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Employees of Rockstar San Diego Not Getting Star Treatment
by Reid Kimball on 01/10/10 03:00:00 pm   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


On January 7th, 2010, a blog article by anonymous user “Rockstar Spouse” was posted on It details how management at Rockstar’s San Diego studio has been instituting mandatory 6-day work weeks and up to 12 hours each day. Not only that, but it has been continuing and deteriorating for about 10 months straight, since March of 2009.

Rockstar Spouse wrote that employee morale has plummeted, some have seen new health issues crop up, developed signs of depression, and even suicidal tendencies have been seen in one person. Promises by management to improve the conditions were made, but not kept.

No matter how one wants to spin it, it does not sound like a safe, productive and enjoyable work environment. I send my sympathies to the employees and families of those working at Rockstar San Diego. I was inspired to write this in the hopes I can offer some constructive ideas towards improving the conditions many of us have experienced in game development.

With experience, I have learned that to be passionate about making the best game possible requires that I am more passionate about keeping myself in the best shape, mentally and physically. A sports athlete does their team no good if they play with a serious injury that harms their performance and the team’s chances for a win.

I think it’s important to come up with a valid argument that works for both sides of the issue if you are going to openly talk about unpaid overtime. I’ve found that it helps to say things like, “I am concerned about the quality of the game and I want it to be the best possible game, but we can’t do that with all of the overtime. A couple solutions are to ask our publisher for more time or cut features so we can make a better, higher rated game.”

At least with that approach, you don’t sound selfish but instead see the bigger picture. The battle against unpaid overtime is a tricky fight because one doesn’t want to lose their job suddenly. Yet, there’s the saying, “A job not worth risking is a job not worth having.”

Many opponents to combating unpaid overtime often say, “If you don’t like it, then quit.” I love this industry to much to quit and I want to make it better. Quitting will do nothing to improve things. The same thing happens in politics, people tune out and then corruption runs rampant because all those left in power take advantage of the situation.

Another comment I hear from those who accept unpaid overtime is, “We do it because we’re passionate about making awesome games.” Working many hours and being mentally and physically deficient is not respecting the important role you play in society as a game developer. You are under valuing yourself when you do that and the quality of the game will suffer.

As Jason Weesner correctly said in the comments of the original Rockstar Spouse post, overtime usually happens as a result of three things; “iteration time, creative direction, and expectations.” Iteration time comes from proper development tools. I have never had the luxury of working on a game with a mature set of development tools. I have never had a project not have overtime. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I have also worked on several projects that had unrealistic expectations in terms of what we could deliver in the given timeframe. I think this is the number one reason projects have a lot of overtime. You can have shitty tools and ship on time, as long as the expectations for what can be delievered using those tools are realistic.

I can’t remember a project that had a lack of creative direction however, but I have known about other projects that did and their overtime was extensive because the decision-makers procrastinated until the last minute.

It’s important to recognize these three contributors to overtime and bring up concerns about them before they explode in your team's face.

You may have noticed I have not used the word “crunch” at all, instead I am calling it what it is, “unpaid overtime." Perhaps that will help people get the right perspective on this problem facing our industry. Let’s stop calling it “crunch”. It sounds macho and tough. Like we ought to get a fucking t-shirt after ship that says, “I survived crunch.” Let’s call it what it is… unpaid overtime.

I think it’s really important for people to take charge of their own mind and bodies. Unpaid overtime continues because people put up with it. Why do game developers put up with it? There are two reasons:

1.       Need for steady income

2.       Need for steady health insurance

Regarding need of a steady income, not many people, especially families can afford to be out of work for more than several months. That’s why it’s important to save as much as you can into a separate account just in case you lose your job. Having that financial safety net will enable you to survive for several months until you find a new job. It will free you to do what is right and not be unfairly exploited.

For steady health insurance, as recently as January 5th 2010 game developers can sign up for their own healthcare coverage through the IGDA. This is a big win for game developers who are looking for more security in the work place if they are willing to fight for better working conditions.

Not only can your employer compensate you more if you do the IGDA health program (because your employer doesn’t have to pay for your health insurance), but you don’t have to risk losing health insurance if your employer fires you for confronting them about unpaid overtime. You are free to demand the conditions improve, go on strike, or quit without worrying about losing health insurance because it is separate from your employment.

Once you have the financial and health safety nets setup, stand up for your rights. Do this by talking to your producers and upper management. Let them know what changes you want to see happen to improve the situation, preferably in a straight forward, concise bullet point list. That might be getting rid of incompetent managers or leads, improving tools, or extending the schedule. It might even be compensation either with a higher salary, bonus payments or more vacation time. Other options are to suggest changes to the overtime policy, maybe rotating who has to stay late who gets the weekend off.

