Is Rockstar a sweatshop?

We don’t cover video game animation as much as we should, but this story erupting among animators in the gaming industry cannot be ignored. Apparently, Rockstar San Diego (a branch of the makers of the Grand Theft Auto videogame series in San Diego) has been working their crew six days a week, 12 hour days since last March. Conditions are said to be bad, and getting worse.

“Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego” sent Gamasutra.com this letter, which describes the poor working conditions, which include “mandatory to work close to twelve hours a day including Saturdays” and that “for four consecutive years, salary raises have not adjusted properly to cover inflation.”

Rockstar has issued an internal email rebuttal, as mentioned in this article, on kotaku.com. All I know is Grand Theft Auto has made billions of dollars. There’s no excuse for any company to treat its employees like this. We’d love to hear from anyone with first hand knowledge of this situation.


  • James

    Note to self: Avoid Rockstar when I’m done with Animation Mentor.

  • Ed Thompson

    I have friends who have worked for gameshops, and they described their working conditions similarly, when they were busy. When the company deemed it important to get a game out then 12 to 18 hours a day, six or seven days a week, was not uncommon. When times were slow, all but essential personnel were let go. This isn’t anything new or different. Do GIS on EA Games Work Conditions or EA Games Spouse for just one other gamer example. You could probably put any game makers name in the same search and get similar results.

    The big difference between game sweatshops and others is that you can’t pull just anyone off the street. They do have to have good to great programming skills. But most of the buying public cares only about the price, and little about the conditions used to maximize profits- look at Nike, their sweatshops are still going strong- so I don’t think things will change.

  • tgentry

    Hmmm…that internal email doesn’t exactly reassure. It kind of seems like it’s saying “yeah, you’re working intolerable hours, but this game is gonna be great!” I don’t know the details, but if the accusations are true, it’s definitely not acceptable. Hire a few more people to ease the workload or give major pay raises and/or bonuses.

  • David

    All of us in the animation industry have had to do “crunch time” to push a project over the finish line , but when “crunch time” becomes the regular work schedule something’s going to break down at some point.
    Every animation crew I’ve ever worked on has been glad to do the 6-days a week (sometimes 7) 12 – 14 hour day routine , but always with the understanding that it was not considered “normal” .

    Writing impassioned letters to Gamasutra is all well and good , but the “Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego” need to be contacting some union organizers.

  • Steve Gattuso

    This is unfortunately common in the games biz. And most of the time, the results turn out completely mediocre because the work is so rushed.

  • stikkbomber

    that letter by the spouses is quite poorly written. not a whole lotta facts in it, and it sounds more like whining than anything. i say this because presentation affects perception; if you write like a child whining, you’ll be perceived as a child whining.

    that being said, the working conditions in the software fields (all of them, from desktop apps to mobile phone apps to video games to the cg/graphics depts at any film studio) are pretty deplorable. given the economic climate, global competition, and other management and training issues, those poor conditions won’t improve any time soon…

  • http://asteriskpix.blogspot.com richard o’connor

    I find the letter from the “wives” both poorly written and a dubious way of addressing the matter.

    As far as bonuses, cry me a river. Unless withholding these is a violation of contract no one is ever “owed” a bonus. Not genius animators, not banking CEOs.

    If everything else is true the employer is in violation of labor law. An “open letter” like this is no way to resolve the matter. It serves more as a smear than a way to rectify the situation.

    First, are the artists getting overtime above 40 hours? If not, that’s a major violation of the law. If the employer has classified them as management and they are not, that is also a major violation.

    If the employer is using intimidation tactics against their workers that is also a crime. The letter also complains of “working conditions”, the only example of unfit working conditions is the guy who drops a lot of “F” bombs.

    While I sympathize with the possibility these artists are being mistreated, that letter does little to convince of the reality. They should get a lawyer to state their case.

  • http://robcatview.blogspot.com robcat2075

    This sounds like a carbon copy of the flap about EA a few years ago. Even down to the “wives” thing.

    When a company asks people to work extra hours for no extra pay, even in “crunchtime”, they’re really asking for a subsidy out of the workers’ pockets.

    The allure of animating a thug beating up a whore must be great indeed if game workers keep falling for this.

  • Maguilla

    Animators/Programmers/Designers must unite in Unions.

    Stop being selfish and work together. Stop the I can pull more hours than you attitude and organize. Any given company just cares about one thing only: MONEY. If your mental health goes to heck and you develop behavioral problems they will kick you out no questions asked. You will be the one left with destroyed relationships, not them. And hey, your kids will grow up to recent you.

    Never liked any game made by Rockstar, all of them are over rated eye candy. Yes, they have made millions but none of their customers think by themselves anyways.

  • Geoff Sadb

    Didn’t the USA used to have federal labor laws?

  • http://www.frankpanucci.com FP

    First things first: All companies are evil, I always side with employees no matter what, etc.

