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Controversy Erupts Over Rockstar San Diego Employee Allegations
Controversy Erupts Over Rockstar San Diego Employee Allegations
January 13, 2010 | By Chris Remo

January 13, 2010 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC

Following an open letter published last week on Gamasutra's blog section, containing numerous allegations of excessive crunch time, mismanagement, and unlawful working conditions, an apparent internal Rockstar email response has surfaced, as has an official response from the International Game Developers Association.

Today, a claimed developer going by "Justwanna makegames" posted an alleged internal email to the thread originating from the Rockstar Games headquarters in New York. "We take issues related to working conditions extremely seriously and will look to address any genuine concerns immediately," the email reads.

"We do not agree with the allegations in the Gamasutra post (e.g. there has been no reduction in health benefits or ancillary benefits and perks (such as free dinners and massages etc), wage increases across the studio have kept track with cost of living increases, and anyone who feels they have been overlooked for a bonus for a game they worked on please contact HR to discuss as soon as possible)," it goes on.

The email urges employees with grievances to contact the publisher's human resources department, adding, "We are committed to working through any issues anyone at the studio may have, and to providing support wherever possible."

Today, the International Game Developers Association issued its own public response, which in part reads, "The IGDA finds the practice of undisclosed and constant overtime to be deceptive, exploitative, and ultimately harmful not only to developers but to their final product and the industry as a whole. While our research shows that many studios have found ways to preserve quality of life for their employees, unhealthy practices are still far too common in our industry."

Collectively attributed to an account named "Rockstar Spouse," the original blog post claims to be on behalf of several wives of studio employees who "have collected themselves to assert their concerns" and are calling for "immediate action to ameliorate conditions of employees."

The post alleges that since roughly March 2009, Rockstar San Diego, the developer of the Midnight Club series and the upcoming Red Dead Redemption, has significantly reduced employee benefits, taken away vacation time, exempted various employees from overtime pay, and undergone frequent and repeated crunch periods, with six-day 12-hour work weeks.

"There are understandably times when crunching in work is needed and extended working time is expected," the post reads, but "there must always be an effort for balance.... If these working conditions stay unchanged in the upcoming weeks, preparation will be made to take legal action against Rockstar San Diego," it concludes. "All that is desired is compensation for health, mental, financial, and damages done to families of employees."

Soon after the article was published, numerous comments were posted in response, many of which were written anonymously with claims of firsthand corroboration.

"Where is the detail about people getting performance warnings for not working 11hrs+ a day?" reads a post by user "Bitter PartyOfMany," which continues, "Donuts were taken away every other week (about $200 in savings per month), yet Rockstar flies in people from all the other studios (Vancouver, Leeds, Toronto, New England, etc..) and puts them up in a luxurious rental home, give them per-diem, and rent cars for them."

Erin Hoffman, a game developer who gained notoriety as "ea_spouse" when she posted anonymously in 2004 criticizing Electronic Arts' employee treatment, responded to the Rockstar San Diego blog post, writing, "This has been a long time coming for Rockstar. Go get 'em, ladies. These problems don't fix themselves," and stressing that change must come from within the organization.

Gamasutra has sent requests for comments on the matter to Rockstar Games.

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Ryan Percival
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Is this kind of work environment common in the gamedev industry?

Is it common only to the USA? or is industry wide?

I work in the Australian corporate environment and I've been seeing articles and blog posts about the culture of voluntary overwork (people not taking their annual leave days and working overtime by choice) here, but the kind of environment talked about at R* would be close to, if not, illegal then certainly grounds for a labour dispute. Of course I could just be hopeless naive due to working for a reasonable employer. So am genuinely interested in hearing if this is as common as this article seems to indicate.

Dave Smith
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it happens at some studios, but i think a lot of people dont realize this doesnt happen at every studio. If you happen to be in one of these sleazy places, get outta there!

Anton Maslennikov
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Ryan- it has gotten much better in recent years. However, overworking (both with or without choice) remains a problem. The games industry has a very immature business environment in this regard. The problem lies both on the shoulders of poorly trained management, a variable and still developing business model, and workers who put up with problems rather than act on grievances.

The current state of the economy and large number of people who 'want to make games' contributes to making it a lingering issue.

Moss Gropen
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I'm a writer for the San Diego Reader soliciting comments on these issues for an upcoming article. I'd like to interview those of you who can give me inside details on the situation at Rockstar San Diego. Your confidentiality will be assured.

Please contact me ASAP at (858) 271-1915 or by email.

Thank you for your help.

Moss Gropen, Esq.