Everyone has the right to be gainfully employed and be treated with dignity. It might not be the law, but laws aren’t always right. State laws are often pro-business. But businesses have yet to learn that being pro-people is good for business. Until they learn that, your only option is to position yourself so that you will feel more comfortable talking to management about improving the situation.


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Simon Carless
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Reid, has anyone yet documented the exact relative costs of the IGDA healthcare program (which is, as I understand it, an association-based group discount) versus paying for coverage on your own? I think the move is absolutely one of the best and most concrete things the IGDA has done in a long time, but I'm curious - what kind of discount is it off paying for health insurance yourself?

(Maybe someone else reading has explored this - I went to the IGDA website but can't find any forum posts on the topic, and obviously the IGDA themselves would be unable to comment on that because it depends on individuals. Still, a few individual explorations should give everyone a good idea.)

I ask because you say:

"Not only can your employer compensate you more if you do the IGDA health program (because your employer doesn’t have to pay for your health insurance), but you don’t have to risk losing health insurance if your employer fires you for confronting them about unpaid overtime."

A couple of things there - I don't believe that you get pay rises when you opt out of health insurance, sadly - at least nowhere that I've worked! And secondly, I highly presume that you will be paying more - potentially hundreds of dollars a month more - if you opt out of your employer's healthcare, since it's going to be heavily subsidized.

Reid Kimball
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Simon, it will depend on the person. For someone like I who has a pre-existing condition I can't even get private insurance or if I somehow manage to, there's no guarantee they won't take it away suddenly. In the IGDA Health Program as I understand it, they can't deny anyone with a pre-existing condition nor can they deny coverage later on. It's a lot more stable than private insurance and I'm willing pay extra (if needed) for that peace of mind. That being said, sticking with employer health care is absolutely the cheapest. But then if someone is suddenly out of a job, they have to deal with Cobra, which is insanely expensive and is temporary.

People will have to do their own research and determine if it's worth it to them. But at least the option exists where it didn't before.

I think if someone opts out of health insurance at work, they ought to be able to negotiate something extra because the employer isn't dealing with the administrative costs at the very least.

Javier Arevalo
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A few notes on this:

- Crunch normally doesn't just involve unpaid overtime, it often includes things like inability to take time off/vacations, increases pressure, changes in roles, and overall switch in focus from "do it right" to "get it done."

- Health insurance is pretty much only an issue in the US, yet overtime issues plague dev studios worldwide. Similarly, current economic conditions many mean it's harder to get another job, but overtime issues already plagued studios back when things were much better.

- Considering that EA, Epic and Rockstar (three companies that have been involved in public debate about crunch and overtime) are among the most successful and/or respected companies in the industry, it's clear that "being pro-people is good for business" probably comes with a large, hidden list of conditionals.

- Good description of the reasons leading to overtime. I'll add that, while lack of quality tools generally means the developers are less productive, lack of direction (creative or otherwise) usually leads to large amounts of work thrown away.

Tomasz Mazurek
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Another reason for unpaid overtime is managers deliberately using it to cut costs. I know that one should not explain with ill will something that can be explained by incompetence, but many times the schedules are purposefully changed, e.g. by underestimating time for testing or bug fixing or including unnecessarily numerous deadlines, to ensure that unpaid overtime will be needed to accomplish them.

Jacek Wesolowski
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Javier - I agree with your points except the third one. Just as a quick reminder:

Generally speaking, I would say that, in reality, many companies treat their devs poorly, but only a few achieve success. The success rate in our industry is much lower than in big budget cinematography (something along the lines of 20% vs. 60%, if I remember correctly). The common euphemism for it is that "the industry is becoming increasingly hit-driven".

When you've hit that jackpot, then you've hit it, but whether or not you hit it is a very unreliable thing. Rockstar is riding exactly one extremely successful IP. Epic has created a whooping total of two new IPs in the last ten years - that's not bad, because they're a relatively small company, but two is still a small number, and how do you know they weren't just lucky? EA is notorious for their milking tried franchises over and over (and still, they had ca. $1 billion loss last year).

Also, I've seen quite a few dreadful workplace practices myself, and I'd say the list of hidden conditionals attached to those practices is very long. For instance, I've worked with several project leaders who were, in my personal opinion, assholes, but the only project that kept making decent progress was the one where the asshole in charge was actually being overseen by someone else, and could not just do whatever he wanted.

