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,”

PSN Account Hijackers

Patrick Klepek has a terrific read up on Waypoint about his investigation into Sony’s incompetent security practices around user accounts, and the social engineering crews that steal them:

$1,200. That’s how much someone is asking for a PlayStation Network account I’ve been investigating for the past few weeks. “Secure,” the person calls it, claiming the account will “never be touched” by the original owner again. “He won’t be getting it back,” they claim. More than a thousand dollars? That’s a little rich for my blood, and so I counteroffer: $700.

He also has a few updates on twitter for after you’ve read the article.

Far Cry 5 is Disappointing and Available

I’ve loved Far Cry games in the past, 3 was a particular high point, but that was 6 years ago and Far Cry 4 lost me somewhere along the way. I never finished it. 5 looks to be more of the same kind of an outdoor adventure through a beautiful land that is beset upon with chaos, light RPG mechanics without the role-playing, and this time they’ve set it in Montana.

The most important difference with this game is that it once had some promise in making a statement about the current political situation. There’s a lot of things that it’d be incredible to see a game even try to talk about, but Far Cry 5 isn’t that game despite having all of the opportunity in the world to try.

Austin Walker:

Thematically, Far Cry 5 is such an inconsistent mess of ideas that there is hardly a recognizable through line at all. Instead, the game gestures towards ambiguity as if looking for a shield to save itself with.

This is a game that undeniably knows that Donald Trump is president, but cannot decide if that fact should be punchline or key plot device. When, in two different scenes, cult leaders make oblique references to “America’s leadership” or the failures of the person “who’s in charge” as proof of the American empire’s final days, the game reaches for sincere relevance. But an hour later, you’ll be recovering the notorious piss tape from a Russian spy in a pun-filled quest.

Jeff Gerstmann:

There’s probably a great story you could tell around a Christian Doomsday Prepper Cult that has you fighting them off as they prepare for the End Times by murdering everyone around them and stealing all the resources they can. That’s meat that few games even attempt to chew. But the ambitious setting doesn’t pay off in this story that seems to want to hedge every chance it gets. The end result is a story that goes nowhere, says nothing, and fails to live up to the previous settings and villains in the franchise. If you can get past that… the rest is pretty much fine if you’re up for another Far Cry game.

Far Cry 5 is up now on Steam for Windows, as well as your Xbox One or PlayStation 4. It’s also got the traditional slap in the face of $60 not being enough, and offering both Deluxe ($70) and Gold ($90) editions.

I have a stack of open-world Ubisoft games that I haven’t finished, Far Cry 5 isn’t joining them.

Valve’s Disease

Patrick Klepek has a post up on Waypoint, discussing a homophobic game that unsurprisingly managed to get onto Steam. He sums up Valve’s issues with content moderation very well. I’ve trimmed the quote just to remove the name of the game.

…is a symptom of a larger disease. Steam’s “new releases” tab is full of trash, and while you can be generally sympathetic to Valve wanting to allow all sorts of creators an easy path to publishing on their enormous platform, it doesn’t absolve them of the responsibility to make sure it’s a platform that doesn’t promote hateful speech.

The MRA garbage I wrote about last year, Dating Lessons, is still up on Steam as well. Anyone working at Valve should be embarrassed to have their salary funded by getting a cut off of sales of this trash.

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.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds: Solo Squad

I’m still playing so much Battlegrounds, more than anything else it draws me back with it’s subtleties in strategy. Deciding if you want to get more combat experience and seek out fights and other players or find some gear and camp in the second floor of a house.

Lately I’ve been trying something different, playing on four-player servers as a lone wolf. It’s the most extreme challenge I’ve found in PUBG, and Cameron Kunzelman has an article expounding the virtues of solo squad up on Waypoint:

The game plays differently in Solo Squad mode. There is no running and gunning. You can’t win any encounters by rushing your enemies and yelling. You can take one player when they’re off guard, but sneaking up on four people is next to impossible. Taking a long-range, tactical encounter is usually your best bet if you’re trying to fight at all, although a shotgun can make much quicker work of a team than you might think if you’re waiting around the right corner.

Cameron’s strategy of fighting instead of hiding in order to better learn PUBG’s combat systems is also recommend. I’d add one more tip: play in first-person. You lose the ability to cheat around corners and will have to keep in mind that other players are able to do so, but I’ve gotten way closer to a chicken dinner by playing in first-person.

“I’m upset that you changed the password to the PSN account I stole from you”

Seriously crazy stuff going on with PSN account resellers in this article from Patrick Klepek:

A few weeks ago, Mic Fok got a weird email. The person writing it claimed they’d been playing Overwatch on a PlayStation Network account for more than six months, but the password had changed recently. But why would Fok know anything about this random dude’s account? As it turns out, they’d “purchased” Fok’s account through a website called PSN Games, one of many businesses trafficking in the selling of cheap games by sketchy means.

The individual who bought Fok’s account was an Overwatch fan named Bennett Eglinton.

“Hello I purchased overwatch from psngames.org and this email was used as the account info,” reads an email from Eglinton, sent in early March. “However the password I was given for the PlayStation Network sign in no longer works. Did you happen to change it? Can I get the new info.”

As Patrick mentions in the article, this is a great reason to use unique passwords everywhere with a password manager. I use and recommend 1Password despite them switching from standalone purchases to a subscription. You should also use the free Have I been pwned? service to check all of your email addresses for public account credential leaks.

Homefront: The Developing Revolution


Patrick Klepek interviewed the developers of Homefront: The Revolution who are surprisingly still updating the game almost a year after it was released. This comes as a shock because it was received poorly by both the critics, and while it found some audience, most of the gaming public as well.

I’m mostly interested in the game because it’s set in Philadelphia. Not many games are set there, usually choosing more recognizable cities like New York or San Francisco which was the setting for the first Homefront game.

Watching Austin Walker’s quick look of Homefront: The Revolution when he was still at Giant Bomb was heartbreaking. It seemed to lack any flavor of Philadelphia, no genericized Philly Frenetic, and it was just an unfinished mess of gameplay ideas borrowed from better games.

Hearing that the game is still being updated is a bit of solace, maybe there is something in there worth playing the next time it goes on sale.

The Scarlet VAC Ban

How does Valve handle cheating?

When Valve’s anti-cheat system, VAC, detects a user has cheated in a multiplayer game they’re marked for seven years on their Steam profile page and blocked from VAC protected servers.

Patrick Klepek interviewed cheaters who were branded:

“When you have big red letters on your profile announcing everyone you have a ban, the experience is never going to be good,” said Oliveira. “If you don’t suck at a game, they will right away point a finger at you and accuse you of cheating. You get told so many times that ‘Once a cheater, always a cheater.’ I knew I did it, I knew I would never do it again, and I wanted to prove that that was not me. But how do you do that? How will they believe you? Yeah, no. It’s the biggest badge of shame a person can have in an online world.”

Oliveira found himself taunted when playing games, years after his initial offense. He couldn’t shake the stink, and Valve offered no recourse. He was, for at least seven years, a cheater.

Bizarre to me is that everyone interviewed agreed the policy was generally acceptable.

This program lacks nuance. Policies against cheating are good, but without more granularity in enforcement it’s kind of ridiculous. Someone who cheats at Counter-Strike for ten minutes shouldn’t necessarily be punished the same as another person who cheats for a month.

A few years ago I asked at a Valve GDC booth for job-seekers if they ever had room for online community managers. It’s not surprising the Valve employee thought the idea of them hiring an online community manager was ridiculous after reading this article from Patrick. The one-size-fits-all kind of anti-cheat enforcement has the stink of developers making community decisions all over it.