Rockstar developers speak out on 'death march' crunch

Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser said earlier this month that employees at the studio worked 100-hour weeks to get Red Dead Redemption 2 finished, a statement he later clarified as a reference about the "senior writing team," rather than the studio as a whole. That led current and former Rockstar employees to share their own stories about life at the studio; some said the stories of extended crunch were wildly overblown, while others, like former Telltale stalwart Job Stauffer, who was there during the GTA 4 years, described it as "like working with a gun to your head 7 days a week." 

An in-depth Kotaku report released today paints a clearer picture of what it's like to work at the studio, based on interviews with 34 current and 43 former employees, including Rockstar's head of publishing, Jennifer Kolbe. It too is a mix of perspectives: Some employees say it's a great place to work, while others, with "the most harrowing stories … were impossible to print without risking that the individuals involved might be identified." 

Degrees vary but the one thing that comes through consistently is that Rockstar is a place where employees are expected to work long hours: "What the company values most is not the bugs you fix but the hours you put in," is how one put it. Another, who worked on the original Red Dead Redemption, disputed Houser's statement that Rockstar employees aren't subject to mandatory overtime, saying, "we absolutely were forced to work six-day weeks in the six to nine months leading to launch." 

And while some of that extra time is compensated for through employee bonuses, those are highly volatile. Red Dead Redemption paid off handsomely, but Max Payne 3 did not meet expectations and its bonuses came in much lower than expected, despite the development process being a "death march," according to sources. 

One interesting, and revealing, detail about life at Rockstar that's detailed in the report is that employees who work on a game aren't listed in the credits if they leave the studio prior to its release, which effectively renders their work invisible. Koble, the head of publishing, said that's been "a consistent policy" at Rockstar, to encourage employees "to get to the finish line." 

"And so a very long time ago, we decided that if you didn’t actually finish the game, then you wouldn’t be in the credits," she said. For RDR2, Rockstar will "recognize many people who made a contribution, including many former employees" through a "thank you" list on the Rockstar website that includes names that don't appear in the credits. It's apparently the first time that Rockstar has done such a thing.

Hefty overtime is clearly intertwined with Rockstar culture, but Koble acknowledged that march-or-die is not a sustainable approach to game development. It wasn't pervasive burnout among its employees that led to that realization, however. 

"I think we’ve realized it through having children, because I think that naturally means you’re going to work less hours. I think even for the people who don’t have children, who have gone through crunch periods on other games, they approach the game they then go onto next a little differently. Because no matter who you are, your health is a concern to you," she said. "I think everyone approaches each new project with the goal of: It’s got to be better than what I did last time." 

Be that as it may, I think it's very telling that despite being officially cleared to speak openly with journalists, nearly all of the employees who participated requested anonymity. I would very much like this to be a sign of real change at Rockstar, and other major studios, but there's clearly a powerful culture of fear to overcome.

The full report on Rockstar's "Culture of Crunch" is long, deep, and really good. Give it your time at kotaku.com