Red Dead Redemption 2, Games Labor, and Dan Houser’s Office

Red Dead Redemption 2 is out today, it’s another game that doesn’t understand that a bigger number means sequel because this is Rockstar Games’ prequel to Red Dead Redemption. Not Red Dead 1, that was a different game called Red Dead Revolver which as near as I can tell almost nobody played but impressed somebody enough to greenlight Red Dead Redemption.

Keza MacDonald calls RDR2 “a near miracle”:

Anybody coming to Red Dead Redemption 2 expecting Grand Theft Auto with horses will be rather baffled by this slow-paced, sumptuous, character-driven Old West historical drama, in which you spend probably 60% of your time simply riding around the American wilderness. There’s action too, in the form of shootouts, train robberies and frequent thrilling escapes on horseback, but these flashes of excitement punctuate a game that is largely about just being somewhere; about hunting, fishing and having long conversations on cross-country rides or around a campfire. In a mad fit of indulgence, Rockstar Games – the creators of Grand Theft Auto and one of the most successful game developers in the world – appears to have spent seven years and hundreds of millions creating the video game equivalent of Deadwood.

Sounds great, I’m excited. Fire up the consoles, we’re going to ride horsies like big boys, yeehaw.

Oh wait, Rockstar Games founder Dan Houser had to talk about the working conditions in this article from Harold Goldberg:

The polishing, rewrites, and reedits Rockstar does are immense. “We were working 100-hour weeks” several times in 2018, Dan says. The finished game includes 300,000 animations, 500,000 lines of dialogue, and many more lines of code. Even for each RDR2 trailer and TV commercial, “we probably made 70 versions, but the editors may make several hundred. Sam and I will both make both make lots of suggestions, as will other members of the team.”

The result of all their labor, Dan says, is “this seamless, natural-feeling experience in a world that appears real, an interactive homage to the American rural experience. [It’s] a vast four-dimensional mosaic in which the fourth dimension is time, in which the world unfolds around you, dependent on what you do.”

Who was working 100 hour weeks? “We”

Rockstar followed-up with Jason Schreier and denied the interpretation that the whole studio was that mismanaged and forced to work 100 hour weeks, sort of. Houser said the quote was only about the senior writing staff, and nobody else was forced to work that hard:

“…that additional effort is a choice, and we don’t ask or expect anyone to work anything like this. Lots of other senior people work in an entirely different way and are just as productive – I’m just not one of them! No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard.”

That’s not a real denial of anything, and keep in mind that it has been 8 years since Red Dead Redemption shipped. 8 years sure sounds like plenty of time to ship anything, even if they also shipped Grand Theft Auto V 5 years ago and have been working on Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V Online since. Clearly Red Dead Redemption 2 is a huge game and the high scores benefitted from the work these people put into the game they love over that seemingly vast time, but there’s no way this gets better.

Rockstar then made a half-hearted attempt at remedying the situation by allowing current employees to speak publicly without fear of retaliation, which, I don’t know what you think that means but it definitely doesn’t actually mean you could talk about working conditions without fear of retaliation. Anyone who has worked for more than a few years knows that you can’t speak frankly about a current employer unless you are the executive running the company.

Jason Schreier was already working on a story about this that you must read, and of course the majority of the 77 current and former employees he spoke with requested anonymity. It’s a depressingly realistic look at the practice of crunch at Rockstar:

Three people who worked at Rockstar San Diego between 2011 and 2016 recall a period where they were told that overtime wasn’t optional. “It was mandatory 80 hours for basically the whole studio,” said one person who was there. “If you don’t have any work to do on Red Dead 2, just test GTA V for another eight hours.” Said a second: “Maybe they didn’t tell anyone 100 hours, but they definitely told us 80. Concept artists were sitting there being glorified QA.”

[…]

For some people working on Red Dead Redemption 2, crunch started as early as 2016. For others at Rockstar, crunch periods started in the fall of 2017, a year before the game’s release date. Even when the company wasn’t in official crunch mode, dozens of current and former employees say they’ve felt compelled to stay late for a variety of reasons. “Rockstar pressures employees to put in overtime in several direct and indirect ways,” said one current Rockstar developer. “Coming in on weekends is perhaps the only way to show you are dedicated and care. So you can be very efficient and hard-working during the week, but if you don’t show up on the weekend, you’re accused of not doing your share and will be constantly harassed.”

