As we hear more and more about a game industry drowning in crunch, we finally get some good news: Rockstar employees who felt the pinch the hardest are being given better positions. It’s a tiny step, but hopefully the first of many — goodness only knows the industry desperately needs the change.
There’s a rising tide of gamers who both know about and disapprove of formerly-accepted industry practices. For example, “crunch” — or the practice of overworking game developers in the final weeks of development time in order to get the game out by the deadline — has been a part of game development for years, but only recently became the widespread controversy it currently is.
Rockstar was the center of a massive labor controversy last year, shortly before the release of Red Dead Redemption II. The first hint came when co-founder Dan Houser let slip to New York Magazine that people at the company were working “100-hour weeks” to perfect their new baby before launch. Though he later clarified that he was only referring to himself and a few other members of the writing staff, and that the work was voluntarily done, the floodgates were opened and suddenly we were hearing about many, many more employees who definitely didn’t think those were voluntary hours (to be fair, many other employees reported good experiences at around the same time).
According to Kotaku‘s report on the crunch culture within the company, the Lincoln location was hit particularly hard. The office is apparently home to most of its QA testers, and several workers reported they’d been working mandatory overtime for a year, were required to give up their phones, and were frequently asked to work nights and weekends to the point they’d be working 12 days without a break. Rockstar confirmed all of these things did happen, though it did say the overtime was not “mandatory” and was simply a miscommunication.
And the biggest contingent of workers hit by this? Contract workers, who were apparently hoping to earn permanent jobs by putting up with the overtime. Now employees report that, in the wake of the controversy, contract workers have been hired on a full-time basis — meaning they no longer labor with the proverbial Employment of Damocles hanging over their heads.
I'll dive into this more when I'm back from leave, but one tester told me in an email last week: "I can honestly say that things have absolutely been better since last year. We’ve only worked one weekend of overtime since we last spoke and it was entirely voluntary."
— Jason Schreier (@jasonschreier) August 6, 2019
Crunch is one of the most pervasive and unpleasant problems in the industry, and one of the reasons it’s proved resistant to reform efforts is the entrenched mindset that it’s a price that just has to be paid for a good game. And often workers will put up with it because they also believe it’s the necessary sacrifice to work in the industry. So for a company like Rockstar to make an effort to fix it, if only by offering some of those most harmed a fairer wage, is a step in the right direction.
It’s far from an overall fix, but hearing that anyone has made an effort to rectify the industry’s cycle of work hard-no play-burn out is cause for celebration. And considering Rockstar’s influence, hopefully several other game studios will follow suit in their own way. It’d take a big cultural shift to eliminate these sorts of labor practices from the industry as a whole — but it is possible.
Still, we’ll see if the improved atmosphere at Rockstar Lincoln holds up when the next major Rockstar title is headed for release. It’s all well-and-good until GTA VI comes along and has to hit its release window.