” on their friendships and relationships, yet they’d do it all again if they could. “This game would have never come out if we did not put in the hours that we did,” the employee said.
A second Rockstar NYC developer also said they reached out because of Houser’s comments. “While nobody I know worked 100 hour weeks, many of us worked 60-80 hour weeks for the past one or two years,” they said. “To hear one of the heads of the company effectively go on record as saying none of that ever happened has been a huge blow to morale at a time when we should be celebrating.”
A third Rockstar developer in the New York office said they’d had far more positive experiences. “We crunch far less than articles so far have presented and there is no ‘secret shaming’ of people who leave early,” that person said.
A fourth current developer, also in New York City, said they were terrified even to reach out to me, and that they felt like they worked long hours under an “abject culture of fear.” A fifth employee at Rockstar New York said their past few years had been great. “I would really hate for all of Rockstar’s management to get vilified when some managers/leads really are doing a phenomenal job and genuinely care about their employees,” that person said.
As with any massive, multi-national company, experiences at Rockstar can differ drastically. Yet there are a few common themes. The current Rockstar employee who said they’d crunched far less than articles have presented also brought up a point echoed by many others: At Rockstar, being in the office is valued above all else. “Rockstar does have a pervasive issue with the ‘appearance of work,’” that person said in an e-mail. “They like seeing people at their desks (they don’t allow work from home unless for medical reason and even then they strongly urge PTO [paid time off]). They also like people staying for dinner and you do see a bit of shame if you haven’t stayed until dinner (7:30) in a few weeks.”
At Rockstar’s New York City office, dinner has been catered three to four nights a week since the heaviest crunch started, in fall of 2017, according to those who spoke to me. To some teams, this wasn’t presented as a voluntary option. One e-mail shared with Kotaku from the fall of 2017 makes it clear that crunch was required, starting with three nights a week.
On Twitter over the past week, Rockstar employees have shared a number of positive stories, with many, especially at Rockstar North in Edinburgh, Scotland, stating that crunch on Red Dead Redemption 2 was the easiest they’ve ever had it. Although Rockstar explicitly told employees not to “sugarcoat” any of their stories, outside observers were skeptical that anyone would publicly trash their current employer. Indeed, when I spoke to some of those who tweeted, some who responded said they had been honest but may have left out some parts of their stories—and that they were hoping that this month’s events might lead to change for those Rockstar staff in departments that had it rougher.
Former employees have also publicly shared negative experiences. Job Stauffer, who worked in PR for Rockstar, said on Twitter that he had worked weekends during his time at the company. “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 [Houser] come in, they want to see everyone working as hard as them.’”
Privately, several current employees told me that this hasn’t changed. Those who didn’t work in the New York City office shared stories of everyone having to work extra hours whenever the Housers came to town, while those who do work in New York echoed Stauffer’s comments.
“There’d be Saturdays that I’d go there with nothing to do,” said one. “I’d sit in the office for six to eight hours just in case Sam or Dan was there, so they could see me. It was always dictated to me about my bonus. It was never about working, it was always about, you want that good bonus so you need Dan and Sam to see you sitting there.”
Said another: “The stories you’ve heard about people coming in to be visible for the Housers (more frequently Dan than Sam) are 100% true... I myself have been told at least once to walk a lap around the floor on an otherwise slow Saturday so that he could see there were people around.”
When asked about this, Rockstar head of publishing Jennifer Kolbe said she found it shocking. “I can’t speak to any particular manager that might say that type of stuff,” she said. “I don’t know the last game review with Dan or Sam that actually flowed over to a weekend… I’d like to believe that we don’t believe in the idea of mandatory face time, if that makes sense. I think it’s more if you have work that needs to get done, we expect it to get done.”
Kolbe said she used to come into the office nearly every weekend until around two years ago, when she had a child. She said she found it productive to be there when other people weren’t around, so she could catch up on e-mails and other work without having to take any meetings. “I don’t know if I was inadvertently sending a message to people that because I was here, they needed to be here,” she said. “Now that I look back, I don’t know. I would’ve hoped they would’ve stayed home so I could get my stuff done.”
