Rockstar QA Studio With Hardest Crunch Told Today That Supposed Mandatory Overtime Is Optional

Rockstar Lincoln, a UK-based studio that has been handling a lot of the quality assurance testing for Red Dead Redemption 2, is swearing off an approach that many employees say they had interpreted as mandatory overtime.

That change comes a result of a studio meeting at the end of a week full of unusually public discussion about the work hours put into the creation of what is likely to be the hottest big-budget video game of the last several years.

We first heard about it from six sources familiar with the studio, many of whom characterised it as a switch from mandatory overtime to a voluntary system.

Rockstar management described the situation differently to Kotaku, saying that overtime was not mandatory but was part of a system in which the overtime was requested and scheduled by the bosses, but that employees could say no to it.

“Through the conversations we’ve been having it is clear to us that the requested scheduled overtime felt like an obligation to some, if not many, of the team,” the company’s head of publishing, Jenn Kolbe, told Kotaku today. “We therefore spoke to them to make sure it is clear that the OT is not mandatory.”

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve heard from numerous current and former Rockstar employees about the work hours put into making the company’s widely lauded and hugely successful games. Employees’ stories increased in number in the wake of a remark from company co-founder Dan Houser about working 100-hour weeks at the studio.

While Houser later clarified that he was talking about a three-week stint involving himself and other lead RDR2 writers, other current and former employees privately and publicly began sharing their accounts, many of them saying they’d worked well beyond a 40-hour week.

The Rockstar workers we heard from regularly cited Lincoln as one of the worst of the company’s studios in terms of crunch. One source familiar with the studio said that they’d been in various forms of crunch since October of 2017, with requested weekend shifts on top of weekday shifts.

Many who have spoken to us privately have said they like working at Rockstar but are weary from the amount of work.

A post published to the Red Dead Redemption subreddit by a person with the handle RockstarThrowaaway448 described today’s meeting about overtime and the toll of working on the game.

While we have not been in touch with the person behind that post directly, a moderator for the subreddit told Kotaku that they’ve verified their identity. The post’s author described themselves as a 23-year-old man who has been working for the Lincoln studio for about a year.

“We had a big meeting today where it was announced that all overtime going forward will be entirely optional, so if we want to work the extra hours and earn the extra money (As well as make yourself look better for progression) then we can do, but there is no longer a rule making us do it,” the Reddit poster wrote.

“This is huge for us here in Lincoln as many of us haven’t been able to take full weekends without paying for it in a long time and it’s a giant step forward in making crunch less of a hell to deal with.”

Data shared by Rockstar with Kotaku indicated that the studio had asked day-time testers at Lincoln to work 52.5 hours a week between 9 October 2017 and 6 August 2018. This was framed to employees as a company request to work two and a half extra hours on three of every five weekdays and to work one 7.5-hour weekend day every four weekends. Night shift testers were asked to work 45 hours for some of that stretch and then 52.5.

Workload requests from Rockstar management increased to 57.5 hours per week in August and September of this year, according to Kolbe’s data.

But, she noted, the company’s data showed that Lincoln’s testers on average worked less than that. From October of last year to May of this year, Rockstar records had Lincoln testers working an average of 38.4 hours a week, and then up to 45.4 from mid-May to early August and up again to 53.1 in August and September as Red Dead Redemption 2 was nearing completion.

The person who posted on Reddit said that they worked about 56 hours a week for most of the past year. They based this tally, in part, on counting their lunch breaks, which they couldn’t bill for but say they regularly worked through.

While the overtime at Lincoln was paid, the purported insider posting to Reddit today wrote, “this overtime is NOT optional, it is expected of us. If we are not able to work overtime on a certain day without a good reason, you have to make it up on another day. This usually means that if you want a full weekend off that you will have to work a double weekend to make up for it.”

The removal of what was described by workers as mandatory overtime seems to be extending beyond Lincoln.

Earlier today, a developer who says that they currently work at Rockstar North wrote on Twitter that their studio lead was trying to make things better: “they are trying. An example of things changing happened this morning where HR called me in to let me know that Rockstar had announced to their QA teams that overtime was no longer mandatory.”

Hovering over a lot of the discussion about workloads at Rockstar and other studios is the difference between company policy and company culture. As Kolbe herself noted, Rockstar employees have said they felt that high numbers of work hours have been expected of them. Kotaku sources have said the same and aren’t all convinced that overtime is now optional.

Some Rockstar employees have expressed scepticism about how the new policy will play out. Two Kotaku sources said that testers would still feel pressure to work as many hours as possible, regardless if the overtime was now deemed voluntary.

On Reddit, one person asked the anonymous Lincoln worker, “is it all worth it to be working on something you love and are passionate about?”

“We’re all as hyped as you guys are!” they replied. “Absolutely will be worth it in the end.”

