Overtime crunch at Red Dead Redemption II developer Rockstar Games is mandatory, according to three sources familiar with the studio (one current and two former). Or, at least, many employees felt it was an expected and required part of their job even if the studio avoided explicitly stating that is the case.

Developers are crunching at both Rockstar’s quality-assurance office in the U.K. as well as the New York office. A recent Kotaku report echoed what sources have told me and revealed the studio is clarifying that its overtime schedule is not required. In a comment provided to GamesBeat, Rockstar confirms that it has asked people to work longer hours. But it takes issue with the suggestion that it was not each individual’s choice to do so.

“Overtime is not mandatory,” Rockstar Games publishing boss Jennifer Kolbe told GamesBeat. “We have absolutely asked people in all locations to work beyond regular hours at times in order to help achieve certain milestones on what is a very large project, and plenty of people in all locations have done overtime. For that we are very grateful. At the same time, plenty of people have not worked meaningful overtime, and they are also highly valued members of the team. That has been reflected in the average hours worked numbers we have already shared publicly.”

Last week, Rockstar gave stats to The Guardian that claimed the average work week for an employee was between 42.4 hours and 45.8 hours. That was from the start of 2018 through September. It also includes every Rockstar studio. I don’t have the data to independently verify that claim.

We talked to several former and current Rockstar employees under the condition of anonymity for this report.

The Rockstar labor issue

Rockstar’s labor issues turned into headline news over the past two weeks after studio co-boss Dan Houser gave an interview to gaming reporter Harold Goldberg. That story ran in Vulture, and it included a passage where Houser spoke openly about the amount of work the team is pouring into Red Dead Redemption II.

“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.”

The key phrase is the reference to “100-hour weeks.” That immediately echoed the “Rockstar spouse” controversy from 2009 and 2010. Following a solid year of crunch on Red Dead Redemption 1, spouses of Rockstar employees published a statement to ask the studio to change. In that open letter, the partners described how workplace stress led to serious depression and other health concerns for their loved ones.

Houser later followed up his Vulture quote with a separate statement to Kotaku where he claimed that only the senior writing team worked those hours. And they only did so for three one-week periods. He also said that they “obviously” don’t expect anyone else to work like that.

But to many people at Rockstar, it isn’t obvious.

What is mandatory?

No one I’ve spoken with claims that the word “mandatory” was used in relationship to crunch. Instead, sources familiar with the QA studio claim it would use overtime hours in performance reviews to determine whether or not you would earn a contract renewal.

“You go from contract to contract,” one former dev explained. “That’s either six months or a year. And at any one of those intervals, you can be let go. If you don’t do the overtime, you will be let go. If you don’t work enough overtime, you will be let go.”

The studio’s performance reviews also focus on productivity. If you report significantly fewer bugs than your colleagues, the studio would not offer you a new contract. Many saw this as a fair measuring tool, even if it is indicative of how disposable they were as contract workers. But because their contracts were dangling in the balance, many Rockstar QA workers took every request to work overtime or to take less paternity leave as built-in expectations of their work.

“Management did not make it explicit, but the pattern was obvious,” another source said.

No one I talked to ever exercised the option to decline overtime. They also noted that they sometimes felt the pressure to work late because others around them were staying well past normal hours.

Rockstar plans to end vague policies

Once again, Rockstar disagrees with the notion that overtime was mandatory. The studio asked us to provide Kolbe’s responses in whole, and I agreed to do so. While I am integrating her quotes throughout this story, they are unedited from how Kolbe sent them to me.

Here is Kolbe’s response to the claim that contract workers at the QA studio felt like they didn’t have an option to avoid overtime crunch:

“It has always been optional. Even in instances such as the QA team in Lincoln where a specific schedule of OT was requested going into our busiest period. Where people were not able to do it, they have not done so. QA is the only discipline where a meaningful number of employees are on temporary contracts which may periodically renew, as we have hired in extra people to help make this game as polished as possible for our fans at release. While we understand the concern around potential extensions inherent in temporary positions, it is absolutely not the case that we have based decisions around contract renewals or long term hiring purely on hours worked.”

“We have pushed hard over the last years to build and optimize the structure of our QA team, including doubling the size of the permanent team since 2014 and introducing scheduled day and night shifts so that we can increasingly avoid asking the QA team to work any overtime at all. We will continue to make progress on that. We acknowledge that we need to communicate clearly with the teams about our plans, and to take responsibility for situations where the teams were confused or received a confusing message from us. We did get the Lincoln team together last week to make sure it is clear to them that the schedule is requested, not mandatory.”

