The last few days have offered a rarely-seen glimpse into the development process of Rockstar Games, known for their hugely successful “Grand Theft Auto” franchise. Last week, some of the wives of staff members at Rockstar San Diego, the team responsible for “Midnight Club: Los Angeles,” banded together to write a letter about some of the less-than-ideal work conditions experienced at the studio.
The letter opened the floodgates, with anonymous members of the Rockstar San Diego team coming forward to talk about the trials faced. Joystiq spoke to one such member, who mentioned that future “Midnight Club” plans had been shelved after much of the company was laid off, with other major team members quitting.
Perhaps most interesting, the source spoke about the tenuous relationship between Rockstar New York (the developer’s headquarters) and its development studios, saying “Anyone from the New York office is feared, because people in the San Diego office know that they are unstable and needy … in other words, if a comment comes from a person from New York, it’s a mandate that needs to be immediately addressed regardless of previous priorities.”
In the interest of getting a better understanding of how Rockstar New York works, I reached out to current staff members at the company. The response I received from the PR department was a blanket “Rockstar Games does not comment on rumor or speculation.” All other staff members at the company are under strict non-disclosure agreements and risk termination by talking with the press.
So I went with the next best alternative, reaching out to a former staffer of Rockstar NYC, who was able to confirm many of the comments made by San Diego team members. The staffer spoke under condition of anonymity.
“I can support what those accounts are saying, where you’re working long hours with last minute demands and no direction.”
The source went on to compare Rockstar NYC to the Eye of Sauron when dealing with their studios. Teams would apparently work on a title for close to two years, but because of other priorities, like a major “GTA” release, for example, upper management wouldn’t focus on other titles until the major project was done.
Basically you’d have a studio working without guidance or milestones for nearly two years and then Rockstar NYC would suddenly pay attention to the project, making major changes as if out of the blue. Said the source, “That’s opposed to any other studio where there are regular meetings and milestones and stuff so you don’t get too far down a path before people come in to make sweeping changes.”
The long hours were apparently not limited to development studios, either, with demands on NYC staffers that were equally high. “There’s a lot of times when you’re called in for the weekends and you don’t even know why you’re there,” said the source. “It’s kinda like face time, just so [the top of Rockstar] sees you there. Whether or not you have anything to do there that day, they see you there.”
The source did say, however, that when there’s a high-quality project on the line, it often makes the long hours worthwhile:
“During the run-up to ’San Andreas’ we probably had six days off from May  through release [October, 2004]. But we were working on ’San Andreas.’ It’s not like we were working on a ’Pokemon’ game. You’re making sacrifices, but for the end result. There’s very few times that you’re able to be apart of something like that.”
In the time since “San Andreas,” though, members of Rockstar NYC have experienced a sea change in the company. “Hot Coffee put a lot of stress on the company, and it was something that was pretty difficult to come back from, and it burned out a lot of people.”
The departure of Terry Donovan, one of Rockstar’s co-founders, in 2007, was another turning point for the developer, as he was responsible for providing much of the creative and corporate direction at the company. Donovan had known Dan and Sam Houser (heads of creative at Rockstar) since high school and was reportedly one of the very few people at the company that was able to challenge the pair.
There’s never been any question as to Rockstar’s ability to make great games, but in hearing these reports it’s clear that many of these games have been borne on the backs of hard working employees who have received inconsistent (and, at times, nonexistent) direction from the highest members of the corporate structure. It’ll be interesting to see whether this new information now coming to light will cause any change in the way Rockstar does business, but at the very least, it offers insight into one of the most secretive and successful developers in the industry.