And what of other studios? Some who currently work for Rockstar North have shared positive experiences, both on Twitter and privately with Kotaku, outside of those in the scripting or design department, who say they’ve been hit pretty hard by crunch on Red Dead Redemption 2. One current Rockstar North staffer said their hours have ranged from 40 all the way up to 80 per week during crunch. “I love working there, during my time I’ve had multiple promotions, get to make great games and I feel the pay is ok/good,” they said in an e-mail. “Outside of crunch hours the job is amazing.” A second current Rockstar North staffer described a bleaker situation: “Not once have I approached 100 hour weeks, even in the worst of crunch. I have, however, been on a steady death march of mostly mandated 50-60 hour weeks for quite honestly years.“
(To conceptualize this, a 50-hour week would be five 10-hour days, say 10am to 8pm. A 60-hour week would add a full Saturday or Sunday to one’s work schedule.)
Two current employees at Rockstar New England, which is located in Andover, Massachusetts, both shared glowing stories. “I really can’t imagine working at another game company at this point,” said one. “I’m working on the best products with amazingly talented people using the best tools and pipeline in the industry under a company that puts the quality of the game above anything else. I’m also working very reasonable hours and I’m very well off financially. It’s a comfortable and exciting career, and they take care of us.” A third, also at Rockstar New England, said they loved working at the company but that they’d been told to work 55- to 60-hour weeks during crunch over the past year.
In San Diego, some said things have changed drastically from the days of the first Red Dead Redemption and that anonymous letter from employees’ spouses, while others said they’ve felt pressured to work nights and weekends. Two current staffers each said they’d been asked to work more hours, although they weren’t given specific guidelines or quotas. “It’s a culture thing,” said one. “You’re going out to lunch and everyone’s talking about work hours—how many hours you’ve done, how many you’ve logged in. The culture values being a workaholic.”
Some Rockstar staff said they were paid annual salaries, so they didn’t get any extra money for putting in hours on top of their standard schedules. Others said they were paid hourly, although several said they’d compared their wages to those co-workers making annual salaries and found that they’d have to work overtime just to make the same amount. (The people on annual salaries tended to be more senior, so it follows that they were paid more.)
And then there’s Rockstar Lincoln. Of all of the current Rockstar employees who reached out to tell their stories, nearly a dozen worked at Lincoln. More than a dozen former employees from that office also chimed in with their own experiences, painting a bleak picture. Even some current staff who worked at other offices and told me they had positive experiences at Rockstar acknowledged that Lincoln had serious issues. If crunch culture is a problem across Rockstar, then at Rockstar Lincoln, it appears to be an epidemic.
At many game studios, there’s one department on the very bottom of the totem pole, a place where it’s tough to get a lot of respect: Quality Assurance, or QA, where people play different sections of the game in as many ways as possible, trying to find all of the bugs. Although QA testers are essential to the success of a game, they’re also seen by many game studios as low-skilled and dispensable.
Rockstar has a few QA departments, but a large number of its testers work at one particular office: Rockstar Lincoln, located in the English city of the same name. Current and former employees of Rockstar Lincoln describe it as a tough place to work, one where the testers are paid low wages, asked to work extremely long hours, and subject to strict security practices.
“The QA department at Rockstar Lincoln has been working mandatory OT since August 2017,” said one current employee. “In October 2017 we officially began our crunch and have been in this crunch since to this date.” As Rockstar has confirmed, Lincoln’s testers have been asked to work on evenings and weekends since then, starting with three nights a week and later moving up to five, and starting with one weekend day per month and later moving up to every weekend. Anyone who wanted a two-day weekend would have to work an extra weekend day on another week, which meant 12 straight days of work between days off.
Even before then, however, some staff said they were working overtime. Some explained that testers were hired on a temporary contract basis, and they’d felt compelled to work extra hours in order to get permanent jobs. “A large amount of staff are on rolling temporary contracts and live in the hope that they will be extended and able to pay rent as the end of their contract approaches,” said one current tester. “I don’t feel like anyone is comfortable speaking out in the hopes that they can be extended long enough to be made permanent. Staff are often reminded how lucky they are, simply to be working for Rockstar.”
