‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ Raises Questions of Dev Burnout

If you’re into gaming, you’ve no doubt heard of Rockstar Games’ “Red Dead Redemption 2,” a massive open-world game that will surely become one of the biggest (if not the biggest) video-game hits of the year when it releases on Oct. 26. (Millions of people evidently want to take morally ambiguous, gunfire-filled tours of the Old West.)

To say that the game is huge in scope is something of an understatement: 1,200 actors reportedly contributed motion-capture work, and 700 recorded dialogue. There’s an untold amount of code powering some 300,000 in-game animations. And in order to get it all done, the development crew needed to work “100-hour weeks” at several points this year, according to Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser, who oversaw production.

In a later statement to The Verge, Houser drilled down into what he meant:

“Across the whole company, we have some senior people who work very hard purely because they’re passionate about a project, or their particular work, and we believe that passion shows in the games we release. But 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.”

Whether or not the long hours were voluntary, or restricted to only a short period during the game’s years of production, this seems as good a time as any to bring up the concept of worker burnout, which remains an endemic problem in tech (and video-game development in particular). Earlier this year, a survey from Blind found some 57.16 percent of tech pros reporting some degree of burnout at their jobs; top corporate culprits included Credit Karma, Twitch, Nvidia, Expedia, and Oath. Yet another Blind survey found that the top cause of this burnout wasn’t work overload (although that remains a substantial problem) so much as poor leadership and unclear direction.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory identifies the three signs of burnout as:

  • Inefficacy
  • Exhaustion
  • Cynicism

That’s in addition to other possible symptoms, including depression, withdrawal, and a refusal to acknowledge emerging issues before they become major problems. Fortunately, if you feel yourself suffering from burnout, there are some concrete steps you can take, including:

  • Get on a regular sleep schedule.
  • Go on vacation.
  • Develop relaxing rituals (and make time for them).
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Stop checking your email.
  • Integrate breaks into your schedule.

If you work for a company demanding 80- or 100-hour workweeks in order to get things done, you might not be able to take a vacation without feeling like your job is at risk. But if you decide to stick with that insane pace (and employer), you can at least try to bake as many of the above tips into your schedule as possible.

“Crunch time” is an old and controversial topic in the video-game industry. Deadlines are tight, and companies often push employees aggressively during the last few months of production. While there have been many calls for reform, it’s clear that such practices continue to this day. And as long as they do, burnout in the name of creating great games will continue to be a problem.

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4 Responses to “‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ Raises Questions of Dev Burnout”

  1. Henry Collins

    There are a lot of people commenting on the developers work conditions during the creation of this game. I personally think that workers should claim their rights and demand fair work conditions. It is unacceptable that people be treated under those circumstances even if it is the launch or production of a major AAA game.

    • That’s great in theory, but in practice, those kinds of demands end up getting you fired, further mistreated, or ostracized, depending on the company and their HR department. It is absolutely unacceptable, but it’s also incredibly commonplace in the software industry and especially in games. And if you’re in an industry where the managers at companies talk, then you could end up getting yourself blackballed and without a career at all.

  2. CoStarFox

    …Which is the point of a labor union in thr first place. Organizing is scary, especially when there is little industry precedent. Add to that a stubborn independent streak common in tech and very few IT pros let alone game devs will consider collective bargaining an attractive solution.

    A thousand individuals, called in to the boss’s office, are still alone. A hundred brave souls can be much more, if they can share a purpose. Unions exist to guarantee favorable working conditions for its members.

  3. This is literally every creative industry. I’m not saying it’s acceptable, but advertising, film and pretty much every industry that involves creative/development roles and involves awards for those roles does this. Awards culture is another topic entirely, but I’ve heard many a boss say the 100 hour week is a sign of a team that wants to win awards—the whole notion of going above and beyond. I’ve also seen a lot of people destroy their marriages and families and friendships for those little accolades. As the author notes, self-care is paramount. As much as a boss might laud you, you are nothing but a number on a cost sheet to the corporation. In my eyes, killing yourself for the job is never worth it.