Tim Ray
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I can tell you that this is history repeating itself. Origin Systems back in the 1990s was rife with unpaid overtime. There were many promises made and many broken. What I can tell you, as someone that did overtime on a couple of big games, is that I'm seeing the same mistakes now. Mistakes made by management, mostly, but also by employees. I ultimately left the industry because of quality of life issues and general instability. I love the creativity of it, but ultimately, it's a heartbreaker.

That's part of the problem with history repeating itself: There are few veterans in this industry, compared to others. When we lose them, we lose their perspective on history. It's a shame, and a negative feedback loop that keeps the employees slaving in the pixel mines, forever.

What can you do?

1) Keep a reserve of money. I'd suggest a year of savings, or thereabouts. Be able to walk away if the pressure on your family or mind gets too high. If you're a burnout case, no one wants to work with you.

2) Know your rights in your state. In Texas, it's very hard to argue against unpaid overtime under certain circumstances. Know whether the management is asking you to do something that it has no right to. Also, know whether you have to file a formal complaint before pursuing a suit. In Texas, you do, pretty much.

3) Find the veterans. Ask them questions. We're out here, and we'll help if asked, most of the time.

Good luck. Quality of life is a big issue for this industry. Remember: No game is worth your health.

Joel McCoy
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Thanks for that link, Jacek.

Nice seeing what comments looked like before the 'no naming names' rule on Gama was enforced.

Jacek Wesolowski
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Yes, it was pretty scary.

Luis Guimaraes
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I'm happy where I live crunch time is ilegal.

Justin Nearing
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+1 on that link, Jacek. Its eye-opening to see how... childish... this industry can be sometimes.

This has always been a sore spot for game developers, but my perception is that as of late, things have been improving industry-wide. Yes, crunch is still part of the industry, but the concentration camp mentality has been improving. Now crunch is avoided, if possible. And more importantly, deliverables are changing so that crunch *is* avoided.

Yes, change is slow, and there will always be exceptions to the rule. But I hope to see that as the industry matures, so does the quality of management, which will continue the trend of less crunch time. A happy developer is a productive developer!

Jacek Wesolowski
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Actually, the link was meant to point at the fact that the project in question was a) EA's, b) badly failed, c) troubled in terms of team dynamics. People normally don't give such displays without something pushing them, and when they do, someone steps in and contradicts them. I mean, wouldn't you defend your own team if you felt someone was accusing it unfairly? It's a live fire experience over there, but it's very one-sided. Also, those are not children, those are very unhappy people.

Of course, that's still no good way to argue your points, and it's for the better that the site's policy has changed.

The issue is particularly relevant to the current one, because so high levels of frustration don't just appear - they build up over time. Regardless of whose fault it really was, someone must had been brushing it under the carpet for months. It seems the same has occurred at Rockstar. That's not good management in any case.

Eric Adams
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I often wonder if a hidden motivator for accepting crunch/unpaid overtime is the fear of being blacklist if you are a vocal dissenter. A dissenter who is not viewed as good soldier/team player could face a tougher employment future. A close industry friend in production, quit a gig because he was working 10-13 hours of OT for extended periods without management consideration or compensation. He superior used the 'you should be glad you have a job' line several times.

After he quit, and after a brief sabbatical, he found getting back into production nearly impossible. He was being given a bad (off the record) referral by his company for not being a team player and a disruptive force.

Luis Guimaraes
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As much as I read here and the link provided by Jacek, the more Unreal it all feels and sounds. I don't get how those kind of things can happen in this industry, now I'm shocked.

In the modding community, development always was so simple, my first UT3 level took me less than the equivalent to 4 days at full sail to make (without making 3D assets, only custom textures), and it plays quite well. My experiences using Unity3D are also quick and straight (and I get to it when already dead from my day job, where I have a manager and do miracles to meet multple daily deadlines adn help my co-workers aswell.

How can a big industry, with big companies like these, be so damn messy? With the management case widely discussed, last time there was such a problem in the sucessful market domaining company I work for, the employees made a letter with everybody's signatures under it, telling the problem and firing the manager. I wasn't working here yet, but "signed under's" is a more or less common practice in Brazil. Even laws can be changed and politicians receive impeachment when you take enough signatures to a major court.

Jacek Wesolowski
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Luis -

Basically, when there's just one of you, work is done quickly, because you don't need to talk to anyone. If you had someone to share the work with, you could both work in parallel, but you would need to consult each other and exchange results from time to time. Thus you would spend some of your time talking to each other rather than building a level. So your combined speed would be less than two times the speed at which you build your level when you're working on your own.

The more people in a group, the more time is spent on keeping the group together. Very quickly you begin to realise that it's easier to ask one person to keep track of everything and keep everyone on the same page. That's how you appoint your first tier manager, or a "lead".

