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,”

Forza Horizon 4 is a Delightful Arcade Driving Thing

I have only barely dipped my toe into Forza Horizon 4, but it’s already a fun and goofy open-world driving game just like the last few, with the notable addition of changeable seasons affecting the greater British landscape this entry takes place in.

The Horizon offshoot of the Forza series have always been odd games. I don’t really enjoy the racing aspect because I’m terrible at it. Maybe it’s because even the simulated experience differs so much from the regular-ass driving I do in reality, I don’t know. Despite that, I just turn the game down into easy mode and love blasting through town and country hunting for bonus boards to knock down, hidden barn finds, and the absolute thrill that is the missions the game puts you on. The missions have specific goals that sometimes, and the most fun times, turn the game into an almost Tony Hawk Pro Skater-like experience and attempt to get a high score in flipping your car over five hundred times. It’s the only game I’ve ever played where I can spend an hour flying around a construction site and not make any progress but still have had great fun.

The cars are all well rendered and beautiful, I play on my desktop computer or streamed to the TV for big screen car drivin’.

Horizon 4 also includes real-time multiplayer in addition to the Drivatar ghost cars that populate your game and races with your Xbox friends in addition to randos.

It also still has the silly customizable skins you can download or create that can turn your ride into An Anime car or apply a livery full of advertising from your favorite race-mobile as-seen-on-TV.

Perhaps the most ridiculous new thing in Horizon 4 is the addition of unlockable dances for your avatar that appear before a race, after a race, and most ridiculously, whenever you find a vista in the game and you’re offered the chance to stand on or about it and dance.

The one change that is a little concerning is that I understand you can’t just download a new tuning for your car on the fly. That little bit in Horizon 3 let you turn a mediocre cheap ride into something approaching a supercar just before a race.

Keza MacDonald was moved by the seasons while reviewing Horizon 4:

The game even turns our weather into something beautiful. As the seasons change, so does the climate and the nature of the light, along with the driving conditions. Edinburgh’s New Town shimmers in pale spring sunshine, and in winter the snow in the Highlands sucks all the light out of the sky. The cottages in Ambleside are prettiest in the summer, when the trees are so bracingly green you can almost smell them. If you have a 4K television, this is what it was made for. Now and then, such as the first time I drove past Edinburgh Castle in the perfect twilit blue of a summer night in Scotland, its beauty made me quite emotional.

The Forza series meaningful to me for a different reason, the first Forza Motorsport was the last game I tested at Microsoft Game Studios before quitting that job, and I’ve never returned to play the Motorsport line. I’m just not cut out for more serious racers. Horizon’s got what I want in something slightly more earnest than Burnout.

Forza Horizon 4 is out now on the Xbox One and Windows. I recommend getting it digitally downloaded if you can so that you can play on either platform.

Nintendo’s Cardboard Toy Builder: Labo

Nintendo announced a collection of do-it-yourself cardboard construction kits and games for the Switch today, they’re called Labo.

They’ll be available in two different kits, each one holds the Switch and Joy-Cons to make something new.

Toy-Con 01 is the Variety Kit for $70 and includes 5 different cardboard projects for building a house, RC cars, motorcycle handlebars, a fishing rod, or a piano.

Toy-Con 02 is the Robot Kit and is entirely focused on building a cardboard mech suit for some smashing mech games. This set will be $80.

Labo looks like a lot of fun for anyone interested in building fun toys, and both kits will be out on 4/20/18 here in the US, and 7 days later in Europe.

Nintendo also has some trials set up in New York City and San Francisco for parents with kids 6-12. Check here for details.

Keza MacDonald got to check these kits out early:

The more complex constructions are a telescopic fishing rod with a working reel, attached to a base with elastic bands and string for realistic tension; a cardboard model of a piano with springy keys; an abstract motorbike, with handles and a pedal; a little house. Each contraption is made out of cardboard and string, and transforms into a digitally augmented toy when you slot Joy-Con controllers and the Switch screen into it. The piano, especially, is quite amazing, and takes about two hours to build. The infrared camera on the Joy-Con controller can see reflective strips of tape on the back of the keys, which come into view when a key is pressed, telling the game software to play the right note. Cardboard dials and switches modify the tone and add effects to the sound.

The principles behind each construction – Toy-Cons, as Nintendo calls them – are explained by cartoon characters, putting a child-friendly spin on coding and engineering. On the Switch screen, you can view a cross-section of each model that illustrates what the Joy-Con camera can see and how it works. This educational element is geared towards curious children, but it’s also illuminating for an adult – seeing how these toys work only increases your appreciation of their ingenuity.

The most complex construction, which will be sold separately, is a cardboard mech suit that transforms your entire body into a Transformers-style robot in the game, translating your punches and kicks into building-levelling virtual smashes.

It’s great that some of these kits can take two hours to build, that’s on the order of some of the more difficult Lego sets. Although, the Switch’s battery might be very low after getting through construction.

The video ad also includes some projects that Nintendo hasn’t talked about yet, like a camera, maybe those will be in future sets.

I’m pretty psyched for these kits, but it’s going to be a few years before my son is ready for playing with the finished projects.