Rockstar Games has cleaned up its Frat-Boy culture – and so has Grand Theft Auto

With a new tone at Rockstar Games and a change in creative direction, Grand Theft Auto (GTA) 6 will likely feel very different from its predecessor

In the summer of 2020, after a police officer killed George Floyd, Rockstar Games quietly shelved a play mode it planned to release for its Grand Theft Auto (GTA) Online game.

Called Cops ‘n’ Crooks, the mode was a twist on the kid’s game in which players organize into teams of good and bad guys, but seemed mostly tone deaf during the global reckoning of police brutality. The company’s senior executives, concerned about how the story might be interpreted at a time of heightened skepticism and distrust of US police, set it aside. They still haven’t made any plans to bring it back, according to people familiar with development.

This was one of the politically sensitive actions Rockstar, a division of Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., has taken in recent years. The company removed transphobic jokes from the most recent console release of Grand Theft Auto V (GTA 5) and significantly narrowed the gender pay gap. Rockstar’s next game, Grand Theft Auto 6, will feature a playable female protagonist for the first time, according to those familiar with the game. The woman, who is Latina, will be one of the main characters in a story influenced by bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, people said. Developers are also careful not to “clap” by making fun of marginalized groups, the folks said, unlike previous games.

Such moves once seemed unthinkable for a company whose best-selling franchise is a satirical depiction of America, portraying gangsters murdering civilians and usually portraying women as sex objects. Grand Theft Auto 5 was a nihilistic parody that offended everything from right-wing radio hosts to liberal politicians. The tone was not much different within the company. Rockstar employees described a work culture full of booze, fights and trips to strip clubs. The company was an early symbol of an industry-wide problem of long hours in the office, known as crunch, where employees were expected to sit at their desks for many nights and weekends to keep a game on track.

That strategy was financially successful and made Grand Theft Auto V the second best-selling game of all time, with 165 million copies sold. It also sparked burnout, attrition and a public controversy in 2018 that prompted hundreds of Rockstar employees to speak out about the difficult work environment.

Since that outcry, Rockstar has sought 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 asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak in public. . One employee described it as “a boys’ club turned into a real business”. A Rockstar spokesperson declined to comment.

Can a friendlier, softer Rockstar still produce the top-notch play the studio has become known for? Some employees are not sure. Morale throughout the company is higher than ever, according to many staffers. But Grand Theft Auto VI’s development has been slower than impatient fans and even longtime collaborators expected.

Much of that has to do with the pandemic, but the delay is also due to some of the changes the company has made to improve working conditions, such as a restructuring of the design department and a pledge to control overtime. Some employees say they are still trying to figure out how to make games in this new version of Rockstar and even wonder what a Grand Theft Auto game would look like in the current environment. Plus, several Rockstar staffers pointed out that you can’t really satirize today’s America – it’s a satire in itself.

Between the company’s new tenure and the departure of Dan Houser in 2019, who was in charge of many previous Rockstar games, all signs suggest Grand Theft Auto VI will feel 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 sequel, the company revolutionized open-world video games and grew to employ thousands of people, with offices in California, New York, the United Kingdom, and beyond. Grand Theft Auto products accounted for 31% of Take-Two’s $3.5 billion in total revenue in fiscal 2022, according to company files.

The studio is built on a culture of seven-day work weeks, says Jamie King, a founder 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 workers called “death marches”: months of mandatory 14-hour days and weekends that took a toll on workers’ 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 his team had worked “100-hour weeks” to finish the game. The comments, which Houser later backtracked, were the tipping point for many employees.

Similar complaints have surged through 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 overtime. Activision Blizzard is being sued by the state of California on sexual harassment and discrimination allegations. While those companies have acknowledged their problems and vowed to change, according to people across the company none have done as much in response to a workers’ uprising as Rockstar.

Rockstar’s transformation includes schedule changes, converting contractors into full-time employees, and ousting several managers who deemed employees abusive or difficult to work with. When the pandemic started, workers received health care packages, cloth masks and surprise bonuses. During protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by police officers, the company said it would double donations to Black Lives Matter charities. Workers have received new mental health and leave benefits. A new policy called “flexitime” allows employees to take immediate time off for every extra hour they work. And for the past four years, management has promised that there will be no excessive overtime for Grand Theft Auto VI, one of the most highly anticipated games from fans and investors in the world.

Holding on to that promise has already led to changes in the game. Original plans for the title, codenamed Project Americas, were that it would be more expansive than any Grand Theft Auto game to date. Early designs called for the inclusion of areas modeled after much of the Americas, according to people familiar with the plans. But the company caught up with those ambitions, cutting the main map back to a fictional version of Miami and the surrounding areas.

Rockstar’s plan now is to constantly update the game over time and add new missions and cities regularly, which the leadership hopes will lead to less crunch during the game’s final months. Still, the game’s world remains large, with more interior locations than previous Grand Theft Auto games, impacting the timeline.

To avoid overtime, Rockstar also added more producers to keep track of schedules, a move that was mostly positive, developers said, but one that also created bottlenecks. Some employees said they had to wait to communicate through intermediaries or that it felt like multiple people were in charge, leaving them unsure who should make the last call. Rockstar has put in place a new management structure following the departure of former design director Imran Sarwar, who was accused of bullying and name-calling by several employees. His position was filled by three other directors, creating a situation described by several people as a “too many cooks” situation, where design decisions often remain in flux or contradict each other. Some core aspects of the game, such as combat, were still undergoing changes, although developers expected them to be locked down, employees said. Sarwar did not respond to a request for comment.

Industry analysts expect the next Grand Theft Auto to arrive sometime in Take-Two’s fiscal year 2024, which runs from April 2023 to March 2024, but developers are skeptical. The game has been in development in one form or another since 2014. While there are loose schedules, people interviewed for this article said they didn’t know a set release date and expect the game to be at least two years away. Earlier this year, a group of designers left Rockstar’s Edinburgh office, telling colleagues they were tired of the lack of progress.

However, many others say they are content to work at a company where there is little pressure to get a new game out the door. Grand Theft Auto V, which came out in 2013, is the most profitable entertainment product of all time thanks to its multiplayer component, Grand Theft Auto Online. That unprecedented financial success has given Rockstar the space to make major changes and take the time for the next project. And, as one contributor noted, overhauling Rockstar’s culture could help with retention and recruitment and lead to games that are “better for everyone who works on them,” and presumably for the people who play them.

Leave a Comment