Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake’s defining attribute is texture. Metal Gear shaped an initial world, and Metal Gear 2 embellishes on that world by adding frictions that complicate the player’s previous relationship with the series. The results are often inconsistent; Metal Gear 2 is a game with a reach that exceeds its grasp but, also, an intoxicating and undeniable confidence.
Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake came out in 1990 in Japan on the MSX2 home computer, three years after the original Metal Gear. During those three years, a different sequel called Snake’s Revenge came out in North America. Series designer Hideo Kojima claimed that he was unaware of the game until one of its developers told him about it, and according to him, they said Snake’s Revenge was “not the authentic Snake” and that he should make his own sequel. At that time, Kojima said he had enjoyed Snake’s Revenge, but later, he described it as “crap.”
Metal Gear Retrospective
This story is part of an ongoing series analyzing the Metal Gear games.
Whatever the case, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake proceeded that same year, although it wasn’t released in the States until the 2005 Subsistence edition of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (fan translations of the game did exist earlier than that). Kojima led as the game’s designer, aided by a group of loyal programmers, character designers, composers and mech designers who would all help him reforge the series and rebuild the legacy of Metal Gear’s deadly fortress, Outer Heaven.
Metal Gear’s plot was simple: Outer Heaven was building a deadly walking tank called Metal Gear. Solid Snake needed to destroy it. The corresponding action was a straightforward and uncomplicated stealth gaming gauntlet that concluded with a final twist: the betrayal of Snake by his commander Big Boss. Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake repeats the general frame: the fortress nation of Zanzibar Land is stockpiling nuclear weapons and building a new Metal Gear. Snake, with the aid of a radio support team, is once again sent in to eliminate it. But this core conceit is nestled at the center of a new and more complicated framework.
Metal Gear 2 adds more sci-fi lore and political machinations that cast a veneer of maturity over proceedings. The game relays its set up through a lengthy opening cutscene: it is the late 1990’s and national politics are stabilizing, the threat of nuclear war waning. Zanzibar Land’s stockpiling of nukes upsets that international equilibrium. At the same time, oil resources begin to dry up. Czech biologist Dr. Kio Marv creates “OILIX,” a microbe that synthesizes petroleum but he has been kidnapped by Zanzibar Land’s forces before the formula could be revealed to the rest of the world. Snake’s mission is not just to destroy a big bad robot, it is a task meant to maintain a utopian status quo. If he rescues Marv and disables Zanzibar Land’s nuclear stockpile, the world can return to its utopian state.
Overall, this framing is more optimistic than the games to follow in the series, but the devil is in the details. Those details show that, deep down, Metal Gear 2 is a game about invalidating player achievements. The game’s narrative frame lays the groundwork for a proper Metal Gear timeline and introduces the idea that the world has been marching on without Solid Snake (or the player), which plays into Metal Gear 2’s core theme of undermining any sense of success that Snake or the player felt after the end of Metal Gear. Sequels often undo the tidy endings of previous games in a series, and Metal Gear 2 is no exception.
Metal Gear 2 looks back at the player’s conquest of Outer Heaven, posits the peaceful future of that victory, and declares that it is an impossibility. There is always another castle; there is always another villain. This applies both to Snake as a video game protagonist and to the player. How dare they believe they can win anything, when Kojima and his team can still build one more Metal Gear to destroy and one more locale to infiltrate?
To this end, Metal Gear 2 expands on Metal Gear’s stealth gameplay with a variety of flourishes and scenarios that deemphasize player control. Enemies get a greater range of actions, and the environment now boasts even more ways to stymie the player. Stealth in the first Metal Gear was an absolute binary. The moment the player walked into an enemy’s line of sight, an alert would trigger. Metal Gear 2 retains this design choice, but while guards in Metal Gear only ever faced one direction, guards now can turn their heads in an arc in front of them. Consequently, players approaching Metal Gear 2 using the same strategies as in the previous game will find guards can perceive them with greater ease. Stealth remains primarily about blocking line of sight, but because that line of sight has expanded, there’s a greater possibility for failure.
This design decision robs players of power, which fits the game’s overall theme, but also embodies one of Metal Gear 2’s larger problems. These new complexities and textures serve to add a greater verisimilitude to the game world, but they never quite land as intended, due to how vague Metal Gear 2 is about the player’s risk of detection.
Zanzibar Land is replete with patrolling guards; these guards can now end up on structures with varying degrees of verticality. This can be seen the first floor of Building 1. The center of the room stands upon raised platforms, with a small pathway around the perimeter. While there are no guards patrolling the lower path, there are several on the higher platform. The player can guide Snake through the lower level nook without detection, but in various places—such as the guarded platform at the very top of the map—an enemy can turn their head to look down from their position and see Snake, triggering an alert. This is apparently because Snake’s height on the map still matches the guards on the platform but even this is unclear. In this space, the rules are not entirely consistent. Sometimes those above you cannot see you; in other cases, they will. Guard head turns are subtle, making it hard to know if you’re on the edge of their sight or about to be seen. This can make the initial infiltration of Zanzibar Land far more difficult than Outer Heaven, as the player is required to learn the unique peculiarities of each map screen and cannot rely on consistently enforced rules for the game’s topology.
Metal Gear 2 also introduces an iconic tool that, in theory, would help the player out: the radar. This 3×3 grid sits at the top of the screen, showing adjacent locations and marking enemies as blinking white dots. Its purpose is to allow players a chance to contend with the game’s tricky layout and enhanced guard behavior. In practice, this does not always happen. The radar has a major flaw: it does not show what direction a guard is looking, neither the cardinal direction nor the position of their gaze. This limits the radar’s practicality, making it into a tool for knowing guard patrol paths only. Metal Gear 2 is a step towards granting the player extra information for stealth navigation purposes, but it’s an imperfect step.
Later games improved on this by adding a small cone of vision to the enemy dots on the radar grid, letting the player know the range of detection and a guard’s vision. Metal Gear 2’s radar was an early example of the franchise adding tactical tools, but its minimalist nature is in accordance with the game’s impulse to undercut the player. Still, even this incomplete resource adds more color to the spectrum of player decisions and expands the canvas of potential tactics. If you know a guard’s patrol, you can reliably set up mines in their path. If you know they are approaching from behind you, you can crawl into a vent and hide.
The game’s tactical depth is further broadened by the addition of environmental factors that can affect detection. Zanzibar Land features a much higher amount of floor types that can generate noise, which draws guard attention. There are now deep sewers with forceful currents, as well as cold, sneeze-inducing temperatures that can also pull guards’ focus, dark rooms in which turning on a light switch will wake sleeping guards, and more. Metal Gear’s pure binary stealth has been dismissed in favor of a much more complicated world that, forces the player to rely on tools and gadgets more often than before. After all, you don’t need to turn on that light switch if you have a handy pair of night-vision goggles.
Unlike Metal Gear, none of these ideas is completely integrated into a larger whole. Metal Gear 2 is a series of individual areas and rarely repeating scenarios. This is a world now, not merely a game dungeon. This is not Snake’s playground or Kojima’s fortress so much as it is a series of areas belonging to the guards. Each new hazard is a test of player mettle, but also a means of de-emphasizing their importance. The world pushes back, not simply with the guards’ watchful eyes, but also in its spatial design. All of this combines to create a game that is rich, tangible, and also frustrating.
The swamp in the jungle between Buildings One and Two, for example, must be traversed in order to find the prison where Dr. Madnar, the designer of the latest Metal Gear, is being held. Navigation through this swamp depends on following a highly specific and invisible multi-screen spanning path. To find the correct areas to stand on, the player must poke and prod through the swamp. Wandering off the path for too long means instant death.
The swamp is both wonderful and agonizing to traverse. On the one hand, the game’s mechanics capture a sense of uncertainty, engagement, and reckoning with the world. On the other, the game offers no real hints about where to go, and the process of figuring that out is tedious. This encapsulates Metal Gear 2: it’s rich and soupy with interaction but precarious and prone to sending the player into unexpected disaster.
Once Snake finds the building Dr. Madnar is supposed to be in, he finds nothing in sight. The room is empty except for an odd tapping noise. The solution, as relayed by a radio support character, is for the player to do, not Snake. They must refer to the game’s manual and decode the taps using a cipher. This will reveal Madnar’s radio frequency, which the player can then call to progress in the game. While it is possible to have a radio character complete the task for you, this particular puzzle is Metal Gear 2’s boldest attempt to introduce texture to the game. It is also a step towards separating Snake from the player, which Metal Gear Solid will eventually build on. It points to the world outside of the game, the extra-text, forcing players to engage with physical materials and in-game sounds, thereby becoming hyper-aware of the game as a world they are viewing but also one they can touch and hear. In isolation, this segment of Metal Gear 2 successfully expresses its commitment to complication, texture, and derailing the player. But this is just one piece in a larger puzzle.
Metal Gear 2’s impulse to complicate and diminish player power is also evident in its inclusion of a more fully realized story. Metal Gear had a basic plot and some twists, such as the betrayal of Snake’s commander, Big Boss, but it had few actual cutscenes and little development of character relationships. Metal Gear 2 includes more narrative cutscenes, the ability to call numerous radio support teammates for world building purposes, and a story that places its action into a wider political and emotional context, one that undermines both Solid Snake and the player.
The diminishment of Snake’s success can been felt in the aftermath of the first boss fight against Black Ninja. Black Ninja is revealed to be Kyle Schneider, a member of the Outer Heaven resistance movement from the first game. After the events of Metal Gear, he was captured by NATO and experimented on by NASA; those experiments turned him into dangerous fighter (somehow). He is the first of many characters who assume a techno-ninja mantle within the series; variations of this plot point repeat throughout the setting’s fictional history. In Metal Gear 2, Schneider’s appearance complicates the player and Snake’s relationship to the status quo. Yes, Snake (and the player) stopped Big Boss, and Metal Gear was destroyed, but the world within the game kept turning after the MSX console was turned off. Allies suffered. World powers tormented the weak. Not everyone was saved. In an early era of video game plots, the reveal of Schneider’s identity was a radical subversion of the “beat the boss, save the world” promise.
Metal Gear 2 tells a story of criss-crossing motivations and goals. The game’s drive to strip Snake of his control—something later games would continue with even more viciousness—necessarily requires a string of betrayals and loss. You get to play the role of a hero in the Metal Gear series, but starting from Metal Gear 2 onward, this is not meant to be a power fantasy (although players tend to ignore this.) Snake is becoming a tragic hero, and that arc will continue for the rest of the series. The crux of this sentiment is found in the fate of two characters: Grey Fox and Gustava Heffner.
