Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego Decry Studio Conditions

By Garnett Lee, Jan 11, 2010 8:00pm PST Late last week in an open letter appearing on Gamasutra a group calling themselves the "Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego Employees" made serious accusations about deteriorating work conditions at the studio. Though its current project is not specifically named, the studio is currently in the thick of development on Red Dead Redemption aiming to hit an April 27 launch this year. While long hours and crunch time have long been a part of the game development cycle, the circumstances described in the letter point to an unrelenting push that is taking a heavy toll on the employees.

Claims put forth in the letter include required 12-plus hour workdays six days a week, intimidation tactics used when employees need time off for doctor appointments, reduction of benefits and specifically comp time off, and annual salary increases under the cost of inflation rate. In the long thread of comments that follow a number of posters claiming ties to the San Diego and other Rockstar studios support the accusations.

While difficult to validate any of these comments individually without potentially jeopardizing the source, the volume and specificity of them make a strong case for their being rooted in the truth. It offers an unfortunate commentary on the state of the industry that it could have degenerated again to the state it was in circa 2004 when the EA Spouse scandal struck. Given the prolonged economic recession, though, it's almost hard to imagine that it took this long to hear about a slide back to old bad habits.

Current circumstances also put a tough road before the Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego. Following up on the letter with sources at the studio Joystiq learned that they are likely done developing their star racing series, Midnight Club. Between terminations and departures that team has dissolved. The source went on to say that Take-Two in order to generate some much needed cash may outsource a Midnight Club to get it cranked out. Worse yet, without that franchise, the future of the studio post-Red Dead Redemption is anybody's guess. Given Take-Two's precarious financial situation, Rockstar San Diego could be shuttered, its employees forgotten casualties who never see the fruits of their labor.

With the run of layoffs and studio closures over the past several months this could be a sign that best practices for development may have taken a back seat to corporate pressures. In addition to the comments below, Shacknews always accepts confidential responses to and through our news submission form.

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30 Threads | 168 Comments*

  • While I can certainly feel for those described in the letter (I typically have to work 70+ hr weeks), the letter itself is HORRIBLY written.

    It is trying so hard to sound impressive and erudite that it reads like some freshman in high school got a hold of a thesaurus and went to town.

    I really want to have sympathy, but when they use so many trite phrases and "big words" in such completely awkward ways, it totally undermines the message.

    Did not one of those wives ever learn how to write a decently-formed letter? I really hate to say it, but it makes them all seem like simpletons who should be patted on the head and tsk'd at for not knowing how the real working world operates instead of having valid complaints that should be addressed.

    It's like they all read and thought, "Yeah, all our big words will show them what stupidheads they are being."

  • The lengthy workdays and inability to get time off for doctor's appointments are unfortunate.

    However, cutting back on benefits, incremental below-cost of living salary increases, and much of the other things described in this letter are par for the course in a recession. My own employer adopted draconian health benefits for 2010 (higher cost, lower coverage, higher deductibles), did not give raises AT ALL last year, stopped 401K matching, suspended all R&R programs (bonuses, dinners, even $20 gift certificates), and canceled almost all travel. These are typical (and hopefully temporary) cost saving measures that may help stave off, reduce, or even prevent a reduction in force.

  • I think part of the issue is the wide desire to get into the industry. Some poor sap is willing to work the hours. If not you can always quit and try to find a job doing something else.

    Same reason I don't get into the automotive aftermarket/tuning business, though I've moonlighted for years. Every kid wants to get into it, so there is always some sap willing to work for next to nothing to get their foot in the door, fallaciously thinking it will get better later. However, it is an industry were there are a few big winners and a lot of losers scraping by.

    So instead I work a fairly normal job that does stuff I have no particular interest in. It's not that exciting, and I still sometimes have to work odd hours with on call and such, but there is much worse out there. I get a good paycheck, benefits, and they don't work me into the ground. It's a choice I made with my career.

    Kids, the game industry is not the best career move. Too many people wanting to do it because it looks like it will be fun/cool/whatever. The cool factor will wear off fast.

    I'm not numb to their plight, but there has to be some realization for these employees that this is how the industry is right now.

  • Keep in mind that if the development team dissolves after Red Dead Redemption is released, the chances for keeping the game up-to-date and post-release patch fixes are very slim. Given this information we should be wary to buy a game in these circumstances. It would be wise for them to start treating their employees ethically, even if only for the sake of game sales. We've seen too many promising games get released with MUCH needed fixes to make them complete. I really don't want to pay for another great potential for it to fail in the delivery of a completed and satisfied gaming experience. There are too many other games to play for this to continue to be acceptable.

  • Companies may give people extra time off after shipping, but the phrase 'comp time' carries legal weight. I'd be surprised if most game companies with HR departments permitted someone to use the phrase.

    Same deal with 'mandatory hours'. That implies that people are actually hourly workers and should be paid as such since they aren't being measured by the amount of work produced. That doesn't mean peer pressure doesn't come into play. Promotions and bonuses may go to those who put in extra time over those who got the same amount of work done but worked fewer hours.

    At the same time, don't expect anything after shipping. Royalties are rare (as in, most games don't make any) and most the compensation for the hours is part of the salaries people get. I'm not trying to be macho here - I've done the long hours before and do everything I can to minimize it for myself - but anyone who is unhappy with their work environment should consider changing where they work. Definitely talk with your boss and see what can be done, but accept that company culture is usually very difficult to change.

    From what I've seen, working 11+ hours a day for 6 days a week for some amount of time (3 weeks to a year) isn't terribly uncommon at many companies. Talk about scoping, efficiency, etc all you want, but in the end, games have a budget of X and are trying to get as much out of that as is possible. Hopefully the people on top are aware of the damage they are doing and try to minimize it; you don't want to drive away good talent.