What's really happening with Rockstar San Diego?

Rumours of bad working conditions go unanswered by company. Here are some reasons why...

Last Friday, industry website Gamasutra posted a letter from individuals claiming to be the wives of Rockstar San Diego employees that decried working conditions at the company and demanding "immediate action to ameliorate conditions of employees."

That post set off a series of anonymous reports from alleged Rockstar employees to numerous publications to similar effect. These sources say that working conditions in various Rockstar studios are in bad shape between delayed games and unhappy employees; and they lay the blame firmly on management. With tensions rising all week long, journalists likened the situation to the EA Spouse blog post of 2004 where the fiancé of an EA employee drummed up community support while her partner took the company to court for unpaid overtime wages.

However, this time around, there is no lawsuit. The last worker-related lawsuit involving Rockstar was filed in 2006 and settled out of court in April 2009. As of right now, there are no official complaints on record with the International Game Developers Association about Rockstar San Diego (although the organization is opening an investigation into the situation). And through it all, Rockstar has had "no comment." Although they did post this wallpaper after one anonymous source compared Rockstar New York to The Eye of Sauron:

To find out what's really going on, why Rockstar won't talk and why nobody is taking legal action, we turn to expert sources outside Rockstar for insight.

The Power Play Angle

The first angle we approached the situation from was a public relations perspective. Why wouldn't Rockstar defend itself against these allegations, even if there is some truth to them?

Tom Ohle, Director of Evolve PR and games industry veteran of eight and a half years, answers: "At this point, if you come out and make a statement, you're legitimizing it."

Ohle explains that as the situation stands, what's going on at Rockstar is a human resources issue, not a public relations one. That doesn't mean that the publicists at Rockstar are doing absolutely nothing. Obviously, if Rockstar's parent company Take-Two suffers a loss of investor money over this incident, Rockstar will have to say something. But until that becomes apparent, their hands are tied.

"As a PR guy, it sucks to say this," Ohle says, "but my initial reaction is to wait and see if it dies down. Anything you say will be taken the wrong way, anyway. It's a no-win situation."

Until something happens like a formal complaint being filed with the IGDA or a similar workers' rights group taking the issue to court, Rockstar's image could go either way.

The Legal Angle

So our next question is why haven't the wives of Rockstar San Diego employees gotten their spouses into court? There's certainly precedent for it with the EA Spouse incident barely four years behind us.

In that instance, EA was already quietly involved in one lawsuit with Jaime Kirschenbaum about unpaid overtime when in November 2004, Erin Hoffman, fiancé of EA employee, Leander Hasty, posted anonymously about the poor working conditions on Livejournal. Hasty filed his own lawsuit against EA four months later and was shortly joined by other EA employees. The cases got massive media attention both from the games industry and from mainstream news publications and EA settled the cases out of court.

Precedent, however, may not be good enough to get Rockstar into court over the wives' letter. We spoke with Gary Paranzino, an attorney who runs his own firm dealing with legal issues between employers and their employees. He points out that in general, very few workplace issues can be resolved using the legal system. He tells us that the employees at Rockstar San Diego probably can't take their grievances to court successfully.

"The legal system doesn't provide a practical remedy for bad management or working conditions," he tells GamePro. A non-exempt employee can sue for unpaid overtime wages, but beyond that, there's nothing a Rockstar employee can use as a means to take Rockstar to court.

"Our model for workplace protection evolved out of blue collar jobs," Paranzino explains. "As our workforce moved toward desk jobs where there's a higher technical skill level involved with the work, we haven't changed the laws to protect them."

Worse, he says, in cases where the employees are working desk jobs that hundreds of aspiring game developers would kill for, there's very little proof of or sympathy for the psychological stress a bad work environment can inflict on an employee. Unless the working conditions at Rockstar cause someone's arm to be chopped off, or wages go unpaid, Rockstar employees are left to rely on their human resources department almost entirely to resolve the tension in the workplace.

And because of a third angle to this issue, the situation at Rockstar might not even make it that far.

The Cultural Angle

The third angle to the Rockstar San Diego issue isn't immediately obvious, but you can see it in the comments on the initial Gamasutra post and on other news stories where anonymous Rockstar employees have vented their frustration: There is a cultural barrier that these developers are up against when fighting for their rights as workers.

"As a group, developers are not considered a downtrodden class," Paranzino says. "They're in this industry because of the rush they get from working on a great game."

There's a cultural mentality associated with being a game developer that creates an expectation of crazy-long work hours and unhealthy amounts of Mountain Dew. It's almost a mark of pride for some developers to boast how much overtime they clocked on a game ? if it ships and if it's a hit, that is.

The cultural issue goes deeper than that, however: As an educated workforce producing video games, most developers probably see themselves in the creative, managerial role that defines the white collar working class. Claiming non-exempt status and emphasizing the need for structured hours and breaks could be viewed like an affront to a game developer's pride.

"A lot of people in the games industry like to work long hours," Ohle says. "It's their passion."

So What Comes Next?

Unless and until the situation escalates, the Wives of Rockstar San Diego letter and all of the press it's set off this week will remain an isolated instance of mudslinging that's conspicuously timed with the final stages of the development cycle on Rockstar San Diego's Red Dead: Redemption.

"The team might not be willing to push this with Red Dead in production," Ohle speculates. "If the game gets delayed, that would be just as bad for them, ultimately."

And when the game does come out? What then?

"If no legal action is taken, it'll all blow over," says Ohle. "You could look at it like the Charlie Sheen situation. It's Rockstar ? no one really cares [about working conditions there because] people like the games that they make."

You probably already guessed this, but we're obliged to tell you Rockstar did not respond to request for comment on this story.

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