Schreier also confirmed that an employee who worked on a Rockstar game for multiple years and leaves before it ships won’t be included in the game’s credits:

“That has been a consistent policy because we have always felt that we want the team to get to the finish line,” said Jennifer Kolbe. “And so a very long time ago, we decided that if you didn’t actually finish the game, then you wouldn’t be in the credits.”

Rockstar have a website up to credit people who left before the game shipped, which is good except it doesn’t include any mention of title or contribution, and this list should also be in the fucking game. People working on games everywhere need a union to collectively bargain for their time, pay, and define standards for receiving credit for the work they’ve done.

Later, Dan Houser was quoted by Sam White in British GQ as saying that he feels like games are magical because people don’t understand how they’re made:

…and it’s that games are still magical. It’s like they’re made by elves. You turn on the screen and it’s just this world that exists on TV. I think you gain something by not knowing how they’re made. As much as we might lose something in terms of people’s respect for what we do, their enjoyment of what we do is enhanced. Which is probably more important.”

Not knowing how something is made, or caring about it, is the hurdle that players need to cross in order to help the people making these games attempt to have a life outside of work. If you appreciate games, even ones with highs as high as Red Dead Redemption 2 (and there are some incredible lows in the writing of it and other Rockstar games), then you need to learn that everyone working on them needs to be able to have a life outside of them.

Patrick Klepek has a great article on Waypoint talking about how to make a difference in the lives of everyone working on games, and how a boycott might not be the best way to bring change. There’s this one really important tip Klepek has about buying games that are on Steam when the developer also has other options for buying the same game without giving up a 30% cut to Valve:

Another note: if a developer has a game listed on Steam, itch.io, and a personal website, buy it anywhere but Steam. Sure, yes, Steam is a useful tool and it’s nice to have your games in a single spot, but itch.io gives developers greater flexibility in profit margins, and on a personal website, nearly all of it goes to them. For smaller developers, the dollars add up. Other forms of economic reinforcement include supporting creators on Patreon—or tipping.

Maybe the most telling quote about this situation was from Houser in Goldberg’s original article that sparked the current conversation about poorly managed crunch. Speaking about his office, Houser said: “It’s an absolute shithole,”

The End of Apple’s Affiliate Marketing is Destroying TouchArcade

TouchArcade’s Eli Hodapp talking about Apple shutting down the affiliate marketing scheme that has funded sites like his in a post titled “Apple Kills the App Store Affiliate Program, and I Have No Idea What We Are Going to Do.”:

Apple announced that they’re killing the affiliate program, citing the improved discovery offered by the new App Store. (Music, books, movies, and TV remain.) It’s hard to read this in any other way than “We went from seeing a microscopic amount of value in third party editorial to, we now see no value.” I genuinely have no idea what TouchArcade is going to do. Through thick and thin, and every curveball the industry threw at us, we always had App Store affiliate revenue- Which makes a lot of sense as we drive a ton of purchases for Apple. I don’t know how the takeaway from this move can be seen as anything other than Apple extending a massive middle finger to sites like TouchArcade, AppShopper, and many others who have spent the last decade evangelizing the App Store and iOS gaming- Particularly on the same day they announced record breaking earnings of $53.3 billion and a net quarterly profit of $11.5 billion.

Affiliate marketing is the financial driver behind sites like Wirecutter, TouchArcade, and most likely as important to all of the journalistic enterprises that you see with daily deal roundups like Kotaku and 9to5Mac. The largest sites are able to separate all advertising and affiliate marketing business away from their editorial staff so that they can remain independent and firewalled from the business as much as possible. Sites with single-digit numbers of writers and editors aren’t able to maintain a firewall, but I think their readers understand the situation.

Even when affiliate marketing works, the physical goods version of it fuels the most abysmal working conditions in the world. Amazon’s deals happen because they use the same techniques as Wal-Mart to make them, Jeff Bezos and Sam Walton’s deals are only possible when we are grinding the poor into dust. Even Apple has worked hard to exploit their retail employees and steal their wages.

Affiliate marketing would be better if Amazon, Wal-Mart, and other companies’ employees were unionized. Collective bargaining seems like a foreign idea to most of the younger retail workers I’ve talked to and Amazon these companies treat their employees as infinitely replaceable. If employees hear anything about collective bargaining, it’s from training videos that companies like Best Buy force their employees to watch. These videos lie about union behavior and repudiate the power employees could have if they were bargaining as a group. The videos say that employees are better off negotiating as individuals, one-on-one with management. As if managers weren’t trained to exploit their employees, and empowered by the entire corporate management apparatus to do so. One-on-one is more like a thousand managers versus the one employee.