Rodolfo Camarena
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I've never had any problems with the work environment while at SCEA (San Diego) They made sure we were taken care of, breaks taken, overtime logged in, and etc. It has a lot to do with the management staff. I've gotten the privilege to meet one of the designers for Red Dead Redemption by Rock Star San Diego (located in Carlsbad, CA) last year when we met at a local GameStop and had a discussion regarding working at Rock Star and working conditions there. Nothing negative, but reading this article caught me by surprise and will try to contact them to get their side of the story (if knowledgeable)

Derek Smart
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Yeah, SCEA afaik has a pretty decent track record related to QOL issues. In fact, I have friends at SOE who don't have such issues either.

As you said, it is all down to the management and thats where the failure occurs.

John Woznack
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This type of poor working environment will continue until the employees themselves stand up and say "no". However, saying "no" does contain the risk of being fired, and I'm sure for most employees at these shops that alone causes them to stay silent and take it.

My advice to those employees in development shops like these: Try your best to always have another job offer in your pocket. That's the only real way to mitigate the risk of saying "no" to such poor working conditions.

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Is it just me or did the problems start to arise during the HD era of Gaming. Before then there didn't seem to be much complaint about overworking and loss of benefits. Could it be that as graphical fidelity and gaming engines become more and more robust that it taking longer hours to render and output products for testing and design? I am just curious to how this is now the second time a group or individual has complained about working hours and benefits at a gaming company.

Eric Adams
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I think crunch/unpaid overtime cannot be avoided in many cases - especially with large AAA projects. The questions for management is how long is the team subjected to it and how are they compensated for it. As employees in a depressed industry with ongoing layoffs and staff reductions, we need to approach this issue carefully...lest we find ourselves also looking for work.

Alan Youngblood
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@Anton, right on buddy. I could not have said it better myself.

@Anwar, things may be worse since the graphics demands have increased, but things to my knowledge have generally always been this way in the industry.

To everyone, QoL is no joke. If we want people to take the industry seriously, we should take ourselves seriously. And that means not treating people like crap and not taking it from anyone else. I think Marxist Communism is a little too much, so let's not go overboard like that. In the Crapitalist (that's short for Crony Capitalism, what we have in the US)countries of the world the workers must take a stand for themselves. The imbalance of wealth, health and QoL is everyone's problem. Why? For starters, because it affects everyone. More importantly and less noticed is that everyone affects it. The 'have-nots' tend to have a less direct effect, but often just as strong because of their numbers.

In the US we have this fallacy that if you work hard enough you will get what you deserve or earned. This 'meritocracy' we used to call the 'American dream.' I'm not sure it was ever so, but it's even less like that now. Just because our harsh reality is people treating each other like crap because they have more money or prestige does not mean that we must succumb to playing by the rules of that stupid game. Be a real person. Man up. (Woman up). Grow a pair and treat yourself and others like a decent human should be treated. Even if they aren't decent humans. The golden rule used to be treat others as you would have them treat you. Now it is treat everyone (yourself included) with a sustainable level of human decency. If you are out of touch with what this means, bone up on it. It means realizing that families and health come before work, not on the side if you've been a good boy/girl. It means enjoying life, not just living to see another day. It means helping people in their time of need and being gracious and thankful when they return the favor to you. It means having a life worth living. Find it. Do it.

Dave Smith
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always be in the job market and always have a safety net saved up.

Beyond Good and Evil
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I agree with both Anton and Dave Smith. Many of these problems are rooted in having 30 year old "Producers", with unrelated schooling running multi million dollar projects and managing teams of 50-100 people. Not surprisingly, the wheels often fall off and their inability to both plan and manage results in crunch time, cost overruns, and lack of profitability for the company (which also hurts the employees).

One would think that, in light of the recent plunge in stock prices, that companies would start looking hard a these issues and reevaluating how they do business - but mostly that isn't happening.

The solution, as Dave so astutely points out, is to always have a personal safety net (cash) and to always be looking for work elsewhere. There is no loyalty in games and once you're done killing yourself on mismanaged, nightmare project "X, Y or Z" they will fire you without a second thought. Never doubt this.

Benjamin Quintero
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EA then, Rockstar now, and likely Activision will be the culprit in 4-5 years. Someone always gets the lime light, but it happens in more places than most people would like to admit. It's important that you just continue to look for a place that puts you at ease, and doesn't make you feel guilty for only working 40-45hrs a week. Overtime is often a result of poor choices, not poor code or art. But it's the coders and artists who suffer. My heart goes out to the Rockstar peeps who are slaving over there. I've been in that situation before, done that; never again.

When a company gets large enough, they lose touch with their true assets, the people. It often requires a mutiny to spark change, even if only to save face in the public opinion. Things will likely improve at Rockstar, as they did for EA, but it's sad that it takes this kind of action to instigate something that should have been a proactive movement on their own part.