Grey Fox was one of the hostages rescued in Metal Gear, an elite comrade and one of Solid Snake’s only friends. In the first game, Grey Fox did little more than offer a hint once rescued. Here, he plays a larger role in the game’s events, having allied with the forces of Zanzibar Land and their mysterious commander. Kojima and his team seem to delight in role reversal and subversion, with Metal Gear games often recontextualizing or deconstructing character relationships between games. Grey Fox is a prime example.
His motivations to shift to villainy are largely unknown at first, as we do not get to see his side of the story, but this reveal stresses the series’ commitment to an ever-moving political landscape. The world kept going after the player turned off Metal Gear, and Grey Fox went from ally to enemy. Many of the bosses Snake faces in the game get introduced and dispatched with little fanfare. But Fox’s arrival into the plot around half-way through the game marks the moment when Metal Gear 2 narratively breaks from the simple sneak-mission setup of Metal Gear into something with more personal stakes.
Those same personal stakes also come up in another plot point, one that that became an unfortunate trend in Metal Gear games to follow: the death of a woman. In this game, it’s Snake’s ally Gustava Heffner.
Gustava, first introduced in Metal Gear 2, is a Czech State Security operative who allies with Snake to destroy Metal Gear. She is one of two women in the game, the other being the undercover CIA agent Holly White. The game also gives her a complicated backstory. Before becoming a security operative, Gustava was an Olympic ice skater. She also was in a relationship with Grey Fox before the events of this game. Their breakup, as well as Gustava’s subsequent failure to find asylum in the West, was part of what led her to go from skater to spy.
In Metal Gear 2, Snake first rendezvouses with Gustava in a woman’s restroom—a scenario later repeated with Metal Gear Solid’s Meryl Silverburgh. From there, the duo rescues Dr. Madnar and approaches a bridge. There, Grey Fox enters in the newly constructed Metal Gear D. He fires a missile at the party and captures Madnar, leaving Gustava to die.
Metal Gear 2’s narrative, like the previous game’s scenario design, builds further on the images and encounters that repeat throughout the series. Schneider’s role as Black Ninja gets echoed in Grey Fox’s turn as the Cyborg Ninja in Metal Gear Solid and Raiden’s later techno-ninja status in Guns of the Patriots. A sequence in this game where Snake must tail a guard captain through the jungle gets remixed later on in Guns of the Patriots, where he follows a resistance member through foggy European streets. Grey Fox’s betrayal on the bridge in Metal Gear 2 is incorporated into the Boss’ defection in the first part of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater when Naked Snake attempts to rescue the Russian scientist Sokolov. The setup here is again familiar: Naked Snake is also betrayed on a bridge by a close ally while escorting a scientist.
Viewing the Metal Gear series holistically means perceiving these patterns, the remixes, and their implications. Gustava’s death marks the start of a different pattern: disposal of women for the sake of adding depth to male character’s pain. Gustava is not even in the game for very long. In my Twitch playthrough, she survived for thirteen minutes out of the eight hours it took me to complete the game.
Analyzing Metal Gear means acknowledging a truth, one which Gustava’s death heralds: this series has a bad habit of short-changing its female characters. Gustava, capable as she is in Metal Gear 2, ultimately exists as an accessory to Snake and Grey Fox’s personal vendetta. She is the first in a line of female victims that extends all the way into Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain.
Metal Gear 2’s narrative embellishments are implemented as frustratingly and inconsistently as its gameplay innovations. The world is broadened thanks to characters like Schneider and Grey Fox, but it is tainted by Gustava’s death. Metal Gear 2’s plot has a richness to it. But for every question Metal Gear 2 poses about changing times, government injustice, or political allegiances, there is a corresponding stumbling block. Gustava’s death is one such crucible. In the context of Metal Gear 2, her demise is a plot point that only lasts for a few frustrating minutes. But placed into the context of the broader series, it is an ill portent.
The final third of the game is dedicated to ripping down whatever Snake has left. That starts with Madnar’s betrayal. When Snake finds Madnar and Doctor Marv, the latter has already been killed. Holly contacts Snake and reveals Madnar was responsible for Marv’s kidnapping and death. After a boss fight, Madnar tells Snake how to destroy Metal Gear: attack the legs. Soon, Snake finds himself face to face with Grey Fox and Metal Gear. Destroying the mech leads to a hand-to-hand encounter with Fox (another set piece that will repeat in a future game: Metal Gear Solid’s fight against Liquid Snake). It is not enough for Snake to destroy Metal Gear, he must kill his friend. Even after that, Metal Gear 2 has a greater reveal: Zanzibar Land’s leader is Big Boss, who survived the first game.
In my analysis of Metal Gear, I explicitly correlated Big Boss with series creator Hideo Kojima. Just as Big Boss imagines a world of soldiers and builds his fortress nations, Kojima builds his games and attempts to stymie the player’s incursions with traps and hazards. Metal Gear 2’s final boss fight between Snake and Big Boss—during which an unarmed Snake must assemble a weapon to defeat Big Boss—embodies the continued struggle between Kojima and the player. Big Boss is Snake’s genetic father and commander. Snake has grown under his watch and forged himself through trials of Big Boss’ creation. Although Kojima is not literally the player’s father (which would be an incredible twist), he nonetheless serves as the creator behind the trials the player has undergone. In the stripping on Snake’s allies, the removal of his gear, and invalidation of his victory in Metal Gear, this game illustrates another violent confrontation between creator and player. Metal Gear 2 has extra texture and context, but it all boils down to a similar conclusion: the success of the player continues to run counter to the creator’s desire for an authored and resistant space.
The tragedy of Metal Gear 2 rests in the apparent inability for creator and player to coexist without a power struggle. For all of the gameplay innovation, broader story contexts, and the creation of a richer and more tangible space, the series is in stasis. The true Snake experience, the alternative to Snake’s triumphant Revenge, is to be stripped of everything, brought face to face with your father, and be forced to kill him. It is an experience that will play out over and over again throughout the franchise. Raiden will kill Solidus in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Big Boss will kill the Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.
Metal Gear 2 is a remarkable step forward in the series’ design and tone, both it is genuine innovation and its missteps. But its lasting effect will be the shadowy echos players will replay throughout the series. Metal Gear 2 is the Metal Gear game that fans would replay in one form or another for the next 18 years. Its repetitions will reverberate outward and set the stage for both Metal Gear Solid’s remarkable reconstruction and Sons of Liberty’s gleeful eviscerations.
On November 2, 2018, Blizzard closed its annual BlizzCon keynote by announcing, to scattered applause, a Diablo game for phones. It was a baffling marketing decision that immediately set off controversy, as fans of Blizzard’s iconic action-role-playing game franchise loudly accused the company of neglecting its PC players.
Perhaps Blizzard’s marketing department had expected Diablo fans to be excited about Diablo Immortal, but the announcement was yet another strange move in a string of bizarre Diablo-related decisions over the past few years. After Diablo III’s disastrous launch on PC in 2012 and a road to redemption that culminated with 2014’s expansion, Reaper of Souls, fans had expected long-term support and perhaps a second expansion for the third Diablo. It had sold more than 30 million copies, after all.
But since 2014, updates to Diablo III have been light and sporadic, and four years later, Blizzard’s announcement of Diablo Immortal at a time when fans are hungry for any news of a Diablo IV has led to big questions about the future of the franchise.
What’s really going on with Diablo? What happened to Diablo III’s long-term plan? Is Diablo Immortal, developed in part outside of Blizzard by the Chinese company NetEase, a sign that Blizzard has lowered its standards or abandoned its core audience? Is there a Diablo IV in development, or has Blizzard given up on PC games in favor of phones?
To try to answer these questions, I’ve spoken to 11 current and former Blizzard employees, all of whom spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to press. They’ve told me about a canceled second expansion for Diablo III, and about Diablo IV, which is indeed in development but was rebooted in 2016. They’ve talked about the series’ popularity in China, which is one of the main reasons for Diablo Immortal’s existence, and about how the specter of the canceled game Titan hangs over many of Blizzard’s decisions.
Some of those people also raised questions about Activision’s influence on the beloved video game company. Activision merged with the publisher Vivendi (at the time, Blizzard’s holding company) to become Activision Blizzard in 2008, but over the past decade Blizzard has prided itself in remaining a separate entity. With its own management structure and its own campus in Irvine, California, Blizzard has always stood out from Activision’s other divisions and subsidiaries. (Activision HQ is based about an hour northwest, in Santa Monica.) Rather than sticking to strict production cycles that result in, say, annual Call of Duty games for Activision, Blizzard has traditionally given its developers as much time as possible. That’s one of the reasons the company has been renowned for making some of the greatest games in the world.
This year, however, Blizzard employees say that one of the biggest ongoing conversations has been cutting costs. To fans, and even to some people who work or have worked at Blizzard, there’s a concern that something deep within the company’s culture may be changing.
When reached for comment, Blizzard sent over an e-mailed statement, attributed to a company spokesperson, that I’ll quote throughout this piece. “Blizzard has been and continues to be a developer-driven company,” the company said. “All of the games we create represent ideas our game developers themselves are passionate about. This is as true for Diablo Immortal as it was for Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, or Overwatch, or any game we’ve ever made. We believe that the best games to make are ones that our developers believe in.”
In late 2013 or perhaps early 2014, not long before the release of Reaper of Souls, Blizzard made an internal announcement that shocked the development team: Diablo III’s second expansion was canceled. Team 3, the Blizzard department responsible for Diablo, hadn’t done a ton of work on this second expansion—they were mostly focused on Reaper—but it was planned as their next project. And now it wasn’t happening.
“What they told the team was, ‘You’ve finished Reaper of Souls, it’s really good. But we think the best thing for the IP is to move to Diablo IV in whatever form that’ll be,’” said one person who was there. “The overall sense on the team, at least in my impression, was that there was a vote of no confidence from the executives. They thought Diablo III was a giant fuck-up.”
Had Diablo III really been a giant fuck-up? Sure, the highly anticipated action-RPG had launched in May 2012 to immediate catastrophe, as fans across the world tried to open up the game and found themselves unable to play thanks to the dreaded “Error 37,” a warning-turned-meme that popped up every time the game was inaccessible. There were other problems, too, like a brutal difficulty spike and the real-money auction house, which allowed players to buy and sell loot for cash, skewing Diablo III’s item balance.
