"Rockstar Wives" Complain About Working Conditions

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"Rockstar Wives" Complain About Working Conditions

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The wives of several Rockstar San Diego employees have banded together to write an open letter decrying what they say are deplorable working conditions at the studio, a move more than a little reminiscent of the famous EA Spouse from a few years ago.

Remember EA Spouse? It was a blog (and also the pseudonym of the blogger) that, back in 2004, blew the whistle on the less-than-ideal working conditions at Electronic Arts. A lawsuit against EA was eventually filed and settled, with nearly $15 million paid to programmers at various levels and sweeping changes made to the ways employees were classified and paid overtime. It was big news at the time because it promised to dramatically alter the working conditions for rank-and-file programmers, artists and other employees at major publishers.

But it's beginning to look like history could repeat itself, if an open letter written by the "Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego Employees" is to be believed. Posted on Gamasutra, the letter accuses the Rockstar San Diego studio of perpetuating a stressful, degrading work environment that's beginning to take a physical toll on employees.

The situation apparently began to seriously deteriorate in March 2009 when the studio went into "crunch mode" on Red Dead Redemption, a high-intensity phase of development it's maintained ever since. Employees are now working at least 12 hours per day, six days a week, yet the letter claims they are being increasingly disregarded and dehumanized by management.

Benefits have been steadily reduced, salary increases have not even kept up with inflation and bonuses are not guaranteed and could be cut at the discretion of management. Perhaps worst of all is the rumor that because of the dire straits at Take-Two, Rockstar San Diego will be shut down once work on Red Dead Redemption is completed.

"Instead of valued employees, a sentiment grows that they have lost not only the sense of being valued but turned into machines as they are slowly robbed of their humanity," the letter says. "The managers at Rockstar San Diego continue in their dishonesty, pushing their employees to the brink promising temporariness fully equipped with the knowledge of another deadline just around the corner."

The veracity of the letter is impossible to verify but many of the follow-up comments, including some from current and former Rockstar San Diego employees, seem to verify that the claims being made are entirely true and unexaggerated. At least one commenter, however, added that in spite of the troubles, he remains proud of the work and of the studio itself. "When it's all said and done, I love my studio, I love my game, and I love my team, and I wouldn't give this up for the world," he wrote. "I just would like to see things improve for all of us, including our management."

Erin Hoffman, who was eventually revealed to be the aforementioned EA Spouse and now sits on both the International Game Developers Association Board of Directors and its Quality of Life Special Interest Group, said that part of the problem stems from the fact that Rockstar has consciously maintained an "internal culture" that's separate and distinct from the rest of the game industry.

"As is pointed out in the comments of the Rockstar Wives post, Rockstar itself worked to stay separate from the game industry," she wrote in an email to The Escapist. "Their internal culture was intense, for good and ill, and so when the rest of the industry stepped up and addressed a lot of these issues post-2005, Rockstar lagged behind. The Wives post is therefore a reckoning that's been a long time coming."

"Speaking as an individual (not for the IGDA!), I do not think that anything short of a lawsuit can fix these companies," she continued. "The fundamental problem with large companies is that there are too many jumps from the guys calling the shots to the men and women actually engaged in development. The only thing that gets their attention is a multimillion dollar lawsuit. They simply have no other incentive to change. Some Rockstar employees have said that they received threatening letters from Rockstar's lawyers when they complained about working conditions internally, and if that's the case, it's even more important for them to know their legal rights."

One of the difficulties in challenging the entrenched Rockstar culture will no doubt be the fact that despite the pressure and demands, many of the employees at the studio love what they do and are thus more prone to put up with unfair working conditions without complaint. Still, Hoffman said the industry has changed considerably over the past half-decade and noted that there is far less tolerance for overworked and underpaid conditions now than there was in 2004.

