‘When the people in power are completely senseless with regards to human values and their ideal is a sweatshop, you are screwed.” That’s a man who identifies himself as Brian Meidell, talking about Rockstar San Diego, the local branch of the New York–based video-game behemoth. He’s not alone. Meidell’s blog comment — one of dozens — typifies the disillusion and anger that grip some of the video-game developers who log tedious hours in Rockstar’s Carlsbad office. But are the complaints justified?
San Diego isn’t known for sweatshops and neither is the video-game industry, at least not in the traditional sense. But according to a few insiders — the folks whose efforts “enable” video-game addicts — there seems to be sweat aplenty these days at Rockstar San Diego. To be sure, this is no archetypal, industrial-age factory. And unlike the workers who toil on the slaughterhouse floor or in the tomato fields, the folks who make the video games face little exposure to biohazards or chemical toxins. But Rockstar San Diego employees — and their wives — claim that the atmosphere at the office is rather toxic.
It’s the distaff in this largely male enclave who took the initiative recently to air their husbands’ grievances. They’re preaching to an in-industry choir, using the forum of a gaming-community website, Gamasutra.com. The “Wives of Rockstar San Diego,” as they prefer to be called, addressed a letter “to whomever it may concern,” posting it in the Rockstar Spouse’s Blog. The missive — perhaps best (if uncharitably) described as the proverbial rambling manifesto — is redundant and cryptic. Nonetheless, it is a provocative broadside at a company that, some contend, treats its employees “like slaves.” Apparently, a number of the 180 or so game developers — who take pains to distinguish themselves from the standard-issue corporate types who rule the roost — have been spending way too much time at the office. They complain of 12- and even 14-hour days, weekend work, and incessant pressure — they call it “crunching” — to meet project-completion deadlines. And, boy, are their wives pissed.
Rockstar’s developers, as well as their wives, say they were a content lot when Rockstar was still Angel Studios, the locally owned denizen of hard-core game builders led by CEO and namesake Diego Angel. But that was before the buyout, which resulted in the rebranding of Angel. According to a longtime former employee (who cautioned me against writing anything that might reveal his identity), when Angel and cofounder Michael Limber gave themselves a golden handshake in late 2002, “The entire culture changed.” The “ex-Rocker” (to use Gamasutra blog parlance) says that, in 2003, what had been a well-run company with a “family atmosphere” turned into a corporate mill — a poorly run one, at that — replete with insanely long hours.
It seems that payment for (at least some of) those overtime hours has, for several years now, been at the heart of the gripes. In March 2009, a group of Rockers, represented by a San Francisco law firm, reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit in which the plaintiffs alleged that Rockstar San Diego management had unlawfully mischaracterized some employees as “exempt” — thus denying them overtime pay. Despite a settlement reported to be in the $2 million to $3 million range, developers say that violations persist. Rockstar game developers, and their unofficial quasi-union, the International Game Developers Association, term it a “quality-of-life issue.”
The association, founded in 1995, calls itself “the largest non-profit membership organization serving individuals that create video games.” According to the “mission” statement on the association’s website, the group attempts to advocate “on issues that affect the developer community.” On Wednesday, January 13, the association issued a press release stating that “the IGDA finds the practice of undisclosed and constant overtime to be deceptive, exploitative, and ultimately harmful not only to developers but to their final product and the industry as a whole.”
I spoke with International Game Developers Association director Joshua Caulfield, who told me that the majority of San Diego Rockstar game-crafters are members; however, many local Rockstar employees are less than enthused about the prospects of meaningful change via the association’s efforts. To start, it’s not actually a union; although it may “advocate” on behalf of game developers, members complain that the group has no teeth. Without the force of a collective-bargaining agreement or litigation, they grouse, disgruntled workers will be subject to the crunches that result in long hours.
To be fair, as several blog posters commented, long hours — especially as game-delivery dates approach — are standard practice in the industry; it’s not clear that Rockstar stands apart as an egregious offender. Even the posters on Gamasutra, while taking aim at the Carlsbad facility, acknowledge the fact that the video-game business is infamous for long (albeit flexible) hours — not to mention ultracasual dress and an informal ambience.
