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Red Dead Redemption 2 developers open up about work conditions at Rockstar Games

Several refute talk that 100-hour workweeks are the norm

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur Morgan firing two revolvers Rockstar Studios/Rockstar Games
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Rockstar Games, still battling blowback from the offhand comment that a company co-founder gave about long work hours in an interview published this week, last night gave current employees permission to speak about their work experiences over social media. Some, who have worked on the Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto franchises, have taken that opportunity and have pushed back at the depiction that they work under unfair conditions and expectations.

“I haven’t worked a 100-hour week in my life,” Zoe Sams, a tools programmer with Rockstar North, said on Twitter. “I’m thanked for any overtime I am asked to do, and it feels like in those circumstances it truly was an unfortunate situation.”

The testimonials come eight days before Rockstar is due to ship Red Dead Redemption 2, a highly anticipated cowboy adventure expected to be the fall season’s biggest hit. In an interview with New York magazine published earlier this week,meant to promote the game, Dan Houser said studio employees worked 100-hour weeks this year to finish the game.

Houser made the remarks apparently to compliment the dedication given to Red Dead Redemption 2. But in an industry whose major publishers have been embarrassed more than once by war stories about developers “crunching” double-shift workweeks, the tone came off as exploitive. Houser later tried to clarify his remarks by saying his comment to New York concerned himself and his writing team, and applied to a three-week period this year only.

Wesley Mackinder, an environmental artist with Rockstar North, echoed Sams’ contention that he was never asked or expected to work a 100-hour week in his time at the studio. “I’ve been at Rockstar for six years and I have never worked, or been asked to work, anywhere remotely close to 100 hours in a week.”

Rockstar North, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, developed 2013’s Grand Theft Auto 5 and is one of seven Rockstar Games studios that all collaborated on Red Dead Redemption 2’s development.

“No one is pretending that working extra hours is fun/desirable,” Mackinder added. “Everyone tries their very hardest to avoid this. And in my experience it has gotten better over time.”

Vivianne Langdon, a tools programmer at Rockstar San Diego, was even more specific about her experience and working conditions. Langdon also said that developers had been granted permission by their bosses to speak about their work on social media. “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,” she said.

“Non-exempt” references a portion of United States labor law that governs what types of employees must be paid hourly and which ones, usually those with managerial roles, are “exempt” from that law and may be paid a straight salary.

Another worker, Phil Beveridge of Rockstar North, conceded that he worked “crunch” shifts for Grand Theft Auto 5 but the work schedule was less demanding for Red Dead Redemption 2.

In any case, Beveridge said he was told by his supervisor to go home as he stayed late; Langdon also described her long hours as a personal choice.

“Crunch” has been treated as a fact of life by some developers and decried by others who call it a sign of bad product management or unfair labor expectations in a field where jobs are very desirable. The most notorious complaint about work practices came in 2004 from Erin Hoffman, aka “EA Spouse,” whose writing led to a class-action lawsuit that Electronic Arts ultimately settled.

In 2011, Danny Bilson of THQ said Kaos Studios had been working “seven-day weeks for a couple of months” to complete Homefront, remarks that were widely criticized as insensitive. Also that year, Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen wrote extensively about the development of Rockstar-published L.A. Noire, which painted a picture of an overworked and poorly led development staff pushed to meet unreasonable deadlines.

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