So Rockstar claims it did not intend to let contract workers believe their jobs depended on working overtime. At the same time, it recognizes that it has benefited from using vague performance-measuring parameters. It called the meeting last week to clarify its language to ensure QA staff that their jobs are not held hostage to overtime.

It’s also worth noting that contract QA workers get overtime pay, but most other Rockstar developers don’t. That varies slightly depending on local labor laws in various regions that Rockstar operates in, but — in general — designers and artists and engineers work unpaid overtime.

Beyond QA

But crunch goes beyond the U.K. quality-assurance office. Rockstar is at least not trying to hide that is asking people across all of its studios to put in extra hours. It admits that it is crunching. And it is trying to characterize that as limited and respectful of its workers. Essentially, it is saying this is the kind of crunch any one of us has experienced in our jobs or in school. You get your momentum going on something, and you want to keep it going. Suddenly, you’ve worked until 11 p.m.

At Rockstar’s New York studio, however, that has turned into people sleeping at the office on more than one occasion. People in this studio have also said that they believe crunch is mandatory.

Kolbe addressed New York staff sleeping at the office:

“We have an in-house media production team here in New York that handles our TV ads, trailers, and all other marketing assets. Some members of that team pulled an all-nighter while they finished the launch trailer and new TV advertisements that were scheduled to launch this past Thursday. There is no pattern of sleeping in the office, and all-nighters are obviously something that we want to avoid. We are always looking at both our resources and our processes to see if there are changes we can make to reduce the chance of any need for excessive hours.”

Are Rockstar developers disposable?

Rockstar maintains that it does not require people to work overtime. It also says that it does not base ongoing contract decisions on doing so. At the same time, many employees feel that crunch is mandatory and does impact their standing at the company. And it’s possible that both things are true at the same time. Here’s how Kolbe characterizes it:

“Yes, people have worked overtime, and yes people have worked weekends. And yes, there are individuals who have worked an 80-hour week here and there. But that has never been mandatory, and is radically different to the typical experience. For example, over the last several years, in our busiest 3 months, the average week worked was 45.8 hours across all studios. Even in the single busiest week for QA — submission week — the requested schedule for Lincoln during that one week shifted up to 60 hours, and no more than 20 percent of staff across all locations worked 60 hours or more. Only 0.4 percent of the nearly 67,000 employee weeks tracked in our project cost allocation system since the beginning of this very busy year were 80 hours or more. There is not a pervasive pattern of sustained unreasonable overtime. There have been specific teams, including teams in New York, for whom the workload was at times really heavy, and we will continue to do everything we can to grow our capacity and streamline our processes over time to manage that better going forward. We are definitely not perfect in our process, but we believe we have a great environment and happy team in general, and we are committed to continuing to listen, learn and evolve.”

Based on conversations I’ve had, the studio does seem like it has made improvements compared to its own past. But a fundamental problem remains: Developers feel expendable at Rockstar, according to what they told me — although developers may also feel this way across the industry.

The people making these games feel that, at anytime, someone could come along to replace them. It’s easy to see why QA staff working on short-term contracts would feel that way. But even salaried employees in other Rockstar studios told me they have the same fear. And that leads to situations where they feel pressured to go along with the program. Because if they don’t, what is stopping Rockstar from going out and getting someone who does.

That is a problem that gets worse with time, of course. The longer you stay with Rockstar, the more likely it is that you’ve started a family and earned enough raises that you are significantly more expensive to the company than a new hire. If you want to go home to see your kids before they go to bed and the 24-year-olds continue plugging away into the night, you might put yourself in your boss’s shoes and think, “Why would I pay this person more who doesn’t want to work as hard as the rest of their time?”

Kolbe says that Rockstar leadership wants to hear from developers who feel that way:

“We always encourage our team to speak to their managers and voice their concerns openly. We could not have so many people with such long tenure across all our locations, and so many highly valued new team members if we really felt that our team was expendable and treated them as such. Every game we make builds on the last, and we simply could not do this without bringing everyone’s expertise and experience forward with us as a cohesive team. We do that by creating the best opportunities, environment, and rewards. That applies across all domains.”

But even before Kolbe provided this comment, sources told me that they felt the most expendable when they would bring up these concerns. The management team was never threatening or dismissive, but it also wasn’t going to ask anyone to stop crunching just because it puts pressure on other people on the staff. The cold truth is that the culture of crunch doesn’t have to change because Rockstar does have a steady supply of employees who are willing to go along with it.