I asked a current Rockstar developer who cautiously — and anonymously — agreed to chat with me via email, “Just how bad are the hours at Rockstar San Diego?” He replied, “Game companies are generally very loose about their hours; Rockstar is actually the most strict I’ve seen. At most companies, you should be in by 11 a.m. or so; right now, we’re supposed to be in at 9:30 a.m. In real life, however, most people come in by 10 a.m., some at 10:30.” He also told me that, until 2009, the hours at Rockstar San Diego had been “surprisingly good…much better than any other company I’d worked at before that.” He noted, however, that, during the past year, as Rockstar has approached completion of the current project, things have deteriorated. “It slowly got worse — at first, we were asked to stay until 8:00 p.m.; Saturday work was supposed to be temporary but it’s now mandatory. Personally, I’m working 10 a.m.–11:00 p.m. these days, but I’m one of the people who stay the longest. Typically, the office starts clearing out at 9:00 p.m. Saturdays are about 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.”
In these economic times, it’s likely that few Americans would lose sleep over long hours by employees who (by many standards) are well compensated. Indeed, one former Rockstar employee — who left the company, as well as the industry, in 2004 — says that by the time he completed his decade-plus tenure at the studio he was making $150,000 and that many of his coworkers took in $80,000 to $100,000 annually. Another current developer says that he receives a salary of $120,000, plus bonuses, while still others receive company stock.
Given the compensation, one might ask, why the unhappiness? After all, according to many blog posters, creating video games is a dream job for many developers, an opportunity to get paid for computer geekiness. And, of course, there’s the slumping economy to consider; as many point out, it’s an employer’s market, especially for positions that pay an industrywide average of more than $70,000 per year.
Despite the pay (which, for some developers, has actually increased) a chorus of voices says there’s more to it than money. The developers complain that Rockstar management — by, they claim, forcing unreasonable hours and assuming an arch-corporate “don’t give a shit” attitude about its employees — has drained the creative folks of creativity and enthusiasm. However, when it comes to sussing out the root cause (if one exists) for the management-labor disconnect, there’s by no means unanimity among local Rockstar developers. If there’s anything close to a consensus regarding the work environment at Rockstar, it’s that things changed dramatically after the 2002 buyout.
Some of the employees assign primary blame to the head honchos, the corporate big shots, such as Strauss Zelnick, whose perspective is pure Wall Street. A number of developers quip that the folks in charge “have never played a video game in their lives” and are “left brainers.” But there’s nothing to indicate that they’ve tried to alienate developers; after all, without designers, there are no video-game studios, and without studios, no product.
Rockstar Games is a wholly owned subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive Software, a publicly traded, billion-dollar company that, according to its December 2009 financial disclosures, was in the red in 2009. It would be easy enough to focus on the media tycoons at the top, the guys with the lucrative stock options and bonuses. But even the most irate of the developers over at Faraday Avenue in Carlsbad are hesitant to single out the Madison Avenue execs who run Take-Two, and by extension Rockstar — it’s not that simple. If anything, complain the game builders with whom I spoke, it’s the local managers who’ve made their lives a living hell; the moguls in New York may be “remote and neglectful,” but the Carlsbad straw bosses are “downright evil.”
In an attempt to get management’s perspective, I placed calls to both the parent company and the San Diego office. First up was the chairman of Take-Two, Strauss Zelnick, whom several Rockstar San Diego employees have described as “reasonable.” I got a prompt return call from Alan Lewis, their top flack, but he didn’t tell me much, just a version of the standard “no comment.” When I pressed Lewis about the sweatshop allegations, he replied, robotically, again and again, “It is our corporate policy — we don’t comment on any rumors or speculation.” When I asked him if he was sure he didn’t want to say something that might place his media behemoth in a better light, he said, “No, but thanks for reaching out to us.”
I called Rockstar San Diego, requesting to speak to the general manager (or whatever a video-game studio boss is called), but after multiple attempts — messages left — no one ever called back. According to an employee who calls himself “Captain Anonymous,” it’s a workplace that might as well be in Pyongyang, North Korea; he told me, “Employees are being surveilled, and the last person to speak anonymously whose identity was presumed (not proven) was fired. They are not able to speak freely at the office, not even on their cell phones, and e-mails are being watched. It’s in some ways worse than what is being reported so far. Please don’t attempt to locate me personally.”
While it’s tough to determine the scope of the problem at Rockstar San Diego, and tougher still to finger the culprits, it’s clearly not all fun and games at the console these days. Whoever’s to blame, it’s difficult to ignore the ironically blithe puffery put out by local management:
“We’re hiring talented people who are as dedicated to fun as we are. Come work and play in the sun at our beautiful facility only 5 minutes from the surf.”
Does the sun shine in Carlsbad after midnight?