The Industry Won't Change If Reporters Let The Powerful Off the Hook
The creative brain trust at Rockstar Games have unbelievable influence, power, and money. Any chance to hold their feet to the fire should be seized, if we're going to change the terms of debate.
Image courtesy of Rockstar Games
On the same day Sega announced it had successfully and significantly shrunk overtime hours, eliminating employees pulling 80 overtime hours per month by 80-90%, there was this quote in this awfully flowery profile of Rockstar Games at Vulture in anticipation of Red Dead Redemption 2’s release this month, in which the studio brags about 100-hour work weeks:
The polishing, rewrites, and reedits Rockstar does are immense. “We were working 100-hour weeks” several times in 2018, Dan says. The finished game includes 300,000 animations, 500,000 lines of dialogue, and many more lines of code. Even for each RDR2 trailer and TV commercial, “we probably made 70 versions, but the editors may make several hundred. Sam and I will both make both make lots of suggestions, as will other members of the team.”
The quote was attributed to Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser, who’s since told Kotaku his 100-hour work week comments were specifically talking about the game’s four-person writing staff, and he “doesn’t expect anyone else to work this way.” There’s a lot to unpack in those comments, as Rockstar deserves to get dragged for the way it’s helping normalize crunch culture and idly pretending such comments at the top don’t have trickle-down effects.
The fallout from this piece has resulted in stirring confessions about work culture, but I remain disturbed by the piece itself; it’s borderline irresponsible. The 100-hour comment comes and goes in the Vulture piece without hesitation. There’s no pause in the action to comment on how ridiculous a 100-hour work week sounds in A) the specific context of Rockstar, a company famously called out for exploitative labor practices B) the broader context of 2018, in which labor practices and unionization are now part of the conversation.
None of this is part of the piece.
The Houser brothers, the creative leads at Rockstar, do not talk to the press often, tending to let their games speak for themselves. It’s unique in a personality-focused culture, so when the Housers do grant an interview, it’s a moment. You might not care for Rockstar’s games, but it’s impossible to ignore the enormous influence their work has on the industry. I know plenty of people who don’t consider themselves “gamers,” but who do play anything Rockstar puts out. My cousin doesn’t text me about other games, but does ask if I’ll get Red Dead Redemption 2 early. Rockstar exists on a singular plane of gaming culture, and it’s incumbent on reporters to carry that burden when given a chance to speak with its leaders.
What’s the human cost of modeling the way horse testicles react to weather? Is it worth it? How do the Housers approach scaling labor, as their hyper-detailed worlds demand more? This has probably changed over the years, so what lessons have they learned? Rockstar felt obligated to publicly respond to the infamous “Rockstar Spouse” letter alleging broken working conditions during the development of the original Red Dead Redemption, so what’s changed? Did that letter, even if they considered it an outlier, weigh on them? Given the seemingly unlimited budgets afforded Rockstar productions, what would it take to make a game without crunch for anyone, including the writing staff? The use of unionized actors was mentioned in the piece, but what does Rockstar make of unionization for game developers?
Can we linger on that last one for a second? Take a look at this passage:
The final script for Red Dead Redemption 2’s main story was about 2,000 pages. But if he were to include all the side missions and additional dialogue, and stack the pages, Dan estimates the pile “would be eight feet high.” Bringing the script to life meant 2,200 days of motion-capture work — compared with just five for Grand Theft Auto III — requiring 1,200 actors, all SAG-AFTRA, 700 of them with dialogue. “We’re the biggest employers of actors in terms of numbers of anyone in New York, by miles,” says Dan.
The reporter noted the SAG-AFTRA association, not Dan Houser. SAG-AFTRA is a long acronym for Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Arts—in other words, a union. Rockstar is seen here boasting about the amount of union-backed workers contributing to Red Dead Redemption 2, but not a single one of those union workers is employed by Rockstar. That’s not a contradiction worth exploring? That doesn’t seem weird?
I’m not asking for the piece to be entirely about labor and workers rights, though I would happily read that over yet another article correlating writing quality with script length, but I am suggesting we’re at a point where it’s careless to ignore these increasingly weighty topics.
It’s also possible these questions were posed to the Housers, but they didn’t have an answer worth printing. If that’s the case, the piece fails for not making this clear. A bad answer, or even an evasive answer, is still useful. We learned more in lengthy statement Dan Houser provided to Kotaku over email than the supposedly six hours this reporter got for the piece.
The industry does not take this topic seriously enough. One reason that’s true is because we, the media, do not hold their feet to the fire and force the issue. They do not expect to get asked about it—because we don’t ask. That needs to change, and it especially needs to change with the people who actually hold the power to enact systemic change. If Rockstar, of all studios, was to publicly get behind institutional labor change, it would have a ripple effect.
Do I expect that to happen? No. But should we ask them why not? Hell yes.
Let me leave you with this tweet from Iron Galaxy CEO Adam Boyes, who's been in the industry for decades, to underscore the historical scale of the problem here:
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