“I have never suffered from depression before working at Rockstar,” said a former Lincoln tester. “Now some time after leaving it’s a recurring issue for me… One tester who worked below me told me he had gone to the doctor for help dealing with depression, was asked where he worked and when he replied Rockstar, the doctor said. ‘For god’s sake, another one.’” Two different spouses of Rockstar Lincoln employees contacted me to share stories, saying they hadn’t seen much of their partners lately.
Others said they had positive experiences as well, with one current Rockstar tester even calling it “the greatest place I have ever worked,” outside of the crunch. But, they said, “This type of work should never be placed on people to maintain over the course of an entire year and beyond.”
Only some of Lincoln’s testers were paid overtime. People working in the localization department received annual salaries, as did lead testers, creating an uncomfortable situation where some testers were getting paid more than their leads. Some told me they didn’t want promotions as a result.
On top of the overtime, those who work or have worked at Rockstar Lincoln describe restrictions they saw as unfair. Three testers said they weren’t allowed their cell phones at their desks during the work day, and had to put them in lockers before starting their shifts, which made it difficult to deal with doctor’s appointments or other essential activities aside from their breaks. Two said that after a tester spotted a drone that might have been filming through the windows, they were no longer allowed to open the blinds at night. Testers said they weren’t allowed to eat hot food at their desks—desks that were shared between day- and night-shift employees.
Rockstar’s Jennifer Kolbe confirmed these details, saying in an e-mail, “We believe that the vast majority of our team in Lincoln feels positively about work conditions there, and these specific difficulties mentioned are either not generally considered real hardships or are not based on any current reality.”
For some, that was certainly the case—except for the hours. “Ultimately, the job is a good job,” said one former tester. “And Rockstar is a good company to work for. When it’s not crunch, it’s not a bad place at all. The money’s alright, there’s a bonus at the end of the year. It’s just that crunch practically kills people.”
In conversations, some testers said they’d missed out on important events and time with their families due to this crunch. Others said their hours were monitored down to the minute, with managers reacting harshly to any missed time. One former Lincoln tester said they’d arrived late at work one day due to a heavy snowstorm that had led other businesses in the area to shut down. “There was no, ‘Thanks for making it in,’” the tester said. “It was, ‘Can you work back that?’”
“I feel like I’m going to need to get to know my partner again,” said a current tester.
On Friday, October 19, Rockstar Lincoln told its staff that overtime would no longer be mandatory. Although Kolbe characterized this as a clarification of a previous policy, and said it hadn’t been mandatory before, nearly a dozen current and former Rockstar Lincoln employees have reached out to Kotaku since then to say otherwise. All said that this overtime was a regular part of their schedule, and one even said they had received e-mails using the word “mandatory” to describe crunch.
In an e-mail on Monday, Kolbe offered more clarification: “We have spoken with the Lincoln team to make sure it’s clear that the scheduled extra time is requested, and yes we have only been requesting what we feel is really needed to get this game finished at the quality level we need. From talking to our team last week, we have heard that there were references to ‘mandatory’ overtime from some managers. At the same time we don’t believe that was a blanket message for the Lincoln team, and that is borne out by the comments from some that while they knew it was not in fact mandatory, they felt an obligation to do it. Either way, it is clear to us that our communication has not been perfect and we take responsibility for the situations in which the team has been confused or has received confusing messages from us. We have pushed hard over the last years to build and optimize the structure of our QA team, including doubling the size of the permanent team since 2014 and introducing scheduled day and night shifts so that we can increasingly avoid asking the QA team to work overtime. We will continue to make progress on that.”
Last Friday, Kolbe shared numbers that appeared to show normal work hours at Rockstar Lincoln, despite the company’s request that daytime testers work nights and weekends. From October 9, 2017 to May 13, 2018, she said, the average work week at Lincoln was 38.4 hours. From May 14, 2018 to August 5, 2018, she said the average work week was 45.4 hours. But if these averages accounted for days off, as Kolbe had later clarified, then the data was skewed—and it certainly doesn’t mesh with the experiences of those who shared their stories.
“Some of us on dayshift feel a bit cheated by the averaged out hours,” said a current Lincoln employee in an e-mail last weekend. “It diminishes the work we’ve put in, if some higher-up tries to gloss over or down-play the actual hours we were forced to crunch. Rockstar doesn’t need to use such underhanded tactics to make themselves look slightly better, all they should do is resolve the issue at hand—which they have started to, credit where credit’s due.”
