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Red Dead Redemption 2’s labor controversy, explained

The year’s biggest video game premiere highlights a thorny issue for the industry

Red Dead Redemption 2 - the Van der Linde Gang riding through a forest at golden hour Rockstar Games

Red Dead Redemption 2 is the biggest game in the world, dominating the current conversation of video games and popular culture. It also represents the industry’s decades-long struggles to mature from creative experiments in garages and small office complexes to international, 24-hours, 7-days a week consumer products made by thousands.

You may have read stories about “crunch” and poor working conditions during the creation of Red Dead Redemption 2. The issue, for both Rockstar Games and the industry at large, is complex. Here is a primer.

What started all this?

On Oct. 14, New York magazine published a lengthy feature about the development and highly anticipated launch of Red Dead Redemption 2. In it, Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser described the workload necessary to deliver such a richly detailed open world and video gaming experience. “We were working 100-hour weeks,” several times this year, Houser said. The story went on to tout the 300,000 animations, 500,000 lines of dialogue and voluminous codebase in the game.

Reaction within the gaming community was swift and intense. Working conditions in games development, particularly long hours and expectations of overtime, have been a mainstream topic in the subject going back to 2004. Though Houser later gave a statement saying he intended his remarks to reflect RDR2’s senior writing team’s workload within a limited timetable, the fuse on this controversy had been lit.

What is crunch and why is it controversial?

“Crunch” is an industry term describing a period up to a game’s launch when the development team is putting in longer-than-normal hours to finish and polish the game. In 2004, a woman writing a blog as “EA Spouse” wrote in detail about work practices her fiancé faced at Electronic Arts, bringing the issue to mainstream attention. It ultimately led to a class-action lawsuit against the publisher, who settled with employees for millions of dollars.

Houser’s remarks, though he said they concerned a single three-week period for himself and three others, appeared insensitive to the issue of crunch. Adding to appearances is the fact developers of the first Red Dead Redemption also faced extremely demanding schedules, hours and workloads. This was brought to light in 2010 by a letter claiming to be from spouses of Rockstar San Diego employees, who made Red Dead Redemption.

Houser later, in a profile by GQ magazine’s U.K. edition that carried the same tone as New York Magazine’s, spoke patronizingly about development. “Sam [his brother and Rockstar co-founder] and I talk about this a lot, and it’s that games are still magical. It’s like they’re made by elves,” he said. “You turn on the screen and it’s just this world that exists on TV. I think you gain something by not knowing how they’re made.”

Crunch is a complicated subject. Some consider it an abusive or exploitative labor practice, or a sign of poor management. Others have pointed to the hours they’ve spent on a creative project as a sign of their dedication. Fans who enjoy the games want to buy them as a credit to their makers, but are troubled by the encouragement it sends to the industry status quo.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Dutch van der Linde, Arthur Morgan and Dutch’s gang riding through the snow Rockstar Games

What did Rockstar developers say about their work?

As reaction on social media moved to condemn Houser’s remarks and industry practices on the whole, Rockstar Games moved to contain the damage. First came Houser’s follow-up remarks, in which Houser insisted “we obviously don’t expect anyone else to work this way.”

“I believe we go to great lengths to run a business that cares about its people, and to make the company a great place for them to work,” he added.

The company also, in a note sent to employees, gave developers permission to speak on social media about their experiences at Rockstar Games. Not all were glowing, but none were harsh or critical. A developer at Rockstar North said he pulled a month of 70-hour weeks working on Grand Theft Auto 5, but noted that his boss was telling him to go home in that time, and that “work practices have definitely improved.”

“It’s not the result of anyone forcing me to stay late or giving me impossible deadlines, but rather my own drive as a programmer,” said Vivianne Langdon, a programmer at Rockstar San Diego. But the comments had to be considered in light of the fact they were made after their employer all but suggested them.

Then came the Kotaku exposé.

