With the release of Red Dead Redemption, the controversy about the game’s production has heated up. Gamasutra’s published a letter from the spouses of Rockstar Games San Deigo employees earlier this year, stating, among other things, that “the extent of degradation employees have suffered extends to their quality of life and their family members”. After sorting through this letter, I find that many of the claims made by Rockstar employee spouses are vague, exaggerated, and downright inflammatory. Considering that all types of work, be it full-time or part-time, are less than enjoyable, I have a hard time taking it seriously, especially with these absurd claims that the treatment the employees have received has effected their quality of life and driven many to contemplate suicide.
In my employment experience, I have been subjected to unsafe working conditions, harassment and intimidation from both co-workers and management, even being wrongfully terminated, and all of this before leaving Canada to teach in Nantong, China. Even with the Rockstar paying $2.75 million in an out of court settlement following previous complaints, considering that the case was about unpaid overtime (even I have been denied overtime pay), I have yet to find any reason to feel sympathetic to employees of one of the biggest developers in gaming today. If these employees truly felt abused, why not leave the company? They wouldn’t be hard pressed to find new employment when their resume includes work on the top selling titles of the last few years.
This fiasco is personified in Nels Anderson’s article, “Do We Need Fair Trade Games?” For the purpose of this post, here is the entire article…
Red Dead Redemption came out last week and while I know I’m going to buy it, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat hesitant to do so.
It seems the controversy is now mostly forgotten, but in January, the spouses of a number of Rockstar San Diego developers penned an open letter decrying the working conditions in the studio. Reminiscent of the then unnamed Erin Hoffman’s EA Spouse letter, it details conditions that grossly overreach the usual game development crunch time. And of course, the response from Rockstar HQ and Take 2 was typical mealy-mouthed PR bullshit. While I’m sure plenty of other games I have enjoyed were made under similar conditions to Red Dead Redemption and simply didn’t receive public outcry, a pall is still cast over RDR that it won’t ever be able to fully shake, at least for me.
Hearing the alleged conditions in Rockstar San Diego were also unfortunately familiar; by several accounts, Bully was created at Rockstar Vancouver under very similar conditions. And even though I quite enjoyed Bully, I couldn’t help but feel a little … uncomfortable about it. It was that same twinge of discomfort you get seeing “Made in Bangladesh” on the tag of your shirt. I don’t mean to pick on Rockstar, I’m sure this is a problem at many studios, but you know, they did pay out almost $3 million after a lawsuit was filed by employees about a year ago.
While I’m being facetious about the idea of “fair trade” certification for games, even if such a thing could exist, I’m not sure something like it would actually be desirable. The purpose of fair trade is to avoid purchasing goods produced in unfair conditions. But if I had slaved away on a game, seeing it sell poorly because consumers disagreed with the conditions it was made in would only be adding insult to injury.
And of course, I don’t think it’s very risky to say most of the potential audience really doesn’t care. Most are simply unaware of such circumstances at all and of the small percentage that are, many seem to have the perverse and naive attitude that being a game developer is some invaluable gift. Once this legendary position has been obtained, all expectations of fair and decent working conditions evaporate.
A couple choice comments from the Shacknews post about this: “Come to NY and see who cries for you.” “Oh please. These guys have the best jobs in the world and they love doing it. Have a problem with it? DON’T MARRY THEM.” “This sucks, but god damn those screens look good.”
Unfortunately, this attitude exists even in some new entrants to the industry. Willing to do virtually anything to “break in,” their enthusiasm results in a seemingly unending supply for the digital salt mines. Eventually circumstances like the above burn them out and they leave for good, resulting in less than one third of developers making it to ten years in the industry.
And I have no idea what to do about it. It seems buying Red Dead Redemption is better than not doing so in protestation, but good sales likely aren’t going to inspire change at Rockstar San Diego. More likely, a good swath of people will leave, replacements will be brought in and things will get as bad again the next time a project is well behind schedule. I do not think the solution is a union, as I’m very skeptical of a union ever being a good idea for knowledge workers. The great, bloated beasts SAG and the WGA have become certainly give me little hope.
The only thing I can do, personally, is refuse to ever work at a studio that operates under such conditions and strongly council others to do the same. If great, experienced developers will only operate at studios with respectful, fair working conditions, and they make this known, that might incentivize certain changes. The passion people have to making games is also a great weakness, because it can be exploited. Game developers will tolerate conditions I can’t imagine someone making accounting software ever would. We cannot allow our passion to be taken advantage of.
I really hope Red Dead Redemption is a big success, both in terms of quality and sales. It’s better condolence than the alternative. It sure sounds like its creators were asked to give far too much and there’s a part of me that will feel a little guilty enjoying the game because of it. I long for the day when developers’ passion will be respected rather than exploited, but honestly, I don’t know how soon that day will come. Not soon enough, I think.