According to research, it doesn't quite make sense to have a group of more than 8-12 people, because it becomes difficult to keep close personal relations with everyone. So once the group exceeds the size of 8-12, the "lead" starts having trouble keeping up with everything. So you need to split and now you have two groups. Not only do you need to coordinate efforts of people within the same group, but you also need to coordinate different groups with each other. Hence another tier of management.

Another reason why your work is simpler is that you're essentially a level designer. Level designers mostly deal with high level stuff. The features are ready for you to use. In principle, you don't need to dissect them and look inside. You can use them pretty much as if they were Lego bricks.

It's not that easy when you're building a whole game from the ground up. There are tons of dependencies between various parts. For instance, a bot, rather than being a single entity, is made of several components: AI routines, animation set, the 3D model, and materials that you put on that model. 3D model is not just a mesh; there's also a "skeleton" component, which is how the character looks like to animators. Materials are fairly complex arangements of textures and mathematical functions. AI routines rely on the navigation and collision data that your level provides, and on top of that, the bot can sometimes be affected by simulated physics. Just talking about it becomes complex very quickly.

Now imagine each of those parts is built by a different person. Some pieces need to be built in a specific order; for instance, it doesn't make much sense to start making animations before that skeleton thingie is ready. Sometimes the order doesn't matter that much; for instance, you can often test AI without knowing how the bot looks like. So it's not always straightforward. Working on each game component looks a litle different.

Now multiply it by the number of individual pieces. Just open UnrealEd and browse packages. It's about ten shitloads of stuff, as Marcus Fenix would probably put it.

That's why producers are needed. Just listing all the stuff needed is a huge task, but it's even more complex when you begin to worry about keeping it all in order, making sure time is spent efficiently (e.g. no one is sitting idle), and that deadlines are met. And then something goes wrong at random: a programmer takes a few days off because of flu; a feature turns out to be not fun and needs to be redone; there's a power outage; a new artist is hired and someone needs to familiarize them with the project; etc.

And just like groups begin to fall apart beyond the size of 8-12, teams have trouble holding together as they grow beyond the size of 80-150. Sometimes you can see job adverts claiming that the company in question doesn't allow teams to grow too much, and they always list it as a perk.

So it really is very complex and it's really easy to mess it up. Shit happens.

Also, game development is such a young industry, and it's growing so fast. These days, it takes 100 people and two dozen million dollars to make a "big" game. Ten years ago, it was 20 people and 3 million dollars. Twenty years ago - 5 people and 100 thousand dollars. The huge projects of today are a relatively new thing. Most people just cannot adapt this fast, so they make mistakes more often. And then there's even more shit to clean up.

The question is, what do you do with shit when it does happen. In theory, you should do your best to help clean it up. Some people just don't want to get their hands dirty, though.

Mark Harris
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Let's not forget about the volumes of research that clearly identify diminishing returns for workers subject to forced unpaid overtime. Productivity is not merely a function of increasing hours, it is work/hour. Forcing people to stay at work 50% longer with no extra compensation doesn't necessarily increase your productivity, and can drastically decrease it. Your employees are just doing the same amount of work they were doing in 8 hours, but now they do it in 12 hours. Or they might do less because they're so pissed that you've made them stay at work for 4 extra hours.

Managers please note : people aren't robots, and their productivity is subject to their will. Keep that in mind when you crank up the crunch meter.

Reid Kimball
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I was just looking at (Rules of Productivity.pdf) earlier today about diminishing returns for prolonged work hours. That's true, no matter how much more one is compensated won't change the fact they are tired and their brain isn't working well to solve creative problems. It's like asking someone who hasn't trained for the Marathon to run faster (or longer) in the 25th mile by waving money in their face. They may want to, but the body will rebel furiously.

Austin Ivansmith
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Luis, you raise a good question. "How can a big industry, with big companies like these, be so damn messy?" I can sum it up with a simple analogy: apples.

If you went to the market every day and bought 3 apples for yourself, 1 for each meal, you would have a pretty easy time finding a place to put them and deciding which to eat with which meal. Now if you suddenly had 300 apples to eat over the course of 100 days, more isn't necessarily better. You try to pile them up and they roll all over the place. And within a couple weeks, most of the apples have rotted and are now inedible.

Im sure Jacek Wesołowski had more pertinent things to say, but I thought I would throw it out there with a terrible analogy.

Edwin Aiwazian
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Dear Former & Current Rockstar Employees:

Our firm has been actively investigating the possibility of filing a Class Action Lawsuit against Rockstar and Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. (and related subsidiaries) for unpaid wages, including overtime. Please give us a call to discuss the possibility of being named as a representative in the Class Action. Thanks.

Edwin Aiwazian, Esq.


(818) 265-1020