Throughout 2012 and 2013, Blizzard’s Team 3 addressed many of these issues, overhauling the difficulty system and removing the auction house. Diablo III evolved into a beloved game, and with Reaper of Souls, which came out in March 2014, the team turned it into one of the most critically acclaimed action-RPGs out there. Why, then, would Blizzard cancel the second one?
“A lot of people felt stunned by it,” said the person who was there. “I think a lot of them felt like, ‘We made mistakes on Diablo III, but we learned and we made Reaper to show what we could do. We have fixed it, and Reaper’s really good.’ I think a lot of people felt like we’d figured it out and we know how to do this, and expansion two, whatever it would’ve been, would’ve been the highest expression of that… To have them pull the plug without really seeing how Reaper did really stung.”
It’s still not clear why Blizzard wouldn’t want to support a game that had been so commercially successful, but the theory on Team 3 was that Blizzard’s management had lost faith in Diablo III and saw it as a failure, even before Reaper launched. “The perception overall was that management thought, ‘This team really screwed up,’” said one person who was there. “They could’ve held off a few months and seen how Reaper did, but in their mind [Diablo III] was irredeemable.” (When Reaper launched on PC in late March, 2014, Blizzard said it sold 2.7 million copies in its first week—a big number, but only a fraction of the ~15 million copies that Diablo III had sold across PC and consoles.)
When asked, Blizzard did not address the cancellation of this expansion, but as part of a broader statement, spoke about cancellations in general. “As far as game cancellations, we see that as a strength—a reflection of our commitment to quality, and how we’ve always operated,” the spokesperson said. “Historically, we’ve launched about 50% of the total projects we’ve worked on over the past three decades—those are the ones we consider representative of Blizzard quality. Not shipping a game is never an easy decision to make, but it has always been the right decision for us. Cancelling Titan led us to Overwatch, and as another example, cancelling Nomad led us to World of Warcraft.”
In March 2014, as fans celebrated the return of Diablo III with the triumphant Reaper of Souls, Team 3 was splitting up. Some developers left the company; others moved to different projects, like World of Warcraft or the nascent Overwatch. Some stuck around to work on patches for Diablo III, but Team 3 was no longer in full swing. “At the point they had the strongest Diablo development team ever, they scattered them all to the winds,” said one person who worked on Reaper of Souls. To those developers, it was a baffling move by Blizzard’s management. Giving the team more time to see how Reaper performed and how the second expansion was shaping up “would’ve been much more Blizzard-like,” that person said.
Those who remained on Team 3 began talking about what Diablo IV might look like. Josh Mosqueira, the Canadian transplant who had started on the Diablo III console team before taking the franchise’s reins as director of Reaper of Souls, would lead development on the new project, which was code-named Hades. The goal was to take the franchise in a very different direction.
Mosqueira and team designed Hades as a Diablo take on Dark Souls, according to three people familiar with the project. It would be a gothic, challenging dungeon crawler. Rather than maintain the isometric camera angle of the first three Diablo games, it would use an over-the-shoulder, third-person perspective. It was such a departure from previous games, some at Blizzard thought they might not even end up calling it Diablo IV. From 2014 until 2016, it was Team 3’s main project, developed alongside a handful of patches and light content updates for Diablo III. Then, like Diablo III’s second expansion before it, Hades was canceled.
As with any cancellation, there were likely many reasons for this move, but two people involved with Hades said it was going through rocky development. “It was not shaping up at all,” said one. In the middle of 2016, Mosqueira left Blizzard. It’s not clear whether Mosqueira left because of Hades’ cancellation or if Hades was canceled because he left, but what’s certain is that at that point, the project was shelved. (When reached by Kotaku, Mosqueira declined to comment on this story.)
In the coming months, Blizzard’s Team 3 would do two things. The developers, who needed something to work on now that Hades was no more, put together downloadable content for Diablo III called Rise of the Necromancer, a character class add-on that the team hoped would satiate fans who were desperate for more Diablo. And some of them started working on a project code-named Fenris.
Fenris is, all of our sources have confirmed, the current incarnation of Diablo IV. Blizzard’s Team 3 has been working on this version of the game since 2016, and some who have seen it say they’re optimistic about the direction. “[Design director] Luis [Barriga] has a very strong vision for that game,” said a former employee, “one that a lot of people are excited about at Blizzard.”
One key part of that vision is the art direction. During development of a game, many studios use what they call “pillars”—mantras that help define the game’s goals so that everyone on the team is on the same page. For Fenris, one of those pillars is simple: Embrace the darkness.
“There’s a lot of people who felt like Diablo III got away from what made DiabloDiablo in terms of art style and spell effects,” said a current Blizzard employee, adding that Fenris is aiming to look more like the beloved Diablo II. Said another: “They want to make this gross, make it dark, [get rid of] anything that was considered cartoony in Diablo III… Make what people were afraid of in Diablo II, but modern.”
Fenris is still early in development, and likely won’t be out until 2020 or later, so it’s safe to say that many decisions made by the team today will change over time. (We don’t know if it’s PC-first or planned for simultaneous launch on PC and platforms, and in fact, the team may have not yet made that decision.) One ongoing conversation, for example, has been whether to keep the isometric camera angle or use the over-the-shoulder third-person view that was prototyped for Hades. Recent builds of the game have been isometric, like previous Diablo games, according to three people familiar with Fenris, but questions remain over whether that should change.
Another pillar of Fenris is to make Diablo more social, taking inspiration from Destiny to add what one current Blizzard developer called “light MMO elements,” further drawing on Blizzard’s past massively multiplayer online success. Previous Diablo games have featured hub cities full of computer-controlled quest-givers and vendors—imagine if, while exploring those hubs, you could meet and group up with other players? And then what if you could go off and take on instanced dungeons with them, sort of like Destiny’s strikes or World of Warcraft’s instances?
“The question that kept getting asked is, ‘If there’s going to be a ‘strike’ equivalent, where you’re forced into a very story-focused, well-designed level of a dungeon, what does that look like in Diablo?” said one person familiar with the project. “What if we still had a core Diablo game that just happened to have a bunch of people on the map to do other cool stuff?”
One lingering question is how Blizzard will monetize Fenris. Blizzard’s other big games, like Overwatch and Hearthstone, include ongoing revenue streams thanks to cosmetic microtransactions and card packs. With Diablo, Blizzard has not yet found a way to deliver that same sort of cash generator. (“The company’s always struggled as to how to have some sort of long-tail monetization for Diablo III,” acknowledged one former employee.) From what we’ve heard, those decisions are still up in the air on Fenris, and may not be clear for a long time.
Fenris is still early—and all of these ideas may change or never make it to the final product—but with the fourth Diablo in active development, it’s hard not to wonder: Why wouldn’t Blizzard just talk about it? The company has hinted at the game’s existence, insisting in blog posts and on live streams that it has “multiple Diablo projects” in the works, but using the words “Diablo IV” might have quelled much of the outrage over Diablo Immortal.
Earlier this month, I reported that Blizzard had made a video for BlizzCon in which co-founder Allen Adham talked about Diablo IV. Blizzard later disputed that the video had been made for BlizzCon. In conversations since then, two sources told me that regardless of the company’s statement, there had been plans throughout 2018 to announce the game this year. “In January, they were still full set on, ‘We’re going to do this right, we’re going to have a playable demo,’” said one. “By the time we’d hit May, that game wasn’t far enough along. It’s normal problems. Things going slower than they’d like.” By the summer, that person said, they were still under the impression that a tease was happening. “I think it’s semantics… If they changed their mind at any point, they can say, ‘Oh, it wasn’t scheduled.’ At least what we were told as a development team, it was supposed to get teased, that was always the intention.”
On the flip side, a current developer in a non-Diablo department who was involved in BlizzCon planning told me that to their knowledge, there was no Diablo IV announcement ever planned for the show.
Plans or no plans, the Diablo IV announcement didn’t happen. Here’s one theory as to why: Blizzard is haunted by the specter of Titan.
Titan was the code-name for a brand new MMO that Blizzard started developing around 2007. Envisioned as a cross between The Sims, Left 4 Dead, and Team Fortress 2, where you’d run businesses during the day and turn into a superhero at night, Titan was meant to be a different twist on the genre that Blizzard had already mastered with World of Warcraft. (You can read more about Titan in our 2014 report on how it would have worked.)
In the beginning of 2013, after a long and protracted development cycle, Blizzard canceled Titan. Part of the team went on to make Overwatch, which would become a big success, but the project became a black eye for Blizzard—a massive sink of time and money that was also, much to some people’s dismay, public knowledge. Not only had they wasted resources on this failed game—everybody knew about it. Blizzard had acknowledged the project in 2008, and its existence had been frequently hinted and asked about in the years that followed.
So with Fenris fairly early in development—and with the fourth Diablo already having gone through one big reboot—it’s fair to wonder if the team was worried about another lengthy development cycle that might end in disaster. Even the words “Diablo IV” might have set expectations that the developers didn’t want to establish just yet. “The Diablo team is very paranoid about saying something too soon and then getting stuck in a loop,” said one former Blizzard developer. “They don’t want to show the game until they have a trailer, a demo.”
“Obviously Titan looms over all of us,” said another former Blizzard developer. Despite Overwatch’s emergence from Titan’s ashes, the developer added, “people don’t look at Titan and see a success.“
“I think there’s a desire to announce stuff within a reasonably close proximity to when people are gonna get to play it,” said a current Blizzard developer, pointing to both Titan and Blizzard’s other infamously canceled project, StarCraft: Ghost. “[Those] just set people up for a lot of disappointment.”
In a statement, Blizzard confirmed as much. “In terms of unannounced games, so much can change over the course of development based on how we’re feeling about the progress and direction of the project,” the company said. “So we try not to share details about unannounced projects before we’re ready. Our preference is to have a clear announcement plan with some concrete details and hopefully a playable demo of the game when we announce. That applies to our Diablo projects and our other games as well.”
