In the summer of 2020, after a police officer killed George Floyd, Rockstar Games quietly shelved a game mode it had planned to release for its Grand Theft Auto Online game. Called Cops ‘n’ Crooks, the mode was a variation of the children’s game where players organize themselves into teams of good guys and bad guys, but seemed particularly tone-deaf during the global toll on police brutality. Senior company executives, concerned about how the story might be interpreted in a time of heightened skepticism and distrust of American police, shelved it. They still have no plans to bring him back, according to people familiar with the development.
It was one of many politically sensitive actions Rockstar, a division of Take-Two Interactive Software, has taken in recent years. The company removed transphobic jokes from the latest console version of Grand Theft Auto V and significantly reduced its gender pay gap. Rockstar’s next game, Grand Theft Auto VI, will include a playable female protagonist for the first time, according to people familiar with the game. The woman, who is Latina, will be one of a pair of main characters in a story influenced by bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, the people said. The developers are also careful not to “hit” by making jokes about marginalized groups, people said, unlike previous games.
Moves like these once seemed unthinkable for a company whose best-selling franchise is a satirical portrayal of America that plays gangsters who kill civilians and where women are primarily depicted as sex objects. Grand Theft Auto V was a nihilistic parody that insulted everything from right-wing radio hosts to liberal politicians. Inside the company, the tone was not very different. Rockstar employees described a work culture full of booze, fights, and trips to strip clubs. The company was an early symbol of an industry-wide problem of long office hours, known as the crunch, in which staff had to be at their desks many nights and weekends in order to keep a match on schedule.
This strategy was a financial success and made Grand Theft Auto V the second best-selling game of all time, with 165 million copies sold. It also led to burnout, attrition, and a public controversy in 2018 that prompted hundreds of Rockstar employees to speak out about the difficult work environment.
Since that outcry, Rockstar has attempted to reinvent itself as a more progressive and compassionate workplace, according to interviews with more than 20 people who work there or have recently left, all of whom requested anonymity because they don’t. were not allowed to speak publicly. One employee described it as “a boys’ club turned into a real business”. A Rockstar spokesperson declined to comment.
Can a kinder, gentler Rockstar still produce the caliber of chart-topping gaming the studio has become known for? Some employees are unsure. Morale across the company is higher than it has ever been, according to many staff. But the development of Grand Theft Auto VI has been slower than impatient fans and even longtime employees anticipated.
Much of this is related to the pandemic, but the delay is also due to some of the changes the company has implemented in an effort to improve working conditions, such as a restructuring of the design department and a commitment to control overtime. Some workers say they are still trying to figure out how to make games in this new version of Rockstar and are even wondering what a Grand Theft Auto game looks like in today’s environment. Additionally, several Rockstar employees have pointed out that you can’t really satirize America today — it’s already a satire of itself.
Between the company’s new tenure and the departure in 2019 of Dan Houser, who led the creative direction of many previous Rockstar games, all signs suggest that Grand Theft Auto VI will be very different from its predecessor.
Rockstar Games was founded in 1998 by a handful of British game makers as a subsidiary of Take-Two. With 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III and its sequels, the company revolutionized open-world video gaming and grew to employ thousands of people, with offices in California, New York, across the UK and beyond. of the. Grand Theft Auto products accounted for 31% of Take-Two’s $3.5 billion in total revenue in fiscal 2022, according to company filings.
The studio was built on a culture of seven-day workweeks, said Jamie King, a founder who left after eight years. But, he said, that kind of culture is “unsustainable.” Games like Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3 required what some employees called “death marches” – months of mandatory 14-hour days and weekends that took a toll on life, sanity, and sometimes at employee weddings.
In October 2018, shortly before the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, Houser, one of the founders of Rockstar, said that his team had worked “100 hours a week” to complete the game. The comments, to which Houser returned more late, were the tipping point for many employees.
Similar complaints have spread through the industry in recent years. Game developers working at Activision Blizzard, Riot Games and Ubisoft Entertainment SA have all criticized their employers for issues ranging from gender discrimination to overwork. Activision Blizzard is being sued by the State of California for allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination. Although these companies have acknowledged their problems and promised to change, none have done as much in response to a worker uprising as Rockstar, according to people across the company.
Rockstar’s transformation includes changes to schedules, the conversion of contractors to full-time employees, and the ousting of several managers whom employees viewed as abusive or difficult to work with. At the start of the pandemic, workers received care packages, cloth masks and surprise bonuses. During protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man murdered by police, the company said it would match donations to Black Lives Matter charities. Employees received new mental health and leave benefits. A new policy called “flex time” allows staff to take time off immediately for every overtime hour worked. And for the past four years, management has promised that excessive overtime won’t be necessary for Grand Theft Auto VI, one of the most anticipated games by fans and investors on the planet.
Honoring this commitment has already resulted in changes to the game. Original plans for the title, which is codenamed Project Americas, were to be larger than any Grand Theft Auto game to date. Early designs called for the inclusion of territories modeled after large swathes of North and South America, according to people familiar with the plans. But the company was shaken by these ambitions and reduced the main map to a fictionalized version of Miami and its surroundings.
Rockstar’s plan now is to continually update the game over time, regularly adding new missions and towns, which executives believe will lead to less crunch in the game’s final months. , the game world remains large, with more interior locations than previous Grand Theft Auto games, which impacts the timeline.
To help avoid overtime, Rockstar also added more producers to track schedules, a move that was generally positive, the developers said, but also caused bottlenecks. Some employees said they found themselves waiting to communicate through intermediaries or felt like multiple people were in charge, leaving them unsure of who should make the final call.
Rockstar implemented a new management structure following the departure of former design director Imran Sarwar, who was accused by several employees of bullying and verbal abuse. His position was filled by three other directors, creating what several people have described as an “too many cooks” situation where design decisions are often left hanging or contradict each other. Some core aspects of the game, such as combat, were still undergoing changes even though the developers expected them to be locked down, employees said. Sarwar did not respond to a request for comment.
Industry analysts predict the next Grand Theft Auto will be released in Take-Two’s 2024 fiscal year, which runs from April 2023 to March 2024, but the developers are skeptical. The game has been in development in one form or another since 2014. While there are loose timelines in place, people interviewed for this article said they don’t know of any firm release date and are looking forward to it. expected the game to be at least two years away. Earlier this year, a group of designers walked out of Rockstar’s Edinburgh office, telling colleagues they were fed up with the lack of progress.
Many others, however, say they’re content to work at a company where there’s little pressure to release a new game. Grand Theft Auto V, released in 2013, is the highest-grossing entertainment property of them all. times through its multiplayer component, Grand Theft Auto Online. This unprecedented financial success has given Rockstar leeway to make sweeping changes and take their time with the next project. And, as one staffer pointed out, Rockstar’s culture overhaul could help with retention and recruiting, as well as lead to games that are “better for everyone who works there,” and probably people too. who play it.
© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.