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Crunch Time

“It’s only the work experience kids that get to sit around playing videogames all day. Most of your time is spent discussing the layout of your article within the magazine, and writing your piece within certain legal boundaries”. That was a quote from a staff writer at a videogames publication, when being interviewed on how “cool” working in the games industry was.

The stark reality, especially in most development circles, is an overworked, underpaid and unappreciated slog. This became even more apparent recently when a polite yet badly written letter from the “Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees” arrived on Gamasutra, dishing the dirt on what seemed to be an eternal crunch period at Rockstar San Diego.

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Déjà vu

This incident echoes practices from EA back in 2004, when a similar letter also from the spouse (Erin Hoffman) of an employee hit the internet. It detailed a crunch in which the workforce started off working 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, but soon escalated to 13 hour days, 7 days a week – equating to 85 hour weeks without reprieve, save for a Saturday evening off (6.30pm) for ‘good behaviour’.

“85 hour weeks without reprieve, save for a Saturday evening off”The real kicker was that no employee gained any overtime pay, nor any compensation, the deal being any hours spent in a crunch would be given as leave after the product had shipped. To kick them down even further, EA didn’t want to grant this leave that was previously offered, instead putting developers onto other projects. In essence, moving from one crunch to another, which whilst minimised by EA, couldn’t be guaranteed to avoid. Oh, and no additional holiday or sick leave, just to prod your dead, overworked corpse, in case you weren’t already dead from the thought of this.

That was 2004; the letter uncovered the practice at other studios and became widely covered by the games press, leading to the formation of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), and creating the hot topic “Quality of Life”. The plight of the videogame developer had seen its Band Aid concert and the community rallying behind them for better working conditions. Or so we thought.

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Spring 2008 saw the issue revisited, not through uncovering a scandal but a routine feature for Gamasutra, which unveiled that whilst developers had cleaned up their act, the crusade as it were had lost momentum. The author of the “EA Spouse” blog had seen numerous positive turns, specifically by Electronic Arts, such as overtime being paid, but the IGDA were falling behind. The project known as Employment Contract Quality Of Life Certification (ECQC) was supposed to be a survey to find the better aspects of employment within the industry, and then bring those into a set of contract provisions – at the time of the article, this was still being revised and hadn’t been sent out to studios yet. Furthermore, three and a half years since the original Quality of Life survey took place, no such study had been undertaken. After the initial uproar, the industry was once again self-regulating.

Rockstar treatment?

Fast-forward to January 2010, roughly five and a half years since the extreme working conditions of your average videogames developer were uncovered, and we have another letter from the spouses, this time to Rockstar San Diego. The studio had been regarded as one of the finest given the success of the Midnight Club series and the odd charms of Table Tennis, and was at this stage in the final months of preparing the much-fabled Red Dead Redemption. The news that broke showed the studio was in complete disarray.

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Ten of the best?

The skilled Rockstar San Diego studio developed ten titles together before all hell broke loose with Red Dead Redemption:

Smuggler’s Run
Midnight Club
Smuggler’s Run 2: Hostile Territory
Smuggler’s Run Warzones
Midnight Club 2
Read Dead Revolver
Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition
Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition Remix
Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis
Midnight Club Los Angeles

The story initially revolved around the issue of an extended crunch time from way back in May 2009, in which employees were working around the clock, 6 days a week, to complete the title by its Spring 2010 release date. The immediately coined “Rockstar Spouse” blew the whistle on the staff’s poor health – “It is known that some employees have been diagnosed with depression symptoms and at least one among them is acknowledged to have suicidal tendencies” as well as accusations of benefits cut, such as healthcare, and making members of the team feel guilty for taking sick days and visiting medical centres.

Where the story really took off was in the comments section below, and then on various forums around the internet. I mistakenly thought that accounts were purposely anonymous, wondering why no-one would stand up and be acknowledged, confirming the letter as correct, when in fact Gamasutra editors appeared to be protecting (rightfully so) the identities of those who were adding fuel to the fire with more stories from behind the scenes.

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“Where is the detail about people getting performance warnings for not working 11hrs+ a day?” said one of the first messages. Along with this, the poster led readers into a running joke at the studio; donuts were taken away every other week to save money, whilst head office flew in staff from all corners of the globe to stay in luxurious houses, rental cars, etc. More followed: “How about the temporary appointment of a new studio president who spent thousands at a time on drinking outings, only to give up the position after a few short months?”.

Donuts and lavish spending; it doesn’t sound like a legitimate reason to make such a fuss. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. The original highly talented team that made the Midnight Club series was eventually run into the ground, with the better parts of the crew leaving for other ventures whilst those responsible for the collapse were promoted to lead the studio. You can see where this is going.

