In the summer of 2020, after a police officer killed George Floyd, Rockstar Games quietly shelved a game mode it planned to release for its Grand Theft Auto Online game. Called Cops ‘n’ Crooks, the mode was a twist on the kids’ game where players organize themselves into teams of good guys and bad guys, but it felt especially tone-deaf during the global reckoning over police violence. Senior company executives, concerned about how the narrative might be interpreted during a period of heightened skepticism and distrust of American law enforcement, set it aside. They have yet to make plans to bring him back, according to people familiar with the development.
This was one of several politically sensitive actions that Rockstar, a division of Take-Two Interactive Software, has taken in recent years. The company removed the transphobic jokes from the most recent console release of Grand Theft Auto V and significantly reduced the gender pay gap. Rockstar’s upcoming game, Grand Theft Auto VI, will include a playable female protagonist for the first time, according to people familiar with the game. The woman, who is Latina, will be one of the protagonists in a story influenced by bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, people said. The developers are also being cautious not to “slam” making jokes about marginalized groups, people said, in contrast to previous games.
Moves like these seemed unthinkable for a company whose best-selling franchise is a satirical depiction of America that involves playing gangsters who kill civilians and where women are portrayed primarily as sex objects. Grand Theft Auto V was a nihilistic parody that hurled insults at everything from right-wing radio hosts to liberal politicians. Inside the company, the tone was not much different. Rockstar employees described a workplace culture filled with drinking, fighting and trips to strip clubs. The company was an early symbol of an industry-wide problem of long hours in the office known as the crunch, where employees were expected to stay at their desks many nights and weekends to keep a game on schedule.
This strategy was financially successful and turned Grand Theft Auto V into the second best-selling game of all time, with 165 million copies sold. It also led to wear and tear and a public controversy in 2018 that led to hundreds of Rockstar employees speaking out about the difficult work environment.
Since that outcry, Rockstar has tried to reinvent itself as a more progressive and compassionate workplace, according to interviews with more than 20 people who work there or have recently left, all of whom requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. One employee described it as “a boys club turned into a real company”. A Rockstar spokesman declined to comment.
Can a kinder, gentler Rockstar still produce the caliber of chart-topping gameplay the studio has become known for? Some officials aren’t sure. Morale across the company is as high as ever, according to many employees. But the development of Grand Theft Auto VI was slower than impatient fans and even longtime employees expected.
A lot of this has to do with the pandemic, but the delay is also due to some changes the company has implemented to improve working conditions, such as restructuring the design department and pledging to keep overtime under control. Some workers say they’re still trying to figure out how to make games at this new iteration of Rockstar, and wonder even what a Grand Theft Auto game is like in today’s environment. Furthermore, several Rockstar employees have pointed out that you can’t really satirize America today – it’s already a satire of itself.
Between the company’s new tenure and the departure of Dan Houser in 2019, who led the creative direction of many previous Rockstar games, all signs suggest that Grand Theft Auto VI will be very different from its predecessor.
Rockstar Games was founded in 1998 by a handful of British game makers as a subsidiary of Take-Two. With 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III and its sequels, the company revolutionized open world video games and has grown to employ thousands of people, with offices in California, New York, the UK and beyond. Grand Theft Auto products accounted for 31% of Take-Two’s total revenue of $3.5 billion in fiscal 2022, according to company filings.
The studio was built on a culture of seven-day work weeks, said Jamie King, one of the founders who left after eight years. But, he said, that kind of culture is “unsustainable.” Games like Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3 required what some employees called “death marches” — months of mandatory 14-hour days and weekends that took a toll on employees’ lives, mental health, and sometimes marriages.
In October 2018, shortly before the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, Houser, one of the founders of Rockstar, said that his team was working “100 hours a week” to finish the game. The comments, which Houser later backtracked, were the tipping point for many employees.
Similar complaints have spread across the industry in recent years. Game developers working at Activision Blizzard, Riot Games and Ubisoft Entertainment SA have criticized their employers over issues ranging from gender discrimination to overwork. Activision Blizzard is being sued by the state of California over allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination. While those companies have acknowledged their problems and promised to change, none have done as much in response to a workers’ revolt as Rockstar, according to people at the company.
Rockstar’s transformation includes schedule changes, converting contractors to full-time employees, and the departure of several managers that employees found abusive or difficult to work with. When the pandemic started, workers received basic food baskets, fabric masks and surprise bonuses. During protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by police officers, the company said it would match donations to Black Lives Matter charities. Employees received new mental health and leave benefits. A new policy called “flextime” allows employees to immediately take time off for every extra hour they work. And for the past four years, management has promised that excessive overtime will not be required for Grand Theft Auto VI, one of the most anticipated games by fans and investors on the planet.
Delivering on that promise has already sparked game changers. The original plans for the title, which is codenamed Project Americas, were for it to be vaster than any Grand Theft Auto game to date. Early projects called for including territories modeled after large swaths of North and South America, according to people familiar with the plans. But the company faltered on these ambitions and reduced the main map to a fictional version of Miami and its surroundings.
Rockstar’s plan now is to continually update the game over time, adding new missions and cities regularly, which leadership hopes will lead to fewer issues during the game’s final months. Still, the game world remains large, with more interior locations than previous Grand Theft Auto games, impacting the timeline.
To help avoid overtime, Rockstar has also added more producers to keep up with schedules, a move that has been positive, the developers said, but which has also caused bottlenecks. Some employees said they were left waiting to communicate through intermediaries or that it appeared that multiple people were in charge, leaving them unsure who should make the final call.
Rockstar implemented a new management structure following the departure of former design director Imran Sarwar, who was accused by several employees of bullying and verbal abuse. His position was filled by three other directors, creating what several people have described as an “too many cooks” situation, where design decisions are often left in flux or contradict each other. Some core aspects of the game, such as combat, were still undergoing changes even as the developers expected them to be locked down, officials said. Sarwar did not respond to a request for comment.
Industry analysts anticipate that the next Grand Theft Auto will be released sometime in Take-Two’s 2024 fiscal year, which runs from April 2023 to March 2024, but developers are skeptical. The game has been in development in some form since 2014. While there are vague timelines, people interviewed for this article said they weren’t aware of any firm release date and that they expected the game to release in at least two years. Earlier this year, a group of designers left Rockstar’s Edinburgh office, telling colleagues they were tired of the lack of progress.
Many others, however, say they are content to work at a company where there is little pressure to release a new game. Grand Theft Auto V, released in 2013, is the most profitable entertainment property of all time, thanks to its multiplayer component, Grand Theft Auto Online. This unprecedented financial success gave Rockstar the freedom to make radical changes and dedicate its time to its next project. And, as one team member pointed out, reshaping Rockstar’s culture can help with retention and recruiting, as well as lead to games that are “better for everyone who works on them” and, presumably, the people who play them too.
© 2022 Bloomberg LP