The Industry Won't Change If Reporters Let The Powerful Off the Hook


#1

On the same day Sega announced it had successfully and significantly shrunk overtime hours, eliminating employees pulling 80 overtime hours per month by 80-90%, there was this quote in this awfully flowery profile of Rockstar Games at Vulture in anticipation of Red Dead Redemption 2’s release this month, in which the studio brags about 100-hour work weeks:


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/bj4ajw/the-industry-wont-change-if-reporters-let-the-powerful-off-the-hook

Gameindustry.biz - Rockstar has been “working 100-hour weeks” on Red Dead Redemption 2
#2

I understand the reasons Waypoint would react strongly to that statement, given the publication’s yearlong focus on labor practices in the industry. As an outsider, it’s greatly appreciated that a magazine, or vertical, or blog (or whatever) has taken up an editorial stance that makes it stand out from others in the industry. However, this entire day has felt like people who are grinding this particular axe stretching to apply Houser’s quote, which is delivered during a point in the story in which he’s clearly detailing his specific involvement with the game and his core writing team’s established work habits, to the entire studio. In the original article he states that himself, Lazlow and the other senior writers don’t expect other staff at the studio to work like that but that it has been their process for years and years. The Kotaku response only further clarifies that that was what he meant when he said the words, “[I don’t] expect everyone else to work this way.”

Because this is Vulture rather than a traditional industry magazine, and because the writer’s editors were likely seeking a piece on the biggest game of the year and pseudo sequel to the highest selling entertainment property of all-time, it seems only fair that Houser describes his own work habits, admits that they’re excessive and something he wouldn’t outright demand of employees, and the writer accepts that to be the case. If this were a Polygon article, or a Kotaku article, or a Waypoint article, I could see the piece being longer, diving deeper, and investigating whether that’s truly the case. For Vulture’s purposes, and at face value, I think Houser acquitted himself just fine pending employees from inside the company refuting his claims. Until then, I just have to reiterate it’s a bit exhausting to read all the critiques over a comment that are inflating its content to fuel an editorial voice rather than take a breath, do some investigation to find out if the editors’ suspicions are correct, and then publish a piece of journalism establishing this is (or is not) the case.


#3

It’s more than just this one interview though. Check the opening link to the Sega Sammy release (page 70). This is a five year initiative over the Sega game groups that has only reduced people working over 80 hours overtime a month by 80-90%. Not 100%. Because you can completely eliminate people working overtime, especially working 20 hours of overtime a week (that’s leaving the office at 10pm [including an extra hour for tea to get through] rather than 5pm to go home for a family meal every day). And over half a decade of initiatives they’ve not even managed to reduce overtime so that it never blips over 80 hours extra each month. How many of those people typically now work 70 hours overtime a month? That’s the metric for success Sega talk about (before they look to how to improve further).

The interview is the “news hook” to write about it, but it’s an industry-wide issue being discussed.


Gameindustry.biz - Rockstar has been “working 100-hour weeks” on Red Dead Redemption 2
#4

Except simply saying it doesn’t mean it’s the entire story. Even if it is truly voluntary (unlikely), even if he is detailing his team’s own experience, himself included, and even if the teams working on the game aren’t explicitly being told “you need to work this much or we’ll think lesser of you”, you can not have the presence of crunch in a workplace environment, both for the safety of the workers who are put through this work system which is well-known for causing physical, sometimes extended or even permanent damage to those who undergo it, and because whether it is stressed or not, the mere presence of a worker crunching will encourage crunching.

Just because those are the established work habits of his core writing team does not make them good habits, or even mildly acceptable habits. 14 hours of work in a day (assuming a 7 day work week) is not a healthy way for any human to operate, and whether the team is doing it of their own volition or not, the management has a duty to their worker’s safety to make them stop working.

Austin put it best in his tweet here where he says “We’re past the point where ‘they just passionate’ is acceptable. I had to learn this the hard way: It’s your job as a manager to both set an example for your employees by not overworking yourself, & to ensure that THEY do not do it ‘by choice’ either”.

Simply the fact that they are willing to sit back and let this team and possibly others work this amount of time per week is a sign that they do not care whether their employees come across physical harm just to produce this game, as long as the game gets made. If they actually wanted to ensure their employees safety and wanted to discourage crunch, they would force their employees to stop working once it became clear that they were trying to crunch, but judging by the statements given, they didn’t, and don’t seem to care to.