Let me start by saying that I am not a supporter of “fair trade”. Not only does it distort pricing, creating excess supply, but with the drop in demand due to the higher prices, it does more to hurt those it claims to help in the long run. It is the product of guilt-ridden “elites” who aren’t satisfied with paying competitive prices for what they consider “ill-gotten” goods, and because of it, consumers and supplies suffer. Turning to Nels’ article, suggesting that consumers boycott game companies that “exploit” their workers leads to only one outcome; the increase in game prices and the decrease in game development. It would be akin to unionizing the gaming labour force, something Nels says he is skeptical of, leading to same short comings that we see in the auto industry with automakers like General Motors that are being forced to produce inferior quality vehicles at prices higher than their competition. I am further dumbfound by Nels’ remarks considering that Rockstar Games San Deigo employees not only produced a noticeably inferior product on the Playstation 3, but a game that is heavily glitched on both systems. This kind of laziness shouldn’t be rewarded, nor should these employees be treated like victims if they can’t produce quality games after more than five years of development.
Let’s not pretend this is some sort of non-biased account of what has happened at Rockstar Games San Diego. Nels alerts his readers to his anti-corporate/anti-Rockstar Games bias with statements like “the response from Rockstar HQ and Take 2 was typical mealy-mouthed PR bullshit” and “many seem to have the perverse and naive attitude that being a game developer is some invaluable gift”. His second statement is particularly dumbfounding because being a game developer is to many, including myself, an invaluable gift. The gaming industry is very competitive, and many people are forced to seek work in other game markets, if they are even lucky enough to get that since the positions in North America are hard to come by. This statement is akin to a professional athlete complaining about his/her troubles, unaware of the millions of individuals who would give anything to have their life. Nels can complain about how he wants studios to operate with “respectful, fair working conditions”, but the truth is that the gaming market has become very competitive and the feelings of a few workers will be sacrificed if not doing so will cost companies like Rockstar Games money, which in turn costs jobs. The truth of this point is that Nels refuses to acknowledge that game developing is a business and that, for the most part, should be run like a business. As hard as that may be to accept, this is the reality of the matter since “happiness and pleasant thoughts” won’t pay bills.
Let’s stop pretending this is about working conditions. Rockstar Games San Diego is a far cry from Foxconn in Shenzhen, China where people are committing suicide due to what apparently is poor working conditions. Notice how he doesn’t write about the fact that Foxconn, who makes parts for Apple, Dell and HP computers, might ACTUALLY be treating their employees in the way he and others depict Rockstar Games San Diego’s treatment of its staff. Why doesn’t he want “fair trade” iPads and iPhones? Honestly, Nels doesn’t really care at all about this nonsense. He hates how game development has become more business oriented and has targeted Rockstar Games because of this ongoing fiasco. He can pretend that the treatment of the staff at the San Diego office will affect his decision, but if he really did care, he would purchase Red Dead Redemption to ensure that the team that worked on it would get their bonuses. The better the game sells, the more likely that not only will the developer want to keep them, but also more likely that they will be rewarded for their hard work. Returning back to the article, Nels completely ignores the point made by Garnett Lee in ShackNews article that this increase in pressure on the staff may be due to the fact that many developers are being forced to close in these fiscally hard times, instead focusing on comments made by readers that these complaints are nonsense. While employees at Rockstar Games San Diego complain about working conditions, many people, both insides and outside the gaming industry, find themselves out of work and see that these whiners are lucky to have a job to complain about, let alone a steady paycheck.
In the end, that is all this is, a group of employed individuals complaining that they are being mistreated. Seeing how it took them more than five years to release a glitch-ridden title, as many have noted, they should be grateful they still having a job. Nels can pretend to be this victim rights advocate, but you know as well as I do that if he actually cared, he wouldn’t hesitate to pick up this title. What we have here is a gameplay programmer making a political statement about the video game industry. It doesn’t matter what the facts are, he simply wants recognition for a ill-conceived and biased opinion about this ongoing fiasco at Rockstar Games San Diego. Considering that these are fiscally difficult times, I have no use for his ill-informed “elitist” rhetoric. Many of us are unemployed, and we don’t have money to be wasted on political statements.
If Nels Anderson wants to play political games, he better expect myself and others to call him on his nonsense. Unless people are ACTUALLY being mistreated, unless people are ACTUALLY committing suicide, you and the rest of the whiners better SIT DOWN, SHUT UP, AND BE THANKFUL THAT YOU STILL HAVE A JOB, let alone one in the video game industry. Downright pathetic…