On Tuesday, Kotaku’s Jason Schreier published a 9,500-word story about the “culture of crunch” at Rockstar Games, which comprises eight studios. Over reporting done well before the New York magazine story published, Schreier interviewed dozens of Rockstar employees. They described a working environment where overtime was expected; where not being in the office late factored into performance reviews and questions from their superiors; where many employees felt “watched”; and where the working lifestyle severely damaged personal lives, including depression, broken marriages and heavy alcohol use.

Rockstar, made aware of Schreier’s work midway through his reporting, invited him to the company’s New York offices for video conference interviews with a dozen employees and the company’s head of PR. The company also provided internal statistics showing average work weeks, for all employees, between 42 and 46 hours from April through September. Jenn Kolbe, Rockstar’s head of publishing, acknowledged that “There are absolutely people who, at various times, worked really long hours,” but “there are also individuals who are exaggerating what their actual hours were.”

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur Morgan wearing a bandana and dual-wielding revolvers Rockstar Games

How can overtime be ‘mandatory’?

Rockstar’s quality assurance office in Lincoln, U.K., has been described as an especially demanding workplace, even relative to the rest of Rockstar. Schreier’s post spoke to several developers there. Eurogamer, in a story published on Red Dead Redemption 2’s launch date, focused more on what they’ve gone through.

Eurogamer’s Tom Phillips said every employee he spoke to who worked at Rockstar Lincoln said overtime there was considered mandatory. Some described workweeks of greater than 100 hours during development of Grand Theft Auto 4. Others talked about sleeping under their desks. “You were expected to live your life 24/7 around what Rockstar wanted you to do,” an unidentified former staffer said.

Implicit within all this is that jobs in video games development are very desirable and Rockstar makes some of the best and most popular ones in the industry, where a resume credit delivers an enormous career boost. So developers have said they feel powerless to confront long hours or expectations and immediately replaceable if they don’t like them.

On Friday, Oct. 19, Rockstar Games told Kotaku that Rockstar Lincoln was changing its overtime practices in light of the publicity. Though never saying the studio worked under “mandatory overtime,” Kolbe acknowledged that “the requested scheduled overtime felt like an obligation to some, if not many of the team.” Here, “requested” means a manager requesting overtime of an employee.

“We therefore spoke to them to make sure it is clear that the OT is not mandatory,” Kolbe said.

Kolbe elaborated on Rockstar Lincoln’s overtime environment to VentureBeat. Rockstar Lincoln uses a great number of contract workers for its QA testing. Kolbe acknowledged that because of the nature of that work — getting another contract, or promotion to staff, depends on doing diligent work — some may have felt overtime was mandatory. But, “it is absolutely not the case that we have based decisions around contract renewals or long term hiring purely on hours worked,” she said.

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur leading a brown horse down mountains Rockstar Games

What’s next?

Though some reviews (including Polygon’s) acknowledged the working conditions under which it was made, the stories seem not to have harmed Red Dead Redemption 2’s critical or commercial reception. Review scores came in yesterday and nearly all check in at the industry-coveted 90 or better.

As for the workers, the issue of organizing video games developers into a union has rarely gone beyond the level of a robust discussion. Having this topic attached to 2018’s biggest game, in advance of its launch, certainly gains some traction and visibility for labor advocates. At Game Developers Conference 2018, Game Workers Unite, a grassroots labor campaign, had a significant presence. It’s likely this will again be a major topic at the developers gathering next year.

Legally, it’s important to remember that in all of the stories alleging abuses or bad practices against Rockstar, the evidence is anecdotal. It’s repeated in numerous accounts, but it doesn’t immediately point to the likelihood of a lawsuit or labor prosecution the way other workplace issues, such as discrimination or sexual harassment, have. It also depends on the labor laws in the locations where these allegations take place. That said, the workers in the original case making crunch an issue did win a class action settlement. In many cases, it rests with the employees to bring an action, and with careers and creative dreams at stake, the will to do so is unclear.

Red Dead Redemption 2’s next development will be when the companion multiplayer world Red Dead Online, expected to be an enormous revenue driver for parent company Take-Two Interactive, launches sometime in November.

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