As well, simply saying that you don’t expect everyone to work that way is not good enough. People in almost any job, but especially lower-paid positions, are almost always going to be looking for more job security, to look good enough to corporate that they can feel safe in knowing that they won’t be first up next time layoffs come up. As such, people will begin crunching to begin with to try and show corporate how productive and determined they are. By not telling them to stop working, a clear message is sent that this is acceptable behavior, that corporate approves of.

Furthermore, by having the presence of crunch, especially 100 hour crunch weeks, you are increasing the level of competition in the workplace. In order to look better than that coder over there who is working 70-80 a week, this coder will work 80-90 to look better, or even just to keep up the pace with everyone else. Simply saying that you do not expect crunch is not good enough. By allowing crunch to happen, and even going on to talk about it as a good or even neutral statement in a magazine, you are encouraging workers who are concerned about their positions at the company to follow suit, so that corporate won’t look at them and say “oh, but they were so less productive than everyone else at that time, clearly they just aren’t determined enough”. By simple virtue of not putting a stop to crunch when it occurs, you are cultivating an atmosphere which encourages crunch.

And even if this statement is only covering Houser’s team, that still leaves the question of “what are the other teams like?” If Houser’s writing team is willing to pull 100 hour weeks, what sort of weeks are the artists and programmers and QAs pulling to ensure that they can keep up and prove their worth? Because based on what Houser has willingly said of his own team, we have no reason to assume the other teams aren’t pulling similar if not worse weeks.

There is no situation in which crunch can be allowed without it being dangerous, and without its presence encouraging others to join in.


#5

I agree with all of this. What I disagree with is taking the leap from Houser talking about himself to the entire team working similar hours - or more hours - just because. I’m not even of the opinion that crunch is nonexistent at Rockstar, or that its employees don’t feel pressured to work long hours because their senior management do. I’m just becoming increasingly disillusioned by articles that take entire companies to task by taking one senior official’s comment and applying it to the entire company.

Maybe this is just me having never worked in a corporate structure. I work in bars and fine dining; this industry is also rife with crunch, but the crunch is what pays the bills. Our crunch is entirely unavoidable: when a conference of 40,000+ people comes to town and all of them want to eat at our restaurant, we work longer hours, we work harder, we work under more stress, and we do it because if we don’t do it the job won’t get done and the people that come to us for our product will not get what they were hoping for. But that is written on the schedule, and managers don’t work double shifts for four straight days to ensure everything goes smoothly only to turn around and ask their daytime bartender to stay on for the night shift, or consider firing their top server because he’s got a 4 month old at home and can’t work every single day of that hectic weekend. They work the hours they need to work to complete their jobs, and ask of their employees only what they can give to the job.

To me, that’s entirely fair and just the nature of my work. When I hear general managers at other, similar restaurants talk about their long hours a given week, I don’t automatically assume their employees (and, to be clear, I am an employee, not a manager) also worked their hours. I talk with them, ask how their night or week has been, and I learn whether that’s the case through my conversation with those employees.

Again, if non-senior Rockstar employees making several times less money than the management are being asked to - or pressured to - work their hours, then show me the paperwork that proves it and I’ll be disappointed in the company and its management and ask for change. But I’m increasingly tired of this idea that Houser is guilty of pressuring his staff into 100 hour work weeks just because he said that’s how much he works from time to time. I am not in disbelief of the potential for that to be true, nor am I against a publication taking a company to task for burdening its employees for that amount of work.

To be totally clear, I’m only commenting on this in the first place because I see this sort of thinking needling its way into other dialogues as well. I would rather the leg work be done to prove the hypothesis is correct rather than Patrick, or any other writer, assume their opinion is correct either because it was proven correct a half-decade ago or because the industry norm is that it obviously must be true. It is not this specific issue that has me miffed - I would call even being “fired up” a misrepresentation of how passionately I believe Houser is innocent here - but rather the entire practice of jumping the gun on an opinion piece before the facts have been presented to support the opinion.

If one man, at the head of a company, says that he burdens himself with that workload, and that it is how he is comfortable doing it, this kind of finger wagging article falls flat to me. Who am I to tell Dan Houser he shouldn’t work that way if it’s what works for him and helps him produce the amazing products he’s been responsible for over the years? His health is his concern, and until there is current, in-the-now evidence that he is forcing his employees to do the same directly or indirectly, I fail to see how this article should’ve been about anything other than wondering what a Rockstar game would look like if Houser didn’t approach his work in that manner.


