'Red Dead Redemption 2' and the Problem With "Crunch"

Worker exploitation is an issue across the entire games industry.

In gaming, “crunch” is becoming a bad word. As the realities of blockbuster video game production continue to surface, including overworked and underpaid employees, mandatory overtime (including weekends), and no benefits, Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 is the latest to come under scrutiny for the way the company exploits employees.

On Sunday, Vulture published a feature on the making of Red Dead Redemption 2, a vast open-world game set in the American western frontier. (To get a sense of just how intricate the game’s world will be, Kotaku reported last month that the testicles of horses will shrink depending on the environment’s temperature. “Details, details,” Kotaku wrote.)

In the Vulture feature, the game’s writer Dan Houser appeared to brag that the team was working “100-hour weeks” in order to deliver the game on time. That’s 20 hours of work per day if you don’t work through weekends, which many in the video game industry do.

“The polishing, rewrites, and re-edits 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.’”

After the article was published, most of the gaming community online — still reeling from the collapse of Telltale Games after it “crunched” employees — reacted negatively.

“Yo @RockstarGames read the fucking room,” tweeted video game journalist Holly Green, “we no longer find worker exploitation cute and necessary.”

Patrick Klepkek, senior reporter for Waypoint, also tweeted: “Letting some of the most powerful people in games brag about 100-hour work weeks without placing that in the broader context of labor exploitation, which Rockstar itself has been credibly accused of, is irresponsible.”

A follow-up statement issued by Rockstar to Kotaku explained the context of the quote, but only fanned the flames. A key portion of the statement reads:

“More importantly, we obviously don’t expect anyone else to work this way. Across the whole company, we have some senior people who work very hard purely because they’re passionate about a project, or their particular work, and we believe that passion shows in the games we release. But that additional effort is a choice, and we don’t ask or expect anyone to work anything like this. Lots of other senior people work in an entirely different way and are just as productive — I’m just not one of them! No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard.”

This isn’t the first time even Rockstar has faced controversy for working conditions. In 2010, employees reportedly worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, which led the spouses of employees working on the first Red Dead Redemption to issue a joint statement that threatened legal action on the basis that “the extent of degradation employees have suffered extends to their quality of life and their family members.”

It’s quickly becoming clear that the decision to purchase a new video game comes with its own ethical quandaries. Does the studio mistreat their employees? Will it layoff entire teams as soon as the latest game ships? These are the types of questions that journalists and fans alike need to ask if we want the industry to improve.

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