It’s also fair to wonder: Just how much has Titan affected Blizzard’s development process? Over the past few years we’ve seen Titan’s seven- to eight-year cycle, Diablo III (which entered development in the early 2000s but was not released until 2012), and StarCraft II (2003 to 2010). Some veteran Blizzard developers have spent over 10 years on a single project, which has driven some of them to crave smaller, shorter games. That’s one of the reasons Blizzard now operates a secretive new department—one that functions a little bit differently than its other divisions.
In the days following BlizzCon 2018, as Diablo fans across the world raged about the announcement of Diablo Immortal and lack of news on Diablo IV, many of them wondered: Was Diablo Immortal’s development detracting from other Diablo games?
As it turns out, Diablo IV and Diablo Immortal are developed by different teams of people in different divisions. While the project known as Fenris is in production at Team 3, Diablo Immortal is partially developed by NetEase and partially made by a small group of Blizzard employees who work for one of the company’s newest departments: incubation.
In 2016, when Blizzard co-founder Allen Adham returned to the company, he announced that he was heading up that new department. Inspired by the massive success of the experimental card game Hearthstone (2014), this “incubation” department would help cultivate new creative projects for the company. It attracted some of Blizzard’s veteran developers, like Tom Chilton, who had been director of World of Warcraft for six years and a designer on the game for another six before that. (Now, Chilton is heading up a mobile game.)
Another veteran designer who moved to incubation was Wyatt Cheng, who had worked on Diablo III for over a decade and wanted a break, according to two people who know him. Blizzard had partnered with a Chinese company called NetEase to publish Diablo III as a free-to-play game in China, where it was a big success. At some point in 2016 or 2017, the two companies decided to collaborate, putting together what would be called Diablo Immortal—a Diablo game, with Cheng as lead designer, made only for phones. “Essentially it exists because we’ve heard that China really wants it,” said a current developer. “It is really for China.”
Three Blizzard sources told me that the original plan for Diablo Immortal had been to release it only in China at first for a few months or maybe a year, in large part to test it out among Chinese fans before releasing it in the west. “The quality bar in the Chinese market, especially for framerate, is extremely low,” said one. “You can release something that’d be considered alpha footage here and it’d be a finished game there.” Later, those sources said, Blizzard decided to take more time to polish the game and prepare it for a simultaneous global announcement and release.
In a statement, Blizzard said that Diablo Immortal had been developed for both Western and Eastern markets but did not comment on whether the game was originally planned to launch in China first. “One of our core values is ‘think globally’ and our history has shown that we strive to make our games in as many languages as possible so more players can enjoy them,” a spokesperson said. “With that in mind, we quickly knew that we wanted to bring Diablo Immortal to the global audience.”
The cinematic trailer for Diablo Immortal is now one of the most downvoted videos on YouTube.
Diablo Immortal isn’t the only mobile game in development at Blizzard’s incubation department, and although a skeptical fan might question the motivations behind these games, some current and former employees insist that these games are in development because Blizzard’s developers genuinely want to make them.
“There are lots of mobile game players at Blizzard,” said a current developer. “There are lots of people actually excited about mobile games. The reaction inside the company to Immortal is very different than the reaction outside the company. Part of the thinking on a lot of these is, people want to work on smaller projects. Smaller projects in mobile tend to make sense.”
For example, developers told me, quite a few people at Blizzard play Pokémon Go, the massively popular mobile game that lets you use your phone’s camera to catch wild creatures. As one developer explained, the iconic orc statue in the center of Blizzard’s campus is a Pokéstop, and staff wage war over who gets to control the landmark on a daily basis.
The natural extension of that was for one of Blizzard’s incubation teams to develop a Warcraft version of Pokémon Go, which is in development for smartphones now. Surely it occurred to the decision-makers at Blizzard that this Warcraft spinoff could be a massive revenue generator, but the game is also in production because lead designer Cory Stockton (formerly of World of Warcraft) is a huge fan of Pokémon. (People who have played the Warcraft mobile game say it’s also got a lot more to it than Pokémon Go, including single-player mechanics.)
Perhaps it’s a win-win for Adham. With mobile games, Blizzard can please Activision’s investors by appealing to burgeoning video game markets in China and India, and Blizzard can also satisfy its veteran developers by letting them work on smaller projects that they really want to make. “The reality is, everything that is in incubation at Blizzard is in incubation because Allen Adham believed they were worthwhile,” said another current developer. These mobile games might not appeal to as many of Blizzard’s hardcore fans—those who prefer to play games mainly on PCs—but they have appealed very much to the developers.
Yet over the past year, Activision’s influence on Blizzard has been very real—and Blizzard staff say things are starting to feel a little different for the once-autonomous company.
In the spring of 2018, during Blizzard’s annual company-wide “Battle Plan” meeting, chief financial officer Amrita Ahuja spoke to all of the staff, according to two people who were there. In what came as a surprise to many, she told Blizzard that one of the company’s goals for the coming year was to save money.
“This is the first year we’ve heard a priority being cutting costs and trying not to spend as much,” said one person who was in the meeting. “It was presented as, ‘Don’t spend money where it isn’t necessary.’”
Ahuja was new to Blizzard, having started as CFO that spring as a transplant from 3100 Ocean Park, the Santa Monica-based Activision headquarters where she’d spent eight years working in the finance and investor relations departments. There was a perception among Blizzard staff that she had come in to clean up the spreadsheets, to save as much money as possible while at the same time bolstering Blizzard’s product output. (In a statement, Blizzard said, “We actively recruited [Ahuja] and we chose her out of a large, very competitive, and highly-qualified set of candidates.”) 2016’s Overwatch had been a smash hit, but in 2017 and 2018 the company shipped very little—there was a StarCraft remaster, a World of Warcraft expansion, and of course, patches and updates for other games. That was it.
Traditionally, Blizzard has remained entirely separate from Activision, with its own quality standards and branding, to the point where they felt like two different companies. You might be able to find World of Warcraft Easter eggs in StarCraft II, but you’d never see an Overwatch character in Call of Duty. In recent years, however, that’s changed. Blizzard’s digital store, Battle.net, now features Activision games like Destiny 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Bungie appeared on the BlizzCon 2018 stream to announce that Destiny 2 would be temporarily free. And there’s been a perception among Blizzard developers that the two companies are growing more and more intertwined.
As it turned out, 2018 would be a weak year for Activision. The publisher was unhappy with Destiny’s performance and would take a major stock hit in November following fiscal third-quarter results that disappointed investors. One worrying trend for the bean-counters was the stagnancy of Blizzard’s MAUs—monthly active users—which are seen as a pivotal metric for service games like Hearthstone and Overwatch. Throughout 2018, as Activision has told investors, those numbers have declined. Combined with Blizzard’s lack of new games, it’s easy to see why Activision’s executives may have wanted to intervene.
“You would’ve thought Blizzard was going under and we had no money,” said a former Blizzard staffer, who told me they left the company this year in part because of Activision’s influence. “The way every little thing was being scrutinized from a spend perspective. That’s obviously not the case. But this was the very first time I ever heard, ‘We need to show growth.’ That was just so incredibly disheartening for me.”
Blizzard appears to be bolstering headcount for its development teams—one current developer said their team was encouraged to get bigger—while cutting as many costs as possible elsewhere. It’s a process that may not be done yet, as Activision seems to still be looking to boost Blizzard’s content output and release more games on a regular schedule. Ahuja’s comments in the spring of 2018 may have simply been the beginning.
“We are being told to spend less at every corner because we have no new IP,” said one former developer. “Because Overwatch set this bar of how much we could earn in a single year, there’s a ton of pressure from Activision to get shit moving. They want something to show shareholders.” (During an earnings call after Overwatch launched, Activision said it had brought in over a billion dollars in revenue.)
Then, in October 2018, Blizzard lost its leader. Co-founder Mike Morhaime, the soft-spoken CEO who jovially addressed fans at every BlizzCon, said he was stepping down, to be replaced by veteran World of Warcraft producer J. Allen Brack. Allen Adham and chief development officer Ray Gresko also joined Blizzard’s executive management team, perhaps to help ensure that the studio would be helmed by game developers who lived and breathed Blizzard.
It was a massive shake-up for Blizzard, and it came during a time when there were already questions about Activision’s influences. Morhaime was widely beloved at the company. One former Blizzard developer described him as the “anti-CEO.”
”He doesn’t care about profitability,” that person said. “He just wants employees to be happy, and he just wants to make good games and keep the community happy.”
Suddenly, there were whispers in hallways, concerns about future cost-cutting initiatives and furtive exchanges about what plans Activision CEO Bobby Kotick might have in mind for Blizzard. “There’s a perception within Blizzard that finance is making more calls than they ever did in the past,” said one person who left Blizzard recently. “You never heard that three or four years ago.”
Cultural shifts aren’t always blatant. Anyone who’s worked for a major corporation can attest to the invisible pressures that can emerge over time. “There’s a temptation to cast Activision as the villain,” said one current developer. “I think the influences are far more subtle than that.” Someone at Blizzard might make a decision with the best of intentions in mind, but if they subconsciously know that their corporate bosses at Activision want to cut costs and please investors, who knows how that might affect their judgement? With Activision and Blizzard growing less and less separate, what kind of overlaps will we see across their various divisions?
These days, there’s trepidation surrounding Blizzard, both externally and internally. Strange decisions surrounding the Diablo franchise have exacerbated that, and in fact, some who work or have worked at Blizzard believe that canceling Diablo III’s second expansion was one of the company’s biggest mistakes in recent years. Recalled one Blizzard veteran: “I remember a lot of us looking at each other and saying, ‘Man, if we had just done that second expansion instead of losing half the team as a result of the cancellation, and then all of the personnel changes, management changes, then this walk down the road of Hades… If we hadn’t done any of that and had just focused on doing a solid third act for Diablo, it’d be out by now.’”
There is a future for Diablo, one that isn’t solely limited to mobile games. Diablo III may have wound down, but Diablo 4 is still in the works, despite the culture of secrecy that has prevented Blizzard from mentioning it by name. There’s no way to know what may happen to the project in the future, but right now, it exists. The big question is, what will Blizzard look like in two years? In five? How will corporate expectations and tensions impact what has been one of the most beloved companies in video games for nearly three decades? We may not know the answers until BlizzCon 2028.
In the final year of development on Red Dead Redemption 2, the upcoming Western game, the top directors decided to add black bars to the top and bottom of every non-interactive cutscene in hopes of making those scenes feel more cinematic, like an old-school cowboy film. Everyone agreed it was the right creative move, but there was a catch: It would add weeks of work to many people’s schedules.
