Rockstar Lifestyle: Crunchy Underfoot

It’s been a turbulent few weeks for Rockstar studios; the release of their latest open world behemoth overshadowed by the issue of studio crunch once more being the focus of widespread discussion and confusion in the preceding weeks. The waters were muddied by internet commentators on all sides of the debate shouting down the opinions of others with their own and the situation at Rockstar itself rapidly evolving as they went in to all out damage control seeing the potential hit to day-one sales looming.

Holding my hands up, I can’t offer any further insight here, after-all I’m just a consumer and have started this particular piece a few times as the situation morphed before giving up and just waiting for the dust to settle. It feels like we’re at a point now where I can at least safely write some kind of post about it all, but given the complexity of the issue it’s difficult to even know what it is that I want to say.

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Oh you are all in for a treat… I’ve been raiding royalty free repositories for images tagged “office”

It’s worth kicking things off by giving a recap of exactly “what happened”. The runaway minecart gradually began to edge forward following an interview by Harold Goldberg covering the development of ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ with Rockstar Creative director Dan Houser. The full article can be read over on Vulture however it is the specific comment below from Dan that flung a rock up in to the hornet’s nest (How am I doing with the metaphors here?).

The polishing, rewrites, and reedits Rockstar does are immense. “We were working 100-hour weeks” several times in 2018, Dan says.

For those of you that haven’t thought about the raw numbers let me break it down: there are 168 hours in a week and we generally allow 56 of those for sleep so that leaves a grand total of 12 hours free time in that 100 hour working week or 1 hour 42 minutes a day for all those insignificant things such as family, meals, relaxing, or presumably just good old-fashioned screaming into a pillow. The statement was wrapped up in other RDR2 stats like number of dialogue hours etc. with the overall effect being one of ‘look at our big numbers for our big game isn’t it impressive?‘ which seemed to make light of such intense working practice.

The comment was picked up by many online as another example of the notorious crunch culture at Rockstar with the backlash being almost instantaneous given Rockstar’s previous form in this arena; the developments of ‘GTA IV’ and the original ‘Red Dead Redemption’ each had their own controversies and horror stories surrounding monumental volumes of crunch. Set against that backdrop it was understandable that the gaming community would leap to the conclusions that they did, however when read in the context of the full interview it is an ambiguous statement and were it not for the tainted setting of the company, or the industry in general, it leans toward the intended meaning that it was Dan himself and the senior team putting in the intense weeks. This point was confirmed in a statement later the same day from Rockstar.

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Dang! Check out these people fist bumping!

So it was a storm in a teacup right? A final voluntary push by the senior creative team who just wanted to see their vision become reality. The clarification even made a special point of emphasising that the management didn’t expect anyone else in the company to work this way. It was a swift response to a difficult situation and from a personal point of view I felt like I’d been too quick to judge without knowing all the details.

… but the controversy didn’t go away overnight…

The momentum of condemnation took some time to wind down and this is largely because crunch is a big problem in the industry according to many… many… veterans of large studios. One statement from Rockstar wasn’t about to quell suspicions that crunch had been a problem in the game’s production. The continued discussion resulted in Rockstar taking two significant steps. Firstly they lifted the strict social media bans on their employees allowing them to speak for themselves in the matter and secondly they explicitly told employees that overtime in one of the crunchiest arms of the company was purely optional.

These actions have seemingly dropped the debate back down to a gentle simmer and allowed many gamers to focus on their guilt free wild-westing, but the issue of crunch hasn’t gone away and I’m certainly in no position to offer up judgement in this regard because it is a super-difficult issue to talk about. The problem is that as gamers it is easy to imagine that developing games is just as fun as playing them and that as the sprawling artform that games have become somehow deserves a development team who will work tirelessly to make their artistic vision a reality. We often see developers supporting this idealised vision with many being deeply passionate about their projects. I’ve known of many Indie developers in particular put in the hours to complete a labour of love and likewise I’m sure there are writers, programmers, and artists in big studios that are just as passionate. We must recognise that some people choose to work long hours to make things happen and (whilst it’s not something I would recommend) we must respect their decision and their dedication.

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More fist bumping? I never fist bump this much in the office

Unfortunately this expectation can also put undue pressure on those who don’t share the passion of the project’s creative forces. I doubt that the 3D artist who has just had to design the hundredth variation on ‘small pebble found in desert’ or the writer desperately trying to come up with ninety-eight different ways that NPC #178 says “Howdy Pawdner!” feels that RDR2 is their passion project. For many in the team this will  have been a job, not a humbling pilgrimage to sup from the chalice of the great videogame artform, but a way to pay the bills. Its these talented employees who undoubtedly bear not only the brunt of the project work in AAA-titles but also the brunt of the crunch if it exists.

As gamers we ultimately determine the success, failure, profit, and losses of these large studios and I personally consider myself to at least make a solid effort at being an ethical consumer. I guess this all comes around to the question, as gamers is there anything we can do when we hear reports of crunch?

An understandable gut reaction is to say boycott. It makes sense… right? How can I enjoy a product where I know that making it cost someone a slice of their own wellbeing? By not buying it I’m sending a message, cutting my little wedge out of those profits, and not supporting the company. Unfortunately this isn’t that straightforward either; say a boycott campaign manages to make a dent in sales. The outcome might be a development team suddenly being dissolved or worse still an entire studio collapses (and we know how damaging and sudden this can be). The ultimate punishment always seems to cascade down to the people who as gamers we respect and want to support for creating the worlds we explore. Worse yet the collapse of a studio or team just adds pressure to others in the industry to perform in order to keep food on the table and the phenomenon of crunch worsens.

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Honestly I don’t even know what’s going on here…

As consumers our own buying power seems to be a double-edged sword, so is there anything we can do to support the hard working creators out there in the games industry? Well, I’ve had a bit of a think and come up with a small list:

1. Call out studios when you see a crunch story

If the recent events involving Rockstar showed us anything it is that negative exposure in social media does have an effect (just make sure you fact check out there… and remember to take a hat). Rockstar ungagged their employees and made a pretty significant statement in the wake of this. Many of those employees that chose to speak out because of that had stories of some degree of crunch, but nothing as bad as was originally feared. Giving people back a voice was a big deal.

2. Be a more understanding community

Ok, so it’s annoying when releases are delayed, or there are day one bugs, but raising heck at the studio will only pile the pressure downwards through the employees. At least some part of this whole problem is likely because of fan backlash over missed deadlines. Just remember that there are real people working hard to make something for you to enjoy – things go wrong, things don’t work out. It happens.

3. Support small studios and indie developers

For many developers it seems as though going indie or to a small studio is an escape from the big studio culture. Often they seem to work just as hard, but the project is something that they want to work this hard on, and it shows. There are so many indie titles out there with so much passion and talent poured in to them. In short check out indie titles and if you like them then tell others about them.

4. Take a positive interest and spread good stories when you see them

If you see a studio doing something you like then shout about it on social media. Positive reinforcement works just as well as negative. Let the world know that faceless studio X did a good thing!

Thanks for Reading!

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