On Thursday, Rockstar took the unusual step to allow its employees, normally gagged from discussing their work publicly, to discuss their hours. Many did on social media in largely positive tones as they described working over 40 or 50 hours but not close to 100. One said they’d done multiple 70-hour weeks on GTA 5 but noted that the crunch on Red Dead Redemption 2 was “better”.

By encouraging their employees to at last speak publicly about work conditions, Rockstar appeared to be getting on top of this issue in an effort to burnish the mega-studio’s reputation in the public eye leading into the release of its first new game in half a decade.

It may also prove to be a turning point in how the games industry, media and fans discuss the amount of work that should or should not go into the game that millions of people love to play.

Additional reporting by Jason Schreier. 


Comments

    "No longer mandatory" but that doesn't mean people won't still feel obligated to be there all day every day though. You don't want to be seen as the one guy that decides to go home at normal time when everyone else is still in the office...

      All these production line studios do the same thing, talk about how crunch is "not mandatory" out of one side of their mouth while pushing as many hours as it takes to meet their impossible deadlines with the other. It creates a work martyr vs bludger mentality which is antithetical to team and culture building.

      Nothing will change until game developers unionize and force studios to bear some responsibility for the well being of their talent. It has a real effect on people. I've seen many people burn out and quit due to ill health, marriage breakdowns etc. I saw a programmer have a heart attack and die at the end of his shift.

      The problem is so many of these things are easy to shrug off as incidental, or just a matter of culling the weak ones out. But I know different, I lived through it. And it won't change until we start having the conversation.

      Going from the language of the 100 hour week post and the ‘clarification’ to it, it’s clear that like many employers, Rockstar only considers the ones doing excessive hours to be the ‘hard workers’.

      The reality that people see that their progression in the company is going to be penalised if they don’t work unhealthy amounts is likely, and part of the reason that people push themselves too far and burn out. The whole not being that person that works their paid and contract hours like you said.

      Where I work in government we had one manager came in expecting us to work mandatory overtime ‘out of kindness’ with no extra pay.

      I laugh and just do the hours I’m employed to do, and don’t take them up on the optional overtime when it’s offered since it’s just not worth it to me, financially, emotionally or physically.

        The trend toward open plan offices exacerbates it too. It's much harder to be the guy that gets in at 8 and leaves at 4:30 when everyone else arrives an hour or two after you - you don't want to be the one empty desk when everyone else is there until later even though you're doing the same hours. Stuff like that basically psychologically tricks you into not wanting to leave. Hell, I dread the times I have an early morning meeting or call to attend because I end up staying until 7 or so anyway (normally come in later and work later to avoid traffic) so they basically get unpaid overtime out of me and it sucks.

          But those starting later are the ones leaving empty desks in the morning.
          I’ve found pretty much no one gives a shit these days when you start and finish so long as you get the work done and you’re not an arsehole.

    And you can bet that Rockstar won't be doing anything with Rockstar Lincoln again. Wouldn't be surprised if we see it shut down quietly in a year now. BIDNEZ > the little person

    Overtime may not be mandatory for employees to retain their positions now, but it's obviously going to become functionally mandatory for people that want to get ahead.

    In my experience, companies love to talk about how overtime isn't mandatory...

    All while managers/bosses in those companies are finding subtle ways to punish those who don't do it.

    Uh huh....I’m sure the over time is very ‘optional’.

    Why has the talk not gone to the stupid amounts of money Rockstar makes from these games they are grinding humans to the stone to produce?

    Wouldn’t it be better if they made maybe one less billion, and hired more staff to reduce the load?

    Forget the talk about mandatory overtime and start the talk on why it’s needed in the first place.

      Wouldn’t it be better if they made maybe one less billion, and hired more staff to reduce the load?
      but the flipside of that is that from all reports the staff enjoy working there, introducing more staff to cut hours would have an affect on the people who rely on that overtime to pay off mortgages and student debt etc.

      It's also unwise to assume that throwing more staff at a project will speed it up.. often I find it has the opposite result.

        At the same time, getting someone to work twice as long doesn't usually result in them producing twice as much. Fatigue generally makes people less effective.

          of course,I wasn't suggesting anything otherwise.. but it appears no one was asking Rockstar employees to work twice as long either.

    I think it's important to recognise that people working overtime on things does indicate to people they are passionate. that they don't mind working on something longer to get the best possible project made. It just means that when budget cuts come and so on these people keep their jobs. due to this people then realise they are more likely to keep their jobs if they do it as well leading to everyone working overtime while still leaving an impression of dedication and so on. it's not some simple thing of expectation. people had to work the hours to set that expectation. (at least to my understanding)

    If I'm wrong please correct me but, it does seem to me the only way to solve this problem is to limmit actual working hours. in australia I'm pretty sure we are supposed to have 10 hours between shifts at a minimum. maybe some industries around the world like the games industry should implement something even stricter.

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