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Rockstar Employees Concerned About Crunch, Grand Theft Auto VI As Company Moves Forward With Return To Office

“Losing key people in teams would be very, very bad"

Rockstar

Late last month, Rockstar brass told employees that beginning on April 15, they’d have to work out of the office five days per week. It was a deeply unpopular decision, prompting public outcry from workers at a typically secretive studio. Weeks later, however, Rockstar has yet to give any ground. Now Rockstar employees are worried that the company is in danger of sliding back into old bad habits like pervasive crunch, which could hurt both Grand Theft Auto VI and the people creating it.  

Shortly after Rockstar made its return-to-office decree, UK-based Rockstar employees – in conjunction with the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) – spoke out against the decision, fearing an unnecessary hit to work-life balance that might end up proving a dealbreaker for some.

“Working from home has been a lifeline for many of us at Rockstar, allowing us to balance care responsibilities, manage disabilities, and relocate as we need,” one Rockstar employee, who chose to remain anonymous, said in an IWGB statement. This echoed a sentiment expressed by many, including 170 who signed a 2023 petition against a three-day return-to-office policy. “Now, Rockstar is snatching away that lifeline without a second thought for the workers who’ll be impacted most.”

Speaking with Aftermath, two additional Rockstar employees said that little has changed since last month, even as the clock ticks down to April. 

“The only news I know of is some reports of some people being admonished to varying degrees for voicing disagreement with the RTO plan,” one Rockstar employee, who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, told Aftermath. “But otherwise we are just waiting for more information from management about how the hell this is going to work.”

In a February memo to employees, Rockstar said it’s forcing this issue due to productivity and security concerns. The latter, at least, employees can understand, following a 2022 leak that revealed substantial unfinished portions of Grand Theft Auto VI

"Security is definitely the argument that's easier to take in good faith because we have had leaks, and they're a serious problem,” said one Rockstar employee. “We need to do as much as we can to make it harder for attackers to get into our systems."

“We've historically had leaks regardless of what setup we had,” said another. “Back with [Red Dead Redemption 2] we had leaks around the launch of that game. It's never going to be 100 percent fully secure. People will be motivated to leak our content because there's a great deal of interest in the products that we make."

While Rockstar’s exact approach to RTO is still taking shape, workers have been informed that they’re losing access to most forms of remote work, including communication tools. 

“We won't be able to answer Slack messages and emails and stuff like that when we're at home anymore, which is a big, big loss, because a lot of our work is intercontinental,” said one Rockstar employee. 

When the news first broke that Rockstar employees would have to return to the office, some fans cheered the decision, suggesting that increased proximity and oversight would somehow make Grand Theft Auto VI better and that certain elements of production – like mocap – simply couldn’t be done any other way. That, said current Rockstar employees, is a misconception rooted in ignorance of how game development works.

"If you're a programmer, it's quite a bit easier for you to work remotely than it is for other roles involved in acting and mocap and things like that,” said one Rockstar employee. “But the reality is, for probably the majority of people in the development staff, you don't need to be in the office every single day to do your job."

"If we look at our previous project, [Red Dead Redemption 2], where we were working five days in the office, we're still working remotely with all of these other studios,” said another Rockstar employee. “So whether you were in the office or not, you were still doing remote work. ... You work with so many people on so many different teams. A good majority of them will not be at the place where you work."

They also added that the PS5 and Xbox Series X versions of Grand Theft Auto V were developed almost entirely remotely, adding to a growing body of evidence that teams don’t need to be in an office five days a week to complete projects.

Workers at Rockstar are worried about where things go from here. The studio’s struggles with brutal crunch are well-documented, and though things have improved in recent times, employees are concerned that they’re staring down the barrel of a backslide. 

"We're concerned about going back to that,” said one Rockstar employee. “I've been through a couple of projects, both of which had crunch. The first one was extremely difficult. I had way less gray hair back then. ... We want to continue the strides we've made as a company to remove that toxic culture."

Even outside of crunch, these small pain points have a way of piling up.

"If you're having to stay late to deal with a meeting, which could maybe be a quick Slack message, and then commuting on top of getting back home later at night, that obviously impacts your personal life,” said one Rockstar employee. "With what we have at the moment as policy, if you're slightly ill, you can work from home as long as your lead agrees. In a world where we are still dealing with covid, just being able to be considerate of your colleagues around you in staying away from the office is a really good benefit to have. That will be completely lost. ... That's going to result in a loss of productivity for the company."

"We're quite worried that we're gonna lose personnel over this or it will have a large negative impact on people's health,” said another Rockstar employee. “It's a very anti-parent move. For people with disabilities, it's a massive problem."

Employees admitted to being concerned about “the state of the project” but said that their colleagues are their primary concern. As at other big video game companies like Activision Blizzard, Rockstar employees suspect that this return-to-office mandate is a means of “quietly laying people off” by making work – or relocation/commuting costs – unbearable. 

"If you make it so that [people] can no longer work effectively at the company, then they have no choice but to leave,” said one Rockstar employee.

"It's obviously cheaper because you avoid having to pay redundancies as a result of layoffs,” said another, pointing to the options Sony was legally obligated to offer laid off employees in the UK and Japan as an example. "If you can make it so that people will leave of their own accord, you don't have to pay them."

These are not just hypotheticals. In the latter portion of last year, one of Activision Blizzard's return-to-office mandates hit World of Warcraft's QA team, and current and former Blizzard employees tell Aftermath their requests for long-term remote work were blanket-denied. One now-former Blizzard employee who left during this period, Jordan Anderson, says that unlike other Activision employees subject to RTO mandates, WoW QA team members were not offered severance if they chose to leave. According to a current Blizzard employee who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, this resulted in a loss of "a lot of people in the department across the board, from newer people all the way up to long-tenured leads and managers."

Now, almost half a year later, the team is struggling.

"The workload hasn't changed any, so it's just been a lot of people having to stretch themselves thin and take on more work to make up for the gaps," said the current Blizzard employee. "Morale's been pretty low because of this and people are just feeling increasingly more frustrated and burned out. The quality of the game itself hasn't been hit too hard yet, but this can't go on forever."

A similar dynamic could have a profound negative impact on GTA VI as it enters the final stretch of development. In regular layoffs, companies can at least be precise with who they’re putting on the chopping block. Forcing people out is a much messier process that could result in the loss of key staff.

"Having people who've been through [the end game of a project before], who know what to do in that situation and know what's the best decision to make to solve a problem, is better than having people who haven't had that experience – who might make mistakes they otherwise wouldn't if there wasn't this pressure,” said one Rockstar employee. “Losing key people in teams would be very, very bad."

The timing of this decision has employees feeling like they’re being backed into a corner.

"The fact that they waited to make this decision until after the situation [in the video game industry] became so dire with so many layoffs, it doesn't make me feel particularly charitable towards management,” said one Rockstar employee.

"It felt very opportunistic that the state of the industry would be such that you would be forced to accept what [management] was deciding,” said another, “because the likelihood of you getting another job in the industry would be lower."

At this point, incensed Rockstar employees hope that more of their colleagues join their burgeoning union effort in conjunction with IWGB. Then, at least, they’ll be able to push back if management decides to pressure people into crunching or force out more employees. 

"We have to operate relatively in the shadows, as there's an anti-solicitation policy at Rockstar preventing union materials from being distributed at the studio. By going public with this, I think we've had a bunch more people who then started to join,” said one Rockstar employee. “Hopefully we get unionized in the UK, and other studios will be able to as well, and we can all stand together to make decisions we think will benefit the company and the projects longer-term, retaining the high quality of staff we have to continue to make these genre-defining products."

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