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Rockstar's crunch culture is changing, developers say

Changing for the better

Remember when Red Dead Redemption 2 first launched and everyone was abuzz as Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser proudly proclaimed 100-hour work weeks a necessary evil? Ah, too many horrific things have happened since then and you'd forgotten, hadn't you? Well here's a less awful thing then. According to current Rockstar developers, it seems that the company's crunch culture is changing. For the better, to be clear.

In a Kotaku report, current and recent Rockstar members anonymously speak about how they feel that the emphasis on overtime and crunch is lessening. Kotaku say they've spoken with 15 developers who are either still with the company or left only within the last year.

"In these last several months we have undertaken a lot of work across every area of the company, looking at our processes to determine what works and what doesn’t, what we are great at and what we could improve," says Rockstar executive Jennifer Kolbe in a staff email according to Kotaku. "We hope that the majority of you have felt some of these positive changes already."

Along with those words of encouragement, Kotaku say that Kolbe outlined additional future plans like flexible schedules, leadership training, and anonymous feedback surveys from employees. As part of sweeping changes to management, Kotaku reports that Rockstar have replaced leadership at their studios in San Diego, CA and Lincoln, UK.

"It does seem like a healthier culture overall,” one developer says. "We’ll see in a year or two if I’m pulling my hair out, but it does seem like we’re moving in the right direction for being a company the size we are." Even as the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic is forcing developers to work from home, another developer says that "[Mangement] keep emphasizing that it’s normal to not be productive and our focus should be on our health and taking care of our families."

"In a year or two" does seem to be the big catch here. Kotaku report that Rockstar are implementing new development pipelines and policies for the next Grand Theft Auto game—GTA 6, I imagine—but that the project is still in early development. Crunch and overwork are most pronounced closer to the end of any project when a team rushes to do quality assurance testing, complete content for a giant open world like Rockstar's, or adjusting to last-minute directives from higher up.

It's one thing for Rockstar management to talk the talk when the going is easy. It will be quite another if they manage to walk the walk when the usual ghosts of crunch past come back to haunt.

"Even those who spoke the most optimistically of Rockstar’s cultural changes were quick to mention that it has been and will continue to be a slow, sweeping process," Kotaku report. "But some who were making exit plans two years ago now say they can see themselves staying at Rockstar for the long haul, as long as this trajectory continues."

Will the culture change in progress hold up to the twilight hours of Rockstar's next major release? Time will tell, and hopefully the developers will too.

Disclosure: I gather that several RPS folks are acquainted with several Rockstar UK folks. Alas, I am stuck in the midwest US, quite far from any Rockstar offices. 

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Red Dead Redemption 2

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Lauren Morton