Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser caused the latest anti-crunch uproar last week after claiming his team were doing 100-hour weeks throughout the final stages of development for the eagerly anticipated Red Dead Redemption 2. In typical twitter fashion, his comments were digested at large and spat back out with disgust from many in the gaming community, but perhaps the worst part of all of this is that no one was exactly surprised by them.
RDR2 has been in development for seven years, and those with early access seem to be implying that the game will be industry-changing. With sixty-plus hours of content, 300,000 animations and 500,000 lines of dialogue, Houser’s comments were remarked in a context that suggested 100-hour working weeks were necessary practice to accommodate the creation of a game of such sheer scale. Again in games the conversation has to revisit what is determined necessary in order to get AAA titles ready to launch, and to what extent “employee passion” is used as justification of the exploitation of hardworking developers to meet deadlines.
This isn’t the first time Rockstar has been associated with allegations of exploitative working conditions. GTA V had an extensive crunch period, and Rockstar was the acting publisher of L.A Noire, of which it is no secret that the last two years of its production under Team Bondi (now dissolved), was development hell. It is now steadily being implied that pressures from the publisher contributed to negative working conditions, aside from Team Bondi founder Brendan McNamara’s brutal acceptance of crunch as a method of survival in a competitive industry.
In a statement to Kotaku, Houser was quick to clarify that contrary to his now infamous quote, Rockstar is “a business that cares about its employees”, and his expectations of them does not match those of which he sets himself and fellow senior staff:
“We obviously don’t expect anyone else to work this way […] we have some senior people who work very hard purely because they’re passionate about a project, or their particular work […] but that additional effort is a choice”.
In an attempt to push back against criticism, the Red Dead developers have been forthright in making statements with various media outlets, and importantly, encouraged their own staff to come forward about their experiences on social media and to do so frankly. Following this, some came forward from several Rockstar studios, such as UK-based Rockstar North and Rockstar Lincoln, to reaffirm Housers statements that only a select group of senior employees were working these hours, and also defending their own choices to work paid overtime on occasional weekends and week days.
However this doesn’t shift attention away from the fact that this is not the first time games management has come under scrutiny for its extensive crunch culture, but the extent to which people have a problem with crunch comes and goes like a first place lead on Mario Kart. Back in 2015 the International Game Developers Association published reports that 62% of devs indicated their jobs involved crunch time, which again wasn’t exactly news lest we forget the ea_spouse live journal fiasco where it was revealed that EA staff were at one time expected to undergo 85-hour working weeks.
Crunch may be effective in short term productivity to meet development milestones, but it is undoubtedly dangerous to staff welfare even when it is framed as voluntary overtime. Where overworking is normalized, it makes an ambiguous line of what is expected from employee dedication. It is not enough to accept that crunch is an act of pride, dedication or passion when development teams are both the first to make extensive sacrifices for the games they create, and the first to face the consequences of poor management and planning in a competitive industry where deadlines loom amidst fears of layoffs.
Maximising output by engendering crunch into the work ethic of a company has manifested itself throughout the industry as a norm, and the horror stories aren’t hard to find: unpaid overtime during deadline periods, sleeping under office desks, fears of speaking out for job security and cultures of whistleblowing…
Thimbleweed Park developer Jenn Sandercock’s response to the Rockstar controversy gained quite a lot of attention when she took to Twitter, telling her own experiences of initiating a cake day as a time-out during crunch period when working at a AAA company. In short, those higher up said that to continue with the cake outside the assigned lunch hour would jeopardise her career, as it implied the office was slacking off during this time. It may be no coincidence that the official twitter account for Naughty Dog career information, NaughtyDogJobs, soon after tweeted about their “donut friday”, averting potentially suspicious minds from fears of our favourite big names being no exception to an intense crunch culture which has no room for much needed breaks.
Whether distaste for crunch among the games community has stimulated any change in the industry as a whole is yet to be seen, but we as consumers also need to reflect on our tendency for blatant disregard of the teams behind games. A prime example of this was the recent collapse of Telltale, where the initial reaction from a significant number of fans was to be more concerned that Clem’s story would be left unfinished, rather than being concerned for the majority of the 250-strong team at Telltale being laid off without much initial indication of severance.
Still, RDR2 is out and by the time you’re reading the review in the next issue of Forge Press, you’ll probably have forgotten about crunch again, until another whistleblower comes forward to remind us that crunch is awful, everyone’s tired, and devs deserve more.