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100-hour weeks mean bad management, not passion

Rockstar may not be the hell it's been portrayed as - but we need to stop lionising long overtime and start seeing it as a shameful sign of failure

Rockstar has spent much of the week furiously backpedaling away from co-founder Dan Houser's ill-advised boasts about working 100-hour weeks on Red Dead Redemption 2 - and I'm sure I'm not the only one idly wondering how many hours of overtime the firm's PR people have put into trying to fix the resulting mess.

It's an uphill struggle to turn around the narrative, not least because Rockstar seems to have misunderstood the motivation for much of the ensuing criticism it faced. It's not that people are shocked that some Rockstar staff are working 100-hour weeks, nor is it that anyone believes this is commonplace across the board at the studio - rather, it's the fact that Houser, an extremely senior and influential industry figure, felt like this kind of crushing, masochistic work schedule was something positive and worth bragging about.

So sure, Houser was exaggerating and clearly misrepresenting the reality of working on RDR2. For the few people who took his initial statement at face value and started imagining conditions at Rockstar's studios as a cross between a Dickensian workhouse and Blake's dark Satanic mills, letting staff speak out about their own conditions on social media might be a helpful response - but it doesn't change the fact that Houser made a boast of something that many others in the industry have been working hard to reduce or remove altogether.

"The debate over working conditions in the games business has never been hotter than it is right now, so Houser's comments were like a hand grenade tossed into a Mexican stand-off"

I guess it goes without saying that someone who's been a lead writer on games like GTA and Red Dead Redemption has a great sense of timing and context - the debate over working conditions in the games business has never been hotter than it is right now, so Houser's comments were like a hand grenade tossed into a Mexican stand-off. He touched a lot of nerves that are a little raw right now - the specific question of crunch and overtime itself, of course, but also the broader ongoing battle over the masochistic and self-destructive work schedules that are so often handwaved away as "passion" or "culture", the growing realisation of how bad the industry is at burning out its talented people, and the question how much developers actually owe to the companies they work for.

So we can take at face value Rockstar's assertions that its own workplace policies really aren't that bad, while still taking this as yet another example of the industry's self-harming obsession with long hours and bad work-life balance. We can see it as a sign that the important message of the past decade - that endless crunch, sleeping under your desk and living off company-provided pizza and sodas isn't "passion", it's a product of mismanagement, a recipe for sloppy work and a fast road to burnout - still hasn't hit home for many of the people who most need to embrace it.

Rockstar has become embroiled in controversy over the working conditions behind Red Dead Redemption 2, but it speaks to a wider and ongoing industry problem

Rockstar has become embroiled in controversy over the working conditions behind Red Dead Redemption 2, but it speaks to a wider and ongoing industry problem

There are really two problems here, but they go hand in hand. The first is that there genuinely is a culture within game development which views this kind of insane overtime and abysmal work-life balance as being an expression of passion. If you're a twenty-something who has lived and breathed video games for years, getting to work on an exciting project for the first time, then sure - it's your dream come true, right? Why wouldn't you want to spend every waking hour in the office? Why wouldn't you look down your nose at people who aren't "passionate" enough to put in those long hours, or quietly roll your eyes at older folk with family or other commitments? That kind of thinking is both completely understandable and utterly destructive; it creates a working environment that's deeply unwelcoming and monotone, leads to mistakes and poor quality work, and is ultimately unsustainable for even its most forthright advocates, because that's just not how human beings' minds and bodies actually work.

"Endless crunch, sleeping under your desk and living off company-provided pizza and sodas isn't "passion", it's a product of mismanagement, a recipe for sloppy work and a fast road to burnout"

The second problem, of course, is that there are unscrupulous or simply ignorant managers out there who are more than willing to take advantage of that kind of thinking - to nurture and cultivate it, squeezing their staff harder and harder while reciting the mantra of "company culture" and "passion". Sometimes it's an attempt to keep staff costs low by getting more work out of a smaller team (this rarely actually works since actual productivity drops off rapidly in overworked people, as anyone who's studied management since about, oh, the early 1900s can tell you); more often than not it's to cover over the manager's own incompetent handling of project planning, scheduling and budgeting.

The dual nature of this problem is why the ongoing push for unionisation - despite slowly gaining momentum - faces such a difficult path ahead. Were it simply that managers were forcing an unhappy workforce to do excessive overtime and crunch, then unionisation would be a cinch; but that masochistic crunch culture is also embraced by many developers themselves. The catch-22 is that by the time developers are burned out and jaded enough to realise that they've been mistaking overwork for passion all along, they're more likely to be looking for a way out of the industry entirely than to be throwing their weight behind unionisation efforts - becoming part of the brain drain of talent out of video games and into other sectors which is one of the major costs of this culture.

The good news is that even if senior people like Dan Houser still think that 100-hour working weeks are positive and worthy of boasting, rather than a shameful sign of mismanagement, the tide is clearly turning. Ten or even five years ago, I'm pretty sure Rockstar would have felt no inclination to walk back or re-contextualise anything Houser said - but the industry has changed, slowly but surely, and there's a growing recognition that a hellish work culture (or the perception of one!) is a really negative thing for a studio.

