Rockstar Lincoln, a studio that has been handling a lot of the quality assurance testing for Red Dead Redemption 2, is swearing off an approach that many employees say they had interpreted as mandatory overtime.
That change comes as a result of a studio meeting at the end of a week full of unusually public discussion about the work hours put into the creation of what is likely to be the hottest big-budget video game of the last several years.
We first heard about it from six sources familiar with the studio, many of whom characterised it as a switch from mandatory overtime to a voluntary system.
Rockstar management described the situation differently to Kotaku, saying that overtime was not mandatory but was part of a system in which the overtime was requested and scheduled by the bosses, but that employees could say no to it. “Through the conversations we’ve been having it is clear to us that the requested scheduled overtime felt like an obligation to some, if not many, of the team,” the company’s head of publishing, Jenn Kolbe, told Kotaku today. “We therefore spoke to them to make sure it is clear that the OT is not mandatory.”
Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve heard from numerous current and former Rockstar employees about the work hours put into making the company’s widely lauded and hugely successful games. Employees’ stories increased in number in the wake of a remark from company co-founder Dan Houser about working 100-hour weeks at the studio. While Houser later clarified that he was talking about a three-week stint involving himself and other lead RDR2 writers, other current and former employees privately and publicly began sharing their accounts, many of them saying they’d worked well beyond a 40-hour week.
The Rockstar workers we heard from regularly cited Lincoln as one of the worst of the company’s studios in terms of crunch. One source familiar with the studio said that they’d been in various forms of crunch since October of 2017, with requested weekend shifts on top of weekday shifts. Many who have spoken to us privately have said they like working at Rockstar but are weary from the amount of work.
A post published to the Red Dead Redemption subreddit by a person with the handle RockstarThrowaaway448 described today’s meeting about overtime and the toll of working on the game. While we have not been in touch with the person behind that post directly, a moderator for the subreddit told Kotaku that they’ve verified their identity. The post’s author described themselves as a 23-year-old man who has been working for the Lincoln studio for about a year.
“We had a big meeting today where it was announced that all overtime going forward will be entirely optional, so if we want to work the extra hours and earn the extra money (As well as make yourself look better for progression) then we can do, but there is no longer a rule making us do it,” the Reddit poster wrote.
“This is huge for us here in Lincoln as many of us haven’t been able to take full weekends without paying for it in a long time and it’s a giant step forward in making crunch less of a hell to deal with.”
Data shared by Rockstar with Kotaku indicated that the studio had asked day-time testers at Lincoln to work 52.5 hours a week between 9 October 2017 and 6 August 2018. This was framed to employees as a company request to work two and a half extra hours on three of every five weekdays and to work one 7.5-hour weekend day every four weekends. Night shift testers were asked to work 45 hours for some of that stretch and then 52.5.
Workload requests from Rockstar management increased to 57.5 hours per week in August and September of this year, according to Kolbe’s data.
But, she noted, the company’s data showed that Lincoln’s testers on average worked less than that. From October of last year to May of this year, Rockstar records had Lincoln testers working an average of 38.4 hours a week, and then up to 45.4 from mid-May to early August and up again to 53.1 in August and September as Red Dead Redemption 2 was nearing completion.
The person who posted on Reddit said that they worked about 56 hours a week for most of the past year. They based this tally, in part, on counting their lunch breaks, which they couldn’t bill for but say they regularly worked through.
While the overtime at Lincoln was paid, the purported insider posting to Reddit today wrote, “this overtime is NOT optional, it is expected of us. If we are not able to work overtime on a certain day without a good reason, you have to make it up on another day. This usually means that if you want a full weekend off that you will have to work a double weekend to make up for it.”
The removal of what was described by workers as mandatory overtime seems to be extending beyond Lincoln.
Earlier today, a developer who says that they currently work at Rockstar North wrote on Twitter that their studio lead was trying to make things better: “they are trying. An example of things changing happened this morning where HR called me in to let me know that Rockstar had announced to their QA teams that overtime was no longer mandatory.”
Hovering over a lot of the discussion about workloads at Rockstar and other studios is the difference between company policy and company culture. As Kolbe herself noted, Rockstar employees have said they felt that high numbers of work hours have been expected of them. Kotaku sources have said the same and aren’t all convinced that overtime is now optional.
Some Rockstar employees have expressed scepticism about how the new policy will play out. Two Kotaku sources said that testers would still feel pressure to work as many hours as possible, regardless if the overtime was now deemed voluntary.
On Reddit, one person asked the anonymous Lincoln worker, “is it all worth it to be working on something you love and are passionate about?”
“We’re all as hyped as you guys are!” they replied. “Absolutely will be worth it in the end.”
On Wednesday, Rockstar took the unusual step to allow its employees, normally gagged from discussing their work publicly, to discuss their hours. Many did on social media in largely positive tones as they described working over 40 or 50 hours but not close to 100. One said they’d done multiple 70-hour weeks on GTA V but noted that the crunch on Red Dead Redemption 2 was “better.”
By encouraging their employees to at last speak publicly about work conditions, Rockstar appeared to be getting on top of this issue in an effort to burnish the mega-studio’s reputation in the public eye leading into the release of its first new game in half a decade.
It may also prove to be a turning point in how the games industry, media and fans discuss the amount of work that should or should not go into the game that millions of people love to play.
Additional reporting by Jason Schreier.