    Question:
    Is the letter from the “RockStar Wives” generally indicative of the thinking and writing abilities of the “RockStar Wives”? Because, well, gee whiz.

  • Iritscen

    Yes, ridiculous hours are normal in the industry during the run up to a game’s release, but if this has been going on since March, then it’s not normal at all. It sounds like the actual guys doing the work are being made to suffer for some especially poor executive decisions about development time tables.

    Also, the only reason employees in this industry put up with these conditions is because they actually like their jobs (at least, they like the idea of making games). The amount that the execs get away with because of their employees’ passion is frankly shocking.

    I know it’s easy to badmouth “executives” like they’re all emotionless, faceless slavedrivers, but this is one industry where many of the guys at the top (the very top — think publishers, not developers) really don’t know and don’t care how well games get made, as long as they can afford that new yacht before boating season.

    It’s worthy of being blogged about here because, exactly like the animation industry, there are too many suits who are almost embarrassed at what their company actually produces. They just like to say they’re in entertainment, which is a glamorous field overall thanks to TV and film and music, and not one of the less-respected branches of entertainment that adults are supposed to eschew, so they can hobnob with the guys who run BMG, Time Warner, Paramount, etc. like they’re all on the same level. They get swapped around between companies in those other fields and never need to learn much about, or be interested in advancing the art of, video games (or animation) because they aren’t even expected to care, just to apply templated management strategies and buzzwords to whatever company they happen to be at that year.

    It’s a dream of mine to see video game developers (or small artist’s studios, if we’re talking animation) break away from the executives and leverage the Internet better in terms of finding a financially sound way of staying independent indefinitely. For video games on consoles, there’s PSN and XBLA. For cartoons, there’s, well, Web video. They need to stop taking orders from anyone who doesn’t care about what they do, cut out the middlemen (like publishers or film studios), and self-publish. Enough is enough.

  • http://animatedland.com John Lane

    Increasingly, programmers and artists in the US are competing with foreign talent pools. Some of this is a universal healthcare issue, but that’s another story. If you really want a job where you’re not going to be abused, become an independent plumber or electrician. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that so many US effects and animation people are still working. I certainly don’t want them to lose their work, but I read the financial papers. If you have both a salary and a pulse, some top management see you as something to be pounded down so as not to be a barrier between them and every dollar they can cram into their pockets. I’d like to see a regular running feature on the best bosses; the ones who get the best work by being fair and honorable leaders, positioning the worst toward infamy. I’m not worried about offending someone who’s self-worth is measured by the ruins other peoples’ personal lives.

  • someguy

    I have a buddy that’s working for them right now and he’s been telling me about the crazy hours, but he’s not married and seemed to be rather ambivalent towards the schedule. The crunch didn’t begin for him until last august and he only expects it to last until the latest game ships sometime in spring. From all indications he does very well for himself, but I have no exact details.

    Hearing this from him seems to indicate that it really depends on what the worker is willing to put up with and they determine how much their time is worth. If he had a problem, he might have put it out there or maybe he feels that it’s not worth making a fuss over. Again, he’s single and doesn’t have a family or significant other that he needs to share his time with. I cannot say the same for any family oriented employees.

  • http://www.arielvillaverde.com Ariel

    There should be an “Industry Studio Watch List” Blog, period!

    There’s TOO MUCH of this going on right now. Here in Canada there’s plenty of studios who over-work their “animators” ridiculously. No wonder they can’t earn an honest living! Some animators I know are even quiting the industry cause its so bad.

    There must be some way (unions?) to control this. I’m a designer myself and I don’t get treated HALF as bad as animators do. I feel guilty for having it semi-good.

    Is this because the people in charge of studios don’t understand the process of animation? Or because they want to get the most productivity out of the fewest hands available(*ie. cheap) I don’t know..

  • corey

    join the club!

  • http://www.arielvillaverde.com Ariel

    Hey Someguy! Having or NOT having kids shouldn’t justify OVER-working an animator. What part don’t you understand?

    I don’t have kids, does that mean i should post-pone my “life” for the sake of a studio that doesn’t know how to manage it’s employees and projects better?

    This industry is too “hush-hush” sometimes when it comes to ratting people out. But that’s too negative of a term, let’s call it “equal pay for equal work”(*or something like that)

  • Brian O.

    Isn’t film production about as exhausting or is the lack of union organization the difference here?

  • http://www.tuortoart.blogspot.com Patrick

    Some animation companies are unethical, not all, but a few.

    Many young artists allow these companies to walk all over them because they’re desperate to land that cool animation job for peanuts and egos.

    Companies must meet the artist’s needs as well as the artist meeting the Companies needs.
    If the agreement is going to be one sided in favor of the company, then there’s the door. Let some other bonehead sign on to slave labor.