“You can’t just slap black bars on the cinematics we’ve already shot,” said one person who worked on the game. “You have to reframe the camera so that the cinematics flow in a particular way, and you’re emphasizing what you weren’t emphasizing initially with that shot.”
With no hope of delaying the game any further—Red Dead Redemption 2 had already been bumped internally before it was announced, then publicly delayed twice—there was no way for the developers at Rockstar Games to add more time to their schedule. Instead, they would have to crunch, putting in extra nights and weekends in order to redo these scenes and deal with the rest of the massive workload that was ahead of them. Would the black bars prove to be worth it?
This has been a common occurrence in the last years of development on a Rockstar game. Dan and Sam Houser, the co-founders of Rockstar and creative leads on Red Dead Redemption 2, are renowned for rebooting, overhauling, and discarding large chunks of their games. Through eight years of development on Red Dead Redemption 2, the Housers and other directors have made a number of major changes to the story, the core gameplay mechanics, and the game’s overall presentation. It’s a process that some see as essential for making a game of this nature, but it’s also one that leads to a great deal of overtime, and has contributed to a culture of crunch at Rockstar Games that is impossible to deny, according to interviews with dozens of current and former employees. This isn’t crunch that came in a burst of a few weeks—it’s crunch that, those employees say, has lasted for months or even years.
The article and its fallout have led to widespread industry discussion of crunch and plenty of questions about work conditions at Rockstar. Does the company behind Grand Theft AutoV, the most lucrative video game of all time, overwork its employees? How much unpaid overtime went into Red Dead Redemption 2? Is crunch required to make games with the scope and scale of Red Dead Redemption and its sequel, which comes out on Friday and is likely to be a massive commercial success? What is Rockstar’s culture really like?
This account, a peek inside one of the most secretive companies in gaming, is based on interviews with 34 current and 43 former employees, over phone calls and e-mails and texts. Last Wednesday, Rockstar told current employees that they were allowed to speak to journalists (so long as they gave HR a heads up), but almost all of the people who spoke to me for this story requested anonymity. Some said they feared retaliation for being candid about their negative experiences at Rockstar, and some said they were worried about coming across as dishonest for sharing positive stories.
In addition, Rockstar provided us interviews with 12 current employees over group video chats as well as its head of publishing, Jennifer Kolbe, who oversees all of Rockstar’s studios.
The tale of Red Dead Redemption 2’s development is complicated and sometimes contradictory. For some people at Rockstar, it was a satisfying project, an ambitious game that took reasonable hours and far less crunch than the company’s previous games. Many current employees say they’re happy to work at Rockstar and love being able to help make some of the best games in the world. Others described Red Dead 2 as a difficult experience, one that cost them friendships, family time, and mental health. Nobody interviewed said they had worked 100-hour weeks—that would equate to seven 14-hour days—but many said their average weekly hours came close to 55 or 60, which would make for six 10-hour days. Most current and former Rockstar employees said they had been asked or felt compelled to work nights and weekends. Some were on hourly contracts and got paid for overtime, but many were salaried and did not receive any compensation for their extra hours. Those who are still at the company hope that their 2018 bonuses—expected to be significant if Red Dead 2 does well—will help make up for that.
Many of the most harrowing stories shared by current and former employees—anecdotes of damaged relationships, mental breakdowns, and heavy drinking at work—were impossible to print without risking that the individuals involved might be identified. Given Rockstar’s complex non-disclosure agreements and possible repercussions for violating them, we erred on the side of being as cautious as possible in this piece, which meant leaving out some of the roughest details we’d heard.
Rockstar consists of thousands of people in eight offices across five countries, so it’s no surprise that its employees would have a wide variety of experiences. Last week, Rockstar shared several statistics with Kotaku and other outlets, including the average reported weekly hours across all of its offices from January to September of this year. From January through March 2018, according to those statistics, Rockstar employees worked an average of 42.4 hours. From April through June, they hit 45.5 hours. And from July through September, 45.8 hours. The averages include people from all disciplines and working on all of the company’s projects, which helps explain the discrepancy between those numbers and the anecdotes we’ve heard. People whose work on Red Dead Redemption 2 was finished earlier, or who were working on different projects (like Grand Theft Auto Online) that weren’t in heavy crunch mode this year, may have worked far fewer hours. Those who have worked on Red Dead Redemption 2 describe the cinematics team, the design team, and especially the quality assurance team as facing some of the worst crunch.
In an e-mail on Monday, Kolbe offered another explanation for the discrepancy, saying that the “averages for Red Dead only would not be meaningfully different” and that days off were actually included in those averages, although weeks off were not. “However, the explanation for the discrepancy between the cross-company data and the individual anecdotes is just that: you are hearing individual anecdotes which are usually self-selecting both for the most extreme ends of the scale as well as for people who clearly have issues with our process,” she said.
“There are absolutely people who, at various times, worked really long hours,” Kolbe added. “There are also individuals who are exaggerating what their actual hours were, as we have confirmed their self-reported numbers at the time as substantially lower from what they recall having done in their online postings, and we have offered to share the evidence of that with you if given permission from those people.”
(We could not discuss any individuals’ stories with Rockstar, as we had agreed to protect their identities.)
Even among those who said they crunched hard on Red Dead Redemption 2, accounts varied. Some said they left or were planning to leave because they felt mistreated, while others described Rockstar as a great place to work, aside from the long hours. Several current staff said they were infuriated by Houser’s comments implying that overtime at the company was voluntary. “I didn’t volunteer for it,” said one current developer. “I just know that’s the cost of working where I’m at.” We’ve heard the highest number of tough crunch stories from two offices in particular: Rockstar Lincoln in the United Kingdom and Rockstar’s main headquarters in New York City. From other Rockstar studios, we’ve heard a variety of positive and negative stories. (One studio we did not hear much from was Rockstar India, although those at other offices said they’d heard that overtime was bad there as well.)
Personal experiences may differ, but anecdotes from current and former employees paint a consistent picture: Rockstar Games is a complicated and sometimes difficult company, one where working “hard” is equated to working for as many hours as possible. Many told Kotaku they felt pressured to stay at the office at night and even come in on weekends if they wanted to succeed. Despite Dan Houser’s quote that “No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard,” people who have worked and currently work at Rockstar say that overtime is mandatory. In conversations, several used the phrase “culture of fear,” with some saying that they were worried about lawsuits or other retaliation for speaking up.
“The overall tone at Rockstar is that what the company values most is not the bugs you fix but the hours you put in,” said one current employee, echoing a view shared by most of the people interviewed for this article.
Rockstar’s Kolbe disagreed with this characterization but acknowledged that many members of her team have worked evenings and weekends in the lead up to Red Dead Redemption 2’s launch.
“In an ideal world, I’d like to think that we could have all of our work done so that we didn’t actually have to spend late nights here, but at the same time I think we do push ourselves really hard,” she said. “I think that’s across the board. It’s not just the games team, I think it’s the people involved in all aspects of what we’re creating here in that we will push ourselves to get the best piece, whether it’s the best piece of creative, whether that’s a television commercial, a trailer, whether that’s back-of-box copy… We care deeply about the games. I think that can sometimes result in a little bit of— You can become obsessive about certain things.”
Many video game studios crunch, and it’s rare to find a big game that didn’t require excessive overtime to make. But accounts from dozens of current and former Rockstar employees describe a company that appears to embrace crunch more than most, one where people have traditionally struggled to find success without working long hours. Rockstar makes some of the most impressive games in the world. The question is: What’s the cost?
Rockstar’s crunch culture first became public nearly nine years ago. On January 7, 2010, an anonymous author published a letter claiming to be from a group of “wives of Rockstar San Diego employees.” The account, which was well-publicized, criticized Rockstar’s California studio for forcing staff to work 12-hour days for six days a week in order to finish the first Red Dead Redemption, which would come out four months later, in May 2010. At the time, Rockstar waved it off as “a few anonymous posters on message boards,” but people who worked on the game say the letter accurately depicted what they went through.
“If you left early on a weekday or weekend, you’d get dirty looks,” said one former employee of Rockstar San Diego who told me they worked an average of 70 hours a week during Red Dead Redemption. “You’d feel the stare down, and sometimes you’d see it as you were leaving. There was this culture of, if you don’t put in the hours, you’re not worth working here.”
In the thick of this crunch, Rockstar San Diego began offering laundry service, according to two people who worked there, which as another former employee pointed out left some people feeling uncomfortable—they wouldn’t even have enough spare time to do their own laundry?
“The temperament from these guys has always been: It should be a privilege to serve in this organization,” said a person who was there. “And if you don’t agree with that, there’s a long line of people waiting to take your place.”
That’s a common sentiment from those who have had negative experiences at Rockstar, especially those who were there during the first Red Dead. “I would normally never speak about my time at Rockstar—it’s not my style,” said another person who worked at Rockstar San Diego during that game’s development, “but we absolutely were forced to work six-day weeks in the six to nine months leading to launch.”
Even Rockstar’s management now admits that it was a problematic time for the company, despite originally dismissing the anonymous letter.
“We certainly looked at Red Dead 1 and what came out of that, and knew we did not want to have a situation like that again,” said Rockstar’s Jennifer Kolbe. “I think naturally as the team has grown in its working practices together, we have made improvements into how the teams are run.”
Rockstar’s next project after Red Dead Redemption was L.A. Noire (2011), which went through a rough production under the Australian studio Team Bondi, and then came Max Payne 3 (2012), a third-person shooter about an alcoholic vigilante. People who worked on Max Payne 3 have described it as a “death march,” a brutal period of time for the company that involved long nights and plenty of mandatory crunch.
“I’m gonna be honest, a lot of the details of my life during that time are pretty blank,” said one person who worked on Max Payne 3 at Rockstar’s New England office in Massachusetts. “It was a lot of getting into the office at 9 or 10 AM and leaving at 10 or 11 at night.”
That person, who was salaried, did not get paid for their extra hours. Instead, they had to hope that the game would sell well enough to net everyone on staff a healthy bonus.
Bonuses are a big deal at Rockstar Games. The standard compensation package for a Rockstar employee includes an annual bonus, one that grows substantially during years when the company ships a game. It’s tied to a number of factors, Rockstar says, including the sales of that game and individual employee performance. Some former Rockstar employees described receiving hefty bonuses after the first Red Dead Redemption, sometimes reaching the mid-five digits. But Max Payne 3 did not sell well, according to the former Rockstar employee, so bonuses in 2012 were significantly lower than expected.