"In 2004 there was a large sentiment from within the industry that there is no problem and developers should sit down and shut up - we're seeing almost none of that now, and that's a major educational and ideological victory," she said. "Most developers now understand what the broader software industry learned a long time ago: That these kinds of deathmarch hours are just plain stupid for everyone involved."

The Rockstar Wives made no specific demands in their letter but promised that legal action will be taken against the studio if the situation remains unchanged "in the upcoming weeks." With Red Dead Redemption scheduled to ship at the end of April, however, Rockstar may not be inclined to take its foot off the gas just yet.

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One of the things that most concerns me as I pursue a career in game design is how the employees of AAA companies are treated, so it's always good to see someone trying to change that. Even if Rockstar is lagging behind so far as employee treatment is concerned, it still sends a message to the industry that taking advantage of employees will not be tolerated.

Why increase their benefits when you can just sack the lot of them after the game ships? Isnt that the norm in this industry now

They better hope they have some DLC on the way I guess

Isn't this just another Dante's Inferno PR stunt? I can't tell the difference anymore...

Big brother is watching you....

ok, right uhh... well.

do they know how seriously bosses would take a letter of complaint written by their employees wives? that'd be like having their mums calling in on their behalf to excuse them from work! that will not help if their working environment is bad already, it'll just put the bosses' teeth on edge even more!

Getting threatening letters from lawyers for complaining about your sub-par working conditions? That's fucking outrageous! Is striking legal in America? Those guys need to get their asses into a fucking picket line, pronto!

This from Rockstar of all people? I am highly disappointed. I considered Rockstar to be part of the high society of game developers, the royalty, if you will. Oh, wait, such people do tend to mistreat and exploit their workers. That makes sense then.

Still though, I expected, and still expect, better. Rockstar employees deserve higher quality jobs for the high quality games they produce. And Red Dead Redemption had better not be harmed by this issue. I'm counting on this game to be awesome.

hmmmmmmmm....

The dilemna here, is that I'm starting to think that the sheer detail and brilliance that comes out from the Rock Star studio's games is from the pressure that the employee's are put under...

Yes, I don't want game developers to suffer from peer pressure and whatnot... but at the same time, it would be a little bit of a shame if the quality of the game itself was reduced.

edit: that said... higher morale often means better work quality... who knows :P. Point of the matter is, despite the possible side affects, I certainly think that employee's in ANY industry deserve good quality and suitable work comfort.

Wow...these people are no strangers to controversy, I can tell you that.

ElephantGuts:
I expected, and still expect, better.

That's what she said

Thanks for covering this! :D We've been talking about this over in gaming discussion ( http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/9.166727 ) and Gamasutra ( http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RockstarSpouse/20100107/4032/Wives_of_Rockstar_San_Diego_employees_have_collected_themselves.php ) where several employee's under pseudonym have spoken out.

As consumers we can't really do much. I suggested simply not buying the game, but Code Monkey (an incognito R*SD employee) assures me this is not what the employee's want, saying

Andrew, I believe a boycott of the game we developers at R* SD are producing will not help to improve our situation, rather it may make things worse, but I appreciate your sentiment nonetheless. I believe many of us at the studio are putting a massive amount of love into the game we are creating, despite the often questionable working environment, in the hopes that massive sales of such a well-made product will give us all more leverage to exact a positive change in overall quality of life at the jobs we still love.

So, in an odd way, it's our duty to...buy the game? I guess.

Game developers are allowed to be married? I thought it was like Catholic priesthood...

Well, this makes me wonder if those "behind the scenes" videos are all fake, and the studios don't look that nice and friendly.

The_root_of_all_evil:
Isn't this just another Dante's Inferno PR stunt? I can't tell the difference anymore...

The world has gone crazy...

...but, in the light that it isnt. I hope something can happen, after all, developers shouldnt hav to work in conditions like that at all

Wow, that sounds a lot like my job and I'm not even a developer.

TsunamiWombat:
*snip*

The unfortunate fact of creative production (Games, movies, etc.) is that there's no way to both achieve your purpose (producing things that other people can enjoy) while simultaneously "sticking it to the man," if you will.

