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The game developer behind 'Grand Theft Auto' and 'Red Dead Redemption' is embroiled in an ongoing controversy — here's what's been going on

Kevin Webb
Red Dead Redemption 2

Rockstar Games

  • Rockstar Games came under fire earlier this week after cofounder Dan Houser claimed employees were working 100-hour weeks to finish the company's upcoming game, "Red Dead Redemption 2." 
  • While the game has received positive early buzz, Rockstar has been accused of taking part in "crunch culture," or pushing staff to work overtime. 
  • Overworking staff is an ongoing problem for video game studios, and the tech industry at large.
  • Houser has since said Rockstar doesn't force anyone to work extra-long hours. 
  • Now, Rockstar employees have taken to social media to express their feelings about the studio’s work environment.

The most anticipated video game of 2018, "Red Dead Redemption 2," will be released next week, marking the culmination of seven years of work from developer Rockstar Games.

And while the game has received positive early buzz, Rockstar itself has faced controversy in recent days. 

In an interview with New York Magazine's Vulture last week, Rockstar's cofounder Dan Houser praised staff members for working multiple 100-hour weeks to finish the game, invoking a fierce backlash from fellow game developers, who accused the company of abusing its employees.

"Red Dead Redemption 2" is expected to be one of the most expansive video games of all-time, with a main campaign that could last more than 60 hours and a script surpassing 2,000 pages. With seven years to work on the game and a huge budget funded by the success of "Grand Theft Auto," critics have questioned why the studio still has workers putting in so much overtime.

In an effort to quell the most recent criticism of the studio, Houser released a follow-up statement to attempt to clarify. Houser told Kotaku he was only referring to the senior writing team of "Red Dead Redemption 2," which consists of four people, including himself.

While "Red Dead Redemption 2" has been in production for seven years, Houser said the team spent three intensive weeks trying to finish the process. He said that other members of the game’s development team also chose to commit extra time, but that no one was forced to work long hours.

Part of Houser's statement to Kotaku reads, "Across the whole company, we have some senior people who work very hard purely because they're passionate about a project, or their particular work, and we believe that passion shows in the games we release. But that additional effort is a choice, and we don't ask or expect anyone to work anything like this."

The culture of 'crunch'

Overworking staff, sometimes called "crunch culture," is an ongoing problem for video game studios and the tech industry at large. Rockstar is best known for the massively successful "Grand Theft Auto" series, and the company has come under fire for similar tactics in the past.

In 2010, just months after the release of the original "Red Dead Redemption," a group of Rockstar employees' spouses published an open letter calling attention to abusive work practices at Rockstar San Diego. The group accused management of withholding bonuses and pushing employees to the brink.

Workers throughout the video game industry have been vocal about crunch culture and predatory studio practices in recent weeks. Developers have shared horror stories about studios taking advantage of their personal passion for an upcoming game to justify reckless work schedules:

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As I've said many a time (and probably a few times to you before) I personally almost died (not hyperbole, I was 6 stones in weight working 13-hour days with organs failing) in an AAA studio which pushed the "it's to be expected in games!" rhetoric.

Disgusting, archaic stuff.

The issue goes beyond video games — the tech industry as a whole has long been critiqued for pushing employees to the brink. Tech firms like Apple, Lyft, and Uber have all at some point espoused the virtues of being a workaholic, and founders like Tesla CEO Elon Musk have been lauded for sleeping at work overnight.

'I haven't worked a 100 hour work week in my life'

Now, in an effort to change the narrative about Rockstar's work environment, the company is letting employees discuss their jobs on social media. Rockstar has told employees to be honest without fear of repercussions. 

So far, those who have made public statements have defended Rockstar's overall work environment, while acknowledging that overtime isn't unusual:

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R* has granted permission for us to speak frankly about this issue on social media. I want to stress that this is is my uncurated personal opinion, I am not being compensated for this post in any way and am making it voluntarily. I'm only going to speak to my personal experience. Tweet Embed:
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. Tweet Embed:
In the time that I've been at the studio, work practices have definitely improved. Crunch on Red Dead Redemption 2 has definitely been a lot better that it was on GTA V, where I was pulling a month of 70+ hour weeks (while being told by my boss at the time to go home...) Tweet Embed:
I haven’t worked a 100 hour work week in my life. I’m thanked for any overtime I am asked to do, and it feels like in those circumstances it truly was an unfortunate situation. Tweet Embed:
As a worker at Rockstar North, I should probably add my voice to the conversation going on around crunch. We do crunch. I've not seen anybody forced to work 100 hour weeks, but I've definitely seen friends get closer to that figure than is healthy. Tweet Embed:
It's been surreal to see people share their crunch stories with the conclusion being, 'Rockstar needs to change'. When I've just been reading them thinking, 'I'm so glad I work at Rockstar and haven't done anything they have'.