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,”

Microsoft Is Buying Obsidian

Jason Schreier has the scoop:

Microsoft is finalizing a deal to acquire the independent development studio Obsidian Entertainment, according to three people briefed on the negotiations. We don’t know if ink is on paper yet, and plenty of major acquisition deals have fallen apart in the final hours, but those close to the companies believe it is all but done.

Obsidian’s RPGs could work very well over a streaming service.

Heather Alexandra on What It Means To Buy A Video Game

Highly recommended reading from Heather Alexandra :

…the intersection of work and labor at play when we buy games also means that there’s a lot more going on. Being a responsible game player requires understanding the dynamics at play.

Sailor Moon’s Long-Lost Americanized Bizarro-World Counterpart

Cecilia D’Anastasio has the fascinating story behind the version of Sailor Moon created for a western audience that never aired. I don’t give a shit about Sailor Moon, except that it was valuable in broadening the audience for different kinds of animation outside of the typical Ninja Scroll-tier of garbage that was popular at the time, but this was still worth reading:

Decades later, the pilot for the American Sailor Moon show has achieved mythological status. That pilot—the only episode ever made—vanished into thin air, its remains scattered across the internet like animated ashes. Fans have labored to piece together the show’s history on Geocities-style websites with infinite-scroll Sailor Moon fan art and labyrinthine lost-media wikis. For over two decades, they’ve searched for its only episode with no success. I was unable to play bystander to a piece of lost anime ephemera. Immediately upon hearing about the legendary American Sailor Moon pilot, I knew I had to try to find it. I would not rest until I’d exhausted every lead.

Loot Boxes

Kotaku’s Heather Alexandra:

Whether they dole out cosmetics or gameplay-affecting items, loot boxes of any sort exist for the purpose of exploiting players. Whether it’s offering the chance to get Symmetra’s new skin or get a better rifle in Battlefront II, the only reason the loot box exists is to prey on the economically vulnerable. You are not a valued player; you are a statistic on a spreadsheet. You are red or black ink. Loot boxes certainly aren’t there for fun. They have always been designed for the purpose of making sure that a company turns a profit.

They’re in so many games now. This garbage needs to stop.

Valve’s War on “Fake Games”

Nathan Grayson:

Valve is about to overhaul Steam in order to ensure that good games are visible and lazily developed games created for the purpose of making a quick buck—which Valve apparently calls “fake games”—sink beneath a sea of algorithms.

I’m not sure how this works, Valve have gone from saying that they want to take a more hands-off approach (back in 2014) to this new war on “fake games.”

The problem with this system, of course, is that it risks burying a handful of good games, as well. To combat this issue, Valve is going to introduce a program called Steam Explorers. Explorers will play through queues of games that haven’t been selling super well. If they dig a game, they can flag it. The more games get flagged, the more the algorithmic gods will smile upon them.

Anybody will be able to be an Explorer, much like Steam Curators. They’ll also get their own forum, so they can do things like arrange multiplayer matches in games that nobody else is playing.

The solution to all problems is unpaid labor from their community while they’re raking in profits. If this were EA with Origin, or Ubisoft’s uPlay, or basically anyone besides Valve, there would be a lot more people upset about not being paid to work. Or you would hope that people would be upset about their passion for games being exploited when Valve could just hire people to help curate the service.

Patrick Klepek Leaves Kotaku

Patrick Klepek:

It is with a heavy heart that I begin to say my goodbyes, readers. It’s been an honor to be part of Team Kotaku for the last two years.

Today is my last day at Kotaku. Tomorrow, a new journey begins. Though I can’t talk about where I’m headed yet, if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know soon. I’m staying in journalism, building on my work over the past decade, but my byline will appear elsewhere. It wasn’t an easy decision, a sign I’d made a good decision to start writing for Kotaku in the first place. You were part of that, too.

I’ve been lucky enough to work at some truly memorable places over the years, but my time at the last two stops, Giant Bomb and Kotaku, have been the most gratifying yet. In various forms, from reporting to podcasts, I’ve done my best work because I’ve been surrounded by people who pushed me to do better.

Can’t wait to see what Patrick does next. It has been entertaining to watch his career go from a new guy at 1UP to an extremely well-regarded writer for Giant Bomb and Kotaku.

Playstation 4 Cloud Saves Are Terrible

Stephen Totilo:

In the comparison between PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Sony is about as behind in how they handle cloud saves as they are in getting their console to run Halo. It’s time for them to close this gap.

The difference is dramatic. While both systems allow users to save game progress to a set of external servers called the cloud, making it easier to resume games on a second console, Microsoft does it in a free, automatic and seemingly unlimited way. Sony does it in an expensive, laborious and stingy way.

Two Game Developers One Premise

Patrick Klepek has this fascinating article covering two developers who come to find they’re working on almost the same premise for a game:

Perception, where you play a blind person who taps a cane to see around them, was revealed last week. Soon, an email went around indie studio Tiny Bull. “Panic started to spread among the team,” said CEO Matteo Lana. Why? Tiny Bull had been making Blind, a game with the same premise, for more than a year.

It all started when a Tiny Bull programmer was surfing new Kickstarter projects and came across the one for Perception.

“He sent me a message saying ‘Hey, this game looks a bit like our game.’” said Lana. “And I went ‘No, that is our game.’ It was a bit hard. It was quite a blow at the time.”

This kind of thing happens all the time, a few years ago it was the “year of the bow” when every game coming out seemed to feature bows and arrows regardless of the setting. Even Battlefield 3 added a crossbow. Is this the year of indie games with a visual aesthetic that can’t be played by people who are actually blind? Fortunately there are other developers who make games where all the gameplay is aural.