#6

So when his exhaustion causes him to make a mistake and kill someone, that’s when you step in? What about when it causes him to harm an employee, do you step in then? Only if he physically assaults them or would other abuse also be the threshold for stepping in? What if it was definitely an accident that just happened to partially due to exhaustion that made it far more likely?

Your boss’s boss’s health is the concern of every person he holds power over. Because his mistakes cost everyone. So it’s very much part of living in a society to tell him he shouldn’t work like that.


#7

I guess I would start by not assuming that Dan Houser is capable of murder, or that his pouring over a word processor and wall full of post-it notes for endless hours would result in the death of an employee. I’m not familiar with how common that is, but I’ve spent thirty years never hearing of it so I choose to believe it’s not likely.


#8

To potentially clear up a miscommunication, I believe that Shivoa is setting an initially high bar for when it becomes appropriate to comment on another’s workload and then decreasing it, rather than saying that Houser is going to kill someone.

Sure, a boss overworking themselves to the point of killing one of their employees is relatively unlikely, but the potential for a boss overworking themselves to lead to verbal or physical abuse towards an employee is somewhat more easy to imagine (e.g. a boss snapping at someone after pulling an all-nighter).

If you would say “well, that’s still unlikely, so this isn’t grounds to question whether a boss should be overworking themselves”, I think this point is what Shivoa is getting at:

Your boss’s boss’s health is the concern of every person he holds power over. Because his mistakes cost everyone.

Someone overworking themselves leads to impaired decision-making in the long run, which, if they are in a leadership position, can lead to them making decisions that aren’t in the best interests of the business or its employees due to exhaustion or sickness that arises from an overworked scenario. That is not only likely, that is easy to imagine – is that sufficient grounds to comment on Houser’s working practices?

Does that help to clarify the point at all?

(For what it’s worth, I think this is a great discussion, so am only stepping in and not ‘taking sides’, so to speak!)


#9

It would be all very well to say “well, Houser’s work ethics are his own business” and leave it pretty much at that, except there’s also many many anecdotes from former employees detailing Rockstar’s crunch culture, over many years, and it’s impossible to ignore those and just consider Houser’s behaviour in a vacuum.


#10

Yes, of course that makes sense. I was only responding specifically to the original point because it is similar to what bothers me about Patrick’s article. It is immediately assuming the worst scenario is possible without taking a deep breath and doing the groundwork to establish that the worst scenario is, in fact, occurring.

Back to my restaurant example, I have seen countless moments where managers have berated employees under moments of extreme stress only to later come back and apologize and buy them a beer, or to not apologize and leave the employee stewing over it for days. I can easily imagine a similar scenario happening under the umbrella of a multinational corporation under the pressure to create the most valuable IP ever made, every time.

I would just like to see Waypoint - and other gaming publications - wait to call Rockstar out for its bad business practices because one man chooses to overwork himself until it - they - can prove that his own method of work applies to those who would rather not work that way. And in the meantime, not simply assume that it does because it has in the past and essentially state it as fact (or even likely true). That’s mine and other forum posters’ jobs to do! I’d like to see publications steering away from what essentially amount to accredited forum posts.

Since this is a response to a clarification, I’ll just add once more that my only actual argument here is that Houser is free to do with his personal health how he wishes - maybe it results in workplace abuse, maybe it doesn’t. It’s up to Waypoint and other publications to find out and get back to us with that information. Until then, I personally believe it’s best to leave the hot takes to forums and tweets. It is true that Rockstar has had issues with employee work hours management in the past, but until it is proven to still be the case (and again, again, I am fully willing to believe that it very well could be) this article isn’t saying anything we didn’t already know about the industry at large while dragging an entire company through the ringer because of what one man said about himself and how he prefers to work.

That article has been written before, several times, by Jason Schrieier at Kotaku and Patrick on this very website among others, so even that would be redundant in some ways. But at least it would be sourced and vetted rather than stretching a single comment to encompass more than what it was intended to convey. That article would also be capable of actually taking Dan Houser and the rest of Rockstar management to task for blatantly lying about its work culture rather than merely assuming it must be the case; it’d be an article with actual teeth, rather than just another bit of kindling on an already rolling flame.


#11

Just curious, but what kind of proof are you expecting to see in a situation like this? It seems like unless a reporter can get their hands on something like employee timesheets, the most they might be able to get are some anonymous or off the record remarks by a couple of employees, given that most people I assume want to keep their jobs.

