Rockstar Games cleaned up its toxic culture – and Grand Theft Auto, too
In the US summer of 2020, after a police officer killed George Floyd, Rockstar Games quietly shelved a mode of play it had planned to release for its Grand Theft Auto Online game.
Called Cops ‘n’ Crooks, the mode was a twist on the children’s game where players organise into teams of good guys and bad guys, but seemed especially tone-deaf during the global reckoning over police violence. Senior executives at the company, concerned about how the narrative might be interpreted during a time of heightened scepticism and mistrust of American police, put it aside. They still haven’t made plans to bring it back, according to people familiar with development.
This was one of several politically sensitive actions Rockstar, a division of Take-Two Interactive Software, has taken in recent years. The company removed transphobic jokes from the most recent console release of Grand Theft Auto V and significantly narrowed 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 leading characters in a story influenced by the bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, the people said. Developers are also being cautious not to “punch down” by making jokes about marginalised groups, the people said, in contrast to previous games.
Moves like these once seemed unthinkable for a company whose bestselling franchise is a satirical depiction of America that involves playing gangsters who kill civilians and where women are mostly depicted as sex objects. Grand Theft Auto V was a nihilistic parody that threw insults at everything, from right-wing radio hosts to liberal politicians. Inside the company, the tone wasn’t much different. Rockstar employees described a workplace culture full of drinking, brawling and excursions to strip clubs. The company was an early symbol of an industry-wide problem of long hours at the office, known as crunch, in which staff were expected to be at their desks many nights and weekends in order to keep a game on schedule.
That strategy was financially successful and turned Grand Theft Auto V into 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.
‘A real company’
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 left recently, all of whom requested anonymity because they weren’t authorised to speak publicly. One employee described it as “a boys’ club transformed into a real company”. A spokesman for Rockstar declined to comment.
Can a kinder, gentler Rockstar still produce the chart-topping calibre of game the studio has become known for? Some employees aren’t sure. Morale across the company is higher than it’s ever been, according to many staffers. But the development of Grand Theft Auto VI has been slower than impatient fans and even longtime employees have expected.
Much of that has to do with the pandemic, but the delay is also due to some of the changes that the company implemented in an effort to improve working conditions, such as a restructuring of the design department and a pledge to keep overtime under control. Some workers say they’re still trying to figure out how to make games at this new iteration of Rockstar and wonder even what a Grand Theft Auto game looks like in today’s environment. Besides, several Rockstar employees pointed out that you can’t really satirise today’s America — it’s already a satire of itself.
Between the company’s new mandate and the 2019 departure of Dan Houser, who led creative direction on many previous Rockstar games, all signs suggest Grand Theft Auto VI will feel very different than 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 revolutionised open-world video games and grew to employ thousands of people, with offices in California, New York, across the UK and beyond. 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 sort of culture is “unsustainable”. Games like Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3 required what some employees referred to as “death marches” — months of mandatory 14-hour days and weekends that took a toll on employees’ lives, mental health and sometimes marriages.
In October 2018, shortly before the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, Houser, one of Rockstar’s founders, said his team had been working “100-hour weeks” to finish the game. The comments, which Houser later walked back, were the tipping point for many employees.
Similar complaints have rippled through the industry in recent years. Game developers working at Activision Blizzard, Riot Games and Ubisoft Entertainment have all criticised their employers for issues ranging from sexual discrimination to overwork. Activision Blizzard is being sued by the state of California over allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination. While those companies have acknowledged their issues and vowed to change, none has done as much in response to a worker revolt as Rockstar, according to people across the company.
For the past four years, management has promised that excessive overtime won’t be required for Grand Theft Auto VI
The transformation of Rockstar includes changes to scheduling, converting contractors to full-time employees and the ouster of several managers that employees saw as abusive or difficult to work with. When the pandemic started, workers received care packages, cloth masks and surprise bonuses. During the protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was murdered by police officers, the company said it would match donations to Black Lives Matter charities. Employees have been given new mental health and leave benefits. A new policy called “flexitime” allows staff to immediately take time off for every extra hour they work. And for the past four years, management has promised that excessive overtime won’t be required for Grand Theft Auto VI, one of the most highly anticipated games by fans and investors on the planet.
Sticking to that pledge has already prompted changes to the game. Original plans for the title, which is code-named Project Americas, were for it to be more vast than any Grand Theft Auto game to date. Early designs called for the inclusion of territories modelled after large swaths of North and South America, according to people familiar with the plans. But the company reeled in those ambitions and cut the main map down to a fictional version of Miami and its surrounding areas.
Rockstar’s plan is now to continually update the game over time, adding new missions and cities on a regular basis, which the leadership hopes will lead to less crunch during the game’s final months. Still, the game’s world remains large, with more interior locations than previous Grand Theft Auto games, impacting the timeline.
To help avoid overtime, Rockstar has also added more producers to keep track of schedules, a move that’s mostly been positive, developers said, but one that has also caused bottlenecks. Some employees said they found themselves waiting around to communicate through middlemen or that it felt like multiple people were in charge, leaving them unsure of who should make the final call. Rockstar put in place 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 described as a “too many cooks” situation where design decisions are frequently left in flux or contradict one another. Some core aspects of the game, such as combat, were still going through changes even as developers expected them to be locked down, employees said. Sarwar didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Industry analysts anticipate that the next Grand Theft Auto will be out sometime in Take-Two’s 2024 fiscal year, which runs from April 2023 through March 2024, but developers are sceptical. The game has been in development in some form since 2014. Although there are loose schedules in place, people interviewed for this article said they didn’t know of any firm release date and that they expect the game to be at least two years away. Earlier this year, a group of designers quit Rockstar’s Edinburgh office, telling colleagues they were sick of the lack of progress.
Many others, however, say they’re content to work at a company where there’s little pressure to get a new game out the door. Grand Theft Auto V, which came out in 2013, is the most profitable entertainment property of all time thanks to its multiplayer component, Grand Theft Auto Online. That unprecedented financial success has given Rockstar leeway to make sweeping changes and to take its time on the next project. And, as one staff member pointed out, overhauling Rockstar’s culture could help with retention and recruitment as well as lead to games that are “better for everyone working on them”, and presumably the people playing them, too.