Work like a Rockstar, because our love for video games might kill the industry
John Tabbernor // Columnist
It’s funny that we care so much about the conditions our coffee beans are picked and grown under, because we don’t want the guilt of exploitative labour practices souring our morning pick-me-up. But we rarely care about how our video games are made. Last week in this column, we discussed the growing issue of labour concerns in the gaming industry after TellTale closed its doors and sacked its entire staff without severance. I said that the discussion around labour wouldn’t be going away anytime soon, and it turns out that Dan Houser must be a fan. The co-founder of Rockstar Games and writer on the infamous Grand Theft Auto series just lobbed me a softball.
In a puff piece for New York Magazine promoting Rockstar’s hotly anticipated Red Dead Redemption 2, Houser bragged that his team was “working 100-hour work weeks.” Inside an industry notorious for unpaid overtime, or “crunch” time, it’s unfathomable that Houser thought this comment would go over well. A few days later, fans, pundits and media released a torrent of criticism. In response, Houser released a statement attempting to clarify his earlier comments. He said that he was talking about himself and a handful of members of the writing team, and that the absurd amount of overtime only stretched over a three-week period. “We don’t ask or expect anyone to work anything like this,” he iterated.
What Houser said could be the case, but it’s hard to know for sure. Many past Rockstar employees shared unflattering stories about the studio and its culture this week on social media. Some, like Job Stauffer, were damning in their accounts of working on Grand Theft Auto 4 over a decade ago. “It was like working with a gun to your head seven days a week. ‘Be here Saturday and Sunday too, just in case Sam or Dan [Houser] come in, they want to see everyone working as hard as them’.”
After relaxing its social media policies in response to this backlash, many current Rockstar employees added their voices to the conversation. “I’ve been working on [Red Dead Redemption 2] for five years. They’ve … actually done a pretty good job of avoiding heavy crunch (better than [Grand Theft Auto 5], which I also worked on),” Kaitlyn Burnell, a senior programmer at Rockstar, tweeted.
Like most things in life, the truth is complicated. Every employee’s experience in Rockstar’s multiple studios across the globe is going to be different. From the accounts of those still with the company, the pace of work seems to be getting easier to cope with. However, this is the same company that spawned the infamous “Rockstar Spouse” letter in 2010, calling on Rockstar San Diego to improve working conditions while that team crunched on the original Red Dead Redemption. The unfortunate reality is that it can be hard for someone to say “my labour is being exploited” when you don’t even realize that it is.
This is especially true when it comes to young developers trying to get their start in games. These are people like you and I who love games. They’ll do anything to live their dream of creating and working in the gaming industry. They’ll put in long hours and work away their weekends all because they care – because they’re passionate. But that “passion” is exactly what makes them exploitable.
Managers and studio heads might say they don’t ask their employees to crunch, and often they don’t have to. If there is an existing culture that encourages crunch and overwork, it doesn’t matter whether it is explicitly mandated or not. Many workplaces often suffer from soft or unspoken pressure from colleagues and bosses. You want to “pull your weight” and be “part of the team”. The problem with the gaming industry is that if you don’t give it your all, there are thousands of other young kids out there, hungry for your job. They’re just as passionate and just as willing to put in the time that you won’t. The industry is especially good at snapping up these young developers, overworking them until they burn out, and spitting them out again when their motivation is exhausted. It’s the passion the industry sees and wants to snatch up, and developers are more than willing to exploit it.
Grand Theft Auto 5 is estimated to have made $6 billion. That makes it one of the highest grossing entertainment products ever made. It made more money than any movie, novel or album in existence. Red Dead Redemption 2 will likely be a comparable juggernaut. Rockstar can afford to take care of its workers, probably exponentially more than it currently does. I doubt that any studio, or Rockstar itself, is run by a cartoon maniacal capitalist, tapping their pale, spindly fingers while they watch their workers toil away into nothingness. Yet there still exists a culture in the industry that often turns a blind eye to harmful work practices. Publishers and studios can, and should, do more. As consumers, we also need to do more. Boycotts are largely ineffectual. Executives and shareholders can ride that wave and still be financially secure while developers suffer. As game fans, we need to add our voices to this conversation. We need to be loud, and we need to be angry.