Then came 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V, which required crunch from many who worked across Rockstar’s studios. One former employee at Rockstar’s Toronto office shared documents showing how many hours one team had worked during a week in the months leading up to GTA V’s release. Those who had worked fewer than 60 hours were marked with the word “Under” in red letters. One person who worked at one of Rockstar’s offices in the United Kingdom said that the stress of constant overtime for nearly a decade had cost them their relationship and their mental health, although the person also insisted that it was one of the best places they’d ever worked. “They were—are—one of the best companies going,” the person said. “But the thing is, for the people who work for them, it’s not just a job, it’s an absolute way of life.”
It’s not uncommon to hear current and former employees describe Rockstar as a family—or, less charitably, as a “cult.” Some have shared stories of the company going out of its way to help them out during hard times, like family deaths or serious illnesses. Some said they saw Rockstar as a sort of trial by fire: Work there for a few years, put in the extra hours, and your resume will be armed with a Grand Theft Auto or a Red Dead Redemption, giving you the prestige to get hired by any game development studio you’d like.
During the development of Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar began formally shifting to a new policy. Instead of different studios or clusters of studios working on each project, as they had for Red Dead 1 and Max Payne 3, all of Rockstar’s offices would combine forces. For some departments, that helped alleviate the workload.
Others said they still had it rough, however. Three people who worked at Rockstar San Diego between 2011 and 2016 recall a period where they were told that overtime wasn’t optional. “It was mandatory 80 hours for basically the whole studio,” said one person who was there. “If you don’t have any work to do on Red Dead 2, just test GTA V for another eight hours.” Said a second: “Maybe they didn’t tell anyone 100 hours, but they definitely told us 80. Concept artists were sitting there being glorified QA.”
A current Rockstar San Diego employee also confirmed that they had been asked to work 80-hour weeks for periods back then. That’d be an average of 11-hour work days—10am to 9pm—for all seven days of the week.
In order to keep track of hours, Rockstar asks many employees to log into the company’s proprietary bug-tracking software, BugStar, every day when they get into work, then log out when they leave. (Some Rockstar offices use other software to track their hours.) Employees are also told to log their individual tasks, which Rockstar says is for project management purposes, so the company can know how long it takes to fix bugs or implement features. It’s an environment that has made some staff feel as if they’re constantly being watched, and several current employees have shared stories of being called into their manager’s office and asked why they aren’t working more than 40 or 45 hours a week.
“The idea that Rockstar cares about its employees and their health is laughable,” said one former San Diego employee who left during production of Red Dead Redemption 2. “I was pushed further into depression and anxiety than I had ever been while I worked there. My body was exhausted, I did not feel as though I was able to have any friends outside of work, I felt like I was going insane for much of my time there and I started drinking heavily… Now, I have heard from some friends that are still working there that some improvements have been made, but Dan’s statement about crunch being optional is ridiculous. It is optional if you want to lose your job or never move forward in your career.”
When Red Dead Redemption came out in May 2010, it was a massive critical and commercial success. It was widely seen as one of the greatest games of all time, and it was no surprise that Rockstar greenlit a sequel.
Red Dead Redemption 2, announced in October 2016, has been in some form of development since the beginning of 2011. Those who have worked on the game over the past seven years have expressed nothing but positivity about it, and even those who feel bitterly about how Rockstar treated them acknowledge that working on the sequel to Red Dead was creatively satisfying. “The work I did there was the most fun, most interesting work I’ve ever done,” said one former Rockstar employee who otherwise had nothing but negative things to say about his experiences with crunch, management, and the company as a whole. “I think I enjoyed the actual work more than I have doing really anything.”
Current and former employees use high praise when talking about Red Dead Redemption 2, describing it as unlike anything anyone has played before. It’s poised to be one of the most technically impressive games of all time. It was also developed under a great deal of crunch.
The word “crunch” is something of a misnomer. It implies a short period of time toward the end of a project—crunch time, the final opportunity for everyone to make the game as good as possible. But in the video game industry, crunch can happen any time, for a variety of reasons. Whether there’s a big publisher milestone coming up, some executives are coming to town, or the creative director wants to look at a new demo, there are many periods when game developers might have to work nights and weekends to finish big tasks.
For some people working on Red Dead Redemption 2, crunch started as early as 2016. For others at Rockstar, crunch periods started in the fall of 2017, a year before the game’s release date. Even when the company wasn’t in official crunch mode, dozens of current and former employees say they’ve felt compelled to stay late for a variety of reasons. “Rockstar pressures employees to put in overtime in several direct and indirect ways,” said one current Rockstar developer. “Coming in on weekends is perhaps the only way to show you are dedicated and care. So you can be very efficient and hard-working during the week, but if you don’t show up on the weekend, you’re accused of not doing your share and will be constantly harassed.”
In conversations and e-mails, six current and former employees all independently used the term “culture of fear” to describe their experiences at Rockstar, in large part because of that overtime pressure. “There is a lot of fear at Rockstar,” said a former employee, “fear of getting fired, fear of under-performing, fear of getting yelled at, fear of delivering a shitty game. For some people fear is a great motivator, for others it just incites rebellion.” Some current employees, when asked, said they’d experienced nothing like this, noting that it would all be dependent on their department and individual manager. But those who have worked in several of Rockstar’s offices have described feeling like they had to be in the office as much as possible out of fear of getting yelled at, having their bonuses docked, or losing their jobs.
Even over the past week, as Rockstar’s management sent multiple messages to employees telling them that they were welcome to talk about their experiences, some current staff said they were terrified of being open. Last weekend, Rockstar North co-studio head Rob Nelson sent an e-mail to everyone at the company acknowledging that management was looking to improve “the way we approach development at this scale” and promising that nobody would be targeted for sharing feedback. “He reiterated an offer he made last week that if any of us wants to talk to him, he’s happy to do so,” said a current employee, “but everyone I’ve spoken with is still afraid to open up.”
One common fear at Rockstar is that if you leave during a game’s production, your name won’t be in the credits, no matter how much work you put in. Several former Rockstar employees lamented this fact, and Rockstar confirmed it when I asked. “That has been a consistent policy because we have always felt that we want the team to get to the finish line,” said Jennifer Kolbe. “And so a very long time ago, we decided that if you didn’t actually finish the game, then you wouldn’t be in the credits.”
Kolbe later told me that for Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar was “planning to recognize many people who made a contribution, including many former employees,” which turned out to be a list of their names on the company’s website. That list includes those who worked on Red Dead Redemption 2 for years but left before the game shipped, leading Rockstar to exclude their names from the in-game credits. This appears to be the first time Rockstar has credited former employees in a fashion like this.
For some, crunching on Red Dead Redemption 2 was a choice, one that several proud current employees told me they made because they wanted to help ensure that the game was as good as possible. Many have argued about the ethics of voluntary crunch—and the pressures it creates on one’s co-workers—but quite a few Rockstar staff insisted that their overtime had not been mandatory. They were workaholics, they told me. They wanted to put in that extra push to make Red Dead 2 great.
For others, crunch emerged for other reasons. During development of Red Dead Redemption 2, several sources say, there were many points where the Houser brothers weren’t pleased with how the game was shaping up. They made major changes to the map and the camp system, a core part of Red Dead Redemption 2 that involves protagonist Arthur Morgan’s gang of fellow criminals moving around the world. “There was a point where the Houser bros. were extremely disappointed at how the game was turning out,” said a former Rockstar employee. “They didn’t like the gameplay, didn’t find it fun or interesting, and this triggered an overhaul on a lot of different things.”
Even something as simple as changing the name of a city could lead to tons of extra work. At one point, Red Dead Redemption 2’s biggest city was called New Bordeaux, two sources confirmed, but when Rockstar found out that the open-world game Mafia III (developed by 2K, which is also owned by Rockstar parent company Take-Two Interactive) had used that name, they changed it to Saint Denis. That meant taking voice actors into the dialogue booth for a whole lot of re-recording, which meant a whole lot of extra work for anyone involved with cinematics—not to mention all the artwork and interface changes.
Ask any game developer what the most important part of making games is and they’ll likely give you a single-word answer: Iteration. What that means is experimenting and prototyping and changing your game until you learn what works best. Inevitably, that means throwing out work that’s already done, and even more inevitably, that means that an entire team will have to put extra hours into a game. Many game developers see this as one of the reasons that crunch is unavoidable, especially for those at the end of the pipeline. The audio team, for example, can’t work until other parts of the game are finalized.
“You cannot possibly accurately plan out a project as complicated as RDR2,” said a current Rockstar employee. “There are always going to be unexpected problems or dependencies that arise that generate bottlenecks which are going to require somebody get some work done quickly, otherwise 20 other people are held up. If someone is looking for an absolute 9-5 no surprises type job, then there are plenty of those jobs available in different industries that someone who works in games is more than qualified to do.”
Yet Rockstar’s crunch feels different than that of other studios. For years, whispers have circulated in industry circles about crunch at the company behind Red Dead Redemption 2, and there are plenty of people with stories to tell.
Over the course of reporting for this article, I heard a wide range of varying and often contradictory opinions and anecdotes. Even within the same office, one team might be going through brutal crunch while another team works standard nine-hour days. One current employee at Rockstar NYC, for example, told me that they’d been working 60- to 70-hour weeks for the past two years. They said that they can’t see themselves doing this kind of work for that much longer. But they also said they didn’t see how else a game like Red Dead Redemption 2 could be made.
“I think one of the big misunderstandings that I see a lot in comments and articles is that this isn’t number crunching,” said the employee. “We have an understanding that we’re trying to make a work of art more than just churning out a product. If I was just churning out a product, [at] 5 p.m. I’m heading out. But we’re making something you’ve never seen before.”
The employee said they’d reached out because of Dan Houser’s comments implying that crunch was limited and voluntary at Rockstar—comments that the employee said were infuriating to them and others in their office. “We got a few e-mails where they were like, ‘Look, guys, we need to be hitting these deadlines, doing this—I don’t see any butts in the seats on Saturdays,’” they said. They added that their crunch had “100 percent had long-term ramifications” on their friendships and relationships, yet they’d do it all again if they could. “This game would have never come out if we did not put in the hours that we did,” the employee said.
