In the summer of 2020, after a police officer killed George Floyd, Rockstar Games quietly put aside the game modes it had planned to release for its Grand Theft Auto Online game.
Called Cops’ n’ Crooks, this mode is a twist on a children’s game in which players are organized into teams of good guys and bad guys but seem pretty much deaf during the global reckoning of police violence. Senior executives at the company, concerned about how the narrative might be interpreted during a time of heightened skepticism and distrust of American police, brushed it aside. They still have no plans to restore it, according to people familiar with the construction.
In recent years, this is one of several politically sensitive actions taken by Rockstar, a Take-Two Interactive Software Inc division. The company removed transphobic jokes from the latest console release Grand Theft Auto V, and significantly narrowed its gender pay gap. Rockstar’s next game, Grand Theft Auto VI, will include a playable female protagonist for the first time, according to people familiar with the game. The woman, Latina, will be one of a pair of main characters in the story who are influenced by bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, people say. Developers are also careful not to “breakthrough” by making jokes about marginalized groups, people say, in contrast to previous games.
A move like this once seemed unthinkable to a company whose best-selling franchise was a satirical depiction of America that involved playing gangsters who killed civilians. Women were mostly portrayed as sex objects. Grand Theft Auto V is a nihilistic parody that insults everything from far-right radio hosts to liberal politicians. Within the company, the tone is not much different. Rockstar employees describe a workplace culture full of booze, brawls, and visits to strip clubs. The company was an early symbol of the industry-wide problem of long working hours, known as a crisis, where the staff was expected to be at their desks some nights and weekends to keep games on the schedule.
The strategy worked financially and turned Grand Theft Auto V into the second best-selling game of all time, with 165 million copies sold. It also caused burnout, friction, and public controversy in 2018, prompting hundreds of Rockstar employees to speak out about the challenging work environment.
Since the protests, Rockstar has been trying to reinvent itself as a more progressive and compassionate workplace, according to interviews with more than 20 people who worked there or left recently, all requesting anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly. General. One employee described it as “a boy’s club turned into a real company.” A Rockstar spokesman declined to comment.
Could a better and softer Rockstar still produce the best-quality games the studio has known? Some employees are not convinced. Morale across the company is higher than ever, according to many staff. But Grand Theft Auto VI’s development has been slower than impatient fans and longtime employees expected.
Most were related to the pandemic, but the delays were also caused by some changes the company implemented to improve working conditions, such as restructuring the design department and promises to control overtime. Some workers said they were still trying to figure out how to make a game in this new version of Rockstar and were even wondering what Grand Theft Auto would look like in the current environment. Plus, some Rockstar employees point out that you can’t quip America today — that’s already a satire on its own.
Between the company’s new mandate and the departure of Dan Houser 2019, who led creative direction in many of Rockstar’s previous games, all signs suggest Grand Theft Auto VI will feel very different from its predecessors.
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 thrived by employing thousands of people, with offices in California, New York, the UK, and beyond. According to the company’s filing, Grand Theft Auto products accounted for 31% of Take-Two’s $3.5 billion total revenue in fiscal 2022.
The studio is built on a culture of a seven-day work week, says Jamie King, a founder who left after eight years. But, he says, such a culture is “unsustainable.” Games like Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3 require what some employees call “death marches”—mandatory 14-hour days and weekends that take a toll on employees’ lives, mental health, and marriages.
In October 2018, shortly before the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, Houser, co-founder of Rockstar, said his team had been working “100 hours a week” to finish the game. The comments, which Houser later responded to, were a tipping point for many employees.
Similar complaints have plagued the industry in recent years. Game developers working at Activision Blizzard Inc., Riot Games, and Ubisoft Entertainment SA have all criticized their employers for issues ranging from sexual discrimination to overwork. The state of California is suing Activision Blizzard on charges of sexual harassment and discrimination. While those companies have acknowledged their problems and vowed to change, none has done as much in response to the worker uprising as Rockstar, according to people across the company.
Rockstar’s transformation included:
- Scheduling changes.
- Turning contractors into full-time employees.
- Firing several managers who were considered rude or difficult by employees to work with.
Workers received care packages, cloth masks, and surprise bonuses when the pandemic started. During protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by police officers, the company said it would match donations to the Black Lives Matter charity. Employees have been granted new mental health and leave benefits. A new ” flexitime ” policy allows staff to immediately take time off for each additional hour they work. And for the past four years, management has promised that excessive overtime won’t be necessary for Grand Theft Auto VI, one of the most anticipated games by fans and investors.
Sticking to that promise has driven a change in the game. The original plan for the title, codenamed Project Americas, was to make it more expansive than any Grand Theft Auto game. Early designs called for the inclusion of a region modeled after large swaths of North and South America, according to people familiar with the plans. But the company teetered on that ambition and cut the main map into a fictional version of Miami and the surrounding area.
Rockstar’s plan now is to keep the game updated from time to time, adding new missions and cities regularly, which the leadership hopes will ease the crises during the game’s final months. However, the game world remains significant, with more interior locations than previous Grand Theft Auto games, impacting the timeline.
To help avoid overtime, Rockstar added more producers to track schedules, a move that was primarily positive, the developers said, but also caused bottlenecks. Several employees said they found themselves waiting to communicate through an intermediary or that it felt like multiple people were in charge, leaving them unsure who to make the final call. Rockstar put in place a new management structure following the departure of former design director Imran Sarwar, who several employees accused of intimidation and verbal harassment. His position was filled by three other directors, creating what some have described as “too many cooks” situations where design decisions are often allowed to fluctuate or conflict with one another. Employees said some core aspects of the game, such as combat, are still undergoing changes even when developers expect them to be locked out. Sarwar did not respond to a request for comment.
Industry analysts anticipate that the next Grand Theft Auto will come out 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. Despite the loose schedule, people interviewed for this article said they don’t know an exact release date and they expect the game to last at least another two years. Earlier this year, a group of designers walked out of the Rockstar Edinburgh office, telling colleagues they were fed up with the lack of progress.