“The original highly talented team that made the Midnight Club series was eventually run into the ground”Anonymous commenters started to delve into the real reasons why the studio had a rough 2009; the consensus boils down to a chronic lack of communication and a management team that cannot manage people – a recipe to a disaster if I’ve ever seen one before. Suggestions that the team were left not knowing what to get on with once a build had been stopped due to bugs are rife. Apparently the reason so many bugs and errors slowed down development were because management were happily hiring new faces from both inside and outside the studio for the project. It took so long for those expensive additions to get up to speed that they were hurting it as much as they were helping. “They (the management) wanted to spend that time and money, they just didn’t want to accept the inevitable consequences.“

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The blame even stretched right to the top, at Rockstar New York. Numerous complaints said that HQ weren’t involved from start to finish, instead interjecting randomly and extending the deadline, thus more crunch, for any changes they saw fit. Rockstar New York were also blasted for not firing the people who got the studio into a mess, and for authorising new faces to work on the project. It’s also been made public that Rockstar hasn’t contacted nor spoken to the bodies setup to help provide better working conditions – Quality of Life – for staff.

All work and no play

Despite the shit hitting the fan down in California, Rockstar had some fun with a comment from an unconfirmed ex-employee. Likening the headquarters to “The Eye of Sauron”, the watchful presence of the evil overlord in The Lord of the Rings, the New York office released three new wallpapers on its website. Titled “The Eye is watching”, one image has a clear representation of San Diego with the domed shape referencing the San Onofre nuclear power plant. Talk about provocative.

They’re not a happy bunch, then. The immediate response would be why anyone would put up with such conditions – the answer sadly isn’t any clearer. Rockstar San Diego is based in California which, if you haven’t been reading the news, is in serious economic trouble. Maybe that’s what you get for hiring an actor as governor, who knows. Those who pack up and leave the company aren’t likely to find employment, at least not in this industry, within the same state. Leaving the San Diego studio may well mean relocating permanently. Secondly, according to Californian law, “A company is within their legal rights to require its employees to work as many hours as it deems necessary as long as they are compensated correctly”. That puts paid to any legal action by an employee, not to mention the state of the legal team on Rockstar’s books – “They will write up these crazy letters threatening you with everything they can think of, all of which is meaningless but it scares most people out of continuing to speak out”, said another anonymous commenter.

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So if you can’t sue them and you can’t just walk into another job, what else can you do? The online communities discussing the entire debacle appeared to be split down the middle concerning to forming a development union, purely because management wouldn’t be pressured into conforming to their demands. For every game developer currently in business, there are “10 fresh, unused, inexperienced but willing newcomers out there who cost much less than any experienced developer. Their lack of experience is compensated by their motivation to get into the industry and their acceptance of any inhuman treatment.” It is currently too easy for a management team to close a disruptive studio and start again under a new name with fresh faces, using the same material. The only possible solution to combat this problem would be a worldwide union similar to that of the American film industry, in which everyone has to be part of the union to work within videogame development – but that takes time and much approval from all ranks.

Ascaron, the studio behind Sacred 2, became so upset over their working conditions that they created a workers’ council which, thanks to German law, gave them much power within the workplace. They soon enforced overtime compensation and weekends off; the upper tiers of management responded with press releases blaming the council for any slippage of goals and milestones. Ascaron went out of business shortly after Sacred 2 released, despite the game selling well. Another tactic is using the threat of Eastern European studios, which charge much less, to drive down prices for development. This is because their cost of living is much lower, and so studios in the bigger cities are undercutting themselves just to get business through the door.

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“The source went on to compare Rockstar NYC to the Eye of Sauron when dealing with their studios.” Rockstar has released comments to the press denying the accusations, stating “Unfortunately, this is a case of people taking the opinions of a few anonymous posters on message boards as fact”, in response to the Gamasutra post, calling those commenters “former members” before refuting the various allegations: “We’ve always cared passionately about the people working here, and have always tried to maintain a supportive creative environment. There is simply no way Rockstar could continue to produce such large scale, high quality games without this”.

To be fair, I do wonder how Rockstar could possibly churn out triple-A title after triple-A title without its studio falling apart, should it be in such a fine mess. Clearly something went wrong during 2009, but things appear to be on the up, at least for the development of Red Dead Redemption. The latest gossip coming from the stream of anonymous posters believed to be Rockstar employees is that the game is coming along a lot smoother, and whilst bugs are still being resolved, the worst days are behind them. This could explain the latest crop of images coming from Rockstar, which would otherwise seem strange if the title was in-fact nowhere near completion, as had been previously suggested. As for the plight of the development team and the the constant mishaps of their management team, the story is still on-going.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in June 2002.

Gentle persuasion

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