Rockstar have reportedly made sweeping changes since the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, attempting to improve working conditions. The studio are also allegedly working on the next Grand Theft Auto game.
Kotaku claim to have obtained a copy of a Rockstar email, from executive Jennifer Kolbe intended for employees. This was allegedly sent in Fall 2019.
This was a year after Red Dead Redemption 2, a game notably criticized for the horrific crunch time Rockstar employees went under. These included claims of 100-hour weeks [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10].
Kotaku’s own investigation claimed executive Jeronimo Barrera had committed sexual harassment. Other “veteran” and senior staff (in Kotaku’s own words) “embraced a frat-house-like culture that often included heavy drinking, parties, and excursions to strip clubs.” Barrera denied the claims of sexual harassment.
“In these last several months we have undertaken a lot of work across every area of the company, looking at our processes to determine what works and what doesn’t, what we are great at and what we could improve,” Kolbe allegedly wrote in the email. “We hope that the majority of you have felt some of these positive changes already and those that haven’t soon will.”
The email then allegedly laid out Rockstar’s plans for 2020 to prevent crunch. These included flexible schedules (across numerous studios including California and the United Kingdom), management and leadership training (presumably for senior staff), taking feedback from employees via anonymous surveys, more updates on the company’s future projects, better communication, and better production planning.
Kolbe also allegedly states the company’s intent to prevent crunchtime.
“We have taken conscious steps to improve our approach to developing games in order to reduce the need for overtime. We realise we still have plenty to do in this area and will continue to take steps so we can more accurately predict and schedule games and DLC in a way that is more sustainable but still allows us the creative flexibility to iterate on the incredibly ambitious and complex games we make.”
Speaking with 15 employees currently working at Rockstar, or having worked at Rockstar in the last year, Kotaku report the changes the company have gone under since that email and the allegations. Rockstar themselves declined an interview or comment to Kotaku.
One employee allegedly stated that management were now “running the company like a company.” Another stated “It does seem like a healthier culture overall. We’ll see in a year or two if I’m pulling my hair out, but it does seem like we’re moving in the right direction for being a company the size we are.”
While staff are working at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is still praise for management. A third employee allegedly stated “they keep emphasizing that it’s normal to not be productive and our focus should be on our health and taking care of our families.”
Other changes since Red Dead Redemption 2 include Dan Houser leaving the company, something that employees allegedly believe will reduce rewrites and overhauls late into production.
In addition, studio heads have been replaced at numerous studios, and directors and managers who allegedly contributed to the inappropriate workplace behavior have been fired. Rockstar also (in Kotaku’s own words) “Rockstar held meetings about conduct and sexual harassment, and made plans to bring in a coaching organization called Mindful Talent for management training.”
“It’s like there’s an operation to get rid of bad eggs,” one employee stated to Kotaku. “There are still bad eggs around, don’t get me wrong, but it feels like their days are numbered.”
Rockstar will also allegedly be implementing flexitime scheduling, allowing for employees to work different hours when needed.
Within the article, Kotaku reveals “a new entry in the Grand Theft Auto series” is in the works, as management are planning to (in Kotaku’s words) “start out with a moderately sized release […] that is then expanded with regular updates over time, which may help mitigate stress and crunch.”
One developer still sounded as though they had reservations. “The changes have been good enough for me to stay and give them a chance but let’s see what happens down the road when the pressures of delivering a final product become reality.”
Another expressed concerns that it was the company’s culture to work excessively, and that it may inevitably return. “The issue with Red Dead Redemption 2 wasn’t just scope, the culture was very much centered on the idea that if you aren’t doing overtime you aren’t working hard.”
Nonetheless, Kotaku claim that “staff at various Rockstar offices say they feel like the company has taken big strides over the past year and a half in ways that will improve people’s lives even if there is crunch on the next game.”
This is especially true Rockstar Lincoln, who endured mandatory crunch time, phones kept in lockers at work, and even closing the blinds to prevent outsiders looking at the game during testing.
Now however, the Lincoln testers allegedly have increased salaries, made contractors full-time staff, phones are allowed at desks, and made overtime optional with a pay rate of an additional 50% on their now usual pay. One employee stated the “company culture has become more fun.”
Praise has come from staff in Scotland (Rockstar North), California (Rockstar San Diego), and Manhattan (Rockstar New York), with a more optimistic outlook on the company as a whole. Though Kotaku note “some were careful to temper their comments with skepticism,” including low salaries, and managers who still acted inappropriately.
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