As some of you may recall, I recently stated that I cancelled my pre-order of Red Dead Redemption 2. Cancelling it was rather disheartening, mostly because it was one of the few games I actually pre-ordered this year, considering how much I enjoyed the first Red Dead Redemption. However, in light of statements from Dan Houser of Rockstar, I didn’t feel right purchasing the game and playing it.
Interestingly, my choice to cancel my pre-order ruffled some feathers online, with a few folks taking it personally that I didn’t want to play it in light of the recent news from the studio. The general consensus I could piece together seemed to revolve around the idea that I’m not a real fan of the IP, that I was lying for attention, and curiously also that my actions and opinions don’t matter… Trust me, I have no delusions of grandeur when it comes to this blog.
Regardless, that isn’t what this post is about, and I’m not interested in vilifying Rockstar employees or shaming people who want to play Red Dead Redemption 2.
Rockstar Speaks Up
Following the news stories circulating about the internet citing Houser’s statements about working on Red Dead Redemption 2 and the “100-hour work weeks”, Rockstar actually allowed employees of the company to speak up on social media about their experiences, and their accounts have been largely positive. Honestly, I’m happy to hear that things are considered to be generally good at Rockstar, though the accounts from folks speaking up aren’t wholly positive, and some seem unintentionally telling. I’ve compiled a list of as many developer testimonials I could here.
The overall feel I’ve gathered from the people speaking up seems to be this:
- Seldom does management require overtime and/or weekend work
- Overtime is often voluntary
- Nobody has worked the oft-quoted “100-hour work weeks”
And this is good, because I doubt there’s a soul in existence that believes working anything close to 100 hours a week is reasonable. The accounts from Rockstar employees are, for the most part, glowingly positive.
I’m honestly relieved to see that Rockstar employees are enjoying reasonable work-life balances at studio locations in the UK, with a few accounts coming from folks working in the US too. Others refer to any overtime as being completely voluntary.
Many others took umbrage with the claims that people are being forced to work 100 hours a week, which considering that the consensus seems to indicate that most people had not been working that much, makes sense. Why would anyone want to see people slagging your company over something that is patently false?
Not Quite 100 Hours
There’s been a heavy emphasis on disputing the “100-hour work week” comment from Houser, and while I trust that the people speaking up would’ve mentioned being overworked, I can’t help but feel like they haven’t proven that the problem of being overworked doesn’t exist. I’m certainly not trying to move the goal post, and I don’t want to be cynical about the subject, but it’s hard for me to believe that there isn’t at least some implicit expectation that employees of any developer put in extra work. Even though I’ve never worked in development, I’ve learned that employers have ways to coerce their employees to go the extra mile, and then some.
Working at GameStop as a store leader was enlightening to say the least. In my store’s area of operation, it was difficult to make sales targets, and as a result, my store was only ever allocated roughly 80 hours of labor to complement my own time. It was generally understood that the requirement on store leaders was to work a minimum of 44 hours a week. Of course, that was just the requirement. What the company wanted us to actually work was closer to 50 hours a week. Let’s just say that at less than $30,000 a year salary, an expectation to work that much convinced me to go back to school. It isn’t like I would’ve lost my job if I didn’t work the 50 hours a week and they didn’t outright tell us to work that much, but it felt like each time the subject came up they were channeling their inner Bill Lumbergh.
As for now, things are a little different. My job involves working in a department that operates 24/7/365, but I work between 40 and 45 hours a week at the maximum. Still, there are underpinnings of the usual workplace expectations in America. We operate on holidays as well, and the overnight shift workers sometimes want vacations. So when coverage is needed, it operates on a volunteer basis… unless the need isn’t met. Then, as my supervisors so aptly put it, someone is “volun-told” to cover the gap. From what I’ve gathered, many workplaces operate in this way. If things get done, nobody needs to stay and do overtime. It’s when things get tight and stuff needs to get done that implying a need has to be filled shifts to asking, then it becomes a requirement.
In my experience, I’ve never been in a position where my employer outright stated that if I didn’t work a certain shift or put in a specific number of hours, I would be fired or reprimanded. I don’t doubt that the developers at Rockstar have been put through that either, and I genuinely believe that they’ve never been reprimanded for not burning the midnight oil.
Still, even if nobody is holding a gun to your head and telling you that you’re going to work 20 to 40 hours of overtime, that doesn’t mean the expectation isn’t there. One journalist gave a perfect example of what implied expectations looks like:
When you see others putting in the work, it’s difficult to not feel somehow responsible for not contributing as much as your coworkers, and those above you tend to set an example as well. If you’re seeing your superiors and coworkers come into work early, leave late, and come in to work on their days off, it’s hard not to feel like it will somehow reflect negatively on you. In the case mentioned by Joshua Rivera, sometimes it’s as simple as just assuming people are going to stay for overtime work, because generally people aren’t going to argue with you when they feel the expectation is there.
Granted, I’m not a developer, and I likely will never be one. Frankly, I don’t think I’d be seen as the type of person a game developer would even want to hire. I hate putting in overtime, as I value my off-time. I like spending as much of my week as possible with Jennifer and taking part in my hobbies, and that likely won’t change when we have children either. Some people are built for that sort of life though, though I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with that. Some people do enjoy working hard, while others are more like me. I’m still susceptible to feeling guilty when others are doing more, and that has a tendency to get me to work longer hours.
