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Developers drag Rockstar over 100-hour weeks on Red Dead Redemption 2

Where studio management sees dedication, creators from across the AAA and indie spectrum see mismanagement, abuse

Sometimes, knowledge of workplace abuse and employee mistreatment come from thoroughly reported exposés, as was the case with Riot Games and Telltale Games scandals from earlier this year. Other times it comes from the people responsible for the problems in the first place.

Such was the case with Rockstar Games yesterday, as a Vulture feature on the making of Red Dead Redemption 2 featured studio co-founder Dan Houser saying that the development team had worked 100-hour weeks several times this year as they hurried to get the game out for its launch later this month. He also compared the effort put into making Red Dead Redemption 2 compared to the studio's previous efforts, which were already known for notoriously harsh work working conditions.

"That was shit," Houser said. "This was the hardest."

Since the publication of that story, scores of developers across Twitter have been criticizing Rockstar and the Housers for their crunch practices. Houser issued a clarification, but one that would only address a fraction of the concerns people expressed. For many of those weighing in, the topic was clearly personal in nature.

Bungie senior PvP designer Andrew Weldon created a thread to talk about some of the absurd lengths he's gone to during his time in development, among them working 36 hours straight over a weekend during a crunch stretch that already saw him pulling 80-hour, seven-day work weeks for several months.

"My sleep schedule didn't recover for 5 years," Weldon said. "One of our teammates who pushed himself further went on 6 months medical leave."

He added, "The most sinister thing about all three of these: it was never asked for or mandated. I did it to myself, because it was my 'dream job' and I was 'just so passionate.'

"I went to a party with some members of one of the studios mentioned above after I no longer worked there, and I met one of their young new hires. We chatted a bit and I remember vividly the look in his eyes when he said, and I quote, 'I can't wait for my first death march!' We have allowed a culture to grow around our work that treats this uncritically as the work of passion and energy and excitement when really it's just people destroying themselves and their families, whether it's mandated, implied via peer pressure, or entirely voluntary.

A number of developers shared similar stories of the medical consequences of over-work. High Tea Frog co-director Tommy Millar said he nearly died, working 13-hour days at a AAA studio until his weight dropped to 84 pounds and his organs began to fail. Death Ray Manta developer Rob Fearon worked 12-to-14-hour days for years before exhaustion and burn out caught up with him, an experience he's still not completely recovered from.

"To have this inflicted upon people as a condition of their employment is cruelty and exploitation - nothing short of that," Fearon said. "For it to be in service of making videogames is a waste."

Criterion designer Allen Frank seemed similarly fed up by Rockstar's attitude, saying, "This is not a people first approach to making games and to me just highlights a complete failure in planning and scoping. Killing your team so you don't drop features... or move your ship date isn't acceptable. Crunching needs to stop."

Some saw this as just the latest manifestation of a poisonous crunch culture deeply entrenched in gaming.

"If someone cares so little about your health that they're happy to force you into 100-hour work weeks, think about how little they'll care about you in other ways," said Insomniac character artist Xavier Coelho-Kostolny. "We're not just talking about overwork. This shows a lack of empathy which often leads to many other types of abuse. Anyone who thinks you should work 100-hour weeks to ship a *game* is going to have no problems with crossing other lines they shouldn't."

Red Thread Games' designer Ragnar Tørnquist was particularly galled at the amount of work being offered as a positive thing.

"This is not a number anyone should be proud of," Tørnquist said. "And using it as a metric of the team's commitment is unhealthy and unethical."

One common criticism levelled against Houser was that excessive crunch was evidence of mismanagement.

"Crunch means management failed to plan and scope their product," Phoenix Labs art director Katie De Sousa said. "I don't understand why this is something people brag about. 'Haha look at how shitty we are at estimating work! 100 hr weeks because we don't know what we're doing and don't care about our employees! Buy our game!'"

Bithell Games' Mike Bithell was likewise unimpressed, saying, "If I ever boast about my team having to do overtime because I can't manage them properly, and actually use that as a selling point, please screencap this tweet and send it to me hundreds of times until I depart this godforsaken website in shame."

Night in the Woods co-creator Scott Benson took that a step further, taking exception to the way the excessive work hours were framed in the original story.

"Telling that the obscene number of hours is listed alongside how many animations, hours of play, and lines of dialogue there are," Benson said. "The exploitation is a back of the box bullet point."

Benson added that he's done 100+ hour work weeks both when he was employed and when he was self-employed, which touched on another common thread in the response to Houser's comments. Many of the developers quoted already weren't technically required to work absurd hours, but did so for a variety of reasons, from passion to peer pressure. Houser's follow-up statement acknowledged senior people may have worked excessively long weeks out of passion, but, "No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard."

Perhaps understanding that, some developers called on their own to consider how their work practices can pressure co-workers. Among those was Emily Grace Buck, a narrative designer who worked at Telltale Games for several years before the studio's collapse last month.

"Crunch is bad," Buck said. "Working nights and weekends if you're already working weekdays is bad. Even if it's because you're passionate, you're setting a standard for others at your company. The games industry needs to start forbidding crunch practices, even voluntary ones."

Wonderstruck artist Jess Hyland was slightly more direct, saying, "Unpopular opinion time: if you *are* the kind of person who will voluntarily work 100+ hour weeks, you are causing harm to your colleagues and peers by normalising it and making it acceptable. You're hurting the rest of us. Go home."

As bad as the message Rockstar's comment might send to developers is, it sends an equally dangerous message to other employers.

As Splash Damage creative director Andreas Gschwari explained, "Sadly some developers will see the success of RDR2 and conclude that what it takes to make a game successful is 100 hour work weeks, and that in the end the results are all that matter. But the damage done by working people this hard will be ignored."

The criticism of Rockstar even gained traction outside of gaming, in neighboring tech circles. Ruby on Rails creator David Heinemeier Hansson took Houser to task, saying, "Imagine bragging about pushing your workers to 100h+ weeks while also claiming to be proud of how sensible your work practices are. 😱 Especially on a sequel to an original game that brought the families of workers to plead with management for leniency.

"The game industry's abusive work practices are predicated on exploiting how 'passionate and dedicated' the earnest people who work to create this genre of entertainment are. No wonder the word 'passion' is being rendered toxic (which is a shame)."

One point of some debate in the developer reaction was whether or not people should boycott the game as a way of protesting Rockstar's treatment of its developers. Obviously views on that front differed, but Vlambeer designer Jan Willem Nijman offered an alternative course of action, creating a thread for developers to promote games that were created without crunch, starting with his latest game, Minit.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.