The Red Dead Crunch

Most of us (“y’all”, if you will) will be aware of Red Dead Redemption 2, the third in Rockstar Games’s western-themed cowboy-em-up series. It’s tremendously content-rich, full of amusing glitches (if there’s anything to lend charm to an AAA game, it’s watching it break in inconsequential but hilarious ways) and is being heralded as the game of 2018, even potentially the headline title of this generation of consoles.

In short, it’s a runaway success in the fiercely competitive world of high budget console games. A throwaway comment from Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser, in an interview with the New York magazine, betrayed something that doubtlessly contributes to the studio’s consistent success:

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. [co-founder] Sam and I will both make both make lots of suggestions, as will other members of the team.”

The determination to ensure that all the ducks are suitably in a row is evident, but the 100-hour week comment is startling. A standard working week in the UK will generally top out at around 40 hours and, though the culture in the US tends towards “the more hours the better”, 100 hours is still a high enough figure to send some eyebrows fleeing behind their owners’ hairline.

Even if we assume that Rockstar staff (Rockstaff?) were working every day of the week, they’d still have to put in over 14 hours a day. Add an hour for commuting to and from work and the poor souls were left with less than 9 hours to simply exist outside of their job each day.

Unsurprisingly, this prompted a flurry of discussion over Rockstar’s working culture and the treatment of its employees. Several were interviewed by various publications, almost entirely anonymously, and something of a mixed bag was revealed in their experiences. None claimed to have worked 100-hour weeks, though several reported up to 60 hour weeks as an average. Most reported being asked, or feeling compelled to work beyond their usual hours, with some being paid for that overtime and others not (depending on their employment at an hourly rate or salaried). Rockstar Head of Publishing, Jennifer Kolbe, confirmed that some staff had certainly worked beyond their usual hours, but explained the situation thus:

We care deeply about the games… You can become obsessive about certain things.

This brings us, neatly, to something that Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian said not long after, but separately to, Houser’s 100-hour comment. Ohanian coined the term Hustle Porn to mean the fetishisation of overworking oneself for its own sake. This appears particularly prevalent in the US startup and silicon valley cultures, wherein overtime is, somewhat confusingly, treated as a given rather than a rare exception. Of course, nobody would admit to doing this — it’d seem childish — but it’s all too easy to picture such a situation being explained away as simply caring that much about the end product. If you’re familiar with my previous articles, you’ll no doubt be aware that I even agree that quality is king. Shouldn’t they care? Isn’t a feeling of ownership crucial to quality of output?

You’re right, of course, if your response to those questions is in the affirmative. That being said, burning oneself out in the name of care is so damaging in the medium/long-term that it’s naive to imagine that the damage won’t simply be done in a different way. Whether it’s the health risks associated with a straight forward lack of rest (think diabetes, depression, cardiovascular problems; it’s an easily conjured list) or the inevitably increased staff turnover that arises from such a situation, it’s another round of short term gain paid for with long term loss.

The crunch doesn’t stop when the product is released, it only changes its form into something harder to see and harder to survive.

So, valued reader, where did Rockstar go wrong? It’s hard to argue that, with the data available to us, they did at all. They’re a profitable, successful company with a product line that has given them a reputation for excellence. It’s clear, however, that Rockstar’s culture values workaholism. There are also many tales of employees being expected to see working for Rockstar as a privilege, and one they should work to retain. Many, indeed, reported a great deal of pride from working on such popular, impressive titles as the Red Dead and Grand Theft Auto series. When you balance that against the stories of clinically depressed testers leaving Rockstar Lincoln and seeking professional help in their droves, though, one must wonder where the line should be drawn.

Rockstar Games is clearly built to appeal to a certain type of personality — but in doing so it is fast gaining an unflattering reputation. Once the supply of “that type” has been burnt out in full, it’s hard to imagine Rockstar still managing to attract the quality staff they need to produce their quality products.