A second Rockstar NYC developer also said they reached out because of Houser’s comments. “While nobody I know worked 100 hour weeks, many of us worked 60-80 hour weeks for the past one or two years,” they said. “To hear one of the heads of the company effectively go on record as saying none of that ever happened has been a huge blow to morale at a time when we should be celebrating.”
A third Rockstar developer in the New York office said they’d had far more positive experiences. “We crunch far less than articles so far have presented and there is no ‘secret shaming’ of people who leave early,” that person said.
A fourth current developer, also in New York City, said they were terrified even to reach out to me, and that they felt like they worked long hours under an “abject culture of fear.” A fifth employee at Rockstar New York said their past few years had been great. “I would really hate for all of Rockstar’s management to get vilified when some managers/leads really are doing a phenomenal job and genuinely care about their employees,” that person said.
As with any massive, multi-national company, experiences at Rockstar can differ drastically. Yet there are a few common themes. The current Rockstar employee who said they’d crunched far less than articles have presented also brought up a point echoed by many others: At Rockstar, being in the office is valued above all else. “Rockstar does have a pervasive issue with the ‘appearance of work,’” that person said in an e-mail. “They like seeing people at their desks (they don’t allow work from home unless for medical reason and even then they strongly urge PTO [paid time off]). They also like people staying for dinner and you do see a bit of shame if you haven’t stayed until dinner (7:30) in a few weeks.”
At Rockstar’s New York City office, dinner has been catered three to four nights a week since the heaviest crunch started, in fall of 2017, according to those who spoke to me. To some teams, this wasn’t presented as a voluntary option. One e-mail shared with Kotaku from the fall of 2017 makes it clear that crunch was required, starting with three nights a week.
On Twitter over the past week, Rockstar employees have shared a number of positive stories, with many, especially at Rockstar North in Edinburgh, Scotland, stating that crunch on Red Dead Redemption 2 was the easiest they’ve ever had it. Although Rockstar explicitly told employees not to “sugarcoat” any of their stories, outside observers were skeptical that anyone would publicly trash their current employer. Indeed, when I spoke to some of those who tweeted, some who responded said they had been honest but may have left out some parts of their stories—and that they were hoping that this month’s events might lead to change for those Rockstar staff in departments that had it rougher.
Former employees have also publicly shared negative experiences. Job Stauffer, who worked in PR for Rockstar, said on Twitter that he had worked weekends during his time at the company. “It’s been nearly a decade since I parted from Rockstar, but I can assure you that during the GTA IV era, it was like working with a gun to your head 7 days a week. ‘Be here Saturday & Sunday too, just in case Sam or Dan [Houser] come in, they want to see everyone working as hard as them.’”
Privately, several current employees told me that this hasn’t changed. Those who didn’t work in the New York City office shared stories of everyone having to work extra hours whenever the Housers came to town, while those who do work in New York echoed Stauffer’s comments.
“There’d be Saturdays that I’d go there with nothing to do,” said one. “I’d sit in the office for six to eight hours just in case Sam or Dan was there, so they could see me. It was always dictated to me about my bonus. It was never about working, it was always about, you want that good bonus so you need Dan and Sam to see you sitting there.”
Said another: “The stories you’ve heard about people coming in to be visible for the Housers (more frequently Dan than Sam) are 100% true… I myself have been told at least once to walk a lap around the floor on an otherwise slow Saturday so that he could see there were people around.”
When asked about this, Rockstar head of publishing Jennifer Kolbe said she found it shocking. “I can’t speak to any particular manager that might say that type of stuff,” she said. “I don’t know the last game review with Dan or Sam that actually flowed over to a weekend… I’d like to believe that we don’t believe in the idea of mandatory face time, if that makes sense. I think it’s more if you have work that needs to get done, we expect it to get done.”
Kolbe said she used to come into the office nearly every weekend until around two years ago, when she had a child. She said she found it productive to be there when other people weren’t around, so she could catch up on e-mails and other work without having to take any meetings. “I don’t know if I was inadvertently sending a message to people that because I was here, they needed to be here,” she said. “Now that I look back, I don’t know. I would’ve hoped they would’ve stayed home so I could get my stuff done.”
And what of other studios? Some who currently work for Rockstar North have shared positive experiences, both on Twitter and privately with Kotaku, outside of those in the scripting or design department, who say they’ve been hit pretty hard by crunch on Red Dead Redemption 2. One current Rockstar North staffer said their hours have ranged from 40 all the way up to 80 per week during crunch. “I love working there, during my time I’ve had multiple promotions, get to make great games and I feel the pay is ok/good,” they said in an e-mail. “Outside of crunch hours the job is amazing.” A second current Rockstar North staffer described a bleaker situation: “Not once have I approached 100 hour weeks, even in the worst of crunch. I have, however, been on a steady death march of mostly mandated 50-60 hour weeks for quite honestly years.“
(To conceptualize this, a 50-hour week would be five 10-hour days, say 10am to 8pm. A 60-hour week would add a full Saturday or Sunday to one’s work schedule.)
Two current employees at Rockstar New England, which is located in Andover, Massachusetts, both shared glowing stories. “I really can’t imagine working at another game company at this point,” said one. “I’m working on the best products with amazingly talented people using the best tools and pipeline in the industry under a company that puts the quality of the game above anything else. I’m also working very reasonable hours and I’m very well off financially. It’s a comfortable and exciting career, and they take care of us.” A third, also at Rockstar New England, said they loved working at the company but that they’d been told to work 55- to 60-hour weeks during crunch over the past year.
In San Diego, some said things have changed drastically from the days of the first Red Dead Redemption and that anonymous letter from employees’ spouses, while others said they’ve felt pressured to work nights and weekends. Two current staffers each said they’d been asked to work more hours, although they weren’t given specific guidelines or quotas. “It’s a culture thing,” said one. “You’re going out to lunch and everyone’s talking about work hours—how many hours you’ve done, how many you’ve logged in. The culture values being a workaholic.”
Some Rockstar staff said they were paid annual salaries, so they didn’t get any extra money for putting in hours on top of their standard schedules. Others said they were paid hourly, although several said they’d compared their wages to those co-workers making annual salaries and found that they’d have to work overtime just to make the same amount. (The people on annual salaries tended to be more senior, so it follows that they were paid more.)
And then there’s Rockstar Lincoln. Of all of the current Rockstar employees who reached out to tell their stories, nearly a dozen worked at Lincoln. More than a dozen former employees from that office also chimed in with their own experiences, painting a bleak picture. Even some current staff who worked at other offices and told me they had positive experiences at Rockstar acknowledged that Lincoln had serious issues. If crunch culture is a problem across Rockstar, then at Rockstar Lincoln, it appears to be an epidemic.
At many game studios, there’s one department on the very bottom of the totem pole, a place where it’s tough to get a lot of respect: Quality Assurance, or QA, where people play different sections of the game in as many ways as possible, trying to find all of the bugs. Although QA testers are essential to the success of a game, they’re also seen by many game studios as low-skilled and dispensable.
Rockstar has a few QA departments, but a large number of its testers work at one particular office: Rockstar Lincoln, located in the English city of the same name. Current and former employees of Rockstar Lincoln describe it as a tough place to work, one where the testers are paid low wages, asked to work extremely long hours, and subject to strict security practices.
“The QA department at Rockstar Lincoln has been working mandatory OT since August 2017,” said one current employee. “In October 2017 we officially began our crunch and have been in this crunch since to this date.” As Rockstar has confirmed, Lincoln’s testers have been asked to work on evenings and weekends since then, starting with three nights a week and later moving up to five, and starting with one weekend day per month and later moving up to every weekend. Anyone who wanted a two-day weekend would have to work an extra weekend day on another week, which meant 12 straight days of work between days off.
Even before then, however, some staff said they were working overtime. Some explained that testers were hired on a temporary contract basis, and they’d felt compelled to work extra hours in order to get permanent jobs. “A large amount of staff are on rolling temporary contracts and live in the hope that they will be extended and able to pay rent as the end of their contract approaches,” said one current tester. “I don’t feel like anyone is comfortable speaking out in the hopes that they can be extended long enough to be made permanent. Staff are often reminded how lucky they are, simply to be working for Rockstar.”
“I have never suffered from depression before working at Rockstar,” said a former Lincoln tester. “Now some time after leaving it’s a recurring issue for me… One tester who worked below me told me he had gone to the doctor for help dealing with depression, was asked where he worked and when he replied Rockstar, the doctor said. ‘For god’s sake, another one.’” Two different spouses of Rockstar Lincoln employees contacted me to share stories, saying they hadn’t seen much of their partners lately.
Others said they had positive experiences as well, with one current Rockstar tester even calling it “the greatest place I have ever worked,” outside of the crunch. But, they said, “This type of work should never be placed on people to maintain over the course of an entire year and beyond.”
Only some of Lincoln’s testers were paid overtime. People working in the localization department received annual salaries, as did lead testers, creating an uncomfortable situation where some testers were getting paid more than their leads. Some told me they didn’t want promotions as a result.
On top of the overtime, those who work or have worked at Rockstar Lincoln describe restrictions they saw as unfair. Three testers said they weren’t allowed their cell phones at their desks during the work day, and had to put them in lockers before starting their shifts, which made it difficult to deal with doctor’s appointments or other essential activities aside from their breaks. Two said that after a tester spotted a drone that might have been filming through the windows, they were no longer allowed to open the blinds at night. Testers said they weren’t allowed to eat hot food at their desks—desks that were shared between day- and night-shift employees.
Rockstar’s Jennifer Kolbe confirmed these details, saying in an e-mail, “We believe that the vast majority of our team in Lincoln feels positively about work conditions there, and these specific difficulties mentioned are either not generally considered real hardships or are not based on any current reality.”
For some, that was certainly the case—except for the hours. “Ultimately, the job is a good job,” said one former tester. “And Rockstar is a good company to work for. When it’s not crunch, it’s not a bad place at all. The money’s alright, there’s a bonus at the end of the year. It’s just that crunch practically kills people.”
In conversations, some testers said they’d missed out on important events and time with their families due to this crunch. Others said their hours were monitored down to the minute, with managers reacting harshly to any missed time. One former Lincoln tester said they’d arrived late at work one day due to a heavy snowstorm that had led other businesses in the area to shut down. “There was no, ‘Thanks for making it in,’” the tester said. “It was, ‘Can you work back that?’”
“I feel like I’m going to need to get to know my partner again,” said a current tester.