Traditional display advertising isn’t valuable enough to pay bills. I run an ad blocker, we all get the prompts to stop doing it, and we choose not to. Ad payloads slow our reading by wasting bandwidth, and the advertising publishing industry doesn’t give a fuck about our privacy or do anything to stop malicious payloads from being delivered to us.

Ongoing subscription donations, or Patreon support, are nice if you can get them, but it is a difficult thing to maintain on the ground. Any time you publish an update (to any kind of subscription service) there is an opportunity that subscribers will retract ongoing pledges and unsubscribe. Every payment processor and middleman would love it for all of us to spend our entire lives begging for money, but it’s difficult to find time to write and work if you’re spending all of your time on maintaining a subscription pledge system like Patreon.

Apple has been absorbing writers for a few years in order to create curated articles on their App Store, but those articles lack any sort of attribution as to who wrote them. Maybe dozens of hands touch each one, who knows. That byline situation is a choice, but by business need there is almost certainly no editorial independence for those writers at Apple. Without editorial independence and a byline those writers may have a difficult time finding work once they tire of working there with nothing to show in their portfolio, or when Apple decides to stop curating their app store to this degree and there aren’t any sites left to write for.

There just isn’t a good solution for independent writers and sites like TouchArcade within capitalism today unless they have a massive wave of popularity supporting them on Patreon or incredibly small operating costs like Daring Fireball with exactly one writer. I’ve enjoyed reading TouchArcade and hope Hodapp finds a path forward without any kind of affiliate marketing.

Today in Shitty Capitalism

Albert Burneko talking about the situation with Tronc, Inc, the company that just laid off half of the editorial staff of a paper after paying out an executive a $15 million award for groping women:

It’s legal, if you’re rich enough, or carefully enough obscured behind the legal fiction of a hedge fund or corporation, to borrow vast sums of money, purchase a company with it, and then simply pass that debt along to the people who do the company’s work and make its products, by stripping their jobs so you can redirect their salaries toward debt payment. It’s legal to decide, freely, that you will pay a disgraced former executive tens of millions of dollars all at once rather than over a period of years—or rather than going to court to argue you shouldn’t have to pay a guy $15 million for not being able to keep his fucking hands to himself!—and then recover some or all of the cost by just straight-up taking people’s livelihoods away from them. It’s legal for the parasites who buy an ownership stake in your company to decide they will appropriate your livelihood for themselves; it’s legal for them to say that your wages and health care must pay their debts for them. It’s legal for them to trade your employment for their enrichment; it’s legal to purchase a company for the sole purpose of liquidating it, laying off all its workers, and keeping the money for yourself.

May 1st is The Real Labor Day

Alex Pareene explains the first of May:

International Workers Day is as American a holiday as there is. It commemorates, in part, the Haymarket Riot, a bloody 1886 clash between striking workers and Chicago police that was among the most consequential battles in both American labor history and the international fight for the eight-hour workday. A few years later, the International Workers Conference called for a worldwide strike in support of the eight-hour day on May 1, 1890, and from then on, May 1 was recognized annually…

60,000 People Probably Losing Their Jobs as Toys ‘R’ Us Shuts Down

Paul Ziobro and Lillian Rizzo:

Toys ‘R’ Us Inc. told employees Wednesday the struggling big-box retailer will sell or close all its U.S. stores, a collapse that threatens up to 33,000 American jobs in the coming months.

[…]

Outside the U.S., the chain has another roughly 800 stores. Altogether, court papers show Toys “R” Us has roughly 1,600 stores globally, with approximately 60,000 employees. That number reaches more than 100,000 during peak holiday season.

This place that I think almost everyone has good memories of was driven to waste by vultures who burdened it with debt. They bought Toys ‘r’ Us with loaned cash and put that debt onto the company after the purchase. I didn’t even know you could do that until I read about it last year, but this story from Marielle Segarra explains it best:

And to really get what happened with Toys R Us, you need to understand how these private equity purchases work. They rely on something called a leveraged buyout.

“Leverage just means you’re using lots of debt,” said Eileen Appelbaum, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

If a private equity firm wants to buy a company, it’ll put up a small portion of the money. Then it’ll go to the bank and borrow the rest.

The key? “They put the debt on the company they buy,” Appelbaum said.

