Red Dead Redemption 2 wasn’t worth the hardship

I’m sure you’ve probably read the stories that have been circulating about working conditions at Rockstar as the company rushed to finish Red Dead Redemption 2. It all kicked off when company co-founder Dan Houser bragged “we were working 100-hour weeks” several times in 2018 in an interview with Vulture. Cue much shock and outrage across social media – that’s the equivalent of working around 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Who would force employees to work such ridiculous hours?

Rockstar quickly backpedalled, with Dan Houser clarifying that only a handful of senior employees worked these crazy hours for just a few weeks. But the damage was done, and soon lengthy investigations by Kotaku and Eurogamer revealed a startling picture of the working conditions across Rockstar studios.

Interviews with dozens of Rockstar employees revealed a picture of mandatory overtime and 60-hour ‘crunch’ working hours lasting a year or more. The working conditions seem to vary between employees and offices, with Rockstar Lincoln and Rockstar New York apparently seeing the longest hours, whereas other employees said their working hours were reasonable. One of the most remarkable revelations came in the Eurogamer article, which revealed that staff at Rockstar Lincoln had been asked to sign a waiver to bypass UK employment law, which states that night workers should not work more than 8 hours in a 24 hour period. The overall picture is that crunch seems to be pretty bad at Rockstar.

A GamesIndustry.biz podcast highlighted poor project management as one reason for Rockstar’s extended crunch, pointing out that some studios, like Criterion, have a no-crunch policy – so if they can do it, Rockstar certainly can. Rockstar has been working on Red Dead Redemption 2 for around 8 years, and some 3,000 people were involved in making it. Surely that’s enough time and resources to get a great game finished without resorting to a year or more of brutal overtime? Clearly something has gone wrong with the management of the project if such lengthy hours are needed for so long.

I’ve done my fair share of long hours in publishing. As a freelancer, I’ve worked on books and magazines with really tight deadlines, and I’ve sometimes had to pull several late nights or weekends in a row to get publications out on time. But often these extra hours are my own fault, resulting from me underestimating how long a project will take or taking on too much work. I’ve gradually got better at managing my time and workload over the years: management like this is a skill, and if your employees are working long hours all of the time, then those skills need to be improved. It might mean saying no to things you really want to do – like not adding last-minute features to a game or, in my case, turning down a really interesting or well-paid project because you already have several on the go.

I know how brutal long hours can be in terms of their physical and social impact. It affects relationships and grinds you down – I’ve been completely exhausted after just a couple of days of extremely long hours. I can’t imagine what it would be like doing those hours for a year.

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I was so appalled by the stories that came out of working conditions at Rockstar that I contemplated cancelling my preorder of RDR2. And this is a game I’ve been looking forward to for years – we named the first Red Dead Redemption as our game of the generation a few years back. But I decided against cancelling for two reasons. First, I wanted to support my local independent game store. And second, the Rockstar developers interviewed by Kotaku and Eurogamer said that they really wanted people to still buy the game – and their bonuses are linked to sales. After working so hard on RDR2, they’re excited about people playing and enjoying it.

But when I started playing the game myself, I couldn’t help but become fixated on the insane level of detail. How long did it take someone to give that horse eyelashes? How long did it take to get the snow to deform realistically? To be honest, it spoiled my enjoyment of the game – I was constantly thinking about the hardships that Rockstar employees went through to make it. It’s ironic that their long hours spent polishing the game to perfection are the exact reason I struggled to enjoy it.

I’ve put RDR2 on the back burner for now – after those first couple of hours of playing on release day, I’ve yet to go back to it. I can’t stop thinking about all the hardship that went into making it. No game is worth constant 60-hour working weeks. And it’s shocking to me that someone thought it was.

This shouldn’t be allowed to happen again. There are already efforts to unionise the games industry, and the sooner it happens, the better. Developers may well enjoy their work, but they shouldn’t be compelled to work extremely long hours – and even if they want to stay late, their managers should be encouraging them to keep a healthy work-life balance.

Games should be fun, after all.


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4 Comments

  1. It can’t come soon enough! Crunch has just been accepted as a ‘thing’ for so long, and that has to change.

  2. 1 word answer: Video “Games” Keyword People! Games! If it isn’t fun to do, how in t’hell can it be fun to play?! (I’ll leave out my usual vitriol bout cod destroyin t’universe, etc, etc…)

  3. It’s funny how many people forgot about the Kotaku and Eurogamer articles on release day.

    What really gets me about this is that this controversy seems to come up whenever Rockstar releases a game. I remember a few reports of oppressive working conditions with the release of GTA V, and the absolute stupidity of the hours and crunch at Team Bondi with the release of LA Noire is legendary. And yet people seem to be surprised when it happens again.

    God, we have short memories sometimes.

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