That’s why we see studios like Killer Instinct developer Iron Galaxy institute a no-crunch policy. They know that employees look to each other for guidance on what is acceptable and expected. And it takes just a few people to set a tone where crunch feels so entrenched that you are an outlier if you don’t regularly participate.

And Rockstar likely knows that as well.

How bad is crunch, really?

Rockstar is one of the first studios where the public heard about the concept of crunch. But the current Rockstar is not like the 2009 Rockstar. At least, not as far as I can tell, according to my sources and other recent reporting. Employees do crunch. Many believe it is a mandatory and expected part of their job. But most devs feel that it is just one hardship of many that they might have to deal with in any position across any industry. When I asked them what they have the most difficult time dealing with, at least one said that working on the same project for years was difficult.

Rockstar has worked on Red Dead Redemption II for more than seven years now. And that grind is starting to wear down on some employees. That’s not exactly a labor issue. It’s just the nature of making games. Still, I asked Kolbe about it:

“Since we are focused on making a small number of groundbreaking games at the highest level of quality, and on keeping those games alive for our players for many years beyond release, our team knows that while there is always exciting new content to work on, touching a wide variety of different games in a short time is not something we offer. And many of our processes are iterative in order to create something that is highly polished. At the same time, discussions around career growth are a natural part of our daily conversations with the team. Many of our team members have very productive conversations with their managers, and many have seen substantial growth over time, both within roles and moving across roles, especially because we are a growing company. We will encourage people to continue discussing with us any questions they have about either their near-term tasks or long-term future.”

I think it’s important context that some Rockstar devs are equating crunch with needing a change of pace.

Red Dead Redemption II could define the future of games

Game fans are often an anxious bunch. Look at the way some latched onto the puddles in Marvel’s Spider-Man. We had built up so much hype and anticipation for that game that something as stupid as that blew up into something major.

Something similar is happening with Red Dead Redemption 2 right now. We are just days away from the release of that mega-sized open-world cowboy simulator. But while we wait, we are latching onto a story about labor conditions at Rockstar Games. The difference here, of course, is that labor conditions are actually worthy of that concern.

Red Dead Redemption 2 makes me nervous

I’m not some huge Rockstar or even Red Dead Redemption fan. I like the Grand Theft Auto games just fine, but I don’t really play through their stories. Mostly, I appreciate these games. I’m glad that Rockstar is out in New York doing what it does, because no one else could.

But Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like a defining moment waiting to happen. Rockstar has spent so many years developing it that it wouldn’t surprise me to learn it’s the most expensive game ever made. Publishers never share those budgets, so we won’t ever hear that. But the cost to make this sequel was likely astronomical.

Rockstar, and parent company Take-Two, are betting that investment is going to pay off. But what if it doesn’t? I don’t have any reason to think that it won’t, but I also don’t necessarily see any reason to assume Red Dead Redemption II’s Grand Theft Auto V-level success is inevitable. Of course, the new Red Dead doesn’t have to sell 100 million copies to succeed, but I think it probably needs to sell a lot better than the first game’s 13-to-15 million copies.

If it doesn’t significantly outperform those expectations, other publishers and developers may run scared from trying to make anything else like it for years. Even Rockstar could turn its back on these kinds of productions in favor of a moneymaking factory like GTA Online.

And I just don’t want to wake up some morning six months from now to find that Rockstar laid off most of its staff because of disappointing sales of just 20 million copies. Basically, I don’t want Red Dead Redemption II to pull a BioShock Infinite.

Why this matters

Red Dead Redemption II is impossible to ignore. Many people credit it as the sole reason so many games slipped from late 2018 to early 2019. And it’s the reason Activision moved Call of Duty to October for the first time in a decade. That makes labor issues inherently worthy of investigation.

At the same time, Rockstar makes it sound like the game has an impossibly grand scope. For example, it doesn’t have “side quests.” Instead, the studio is giving everything the detail of a story mission. Or if you commit a crime in front of a witness, you can threaten them and follow to ensure they don’t squeal to the sheriff. The studio even fully animated the horse genitalia and built a system that causes the testicles to react realistically to changes in the weather. I’m sure you’ve heard of shrinkage.

So when I say that Red Dead Redemption II makes me nervous, I’m talking about all of that. How can people make a game that big without killing themselves in the process?

And what if it succeeds? What if the next game has to be bigger with even more content and realistic body-part physics? What if a studio without the institutional know-how of Rockstar tries to do it?

Publishers already believe they have to wow the audience with new tech and a larger scale with every new game. And they are probably right because those games tend to sell better. I don’t want publishers to feel like they have to chew through a generation of developers just to entertain us.