The video game franchise Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is one of the biggest sellers of all time. It has sold nearly 375 million copies since its birth in 1997. The studio behind it, Rockstar Games, has been the subject of numerous complaints from its employees, denouncing in 2018 working conditions difficult. Among them, an abusive practice of “crunch”, pushing teams not to count their hours to meet deadlines. Bloomberg was able to talk to about twenty current or former employees who talk about their experience within the studio. It would have initiated changes in its operation to improve its internal culture.
Rockstar has revised the work schedules of its employees
In October 2018, shortly after the release Red Dead Redemption 2, one of the founders of Rockstar Games, Dan Houser, said that some employees had worked more than 100 hours per week during the last days of development. The man, who left the company in 2019, quickly returned to his controversial remarks. This event triggered a release of speech for around a hundred employees, who then spoke about their difficult working conditions.
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Seven-day weeks, a pace of work described as a “death march” by some employees, and 14-hour days, even on weekends, have long been part of the corporate culture that Rockstar has built its success. It is probably these practices that allowed Grand Theft Auto 5 to become the second best-selling game of all time, with 165 million units sold, to the detriment of the sanity and personal life of the developers.
According to people close to the company, interviewed by Bloomberg, Rockstar has for some years made the decision to review its mode of operation to improve working conditions. In particular, the studio intends to rely on the commercial success of GTA 5 to finance its restructuring, but above all to allow the teams to take more time on the development of future projects, including Grand Theft Auto 6.
Among the internal changes, the company has reviewed working hours so as to no longer resort to the practice of “crunch”. The contractors will be employed full time and several managers, considered abusive, have been dismissed. New mental health and leave benefits have been introduced. Employees will also be able to take time off for each overtime hour worked.
The company wants to become more inclusive
Rockstar has long been considered a company with a very strong “frat boy” culture, a phenomenon widespread in video game studios like Activision Blizzard. It’s a very masculine environment with drinking, fighting and sexism in the workplace.
The difference in salary between genders for the same positions is also significant, but since 2018 it has fallen from 34.4% to 13.8% in 2021 according to GamesIndustry. Jennifer Kolbe, named vice president of Rockstar in April 2022, explained that there has been a 14% increase in the number of women in the company’s workforce since last year. However, they remain underrepresented, at 10.2%, among the best paid positions.
This desire to be more inclusive and respectful will probably be reflected in GTA 6. For the first time since its creation, the franchise would play a female main character. The GTA license has long been a satire of American society where women were often reduced to sex objects. Similarly, the games contained many jokes targeting groups of people, including transphobic language that was removed from the latest version of GTA 5. The latest episode should be more careful on these points.
Grand Theft Auto 6 would be thought to reduce work overload
The structure of GTA 6 and its design will be thought out in such a way as to favor quality over quantity, in particular to avoid overwork. At the beginning of the project, which would have started in 2014, the game was to offer one of the largest virtual environments ever designed by the studio, but they made the decision to restrict themselves to a smaller portion of this environment. Beyond these game-specific design changes, Rockstar is reportedly planning to update it continuously long after release. The studio should regularly add new content during its life cycle, a way to reduce the pressure on the teams in the last months of development.
These changes would not necessarily guarantee better work efficiency according to some employees. To avoid giving too much power and responsibility to a single project director, Rockstar assigned this task to several people. This would have already led to contradictory decision-making and employees would have difficulty knowing who has the final decision. Last May, Kotaku had reported that Rockstar has canceled all of its other ongoing projects to focus on GTA 6. According to some analysts the title should arrive in 2024, but the developers questioned by Bloomberg are more skeptical.