Some at Rockstar Lincoln are optimistic about the change to optional overtime, although two lead testers have lamented the fact that their extra hours remain unpaid. “While I’m still a bit skeptical as to whether this voluntary overtime can remain free of peer pressure/job security/’passion’ anxieties, it’s comforting to see leads/supervisors commit to no more than two overtime shifts per week and two weekend shifts a month,” said the current employee. “Especially considering how much we were supposed to be crunching in November. Now I’m in control of how much I can work, it feels great. I’ll actually have meaningful free time in an evening!”
From people across all of Rockstar’s studios, we’ve heard mixed feelings: Pride at having worked on a game like Red Dead Redemption 2. Weariness after putting in so many hours. And anger that Rockstar’s management has seemingly downplayed the crunch in public over the past week.
As Rockstar’s approach to work has made headlines over the past couple of weeks, the company has tried to get on top of things by taking some unusual steps. Normally a secretive institution that would prefer the press stay away and their developers not talk publicly about their jobs, Rockstar last week made the unprecedented move of allowing its developers to speak publicly about work conditions. It also opened up its doors to Kotaku—in a particularly unconventional way.
It was cold last Thursday when I went down to Rockstar’s office in SoHo, Manhattan at the company’s invitation. Rockstar had learned that I was working on this story earlier in October, a week before Houser’s comments set off public discussion of crunch culture, and said it would make its employees available for interviews. Over the course of a few conversations, some of Rockstar’s top people, including head of publishing Jennifer Kolbe, told me that they took this issue very seriously and wanted to make sure I had a chance to speak to staff on the ground at all of their studios.
What followed was one of the strangest interview experiences I’ve ever had. Rockstar’s head of PR and communications, Simon Ramsey, sat with me at a table in a fourth-floor conference room. Ramsey said we’d be video-chatting with staff from all across the world, and after some brief technical issues, we were faced with two boxes on a screen. In one box, on the left, two employees sat on a couch at Rockstar New England. In another box, on the right, three Rockstar North employees also sat on a couch. They all wore casual clothes, some adorned with Red Dead Redemption logos and slogans. We exchanged quick introductions, and then I was given free rein to interview them about their work-life balances and crunch experiences. All five of them. At once.
Over the next two hours, the company also brought in groups from Rockstar San Diego, Rockstar Lincoln, and Rockstar Toronto, a mix of junior and senior employees. Rockstar said I could quote them but asked that I not use any of their names.
It’s difficult to gauge whether someone’s being completely candid about their work experiences when they’re on a video chat with a group of their co-workers, a journalist, and the company’s head of PR. Still, the 12 employees who spoke to me on these calls offered perspectives that are worth sharing, much like those who publicly tweeted about their experiences.
“I know when I feel like I need to put in the extra time—you certainly have weeks when you feel like you’re going to have a lot more hours than others,” said one Rockstar New England employee. “The other side of it is that it’s been very easy for me to balance my work life and my personal life.”
“I’ve worked one day of the weekend in five years,” said a lead at Rockstar North, noting that things had changed drastically for them since the development of Grand Theft Auto V. “I’ve got people who just want to go home at 5 p.m., and that’s not an issue… I see in the company that we’ve changed, and that people feel more like they’re being treated well, but there are still some cultures that remain from the old days.”
“Out of all those projects, Red Dead Redemption 2 has been the easiest I’ve experienced personally,” said one Rockstar San Diego employee. “Core hours, including lunch, would be nine hours. I’d say I probably get in an extra two hours on top of that most times. During crunch I probably put in another hour or two on top of that.”
“Nobody’s ever told me, ‘You need to work X amount of hours,’” said a Rockstar Toronto employee. “We will on occasion be asked if we have availability on weekends.”
After one of these calls, Ramsey turned to me and asked what I thought so far. I told him that I believed these stories but was skeptical that anyone could be transparent under interview circumstances like this. He seemed surprised.