On Friday, October 19, Rockstar Lincoln told its staff that overtime would no longer be mandatory. Although Kolbe characterized this as a clarification of a previous policy, and said it hadn’t been mandatory before, nearly a dozen current and former Rockstar Lincoln employees have reached out to Kotaku since then to say otherwise. All said that this overtime was a regular part of their schedule, and one even said they had received e-mails using the word “mandatory” to describe crunch.
In an e-mail on Monday, Kolbe offered more clarification: “We have spoken with the Lincoln team to make sure it’s clear that the scheduled extra time is requested, and yes we have only been requesting what we feel is really needed to get this game finished at the quality level we need. From talking to our team last week, we have heard that there were references to ‘mandatory’ overtime from some managers. At the same time we don’t believe that was a blanket message for the Lincoln team, and that is borne out by the comments from some that while they knew it was not in fact mandatory, they felt an obligation to do it. Either way, it is clear to us that our communication has not been perfect and we take responsibility for the situations in which the team has been confused or has received confusing messages from us. We have pushed hard over the last years to build and optimize the structure of our QA team, including doubling the size of the permanent team since 2014 and introducing scheduled day and night shifts so that we can increasingly avoid asking the QA team to work overtime. We will continue to make progress on that.”
Last Friday, Kolbe shared numbers that appeared to show normal work hours at Rockstar Lincoln, despite the company’s request that daytime testers work nights and weekends. From October 9, 2017 to May 13, 2018, she said, the average work week at Lincoln was 38.4 hours. From May 14, 2018 to August 5, 2018, she said the average work week was 45.4 hours. But if these averages accounted for days off, as Kolbe had later clarified, then the data was skewed—and it certainly doesn’t mesh with the experiences of those who shared their stories.
“Some of us on dayshift feel a bit cheated by the averaged out hours,” said a current Lincoln employee in an e-mail last weekend. “It diminishes the work we’ve put in, if some higher-up tries to gloss over or down-play the actual hours we were forced to crunch. Rockstar doesn’t need to use such underhanded tactics to make themselves look slightly better, all they should do is resolve the issue at hand—which they have started to, credit where credit’s due.”
Some at Rockstar Lincoln are optimistic about the change to optional overtime, although two lead testers have lamented the fact that their extra hours remain unpaid. “While I’m still a bit skeptical as to whether this voluntary overtime can remain free of peer pressure/job security/’passion’ anxieties, it’s comforting to see leads/supervisors commit to no more than two overtime shifts per week and two weekend shifts a month,” said the current employee. “Especially considering how much we were supposed to be crunching in November. Now I’m in control of how much I can work, it feels great. I’ll actually have meaningful free time in an evening!”
From people across all of Rockstar’s studios, we’ve heard mixed feelings: Pride at having worked on a game like Red Dead Redemption 2. Weariness after putting in so many hours. And anger that Rockstar’s management has seemingly downplayed the crunch in public over the past week.
As Rockstar’s approach to work has made headlines over the past couple of weeks, the company has tried to get on top of things by taking some unusual steps. Normally a secretive institution that would prefer the press stay away and their developers not talk publicly about their jobs, Rockstar last week made the unprecedented move of allowing its developers to speak publicly about work conditions. It also opened up its doors to Kotaku—in a particularly unconventional way.
It was cold last Thursday when I went down to Rockstar’s office in SoHo, Manhattan at the company’s invitation. Rockstar had learned that I was working on this story earlier in October, a week before Houser’s comments set off public discussion of crunch culture, and said it would make its employees available for interviews. Over the course of a few conversations, some of Rockstar’s top people, including head of publishing Jennifer Kolbe, told me that they took this issue very seriously and wanted to make sure I had a chance to speak to staff on the ground at all of their studios.
What followed was one of the strangest interview experiences I’ve ever had. Rockstar’s head of PR and communications, Simon Ramsey, sat with me at a table in a fourth-floor conference room. Ramsey said we’d be video-chatting with staff from all across the world, and after some brief technical issues, we were faced with two boxes on a screen. In one box, on the left, two employees sat on a couch at Rockstar New England. In another box, on the right, three Rockstar North employees also sat on a couch. They all wore casual clothes, some adorned with Red Dead Redemption logos and slogans. We exchanged quick introductions, and then I was given free rein to interview them about their work-life balances and crunch experiences. All five of them. At once.
Over the next two hours, the company also brought in groups from Rockstar San Diego, Rockstar Lincoln, and Rockstar Toronto, a mix of junior and senior employees. Rockstar said I could quote them but asked that I not use any of their names.
It’s difficult to gauge whether someone’s being completely candid about their work experiences when they’re on a video chat with a group of their co-workers, a journalist, and the company’s head of PR. Still, the 12 employees who spoke to me on these calls offered perspectives that are worth sharing, much like those who publicly tweeted about their experiences.
“I know when I feel like I need to put in the extra time—you certainly have weeks when you feel like you’re going to have a lot more hours than others,” said one Rockstar New England employee. “The other side of it is that it’s been very easy for me to balance my work life and my personal life.”
“I’ve worked one day of the weekend in five years,” said a lead at Rockstar North, noting that things had changed drastically for them since the development of Grand Theft Auto V. “I’ve got people who just want to go home at 5 p.m., and that’s not an issue… I see in the company that we’ve changed, and that people feel more like they’re being treated well, but there are still some cultures that remain from the old days.”
“Out of all those projects, Red Dead Redemption 2 has been the easiest I’ve experienced personally,” said one Rockstar San Diego employee. “Core hours, including lunch, would be nine hours. I’d say I probably get in an extra two hours on top of that most times. During crunch I probably put in another hour or two on top of that.”
“Nobody’s ever told me, ‘You need to work X amount of hours,’” said a Rockstar Toronto employee. “We will on occasion be asked if we have availability on weekends.”
After one of these calls, Ramsey turned to me and asked what I thought so far. I told him that I believed these stories but was skeptical that anyone could be transparent under interview circumstances like this. He seemed surprised.
This tracks with my encounters with Rockstar higher-ups over the past week. While they’ve made efforts to discuss the allegations of overwork and have loosened restrictions on their employees speaking up, I’ve not gotten much sense that they see that workers will inevitably fear retaliation from bosses, no matter how much those bosses say they can speak freely. It’s human nature. In an e-mail sent to Rockstar employees this past weekend, Rockstar North studio co-head Rob Nelson said that a few people had mentioned wanting some place to submit their thoughts anonymously, and that the company was looking into setting that up. That will undoubtedly inspire more candid feedback.
What plenty of Rockstar employees say they believe, even those who spoke to me privately, is that things have changed for the better since the days of the first Red Dead Redemption. It’s a sentiment that Rockstar’s Kolbe also shared, when I asked her if she thought crunch was sustainable.
“I think we’ve realized that it’s not sustainable,” she said, “but I don’t necessarily think we realized it through burnout. I think we’ve realized it through having children, because I think that naturally means you’re going to work less hours. I think even for the people who don’t have children, who have gone through crunch periods on other games, they approach the game they then go onto next a little differently. Because no matter who you are, your health is a concern to you. I think everyone approaches each new project with the goal of: It’s got to be better than what I did last time.”
Kolbe added that many members of her team have worked together for 15 to 20 years. “We want to continue working together, but we also know that certainly as you get older, it gets harder,” she said. “We’re dealing now with the generation after mine. They have very different ideas about work-life balance than my generation has, and they are bringing that into the company, and I think that’s a positive thing. They probably think we’re all crazy, but I think it actually has changed our ideas of how you can work.”
Just how much has changed at Rockstar depends who you ask. During the Red Dead 1 days, at least, life at Rockstar appealed to a certain type of person—a workaholic, one who loved the thought of spending long hours with their co-workers, pushing as hard as possible to finish the gargantuan, ambitious projects that have made Rockstar one of the most beloved companies in games. Some employees compared it to a family. One described making games at Rockstar as feeling like fighting a war together. Others used the words Stockholm Syndrome.
“If you’re really passionate about the game and working there, and want to prioritize that over your life, it’s a really great place,” said a former Rockstar San Diego employee. “But if you want to prioritize your life, it’s not.”
One lead at another major game studio told me that in the last few weeks he’d interviewed two different candidates from Rockstar. He asked why they were looking to leave. “[They] said, ‘If you work at Rockstar, it is expected you have no life outside of Rockstar,’” he told me.
What’s become clear over the past week is that many of those who work and have worked for Rockstar—even those who have had positive experiences—want things to change. They want a better atmosphere for themselves and their colleagues, one where overtime is an exception rather than the rule, and where working on a dream game doesn’t mean burning themselves out.
Or, at the very least, they want a future where all employees are paid for their extra hours.
“I’m not writing because I want to harm the company or the game,” said one current employee in a recent e-mail. “I’m proud of both and I stand by them. I think the incredible amount of time and effort put into the game will show and I can’t wait for people to see it next week. I’m writing because I think this is a unique opportunity to raise our voices against the insanity of crunch, and that Rockstar really could change for the better as a result. If that happens, maybe other studios will follow suit.”
Some fans have asked if they should avoid buying or playing Red Dead Redemption 2 to show support for those who had tough experiences making it, but many of Rockstar’s current and former employees—even those who had the worst things to say about the company—say they’re against the idea. For one, those who put long weeks into the game want people to see what they’ve done. Also, given that this year’s bonuses will be based on royalties, any sort of large-scale boycott may hurt Rockstar employees more than it helps, some current employees have said. What fans can instead do, those people say, is speak out about crunch and workplace issues like this, helping put public pressure on the company.
On Friday, Rockstar will release Red Dead Redemption 2, and next month, it will launch Red Dead Online, which some current employees are now crunching to finish. Then, Rockstar will move on to new projects. The work of making video games at Rockstar will continue, and it is unclear how much the process of creating them will change.
Is it possible to make great art without unreasonable sacrifice? That’s a question that’s haunted the video game industry for decades, and it’s one that remains difficult if not impossible to definitively answer. Can Rockstar continue to make great games without putting in the crunch hours that have been so pervasive in its long history of successful art? Is crunch just, as CD Projekt Red CEO Marcin Iwiński once told me in an interview about his studio’s mega-hit The Witcher 3, a “necessary evil” in game development? These are questions that will be debated for years to come. For now, at least, many hope that by coming together to share their stories, they can push for some change at Rockstar Games.