Rockstar Games quietly shelved a mode of play it had planned to release for its Grand Theft Auto (GTA) Online game in the summer of 2020 after a police officer killed George Floyd.
The mode, called Cops ‘n’ Crooks, was a spin on the classic children’s game in which players form teams of good guys and bad guys, but it seemed particularly insensitive in light of the recent worldwide reckoning with police violence. The company’s upper management shelved the story because they were worried about how it would be received during a period of increased skepticism and mistrust of American law enforcement. Developers say there are currently no plans to bring it back.
Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.’s Rockstar division has made a number of controversial moves in recent years, including this one. A transphobic joke was taken out of the most recent console release of Grand Theft Auto V (GTA 5), and the company has also made great strides in closing the gender pay gap. Some insiders have speculated that Grand Theft Auto 6 will feature the first playable female protagonist in the series. The Latina woman will play a major role in a film that takes inspiration from the true story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, according to those familiar with the project. The people also noted that in contrast to previous games, developers are taking care not to “punch down” by making jokes about marginalized groups.
The company’s best-selling franchise is a satirical depiction of America in which actors play gangsters who kill civilians and women are mostly depicted as sex objects. Such actions were once unthinkable for the company. Right-wing radio hosts and liberal politicians alike were both targets and comic relief in Grand Theft Auto 5’s nihilistic parody. Things weren’t much different on the inside of the company. Members of the Rockstar team have spoken of a culture that encourages heavy drinking, physical altercations, and trips to strip joints. As an early emblem of the industry-wide crunch problem, the company’s employees were expected to work late into the night and on weekends to meet deadlines.
That approach paid off, and Grand Theft Auto V went on to become the second best-selling video game of all time, selling over 165 million units. Hundreds of Rockstar employees spoke out in 2018 about the toxic work environment, which contributed to widespread burnout, attrition, and public controversy.
More than 20 current or former employees of Rockstar have spoken on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the company’s efforts to transform into a more progressive and compassionate workplace since the initial outcry. In the words of one worker, the company is “a boys’ club turned into a real company.” When asked for comment, a Rockstar spokesman remained mum.
Is it possible that a more peaceful Rockstar could still create games of the same high quality that have made the company famous? Some workers have doubts. Workers’ spirits are at an all-time high, many say. However, the development pace of Grand Theft Auto VI has been slower than impatient fans and even long-time employees had hoped.
Aside from the pandemic, the company reorganised the design department and promised to limit overtime, both of which contributed to the delay. Some employees at the revamped Rockstar claim they are unsure of what a modern Grand Theft Auto game even entails, let alone how to make one. Plus, as several Rockstar employees have pointed out, modern America is already a satire of itself, so there’s no point in trying to satirise it.
Since Rockstar’s creative director Dan Houser is leaving in 2019, along with the company’s new mandate, Grand Theft Auto VI is likely to have a very different vibe from its predecessor.
Take-British-based Two’s subsidiary Rockstar Games was established in 1998 by a small group of British video game developers. Thousands of people are now employed by the company, which rose to prominence after Grand Theft Auto III’s release in 2001 and its subsequent sequels. The company has locations in California, New York, the United Kingdom, and other places. During fiscal year 2022, Grand Theft Auto games contributed 31 percent of Take-total Two’s revenue of $3.5 billion.
Jamie King, a co-founder who left the studio after eight years, said that its foundation was a commitment to working seven days a week. However, he claimed that such a culture is “unsustainable.” Some employees at Rockstar Games referred to the months spent working on games like Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3 as “death marches,” working as much as 14 hours a day and on weekends.
One of Rockstar’s founders, Houser, claimed that his team put in “100-hour weeks” to finish Red Dead Redemption 2 in October 2018, just before the game’s release. Many workers’ patience finally snapped after hearing Houser’s comments, which he later tried to backtrack on.
These sorts of complaints have been spreading through the business world in recent years. Activision Blizzard Inc., Riot Games, and Ubisoft Entertainment SA game developers have all spoken out against their companies for a variety of reasons, including sexual discrimination and excessive workloads. The state of California is suing Activision Blizzard for sexual harassment and discrimination. Those other companies may have admitted fault and promised reform, but insiders at Rockstar say they haven’t done nearly as much in response to a worker uprising.
Several managers who were viewed as abusive or difficult to work with have been removed, and the company has implemented new scheduling policies and converted contractors to full-time employees. Workers were given care packages, cloth masks, and unexpected bonuses when the pandemic broke out. The company announced a matching donation programme for Black Lives Matter organisations during protests following the police killing of George Floyd. New leave policies and mental health services have been made available to employees. Under the new “flexitime” policy, employees can request and use vacation time on the spot for any overtime they clock in. And for the past four years, management has guaranteed that Grand Theft Auto VI, one of the most-anticipated games ever by fans and investors alike, will not necessitate excessive overtime.
That promise has already resulted in adjustments being made to the way the game is played. The codenamed Project Americas game was supposed to be bigger than any previous Grand Theft Auto title. According to those familiar with the plans, the initial concept called for the inclusion of territories modelled after sizable chunks of both North and South America. However, the company reined in its ambitions and reduced the main map to a made-up version of Miami and its environs.
Rockstar has decided to gradually improve the game over time by adding new missions and cities on a regular basis in the hopes that this will reduce the amount of crunch experienced by the development team in the game’s final months. Even so, the game’s world is significantly larger than that of previous Grand Theft Auto games, with a greater number of interior locations that have an effect on the game’s timeline.
Developers generally praised Rockstar’s decision to add more producers to keep track of schedules in an effort to reduce overtime, but they also noted that this had led to bottlenecks. Some workers complained that they had to wait around for communications to go through intermediaries or that there seemed to be several people in charge, making it unclear who should make the final call.
After the departure of design director Imran Sarwar, who was accused of bullying and verbal abuse by multiple employees, Rockstar instituted a new management structure. His position is now shared by three directors, leading to a “too many cooks” situation where design decisions are frequently left up in the air or contradict each other. In spite of developers’ expectations, employees reported that some of the game’s most fundamental features, such as combat, were still undergoing changes. The request for comment sent to Sarwar went unanswered.
The next Grand Theft Auto is expected to launch sometime in Take-fiscal Two’s year 2024, which spans April 2023 and March 2024, but developers are hesitant to commit to this timeline. Since 2014, the game has been in development in various forms. According to those who were interviewed for this article, a firm release date for the game has not been announced, but everyone involved thinks it will be at least two years away. A group of designers left Rockstar’s Edinburgh office earlier this year, complaining to their coworkers about the company’s lack of progress.
But many others claim they prefer an environment where there is no rush to release a new game. The multiplayer mode of the 2013 release Grand Theft Auto V has made it the most lucrative entertainment property of all time. Rockstar has the freedom to make radical changes and take its time with its next project thanks to the company’s unprecedented financial success. An employee has noted that a change in Rockstar’s culture could improve the company’s ability to retain and attract talent, as well as produce games that are “better for everyone working on them” and, by extension, players.