I'm sure that they'd love to see a boycott to protest the working conditions. If, however, that means people won't get to enjoy the thing that they've been slaving over, then they've *completely* lost.

When people enjoy the thing they created, at least there's an up-side.

While work definitely should not cause someone to deteriorate physically, I think "crunch time" is a pretty normal part of any kind of job where a product must be delivered by a certain date.

Still, conditions shouldn't be that bad.

Nimbus:
Getting threatening letters from lawyers for complaining about your sub-par working conditions? That's fucking outrageous! Is striking legal in America? Those guys need to get their asses into a fucking picket line, pronto!

It's an employer's market right now. Plenty of very talented people are jobless right now, and employers know they can get hold of whoever they want, and they'll just be damn thankful they have a job.

TsunamiWombat:

Andrew, I believe a boycott of the game we developers at R* SD are producing will not help to improve our situation, rather it may make things worse, but I appreciate your sentiment nonetheless. I believe many of us at the studio are putting a massive amount of love into the game we are creating, despite the often questionable working environment, in the hopes that massive sales of such a well-made product will give us all more leverage to exact a positive change in overall quality of life at the jobs we still love.

So, in an odd way, it's our duty to...buy the game? I guess.

Now that's something I could get behind.

It's too bad that the spouses complaints about Rockstar San Diego won't be taken too seriously when they describe their beloved's plight of being overworked as having been "slowly robbed of their humanity". It's amazing how being overworked can turn a person into a sociopath free to kill or make video games without the least regard for their fellow man. Push the date back. It will be a better game with less sociopaths in the world with their humanity still in tact.

They've been in Crunch mode for almost a year? My expectations for this game just dropped :(

As was pointed out to me once, the mere fact that there is a deadline in place limits creativity. The more "time crunched", "stressed", and pushed towards a goal someone is, the less creative they will be with their solution, as there is always an optimal (time-wise) way to the end of a problem, even though it may not be the best or most eloquent (which, IMO, would be an important part of developing a video game).

One of the first thoughts that came to my mind was StarCraft 2 and StarCraft Ghost. One has been in development FOREVAR, and people still want it, so what is the big deal (short term money)? One is cancelled(?) and people still want it! If the game is good and people want it, pushing out a better product, rather than developing it faster, would seem to make sense, and make for happier employees to boot.

scire:

ElephantGuts:
I expected, and still expect, better.

That's what she said

That's...mature?

Because SUEING your employer is a great way to endear you to them!
Since when are corperations supposed to be chairities?

This is why I think everyone should do 2 years in the military. Do you damn job and quit bitching.

Sure, I could complain about 12 hour watches 7 days a week when I'm 500 feet or deeper underwater but that would be fucking stupid.

Perspective, people.

Cryo84R:
Because SUEING your employer is a great way to endear you to them!
Since when are corperations supposed to be chairities?

This is why I think everyone should do 2 years in the military. Do you damn job and quit bitching.

Sure, I could complain about 12 hour watches 7 days a week when I'm 500 feet or deeper underwater but that would be fucking stupid.

Perspective, people.

Have you read the OP? Maybe in the military you get to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, but you're volunteering (or being drafted in major wartime) to go into an extremely strenuous environment. These people are being denied simple benefits that all workers deserve. They're trying to do their jobs and are being abused by their employers, and have been for 10 months.

I don't know about San Diego, but apparently Rockstar North are great to work for.

hehe, I'm sorry, I'm a bit bored lately, guess it kinda affected my humor, because you're right, it not funny nor mature. I posted the exact same joke on two other topics, I guess I'll have to deal with the upcoming consequences for making lame jokes :P

Dear Rockstar San Diego:

Please treat your employees with dignity and respect. Allow them to take their time developing a quality product without the stress and deterioration of living in a year-long crunch. I am willing to wait until June for Red Dead Redemption if it's necessary.

