Rockstar employees released from social media restrictions to defend working conditions

Differences in labor laws between studios and radio silence from the company-at-large maintains the corporate opacity.

In what can only be called an incredibly uncharacteristic move for one of the most secretive game development studios in the world, Rockstar has informed at least a portion of its employees that they are now allowed to speak publicly about the company’s working conditions.

The move comes hot on the heels of a turbulent industry conversation about overwork (or “crunch”) in the games industry. In an interview with Vulture, Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser said “we were working 100-hour weeks,” but later said to Kotaku that he was just speaking about the four-man writing team, and that no one at Rockstar is forced to work such hours.

In what may be perceived as an attempt to stymie the flow of negative comments around the controversy, Rockstar employees have stated that the company is now allowing them to speak out. However, some level of uncertainty abounds on whether or not individual employees may suffer consequences for having negative opinions about their experience there. Kotaku has reported that an HR boss sent out an email to several Rockstar studios saying they felt frustrated by the negative discourse and saying that employees would now be allowed to speak up about their experiences, with “no need to sugarcoat anything,” according to one employee.

When GameDaily reached out to a Rockstar employee to see if we could acquire details about that email, including what parameters it set for employees, GameDaily was told the employee was still unable to disclose internal emails.

Sarah Scott, a senior audio designer at Rockstar North (which is based in Scotland; more on that in a minute) said in a blog:

“It has been difficult to see inaccurate, false or out of date information regarding the working conditions here at Rockstar circulated so widely by media outlets, people and fellow devs this week and harder still to see many, in a misguided attempt to defend the development team, call for people to boycott a game we have worked so hard on and are excited to share with the world. While I appreciate that everyone’s experience is different and I in no way want to take away from the experiences of others, I don’t feel that the information I’ve read this week reflects my personal experience of working here at Rockstar North.”

Scott continued by saying “the pressure I feel and the extra hours I work are because of the high bar that I set for myself because I want to make my work the best it can be. I could go home earlier and still hit my deadlines but I wouldn’t be happy with the quality of my work and I wouldn’t feel fulfilled,” adding that nobody has pressured her to work to a controversial standard.

Other employees from Rockstar North, like online tools designer Tom Fautley, said on Twitter “We do crunch. I've not seen anybody forced to work 100 hour weeks, but I've definitely seen friends get closer to that figure than is healthy.” He added that the closest he had ever gotten was 79 hours in a week, but that it was not recent.

A number of other Rockstar North employees spoke their piece on social media, most of which tell of occasional encouraged overtime, but little to no pressure from higher ups.

Note that many of these employees are from Rockstar North, which is based in Scotland. Though they’re not the only Rockstar employees commenting on the situation, they are some of the more positive, and that may be largely due to different labor laws in the United Kingdom.

UK labor law says that workers may not work more than 48 hours on average over a roughly 17-week reference period, with only a few exceptions for intercontinental workers like flight attendants. UK workers are able to opt out of this right if they so choose, and employers can indeed ask employees to sign it away, but are not legally allowed to fire or treat employees unfairly if they decline. UK employers must take “reasonable steps” to ensure employees don’t go over that 48 hours.

Compare that to the United States, and specifically California where Rockstar San Diego (one of the major studios behind Red Dead Redemption 2) is located, and you get a much different picture. California (among many other states) is an at-will employment state, meaning employers are able to terminate employment at any time without prior notice, with or without cause. In the case of outright racial, gender, or medical discrimination, employees in at-will employment states still have the vast majority of the same rights as other states if they’re wrongfully terminated.

California’s own labor laws state that a company can require an employee to work overtime, and may discipline an employee all the way up to termination for refusing to work that schedule. California law also states that a company cannot discipline an employee for taking the 7th day of the workweek for rest, and is subject to a penalty if they do discipline any workers. However, if an employee comes in of their own volition, that right is waived. In a high-pressure work environment, one sees how that could become troublesome for employee health.

Some Rockstar San Diego branch employees have also spoken up, and it’s generally along the same lines as Rockstar North employees in Scotland.

Rockstar San Diego tools programmer Vivianne Langdon (who’s also been retweeting a healthy dose of other Rockstar employees) says she has never worked more than 50 hours a week, but she generally works 2-6 hours overtime each week of her own volition. She tweeted that pressure from others at Rockstar did not factor into that schedule.

It’s entirely possible that Rockstar’s corporate culture has shifted in recent years to better accommodate employees, but a detrimental history is still clearly evident. Former employees, like PR rep Job Stauffer, who departed the company in 2009, said that working at Rockstar was “like working with a gun to your head 7 days a week. ‘Be here Saturday & Sunday too, just in case Sam or Dan come in, they want to see everyone working as hard as them.’”

Stauffer acknowledged that Rockstar should be given the “benefit of the doubt” considering how much time has passed since his employment, but also said that “I've heard this from dozens of [Rockstar] folks in recent years that it continues, and I'm not surprised. It was the most ruthlessly competitive and intense work environment imaginable."

For as open as Rockstar is being by letting their employees speak openly on social media, their highly private nature still means that we don’t know the exact parameters Rockstar has set. We also don’t know if an employee speaking negatively about their employment may result in a later termination, or if Rockstar has given assurances to employees that these public statements won’t factor into annual evaluations.

Update: In an interview with the Guardian, Rockstar North studio co-head Rob Nelson defended the company’s working conditions, but acknowledged that the company’s work culture is in need of improvement.

On the subject of time and welfare management, Nelson said:

“As best we can, and it’s something that we’re always striving to get better at. We’re growing as fast as we can, and we’re structuring our departments based on need, because we don’t want people working too hard. “Do people work hard and is there overtime and extra effort put in? Yes, there is. Is it something we want happening regularly for long periods of time or as an accepted part of our process or as a ‘badge of honour’ thing? No, it is not. We are always trying to improve how we are working and balance what we are making with how we make it and we will not stop working to improve in this area.”

Rockstar provided statistics to the Guardian, based on employee’s self-reported hours across all studios from January 8 to the end of September, showing that the average working week was between 42.4 and 45.8 hours. The longest week, July 9, was recorded as 50.1 hours long. The studio’s busiest week saw 20 percent of the company’s workforce reporting 60 or more hours, up to a maximum of 67.1 hours.

While the company says the statistics are all-encompassing of every Rockstar studio, it’s worth restating that Nelson is the co-head of Rockstar North in Scotland, where the aforementioned stronger labor laws are in place.

Joseph Knoop is a writer for Game Daily, IGN, PC Gamer, and plenty more. He owns an irresponsible amount of Overwatch merch. Break it down with him on Twitter @JosephKnoop.