This tracks with my encounters with Rockstar higher-ups over the past week. While they’ve made efforts to discuss the allegations of overwork and have loosened restrictions on their employees speaking up, I’ve not gotten much sense that they see that workers will inevitably fear retaliation from bosses, no matter how much those bosses say they can speak freely. It’s human nature. In an e-mail sent to Rockstar employees this past weekend, Rockstar North studio co-head Rob Nelson said that a few people had mentioned wanting some place to submit their thoughts anonymously, and that the company was looking into setting that up. That will undoubtedly inspire more candid feedback.
What plenty of Rockstar employees say they believe, even those who spoke to me privately, is that things have changed for the better since the days of the first Red Dead Redemption. It’s a sentiment that Rockstar’s Kolbe also shared, when I asked her if she thought crunch was sustainable.
“I think we’ve realized that it’s not sustainable,” she said, “but I don’t necessarily think we realized it through burnout. I think we’ve realized it through having children, because I think that naturally means you’re going to work less hours. I think even for the people who don’t have children, who have gone through crunch periods on other games, they approach the game they then go onto next a little differently. Because no matter who you are, your health is a concern to you. I think everyone approaches each new project with the goal of: It’s got to be better than what I did last time.”
Kolbe added that many members of her team have worked together for 15 to 20 years. “We want to continue working together, but we also know that certainly as you get older, it gets harder,” she said. “We’re dealing now with the generation after mine. They have very different ideas about work-life balance than my generation has, and they are bringing that into the company, and I think that’s a positive thing. They probably think we’re all crazy, but I think it actually has changed our ideas of how you can work.”
Just how much has changed at Rockstar depends who you ask. During the Red Dead 1 days, at least, life at Rockstar appealed to a certain type of person—a workaholic, one who loved the thought of spending long hours with their co-workers, pushing as hard as possible to finish the gargantuan, ambitious projects that have made Rockstar one of the most beloved companies in games. Some employees compared it to a family. One described making games at Rockstar as feeling like fighting a war together. Others used the words Stockholm Syndrome.
“If you’re really passionate about the game and working there, and want to prioritize that over your life, it’s a really great place,” said a former Rockstar San Diego employee. “But if you want to prioritize your life, it’s not.”
One lead at another major game studio told me that in the last few weeks he’d interviewed two different candidates from Rockstar. He asked why they were looking to leave. “[They] said, ‘If you work at Rockstar, it is expected you have no life outside of Rockstar,’” he told me.
What’s become clear over the past week is that many of those who work and have worked for Rockstar—even those who have had positive experiences—want things to change. They want a better atmosphere for themselves and their colleagues, one where overtime is an exception rather than the rule, and where working on a dream game doesn’t mean burning themselves out.
Or, at the very least, they want a future where all employees are paid for their extra hours.
“I’m not writing because I want to harm the company or the game,” said one current employee in a recent e-mail. “I’m proud of both and I stand by them. I think the incredible amount of time and effort put into the game will show and I can’t wait for people to see it next week. I’m writing because I think this is a unique opportunity to raise our voices against the insanity of crunch, and that Rockstar really could change for the better as a result. If that happens, maybe other studios will follow suit.”
Some fans have asked if they should avoid buying or playing Red Dead Redemption 2 to show support for those who had tough experiences making it, but many of Rockstar’s current and former employees—even those who had the worst things to say about the company—say they’re against the idea. For one, those who put long weeks into the game want people to see what they’ve done. Also, given that this year’s bonuses will be based on royalties, any sort of large-scale boycott may hurt Rockstar employees more than it helps, some current employees have said. What fans can instead do, those people say, is speak out about crunch and workplace issues like this, helping put public pressure on the company.
On Friday, Rockstar will release Red Dead Redemption 2, and next month, it will launch Red Dead Online, which some current employees are now crunching to finish. Then, Rockstar will move on to new projects. The work of making video games at Rockstar will continue, and it is unclear how much the process of creating them will change.
Is it possible to make great art without unreasonable sacrifice? That’s a question that’s haunted the video game industry for decades, and it’s one that remains difficult if not impossible to definitively answer. Can Rockstar continue to make great games without putting in the crunch hours that have been so pervasive in its long history of successful art? Is crunch just, as CD Projekt Red CEO Marcin Iwiński once told me in an interview about his studio’s mega-hit The Witcher 3, a “necessary evil” in game development? These are questions that will be debated for years to come. For now, at least, many hope that by coming together to share their stories, they can push for some change at Rockstar Games.