    The artist needs to take responsibility for their actions instead of hiding behind their spouses letters.
    In this industry, the animation artist gets what they except.

  • someguy

    I’m not employed by rockstar nor am I supporting their practices. I work in animation and it’s the same crap in that industry and I PERSONALLY do not enjoy working in those conditions and I have indeed paid for my unwillingness to go along with those conditions to my own disadvantage.

    I merely reported what a personal friend of mine who is actively involved in the situation has related to me.

    to which I add, he has told me that “some is true, some is false” and that is all he would say.

    and to which I also restate, it’s up to the workers to put forth the effort in changing situations in the workplace. All too often we take the “every man for himself” approach and those who do make a stand get singled out. I have found that SOME people actively do no care about the conditions in which they work. This is an unfortunate reality.

    direct your anger where it counts, not at other commentators.

  • Scott

    There is a documentary about this very subject currently being made by employees and ex-employees of RockStar. Should be out fall fo 2010.

  • http://www.milowerx.com Mike Milo

    This is nothing new. I worked for Sierra back in 1990 on Leisure Suit Larry, Kings Quest and Space Quest and we all had to sign a mandatory 12 hr day contract. Notice I said ‘contract’? I didn’t HAVE to sign it making it a far cry from a sweat shop which forces people to be slaves. They have no choice. The games people do and if they don’t want to work for that company I imagine they’re free to leave unless I missed something.

    Klasky Csupo was blamed for this back in the 90s as well and lost The Simpsons over it and doesn’t Disney and Dreamworks require overtime when they’re getting down to the wire on a film? It’s part of being in the business. In animation, the other side is 2 hour lunches, trips to the zoo during work hours, Silver passes and half days just before a holiday. Not to mention some pretty good salaries compared to the plumber or electrician someone mentioned earlier. Perks have their price.

  • http://lovehatecartoons.blogspot.com Ted

    They’ll get a strong union soon enough, and they will no longer have to work long hours, as all their jobs will go to India.

  • optimist

    It’s an important subject and a situation that definitely needs to be addressed, but I have to say that letter is a detriment, not a plus It’s terribly written, almost incomprehensible. It really doesn’t help and is a mess.

    That said, the employees of Rockstar need to withhold the only chip they have and walk out. Something that’s damned hard to do in these times. I hope they’re able to make a stand or get some positive change happening.

  • yude

    Mike Milo: Dreamworks and Disney PAY you for overtime, because they are union studios.

  • http://animatedland.com John Lane

    Hey Mike, ever paid a plumber for a night or weekend call?

  • Sara H.

    It might be borderline slavery, but I’ll still be applying there when I graduate. Even awful conditions that allow me to animate all day are better than being a waitress… they have to be, right?

  • Pedro Nakama

    Their employees haven’t learned anything from the “Grand Theft Auto” game they’ve been working on.

    First shoot your boss!
    Rape his wife!
    Steal his car and shoot any police who try to stop you!

  • Kustom Kool

    I hate to bring the snark here but the “Rockstar spouses” letter is so poorly written it seems unlikely to be the work of any collective brainpower. Sounds like a disgruntled employee or spouse who needs to use “Google Goggles.” But if even half of what they say is credible…yikes.

  • http://www.milowerx.com Mike Milo

    @ John Lane: Yup I have and it’s still not as much as artists make in my experience. Hey I’m not knocking being an artist or a plumber, I’m simply stating that you have a choice to either work for a studio who has these practices or not.If you don’t want to work on a hit game then you don’t have to.

    @Yude: I have heard many times that people have not gotten overtime. yes you’re supposed to but there are ways around it. Again my point was not to say anything bad about Disney or Dreamwork’s practices in any way, rather to merely point out that working overtime is nothing new.

  • http://www.milowerx.com Mike Milo

    Re: Sarah H.
    And there it is… that’s how Rockstar gets away with it in the first place… the game and the fanbase wanting to work there. I can remember being awestruck when i got my first job at WB… I cherished the folders with the logo, the stationary, I took pictures of my desk and generally felt grateful to work there. Times change and I’ve gotten older (not necessarily wiser) but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt that way. Years later I can remember talking to an exec from another studio who wanted to pay my artists less than the norm, when I protested he said “Screw them, they should be grateful to work at ****”
    And the truth?
    Most are.

  • optimist

    “It might be borderline slavery, but I’ll still be applying there when I graduate. Even awful conditions that allow me to animate all day are better than being a waitress… they have to be, right?

    Wrong.
    For one thing there are labor laws and protections that apply to waitresses that are outright ignored at a “glamour” job like one in animation-especially in games from what I see. And that happens because of artists believing things like that. Can anyone imagine a waitress saying “I’m so desperate to be a waitress that I’ll work all night, every shift and forgo any tips as long as that fancy restaurant hires me. After all, it’s better than being a supermarket checker, right”?.