That’s what they did to Toys “R” Us in 2004. Three businesses bought the company, loaded it up with debt, the workers there have been paying it off ever since. Jeff Spross:

Whatever magic Bain, KKR, and Vornado were supposed to work never materialized. From the purchase in 2004 through 2016, the company’s sales never rose much above $11 billion. They actually fell from $13.5 billion in 2013 back to $11.5 billion in 2017.

On its own, that shouldn’t have been catastrophic. The problem was the massive financial albatross the leveraged buyout left around Toys ‘R’ Us’ neck. Just before the buyout, the company had $2.2 billion in cash and cash-equivalents. By 2017, its stockpile had shriveled to $301 million, even as its debt burden ballooned from $2.3 billion to $5.2 billion. Meanwhile, Toys ‘R’ Us was paying $425 million to $517 million in interest every year.

The employees will probably lose their jobs, the toy makers might not have a good place to get toys in front of people anymore and could go out of business and that could end up being a lot more people losing their jobs for no good reason, just because the vultures swooped in to get a turnaround that wasn’t achievable while paying off the debt.

The CEO, David Brandon, makes bank anyway. JC Reindl:

Brandon enjoyed a total $11.25 million CEO compensation package in 2017, a year in which Toys R Us filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy amid more than $5 billion in debt. That pay package included Brandon’s $2.8 million retention bonus, paid five days before the retailer’s Sept. 19 bankruptcy filing, to help with continuity through the process.

I’ve got a toy suggestion, it’s not my idea, but I think that Brandon and the executive teams at Bain and the others might want to try it out. Could save any future company they want to work with.

The Crunch Article on Polygon

Polygon has published an excerpt from a book by Walt Williams, their headline: “Why I worship crunch”:

When I worship at the unholy altar of Crunch, everything outside of the work fades away. By design, my world is reduced to where I sleep and where I work. Every day must be fast, focused, and above all else, homogenized. Give myself too much downtime, too much room to think, and I start asking questions, like “Why am I doing this to myself?” So, I lose myself in the routine. When every day is a rehash of what has been, and a preview of what will be, they blend into one another. This creates an out-of-body effect, not unlike highway hypnosis. Soon, who I am becomes an abstract concept—a loose collection of character flaws and neurotic tendencies. Only then can my body become the vessel through which an impossible amount of work will be accomplished in a short amount of time.

I love it, except for when I hate it, but I can’t hate it if I never stop. Even when I’m not crunching, I work too much. I’ve edited scripts in ICU rooms, responded to emails while begging lovers not to walk out the door, sent brainstorming lists during the birth of my child. I held my grandfather’s hand while he passed away, then went into his office and wrote text for mission descriptions. None of this was expected of me, and no one would have dared to ask. I did all these things for me. Work brings order to my world. When things get tough, I slide down into my job and disappear. I let my health, relationships, and responsibilities fall to the wayside. When I finally come up for air, there’s a smoking crater where my life used to be. Instead of picking up the pieces to start again, I slip back down into the thick of it. This is how I cope.

That isn’t how anyone should live. Although the author says that it wasn’t expected of them, many of the situations they have described here are the terrible reality of what people working on games do in response to a spoken or unspoken expectation from management.

There are solutions for the majority of people who work (in games, or elsewhere) and are exploited. Unionization would let employees collectively bargain and achieve better work schedules or better compensation when they must work overtime.

Many of these businesses would almost instantly start managing games projects more efficiently with less overtime if employees were compensated properly for this kind of work and had collective bargaining instead of attempting to individually negotiate their contracts.

Walt Williams might love crunch, but any company that forces it on their employees as a regular matter should be punished for destroying the lives of the workers and their families.

Here’s a great take from Cameron Kunzelman at Waypoint:

At the end of the day, no matter how much an individual loves it, crunch is not about individuals themselves. Crunch is a systemic, top-down solution to the problem of extracting the most labor from game developers; it is a strategy that is implemented on workers, and it is performed widely in most sectors of the industry. One developer’s complicated relationship with crunch is a blip on the constantly-screaming radar of worker exploitation that the practice enables as part of the normal operation of the game industry. It is not an exception in one person’s life, it is the norm.

The Medium Car Crash

The Medium.com logo, in 1997, before Evan Williams. Via archive.org

Evan Williams and his work are profiled in the New York Times by David Streitfeld. He’s behind Twitter and Blogger. There is one good point that succinctly explains a big problem with the web today:

The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.

His goal is to break this pattern. “If I learn that every time I drive down this road I’m going to see more and more car crashes,” he says, “I’m going to take a different road.”