Thank you,
Dr. Gonzo
[quickly ducks while other gamers throw cans of corn his way]

Crunch times are an industry standard, or so several people who've worked in it have told me: the problem probably isn't that, rather I think it's that they're not being provided with a positive work environment.

It's one thing to have to work your ass off in a good work environment: it's not fun (unless you're doing something you REALLY like), but you can draw a feeling of satisfaction from it. But when you're basically being dehumanized by the management, then you just start to have your soul crushed after a while.

While it's no surprise to see the benefits reductions and the possibility of the studio shutting down (this IS a time of economic hardship), at the very least the people slaving away to produce good games shouldn't be depressed and half-dead while doing it.

Slavery is always soul crushing.

Creative work is hard work, but it should never be dehumanizing.

For games to be considered worthy art, first the industry must start treating their developers like artists and craftsmen. The general public will soon follow.

zoozilla:
While work definitely should not cause someone to deteriorate physically, I think "crunch time" is a pretty normal part of any kind of job where a product must be delivered by a certain date.

Still, conditions shouldn't be that bad.

Cousin_IT:
They've been in Crunch mode for almost a year? My expectations for this game just dropped :(

I think you missed the point. When the crunch time is a year a long, it's no longer crunch time; it's just standard working conditions. A common trick for management is too give to much work for employees to do without working unpaid overtime or simply abuse crunch time privileges. This is incredibly illegal, especially in California, and just asking for a lawsuit.

Maybe Rockstar will outsource all their programming to India.

For decades, we've heard and seen stories of programmers and IT workers crunching long hours by running a rat-race in demeaning conditions. We've heard, seen and sometimes experienced for ourselves what long-term desk exposure can do, from carpal tunnel, to goggle vision, and other stress. We know about how full-time programmers are frequently coldly discarded by corporations upon the completion of a project as if they were actually tempts.

With all of that knowledge, it astounds me I have never met a programmer or IT professional in a guild or union! A quick Google search only turned out hits on a comedy group, proposals for unions, an actual functional page for a union that hasn't been updated in five years, and an article explaining why there isn't one.

The article touched a good point. Many working programmers tend to lean libertarian on their political compass. The whole notion of a labor union is lumped together with a Democratic, Socialist, or Communist party. Thus, even when facing abuse they are predisposed to not side with those beliefs. However good this point, it is a generalization.

Many of the programmers I know have pretty leftist beliefs. They push for open source programming, net neutrality, free distribution, open access, shareware, and other initiatives. One of the biggest problems is that most work in small cabals with only distant links to the rest of the company. There is no place and time to organize, and even if they did, their numbers would be too small to sway an employer who has plenty of budding skilled graduates from offshore.

So within our borders the cycle continues. And as the digital age reaches up, the conditions continue, we run the rat race and laugh at it featured in Dilbert cartoons. Maybe someday there will be an Emma Goldman certified in C++ who will change this.

As I said over in that Gamasutra thread, nothing will change unless there is a lawsuit. A threat of a lawsuit will just be shrugged off.

Plus, from what I'm hearing, TT is either going to close down that studio or trim it even further - regardless of how RDR does in the marketplace.

Once the game development became big business and more competitive, all the life (and in most cases, the fun) was sucked out of it. So stuff like this - which goes on at almost all game studios nowadays - is par for the course and will be for some time to come.

The problem stems from game development economics. Why spend $8m and four years on a game, when you can spend $4m and two years? Thats the economics of it and the crux of the matter.

And if you are bleeding money and with very little titles making money to cover it, the race to release key titles becomes more of an issue.

Nimbus:
Getting threatening letters from lawyers for complaining about your sub-par working conditions? That's fucking outrageous! Is striking legal in America? Those guys need to get their asses into a fucking picket line, pronto!

"You won't work? No problem. DOES ANYONE WANT TO WORK FOR ROCKSTAR?"

Watch a quarter of the gaming population fall over themselves to get their resume's in.

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