I’d be lying or ignorant if I said that this problem only exists in game development. In reality, it exists in almost any work environment, in one form or another. This is a reality of our modern society, and while it’d be easy to turn the blame towards someone on the top of the career ladder, that would be placing the blame in the wrong area. Many times, the people working in those roles, like Dan Houser, are putting in the insane hours too.
Reality Is Tough
I recently had a long conversation with a friend where we discussed the nature of the situation with Red Dead Redemption 2. It was rather one-sided, as I basically vomited words everywhere and he tried desperately to keep up, but I feel like we both understood each other. His point being that the reality of game development and creative ventures in general all suffer from putting employees into a position where they must work long hours.
The sad fact of the matter is it’s likely that almost all games benefit from studios placing monumental workloads on their employees, and while some employees may not feel the effects of that pressure, that doesn’t mean everyone they work with is immune to it. Some people are more prone to feeling coerced to overworking themselves, more susceptible to implied expectations. And that’s even without considering the employees who have zero leverage with their employers.
The truth of what it’s like working for a company like Rockstar lies somewhere between it being the ideal workplace, entirely void of crunch and heavy workloads, and the image that the games industry media has brought up. I have no doubt that the Rockstar employees who have explained how they feel are working in a great environment, but there’s definitely room for improvement. After all, according to statistics provided by Rockstar to The Guardian, employees had been putting in an average of 42-45 hours a week during Red Dead Redemption 2‘s development, with one stretch leading up to 50 hours. The thing about averages though, is that they’re an amalgamation of numbers that include extreme lows and extreme highs. During that stretch of time when Rockstar employees reported working 50 hours on average, one-fifth of the staff had apparently been working over 60 hours a week.
“work life balance could improve”
This is echoed by the anonymous accounts of work experiences on sites like Glassdoor.com, where the two most common complaints, even from positive reviews of the developer, are about work-life balance.
Extremely long hours, lack of sleep, working weekends for 6 months at a time, a bizarre culture of fear.
Taking a look at Devops Engineer interview summary gives a little more insight into the culture of Rockstar in America, this time involving the San Diego studio:
“I applied online. The process took 2 weeks. I interviewed at Rockstar Games (San Diego, CA) in February 2018…
HR Screening followed by 45 min. interview with Hiring Manager.
After discussing my qualifications, which he liked the interview turned sour as he asked about why I wanted to work for Rockstar.
I do not play videos games and that was disturbing to him since ‘most people’ are applying because they want the prestige of working on a video game they adore.
In fact they adore the video game so much that they are willing to put in 60-70, even 80 hour work weeks during ‘crunch time’ — which for this game is Jan 2018 to Oct 31 2018. They expected late nights and weekends during this crunch time and then a minimum of 60 hours per week during non-crunch time.
I conveyed that in my experience working those long hours for months at a time is counterproductive and often means that you need to adjust the team size or the deadline. He told me that I would work that hard because its an honor to be part of current culture and a video game.
The arrogant attitude and long hours is probably why they have such a high turnover and burnout rate.
I ended the call by saying I would not work 80 hours for 9 months — and we parted ways.”
The game in development was almost certainly Red Dead Redemption 2, given the timeframe, which is mildly troubling because this was more or less the discussion that was taking place regarding crunch and work-life balance that had taken hold online recently. Furthermore, all of the reviews of Rockstar predate the controversy, and many others are dated within the development of Red Dead Redemption 2.
Again, the question is what’s the truth here? On one hand, you have current employees allowed to speak about their work experiences, completely disputing the long hours and being generally thankful towards their company for allowing flexibility in their lives. On the other hand, you have former employees, current employees speaking anonymously, and prospective employees mentioning the culture that they’ve experienced.
My feeling is that the truth is somewhere in between. We’ve seen many accounts from people working in the UK, but very few from employees in the US and none from people doing contract work. Here you come down to what people want to believe.
Those that want the bad information to be true are going to latch onto the negative comments and say that the positive accounts of work at Rockstar are being given under duress. That confirming the suspicions circulating would have negative consequences. On the flip-side, those wanting to believe only the good accounts from employees on social media could easily pass any negative comments as lies because anonymous accounts are impossible to verify. Unfortunately, I don’t think there will ever be a way to know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether or not the entire company is a good place to work because it’s extremely unlikely that any employee would speak poorly about their employer on the record, even if their employer gave permission to be honest.
I’d love to believe the good only, because I loved the first game and I do understand on some level what it’s like to have something you’ve created seeing the light of day, but I’m not sure what to think anymore. Originally, I was dead set on not playing Red Dead Redemption 2 out of principle, until I read what the developers from Rockstar had to say. Now after looking at other accounts from other sources, I’m just not sure what to think.
One thing is for sure though, I know that Rockstar isn’t going to hurt from any of the recent news about the development of Red Dead Redemption 2. I’m glad that the hard work put in by multiple studios is going to release, but I just wish it didn’t come at such a high cost.
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