    I think a lot if not most of us started out with such a burning desire to do our thing and be part of the industry that we said to our friends “I’ll empty the wastebaskets to get into[Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks/insert name here]!” And we meant it, sort of.

    But it’s a terribly naive attitude to take into the real world and the industry. Look: if you were worth putting through school on your own or someone else’s dime, if you graduate with any skill and are hireable you’re worth being treated with the same basic decency as anyone else working there-as long as you’re expected to DO the same work as everyone else.

    This is often glossed over when animators-students and pros-talk about this stuff. Sure, artists are presumed (and expected) to “pay their dues” when newly hired but often the old labels like “he’s green” sometimes turn out to be awfully convenient for people above them when it comes to taking advantage of those new artists & their desperation to work in an animation job. It can be less about a valid learning curve than a slightly cynical way to get more for less or something for nothing.

    Most companies not held to a union standard of pay and rules will try anything if they can. You can bet on that.

  • Paul N

    I’m astonished that, in the 10+ years since I left the game industry, producers still haven’t figured out how to schedule effectively.

  • Bugs Jetstone

    I’ve worked in the game industry, and, save a few creatives and executives at the top, most companies- and there are exceptions- treat employees like lightbulbs; burn them out and replace them, and look for the longest lasting, brightest and cheapest ones.

    I no longer even play video games. It’s left a bad taste in my mouth.

  • Rick Farmiloe

    I have a couple of friends that worked for these guys…they both QUIT. i hear they are A**holes. Enuff said, I guess. IMHO, video games are the worst thing that have ever happened to animation…..I’ll go to my grave believing THAT!

  • Rooniman

    I never figured Rockstar was ran by a bunch of A-holes. Oh well…

  • http://reddiabla.blogspot.com/ Red Diabla

    Paul N says: “I’m astonished that, in the 10+ years since I left the game industry, producers still haven’t figured out how to schedule effectively.”

    Why would they need to when all they do is replace the workers who can’t hack it with a young, fresh face who’s willing to do ANYTHING to keep such a “prestige” job?

    What’s unfortunate is that artists as a whole live in such a climate of fear, they’re afraid to stand up for themselves because they think that they’ll lose these grand employment opportunities to India. And maybe in the short term they’d be right. But in the longrun, which is better? To have fewer jobs that let you live some sort of life outside of the studio, or get used up like a wad of kleenex in a teenage boy’s room to be tossed away when its purpose is served?

    You get what you settle for in life. What are you worth?

  • Abu

    This is American Industry in general nowadays. The people on top get million dollar bonuses while everyone else gets crap. I don’t work in the game or animation industry at all but at my job we don’t get raises anymore. We don’t get bonuses, benefits, or even 40 hours a week sometimes. If you even say the word ‘union’ you’ll be fired. Other posters here are right when they say if these guys unionize, their jobs will just go to India. Its the sad state of affairs today and until the American people stand up and see what’s going on it will never change.

  • http://www.milowerx.com Mike Milo

    “get used up like a wad of kleenex in a teenage boy’s room”
    Hahah! You never fail to sum it all up quickly!

  • Solo

    This is Capitalism at work here…

  • Keith

    The employees should contact the Wage and Hour Division of the Dept. of Labor offices in California.

  • Brad Constantine

    I can’t speak for Rockstar, but at Sony, San Diego, things are better. We have opted for smaller, more focused teams to eliminate mass hirings and then mass layoffs. This keeps a stronger core together with lots of experience. We are implementing Scrum techniques that may not be the best way to track animation, but holds everyone on the team accountable on a daily basis for making progress. This forces folks to plan better up front, thus minimizing the amount of crunch needed at the end. Very often, game companies are trying to meet the “magic date” just like in the film business. So the crunch is inevitable. Especially for animators, who are at the end of the art pipeline. Proper planning up front, and realistic expectations on the amount of time something takes, is the key to minimizing crunch. If you are spending more time crunching on a project that not, than something is definitely wrong on the planning end. I often think of the folks who worked on Snow White, and what their families must have gone through, especially during a real depression….work is good. Keep repeating.

  • Andrew

    GTA was not made by Rockstar San Diago, but Rockstar North, a different studio, based in Great Britain that is owned by the same parent company. I am in no way condoning the awful treatment, but think you should get your facts straight.

  • skid

    Another reason that Unions are badly needed right now. Especially up in Canada where there isn’t any glorious studios like Pixar and Disney to work at.
    This being chewed up and spit out for the next big thing is getting ridiculous. This isn’t why I went into animation! Getting paid like garbage and getting taken advantage of just isn’t that fun anymore.

  • mojo25

    That’s right Skid!!!!

    It has become a “chewed up and spit out” environment in films,
    games, animation etc…

    Is very sad that some hacks get the saddle and the people who
    create the product get squat!

    Horrible system.