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Credit: Rockstar Games

Red Dead Redemption 2's crunch scandal is highlighting one of gaming's biggest problems

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Oct 22, 2018, 4:36 PM EDT

Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser boasted in a recent Vulture article that his team was working 100 hours a week to complete Red Dead Redemption 2. Boasted.

Rockstar is slated to release Red Dead Redemption 2, the most anticipated game of 2018, on October 26. The game is primed to become one of the most detailed open world games in history, promising over half a million lines of dialogue, a jaw-dropping list of features, and incredible attention to detail.

There are over 300,000 unique animations: The main character's hair grows over time, requiring trips to a barber shop; horse testicles will shrink in cold weather.

As a company, Rockstar has an impressive record of financial success; Grand Theft Auto V netted $6 billion, the most ever by an entertainment product (2009's Avatar film is a distant runner-up at $2.8 billion). And while many are lauding the degree of immersion and anatomical precision Red Dead Redemption 2 is promising, there is a human cost required to build such features into a game.

If a hugely profitable company like Rockstar can't ship a game without expecting salaried workers to put in 100-hour weeks, then the gaming industry has a bigger problem than simply racing to develop the next big property.

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In these numbers lies a larger problem, one that often goes untalked about and is endemic to the gaming industry, which has long surpassed other forms of entertainment in size. Gaming raked in $108.9 billion globally in 2017. For comparison, the film industry generated less than half that at a mere $43 billion.

But anyone who has watched credits roll on a big release knows it takes a staggering amount of people with varied, highly developed skills to create a successful game, much less a hit. Project managers juggle workflows from animators, designers, programmers, writers, coders, and more while contending with tight deadlines from executives driven by audience demand.

When project milestones are behind schedule, teams go into "crunch" mode. During crunch, just like it sounds, workers are expected to put in additional hours each day and often forgo days off. Crunch can last for weeks — sometimes months — at a time. According to a 2016 survey, over 65 percent of developers said they had to crunch that year. Among the 35 percent of developers that did not have to crunch, roughly a third reported its employees did have to work extra hours on projects.

Crunch can ruin relationships and personal lives as well as create health problems. It also causes burn out and talented individuals leave the industry, robbing the field of skilled talent and stunting leadership pipelines.

The resulting labor issues from such demanding schedules are rarely addressed outright.

Red Dead Redemption 2 trailer screenshot

Credit: Rockstar Games

Despite its size and the profits video games can rake in, the gaming industry is wildly unstable.

Telltale Games became a juggernaut in the early 2010s, invigorating the adventure game genre with its 2012 hit series The Walking Dead. Over the next six years, the company tripled in size. However, on September 21 of this year, with little warning, Telltale announced its imminent closure or, in its words, a "majority studio closure." Employees who had been in the office late the previous night working on Season 4 of The Walking Dead were sent home that morning without notice or severance. Their health coverage would expire nine days later.

The reaction among some vocal fans on social media was indignation — not on behalf of the terminated employees, but that The Walking Dead might not get completed. Some fans even demanded the fired employees finish work the game for free.

In this context, it is less surprising to hear an executive like Houser proudly brag about his workers' 100-hour weeks. On message boards and forums, fans chest-pump about how the longer hours prove a developer's passion, and that if employees don't like it, they can always find other work. This idea that it is a special privilege to get to work on a culturally significant property or in the industry at large facilitates the exploitation of employees.

As fans, it can be difficult to navigate the human cost of Triple-A games, much less independent ones. Purchasing a game that was made under horrible labor conditions supports the bottom line of a company that perpetuates the status quo. On the other hand, boycotting a game over labor conditions might not send a message to the studio — much less the industry — and increases the chances of people losing their jobs when a title doesn't sell.

This complex reckoning of human value and the gaming economy is further complicated with the emotional attachment fans have to their games. The original Red Dead Redemption was a cultural milestone. Though certain aspects of it may read as problematic, many fans invested in Red Dead's world and enjoyed the title despite its shortcomings. Contemplations of the labor required to ship a game don't usually factor into how we enjoy what is on our screen.

red dead redemption 2

Credit: Rockstar Games

Shifting an ingrained mentality is challenging, but there are signs of positive change.

Game Workers Unite is a grassroots organization that is pushing for industry unionization. Labor issues are also becoming more common in political discourse. Though a lot of this awareness is steeped in grim facts about income inequality and the rising gulf between the "haves" and the "have-nots" in a polemic political landscape, models for functional and sustainable labor are possible. Whether it's more realistic development timelines, larger workforces, or the cost of games increasing for the consumer, there are possible remedies that could improve current conditions.

Top shelf Triple-A titles have cost $59.99 since those games have existed. While playable time and content of those games have continued to expand, their price point has not. If a gamer walked into a Babbage's in 1986, they would have paid $59.99 for Sierra On-Line's King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human; in 2018, a gamer can log onto PSN and download Assassin's Creed: Odyssey for the same amount of money despite the staggering difference in man-hours that went into making Assassin's Creed compared to King's Quest.

Fans are also realizing their own power and agency. One of the reasons crunch happens is because developers don't want fan backlash for a late game shipment. After the Vulture article dropped, though, plenty of fans expressed outrage over the unjust treatment of Rockstar's employees. Continued pressure and journalistic attention could help drive industry leaders to begin experimenting with more sustainable labor practices.

As with any complex problem, things won't change overnight, but there are ways to create great games that don't involve destroying the lives of the people who make those great games. Healthier practices could lead to even better games and, more importantly, they will lead to better lives.