That said, even absent definitive proof that this is happening all throughout Rockstar, I still think it’s entirely appropriate to write an article like Patrick’s, especially given Rockstar’s history with this exact issue and knowing that games of this scale and complexity are incredibly difficult and time consuming to make. Even if that’s still a logical leap you don’t think Patrick or others should be making, one can still use this particular scenario to rehighlight the fact that this is a pervasive issue in the industry at large, and make a call to action for journalists and others with similar platforms to make sure they hold those in senior roles’ “feet to the fire” when given the opportunity (which is part of what Patrick’s doing here).

Yeah, this article has been written before like you’ve mentioned, and yes, I’d imagine most Waypoint readers have heard this all before, but I’d be willing to bet a majority of people who show even a remote interest in games have zero knowledge of these issues, and not talking about the issues at all (because of a lack of definitive proof in this one studio) definitely won’t solve them.

Edit: I notice I write some pretty long sentences, forgive me y’all


#12

Just curious, but what kind of proof are you expecting to see in a situation like this? It seems like unless a reporter can get their hands on something like employee timesheets, the most they might be able to get are some anonymous or off the record remarks by a couple of employees, given that most people I assume want to keep their jobs.

Anonymous quotes from people who work at Rockstar, or have worked there on this specific project at any time during its development, yes. Dan Houser is discussing his work habits as it relates to this specific game, and publications are claiming Rockstar applies those habits as a standard for its regular salaried employees to be judged by. Again, because it’s been proven to be true in the past I am not inclined to disbelieve that’s the case now, but if all of the evidence presented by the media is sourced from eight years ago, I’d like to see more recent evidence that such is the case before anyone other than Dan Houser is chastised for anything other than how he treats himself.

Even then, I’m not prepared to automatically assume that he doesn’t know what workloads he can and cannot handle without becoming stressed, nor am I prepared to assume he is harming his employees if no employees are making a claim that he is. Please don’t think that just because I’m asking for a little more patience and detail before wagging a finger at Rockstar that I’m trying to make this one of Those Things; I think if anything video game journalists are moral to an extreme degree, and give most writers of any medium the benefit of the doubt that they are acting in good faith until proven otherwise. Waypoint’s staff have long proven they are not bad actors.

To your second point, as I said in my reply to @FranziskaVKarma, I agree with everything that they have said and much of what Patrick argues in his post. I just don’t agree with making the claim that this is a current issue at the Rockstar offices for anyone other than Dan Houser and his three close friends and confidantes on the writing team without any proof that that’s the case. Houser never once implies that anyone other than he and three others work those hours in the Vulture article and yet every single gaming publication I read has chosen to take it that way. I understand that working conditions in the gaming industry are a very hot button issue right now, and I would be totally fine if this article were more of an examination of how those 100-hour weeks might affect Houser specifically. The quote that has everyone up in arms is about Houser and three other people, so I would wait to apply it to 1,000 other people working on a game until I can prove that’s true, personally.

Lastly, the sort of article I was intending to evoke when I said they had been “written before” was pieces like Schreier’s article naming names and citing specific moments from two years ago or, hell, the 195th episode of Waypoint Radio that just went up today where, sure, sometimes Danielle and Rob come across a little holier than thou but at least Rob eventually gets to the point I’m making, that Houser was talking about himself and that it makes sense he would be proud of the results he gets from the methods he works under despite them being unhealthy to himself and possibly others. It’s a position he finds himself able to relate to after utterly degrading it, and a position that finds himself relating directly to Houser and finding himself repulsed by the idea that he could - at the moment, that’s what this article should’ve consisted of, at least until there is more ammunition to fire at the culture of Rockstar as a whole.

I’m just calling for more nuance in the coverage of this situation, and wishing that the call out culture could take a breath for a moment and pull up some concrete, contemporary evidence before making anything in this article about anything other than Dan Houser and his hubris, because that’s what that article was really about. In the podcast, Patrick also rightly points out that the writer may have failed his audience by often neglecting to editorialize during the piece; maybe I was wrong to presume this was his editors’ fault in a previous post, but either way the lack of examination is as much a failure of Vulture’s as it is Houser’s, and I just find so much of call out culture entirely too cozy atop its mountain of powder kegs.

I am completely on Waypoint’s side when it comes to labor issues; I work in an industry that is overworked, full of alcoholics and drug addicts, cannot afford to offer its employees any kind of benefits whether that’s health insurance or basic PTO and fully accepts that good money is in being overworked and under slept. It’s just a pet peeve of mine, and has been for a while now, when an opinion article fires off into the echo chamber when a few more hours, days or weeks could have developed it into a full, elaborate critique of what’s actually got us all upset.