Younger developers voluntarily pouring extra hours into their project is both 'completely understandable and utterly destructive'

Younger developers voluntarily pouring extra hours into their project is both 'completely understandable and utterly destructive'

That, perhaps, is how the industry gets to where it needs to go - even if efforts to unionise fizzle out, a broad recognition that work-life balance and employee conditions are vital to the success of a studio would fix at least some of the problems proponents of unions wish to tackle.

An industry culture where crunch, long working hours and other workplace abuses are widely reported and known (either anonymously through systems like Glassdoor or openly via the media), while good work-life balance and healthy working environments are celebrated, would gradually make it harder and more expensive for the former kind of business to hire skilled, veteran staff. That's a very real and serious cost; hiring is not cheap at the best of times, and losing access to a large swathe of experienced, high quality staff would be devastating for many firms.

This is still a poor second option to a union in some respects, not least since often the people most in need of protection are young newcomers - who have far less capacity to be choosy about a potential employer's work environment, and are far more likely to fall for nonsense about "passion" from an abusive manager - but it would at least allow people to make more informed and sensible judgements about the jobs they take.

Meanwhile, even as bad workplaces are punished with throttled access to experienced and high-skilled staff, good workplaces - like those highlighted in this week's GI Best Places to Work awards - should find it easier and cheaper to bring on board excellent quality staff.

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Latest comments (10)

Geraint Bungay Executive Producer | Product Manager | Business Strategy 28 days ago
100% agree. Crunch is most often a sign of failed management, with little or no control over sprints with insane estimates both in terms of timescales and deliverables. Leading to missed builds, continual pushing of tasks down the priority list and in the end forcing people to work insane hours (where there's a point the work is useless anyway as people are fried) in order to meet artificial deadlines.

There is often a HUGE issue between management setting release dates and milestones without involving the development teams. It's essential that the timescales are agreed as a group and if these are not acceptable to management/publishers etc for whatever reason then things may need to be paired back or features might need to be revised.

You CANNOT just say, "do it anyway and I'm sure we will manage" The simple fact is everything takes time and if you want things sooner than they can realistically be delivered you either need to adjust the scope of the project or extend the delivery date. By all agreeing up front on the timescales you will have a great spirit in the team, they feel involved and they take OWNERSHIP of the product.

G :)
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John Ops Manager, Blume Industries28 days ago
"Mexican Stand Off" though....
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 28 days ago
Maybe games should have a fair trade seal, like some coffee does.

Less press drama about games being delayed and less PR drama about having to hit certain dates, or else might also help. Rockstar is certainly not afraid to delay a game, which is a positive in this context. Maybe brag about that?
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Show all comments (10)
Alan Wilson Vice President, Tripwire Interactive28 days ago
Yup, absolutely agree. We realized back in 2011 (when we released RO2) that this was NOT the way to behave. We took the whole company and families on vacation to apologize - and promised never to do it again. We've tried very hard to keep to that - and any time we've failed, we consider it a failure somewhere in the processes and post-mortem to figure out what we did wrong and then NOT do it again. Always a work in progress.

And to the point about "but it's passion" - we now also actively counsel people NOT to work silly hours. Sure, there's those times when "I've almost got this cracked. I don't want to stop now." is actually relevant. But we encourage people to come in late the next day to make up for it. We're at the point where we'll actually prod people in their reviews if they are working too many hours, ask why etc - and set goals to stop it happening.

Working long hours is NOT sustainable under any circumstances and only leads to poor health, burn-out etc. We came to the realization years ago that great people are hard to find - and we want them to stay great and stay working for us for many years. That is NOT going to happen with piss-poor working practices - which is what we're addressing here.
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F.C. BRANDT I don't work for either of the two companies listed., United Ultra27 days ago
From the comments, one would think the new industry model does not set release dates that can't be met with a finished, debugged product...is this now the case? Are developers now given enough lead time to complete and fully test the product before release?
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Nick Ferguson Sr. Business Development Manager, Amazon27 days ago
I still remember this line in my offer letter from my first games industry employer: "Our facility is open evenings and weekends for those employees who wish to maximise their effort"

At least they were being honest!
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Alex Barnfield Lead Engineer, 17-BIT27 days ago
F.C. Brandt - the main takeaway would be that people have learned that working silly hours will make the schedule slip even further, not help hit an unreasonable target.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 27 days ago
I left the industry because of the same attitude. I came back for a brief time in 2014, but that studio was closed down by 2016 (200+ people) . Now if i want to get back to the games, i would have to explain to someone why i worked for household brands (Because its not games, it seen as a gap) and pretend to be enthusiastic about a crunch culture and about games i would never play (much less buy) to get 50% pay cut. Just for the the privilege of having a horrible work-life balance ?
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Gary LaRochelle Digital Artist / UI/UX Designer / Game Designer, Flea Ranch Games25 days ago
@Geraint Bungay:
Playing Devil's advocate here...
" ...in order to meet artificial deadlines."
Sometimes the release (delivery date) is tied into a marketing campaign. Marketing has to buy advertising space months in advance. If you advertise a release date based on an estimated completion date then you have to have something to sell to the public at that time. If you don't have something to sell, you get pissed off gamers going "Where's the game? You said it would be done by now". And then you have to market the game all over again when the game is really ready for delivery.
And of course, you also have the real deadline of "If we don't get the game done by XXX we will run out of money to pay the staff" problem.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 25 days ago
At the end of the day, the brand has established a presence in all the right headlines, while review embargoes are in full effect.
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