Yesterday, Vulture published an in-depth look at the making of Red Dead Redemption 2. One line, in particular, stood out to a number of game developers: “We were working 100-hour weeks [several times in 2018],” lead writer Dan Houser explained. In an industry plagued by crunch — a term that describes overwork and enforced (often unpaid) overtime, particularly toward the end of a project — it was a disappointing revelation. Red Dead Redemption 2 launches later this month, and it’s looking like one of the most expansive, detailed video games ever made. But there is clearly a human toll that comes from the way these sprawling experiences are developed.
Rockstar has since clarified the “100-hour weeks” comment. In a statement to The Verge, Houser said:
There seems to be some confusion arising from my interview with Harold Goldberg. The point I was trying to make in the article was related to how the narrative and dialogue in the game was crafted, which was mostly what we talked about, not about the different processes of the wider team. After working on the game for seven years, the senior writing team, which consists of four people, Mike Unsworth, Rupert Humphries, Lazlow, and myself, had, as we always do, three weeks of intense work when we wrapped everything up. Three weeks, not years. We have all worked together for at least 12 years now, and feel we need this to get everything finished. After so many years of getting things organized and ready on this project, we needed this to check and finalize everything.
More importantly, we obviously don’t expect anyone else to work this way. Across the whole company, we have some senior people who work very hard purely because they’re passionate about a project, or their particular work, and we believe that passion shows in the games we release. But that additional effort is a choice, and we don’t ask or expect anyone to work anything like this. Lots of other senior people work in an entirely different way and are just as productive — I’m just not one of them! No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard. I believe we go to great lengths to run a business that cares about its people, and to make the company a great place for them to work.
This isn’t the first time Rockstar has been accused of this kind of excessive and enforced overtime. In 2010, reports of poor working conditions surfaced at Rockstar San Diego — the studio behind the original Red Dead Revolver and its sequel — which included periods when employees were forced to work 12-hour days, six days a week.
If true, Houser’s statement suggests this culture has changed, but crunch remains a serious issue in the games industry, regardless. You need only look as far as the recent demise of The Walking Dead developer Telltale Games where unrealistic deadlines led to excessive overtime and employees burned out due to the stressful working conditions. “Crunch culture” is cited as one of the major issues that plagued the once-promising studio. Telltale has since come under fire for prioritizing the completion of the final season of The Walking Dead over taking care of laid-off employees who received no severance.
Incidents like this have made unionization a serious topic of discussion among game creators as the most viable solution to endemic issues of crunch within the industry. The topic was especially prominent earlier this year at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
“For me, the problem is inherently in how studios and publishers across the board will abuse us as developers who are passionate about our work, who are willing to commit to the product, to work us insane hours without compensation and without respect for our personal lives,” veteran developer Jean-Philippe Steinmetz explained during a roundtable discussion at GDC. One of the most prominent pro-union voices is a group called Game Workers Unite, which aims to “bring hope to and empower those suffering in this industry.”