#13

Belatedly, but the point isn’t about Dan Houser being a Murderer (requires intent), but that there are plenty of other ways to kill people (driving accidents being the obvious one here) due to being not in a fit state/having impaired judgment


#14

Coming from a heavy industry background, it’s bananas to me that we are considering super-crunch weeks as anything but incredibly unsafe. Like, you would never even consider to have a machinist working on an industrial lathe for 80-100 hours in a week, because that is guaranteed to result in injury and subsequently criminal charges brought on the moron that authorized such conditions. Similarly, as an engineer, I would be foolish to overwork myself, because that just means tired me is going to misread a spec and possibly get people killed down the line.

Dan Houser holds far more responsibility than I do, and even if he is just making video games, his example will lead to programmers, designers, and writers working extra hours, neglecting their health, and driving drowsy. It’s unconscionable from a basic workplace safety standpoint, and sensible OSHA legislation should be able to step in and put a stop to this. But because we don’t live in that world, the only alternative is for the people that buy the products demand they be produced ethically and safely.


#15

Regardless of industry, but especially with how prevalent this issue is in video game production, this culture led by our superiors needs to stop.

I can’t tell you, even as a young 20-something year old, how many tests I have failed, assignments I have handed in late, rude things I have said to family and friends due to sleep deprivation, and many more things that were primarily caused by working some where that held you accountable for not being the “last guy out”. There were times where I had to just sit at my desk doing nothing productive while my boss worked later than either of us should have.

I wouldn’t feel trapped there if the culture in the office wasn’t built around out-working all of your coworkers.

I don’t really know if the answer is that games need to strive for less, or if we need to stop asking for so much from them, but 100-hour work weeks do more harm than good.


#16

I want to chime in about the notion that a restaurant is even a good comparison here. This isn’t an example about crunch, but about the value a corporation puts on any of its lower level employees. My girlfriend was fired from her job for a mistake she made. It wasn’t her boss’s decision, it was someone higher up who decided she needed to be fired. Someone she’d never met and obviously never will made the decision to fire her. Rockstar is huge. There’s like 5 studios or more all over the world. I could easily imagine a scenario in which whoever controls the reigns of X part of production makes a decision that the QA in San Diego, who they’ve never met, isn’t doing a good enough job or something, or they’re no longer necessary now, so they are getting laid off. This isn’t like a bar where your manager knows you and will weigh your personal situation in making decisions about your work. It’s some person who you’ll never meet deciding if you’re working hard enough and saying you have to be fired (passing that decision to whoever is your actual boss) if you’re not. This is not directly applicable to the crunch conversation, but I think the way decisions about your work get made in a place like rockstar are vastly different to a situation where you know your boss and there’s not some nebulous higher up boss who has even more control over your life than the boss you interact with daily. If I’m super off base here, please, let me know.


#17

Off the Rockstar and their horrible crunch hours topic:

I kinda didn’t like Oxenfree. Ren was truly annoying and basically an awful person that I didn’t want to be friends with. It also I felt 1) it wasn’t quite weird enough, I shouldn’t even begin to understand what was happening and 2) it was too short and somehow too long for me to play over and over.

Maybe playing Night in the Woods spoiled this kind of experience for me since characters like Mae, Bae, Angus, and Gregg (rulz ok) are so much more likable and funny than the teenagers in Oxenfree.

Also, is it me or does Ren look EXACTLY like Patrick?


#18

From someone who finally bought a console to play Red Dead 2 and some other exclusives, bravo Patrick, keep up the good work!

Come on Devs, unionize already!


#21

I phrased that post poorly. Writing about it’s fine, but needing to go “this website is wrong for not calling it out,” seems a little defeating. They brought attention to it, at the very least. The article, to me, reads a little self-congratulatory.


#22

Incidentally bringing attention to an issue in what is otherwise almost entirely a fluff piece giving unnecessary free publicity to a company with a history of questionable labor practices is not worthy of praise. A clear, aggressive stance on this problem from places like Waypoint have the potential to mobilize people and serve as a wake up call to companies who condone this behavior. The vulture piece is entirely toothless, and they should feel bad for not pressing the execs during discussion. Big publications have a responsibility to do better. You feel like Waypoint should do more to bring about sudden change I guess. They’re journalists, not members of Congress. This is what they can offer.