Judy Tyrer
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@Ryan Develop Magazine did a survey that indicated that over 90% of developers work crunch time. The IGDA survey only 7% of the respondents stated that they do not have crunch time and over 50% of them get no compensation at all for overtime. I would assert that this is an issue worldwide, and not limited to the US. It may be, however, that US Labor Laws do not provide the same kinds of protections toward unpaid overtime abuse that other countries have.

It is a complex problem. I'm not sure we can take all overtime out of game development, but I think we can certainly fight for reasonable compensation. With the US federal laws allowing anyone with specialized computer skills making over $27.63 an hour is exempt from overtime laws, we have very little protection. If we can prove that the number of hours required takes our salary below this level, then we might have a case to be converted to non-exempt employees and paid for overtime. But short of that, there is very little legal recourse. Some states, such as California, have much stricter laws and those employees have more protection. But court cases are expensive and there is fear that if one does make such waves, it is the end of one's career.

Anton Maslennikov
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I think one of the most neglected and important things to take away from events like this (when they inevitably come up) is that QA is a persistent issue that needs discourse. You can't address problems without dialog... Sadly, between public events like this one, there is none. I wish more people would walk away with this on their minds.

steve roger
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Is that concern about the donut budget really an issue?

Joshua Sterns
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Working environments change from studio to studio, manager to manager. Overall I've found the industry very immature, but I've also only worked in Quality Assurance--the bottom of the barrel. I've been told not to take breaks where production can see you. Do not eat the food in the kitchen. There is a separate food stash in another room across the studio. I've been banned from talking to developers via email or in person because they can't be bothered with QA issues. Rarely was QA apart of daily meetings, and the list goes on. Basically I can compare my time in QA to high school. My freedoms were severely restricted and I was continually treated like a child.

On the flip side I have worked for a glorious team/developer who treated QA like an equal contributor. Any perk for developers was given to QA. Daily meetings, team building events, lectures, and more was all accessible to QA. Management even took me aside to ask what my career goals were--something never asked by an employer before.

So don't let my doom and gloom paragraph dominate your interpretation of the video game industry. Working in this industry has been the most fun/exciting job I have ever had. Hopefully time will mature the business, and articles like this one will become obsolete.

David Delanty
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@Steve Roger

Glad I'm not the only one who saw that. When heartfelt complaints are made about taking the free donuts away, two thoughts go through my head.

1) This poor guy's gonna be real sour when he gets a job someplace else.

2) "Simpsons did it!" -General Disarray

Eric Adams
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I saw a blog post about 360 degree management (direct report) reviews as a way for employees to have a voice in airing grievances. If the upper management has the bravery and foresight to implement, review and respond with action to a 360 review, I think this method might resolve team's issues with poor leads, producer, studio managers. Improve the leadership and reduce your chances of working ungodly crunch.

In a 360 review, you appraise your boss (anonymously) and can be frank in your praise or issues to HR. HR then works with the manager to resolve the negatives. To incentivize the manager to work on the problems, bonuses can be withheld or reduced if the the next 360 review does not show progress.

Dave Smith
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even though it leans pretty heavily torward the negative, sites like Glassdoor can help when deciding who to work for, if people use it...

Andrew Wiggen
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@steve roger, @David Delanty

Contextual clues in Bitter PartyOfMany's original comment about donuts clearly stated that the point wasn't that the company took away $200 per month in donuts, but that they did so while continuing to fly in people from all the other studios (Vancouver, Leeds, Toronto, New England, etc..), put them up in a luxurious rental home, give them per-diem, and rent cars for them.

When a company start to nickle and dime employee benefits while continuing outrageous spending habits, that is a good sign of arrogant or inexperienced(or both) management.

A Rockstar mansion? Are you serious? John Romero, anyone?

Ryan Salvatore
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@Judy Tyrer

The overtime laws are actually worse than that; for salaried employees working in the computer industry, you are only non-exempt (from overtime pay) if you make less than $455/week ($23660/year). $27.63/hour is the rate for employees who are paid hourly. (Source: So all the studios have to do to avoid paying overtime is "promote" you to a salaried position.

Ernest Adams
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It's not the doughnuts themselves. It's the hypocrisy of denying the employees a very inexpensive benefit whose returns in goodwill (who doesn't appreciate free doughnuts?) far outweigh their cost, while still spending thousands of dollars on other things whose benefit to the company is much less clear-cut. When a whole team of people is working phenomenally hard and the company takes away their doughnuts, yet continues to fly executives around the world, put them up in fancy hotels, and rent cars for them so they can attend a couple of meetings, it starts to rankle.

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