In these economic times, it’s likely that few Americans would lose sleep over long hours by employees who (by many standards) are well compensated. Indeed, one former Rockstar employee — who left the company, as well as the industry, in 2004 — says that by the time he completed his decade-plus tenure at the studio he was making $150,000 and that many of his coworkers took in $80,000 to $100,000 annually. Another current developer says that he receives a salary of $120,000, plus bonuses, while still others receive company stock.
Given the compensation, one might ask, why the unhappiness? After all, according to many blog posters, creating video games is a dream job for many developers, an opportunity to get paid for computer geekiness. And, of course, there’s the slumping economy to consider; as many point out, it’s an employer’s market, especially for positions that pay an industrywide average of more than $70,000 per year.
Despite the pay (which, for some developers, has actually increased) a chorus of voices says there’s more to it than money. The developers complain that Rockstar management — by, they claim, forcing unreasonable hours and assuming an arch-corporate “don’t give a shit” attitude about its employees — has drained the creative folks of creativity and enthusiasm. However, when it comes to sussing out the root cause (if one exists) for the management-labor disconnect, there’s by no means unanimity among local Rockstar developers. If there’s anything close to a consensus regarding the work environment at Rockstar, it’s that things changed dramatically after the 2002 buyout.
Some of the employees assign primary blame to the head honchos, the corporate big shots, such as Strauss Zelnick, whose perspective is pure Wall Street. A number of developers quip that the folks in charge “have never played a video game in their lives” and are “left brainers.” But there’s nothing to indicate that they’ve tried to alienate developers; after all, without designers, there are no video-game studios, and without studios, no product.
Rockstar Games is a wholly owned subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive Software, a publicly traded, billion-dollar company that, according to its December 2009 financial disclosures, was in the red in 2009. It would be easy enough to focus on the media tycoons at the top, the guys with the lucrative stock options and bonuses. But even the most irate of the developers over at Faraday Avenue in Carlsbad are hesitant to single out the Madison Avenue execs who run Take-Two, and by extension Rockstar — it’s not that simple. If anything, complain the game builders with whom I spoke, it’s the local managers who’ve made their lives a living hell; the moguls in New York may be “remote and neglectful,” but the Carlsbad straw bosses are “downright evil.”
In an attempt to get management’s perspective, I placed calls to both the parent company and the San Diego office. First up was the chairman of Take-Two, Strauss Zelnick, whom several Rockstar San Diego employees have described as “reasonable.” I got a prompt return call from Alan Lewis, their top flack, but he didn’t tell me much, just a version of the standard “no comment.” When I pressed Lewis about the sweatshop allegations, he replied, robotically, again and again, “It is our corporate policy — we don’t comment on any rumors or speculation.” When I asked him if he was sure he didn’t want to say something that might place his media behemoth in a better light, he said, “No, but thanks for reaching out to us.”
I called Rockstar San Diego, requesting to speak to the general manager (or whatever a video-game studio boss is called), but after multiple attempts — messages left — no one ever called back. According to an employee who calls himself “Captain Anonymous,” it’s a workplace that might as well be in Pyongyang, North Korea; he told me, “Employees are being surveilled, and the last person to speak anonymously whose identity was presumed (not proven) was fired. They are not able to speak freely at the office, not even on their cell phones, and e-mails are being watched. It’s in some ways worse than what is being reported so far. Please don’t attempt to locate me personally.”
While it’s tough to determine the scope of the problem at Rockstar San Diego, and tougher still to finger the culprits, it’s clearly not all fun and games at the console these days. Whoever’s to blame, it’s difficult to ignore the ironically blithe puffery put out by local management:
“We’re hiring talented people who are as dedicated to fun as we are. Come work and play in the sun at our beautiful facility only 5 minutes from the surf.”
Does the sun shine in Carlsbad after midnight?