[…]

For five years, Mr. Williams has been refining a communications platform called Medium. Its ambition: define a new model for media in a world struggling under the weight of fake or worthless content. Medium is supposed to be social and collaborative without rewarding the smash-ups. It is supposed to be a force for good.

Medium feels to me like it isn’t as popular as Twitter, but it is a thing that I suspect most people reading this would have read a few articles on.

The article talks about the business model of Medium, how it exists as a platform for writing. I think it misses the real problem with the site, the reason why Medium exists is to profit off of the work of writers. Not that Evan Williams is a bad person — he tried to create a space for good writing in Medium — the real problem with Medium is that it is yet another business that exists as a parasite on a writer’s work without providing them with a living wage or an identity.

The Times article goes on to talk with one writer who made some money on the site. She received $50 per article, when they were paid, and went on to write about 100 in the same year. Not all of those were paid, and $50 isn’t bad at all for a new writer, but even if she had been paid for every article $5000 a year isn’t going to pay the rent.

Whether the business model is correct or not, I read many articles on Medium, I link to very few, and I can’t remember who the authors are of most of the articles I read on the site. Their identity is subsumed into Medium and they no-longer own their writing when it is read on Medium.

A site like Medium can’t help but raise their brand above the authors. Take a look at this article on Medium that I recently linked to.

The only opportunities for an author to express themselves on the page are their byline, and any auto-biographical text that they write in their bio underneath the byline.

In that article by Jose Moran, it is an article exclusively about that author’s work experience at Tesla. We might remember Jose a bit more than anyone else because he works for Tesla, which is an important company in the electric car field even if I don’t like the way they treat their employees.

Here’s how his byline block appears:

Here’s the banner at the bottom of the page when you’re not logged into Medium:

Now let’s pick a recommended article from just above the bottom of the page. The first one is another article about Tesla and it takes us to ThinkProgress, a site that uses Medium as a host for their writing.

Here’s how the author’s byline block is on a page hosted by Medium:

The bio gets cut-off at the top of the page, but there’s a larger version at the bottom with the full text.

Here’s the banner on that hosted site:

What are you signing up for? Medium. Not ThinkProgress, not Jose Moran. You might incidentally get updates from ThinkProgress or Jose after signing up, but Medium-the-business doesn’t give a crap if you do, so long as you keep using Medium.

In both cases the author loses control over their byline as well. Did Joe Romm want to display just part of his byline at the top of the page? We’ll never know, because Medium decided for him.

Does Jose Moran want you to sign up for more updates from him in case he posts an update where Elon grows some balls and lets his employee’s Unionize? Medium decided that no, what you want to do is sign up for Medium.

The only person that has an author’s best interests in mind is that author.

When an author has their own site, they are totally free to express themselves with more than just a byline. Nuclear Monster is to my taste as a modification of the free software WordPress. At the top of the page, that’s a logo I made with the feedback of friends. I picked out the colors of the site, and what code I wanted to use. I decided what the site’s focus should be. Medium pages are identical, generic and bland, because they express the identity of that site instead of the identity of that author.

Those bylines above are actually an improvement over the original Medium. Back in 2013 the author’s byline looked like this:

It is possible that the 2013 byline looked a little better, I have cribbed it from the archive.org version which sometimes isn’t able to preserve the entire detail of an archived page. However, it matches my memory of the site. No author photo or bio.

When you follow an author who has their own site by subscribing to their RSS feed, or on Facebook, or Twitter, you’re going to get to their site as the destination to read their work.

That author gets to decide if they’re going to link off-site at the bottom of their article page. I don’t personally like those kinds of advertisements, so I just have a rotating group of related articles from Nuclear Monster, but at least I have a choice and could decide if I wanted them. Jose Moran has no option after choosing to use Medium to host his writing. There are links to whatever articles the Medium algorithm picked.

As a writer, I hope that Medium fails, because it can’t exist as a functioning business without exploiting authors who need to establish their own identity in order to survive. I want to see more writers own their own websites or choose to work collectively with others instead of seeing their work stripped of identity and authorial ownership to another business intent on exploiting them.

The problem with San Francisco area startups is that they are all car crashes intent on smashing into as many people as possible before the money dries up and they leave without insurance to clean up the mess they left behind.

When Medium fails and is sold to Verizon, it will leave writers bloodied and bruised in its wake who haven’t established their own identity and they may be so frustrated with the experience that they give up on writing entirely.